Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Writing from an Osprey's Point of View

by Sue Heavenrich

Osprey are hawks. Big hawks who thrive on fish. Over the past 18 years, they've been moving onto platforms erected around Cayuga Lake, in the Finger Lakes of New York. When summer comes to an end, they head to parts south.... some flying more than 3,000 miles to winter in Brazil.

Dr. B releases an osprey. photo by Craig Gibson
A lot of what we know about ospreys comes from researchers like Rob Bierregaard, who has been tagging young ospreys with radiotransmitters and following their migratory paths. One of the cool things he discovered is that young ospreys - at least those on the east coast - tend to make their initial southbound journey over the ocean.

Five years ago Dr. B (as his students call him) was waiting for a young osprey to return to its nest so he could fit it with a backpack radio transmitter. A neighbor, seeing him there, suggested he write a book. So he did.

His book, Belle's Journey, An Osprey Takes Flight, illustrated by Kate Garchinsky was released in May. Divided into 19 short chapters, it tells the story of Belle, hatched into a fine family on Martha's Vineyard.

By the middle of July, Belle and her siblings are nearly as big as their parents, and they're stretching their wings. Dr. B captures the young osprey, secures a backpack radio transmitter harness around her wings, and then follows the signals to map her flights.

Here's the thing about a young osprey's first migratory flight: they don't have maps. Not only that, osprey moms head south when their job is done. Dads hang around until the youngest demonstrates some proficiency in survival skills, then he heads for warmer weather. So young ospreys are heading out on a grand adventure on a wing and a prayer.

Here's the thing about Belle's Journey: The story is written from Belle's point of view. So I gave Dr. B a call and we chatted about osprey, migration, and the secret life of this book.

Dr. B: After that incident, the neighbor suggesting I write a book, I went home and brainstormed a storyboard. We'd been following Belle - she was one of the young osprey who flew the farthest out over the Atlantic, and went the farthest south. By that time she had two migrations under her wings. But I wanted to include some of the adventures of the other young ospreys, so Belle became a composite character. That way I could more fully show some of the dangers they faced in migrations. Things like hurricanes, or being shot at, or narrowly escaping attack by an eagle.

GROG: Why did you choose to write from Belle's point of view?

Dr. B: I wanted young readers to see the things Belle saw on her journey, and to experience the things she experienced. I want kids to get a feel for flying over a rainforest, to feel the adventure of migration. But I had to be very careful not to anthropomorphize - to make sure Belle didn't express human sentiments. So early on, when she's learning to fly, she makes a clumsy landing and ends up hanging by one foot, upside down. So I wrote, "If she were a human, she probably would have been pretty embarrassed." In alternating scenes, or chapters I write about the scientists using a third-person point of view.

GROG: There are a couple of children who get involved in tracking Belle's journey. Was that based on an experience?

Dr. B: We always had kids who visited us when we were putting the backpack radios on the osprey. None of them worked with us, but several teachers got their classrooms to follow the data that came back from the transmitters. They mapped the migration paths of individual osprey. (you can find interactive maps here

GROG: Writing a children's book is a lot different from writing an article about your research for a scientific journal. Tell us about your book journey.

Dr. B: It was fun to write! I started writing in August of 2013, and by December I had a first draft - though the entire process took nearly five years. This was my first book and I had no idea what to expect. A friend who knows Kate [Garchinsky] helped us connect at an ornithology meeting. Kate looked at the manuscript and wanted to illustrate the story. She connected me with Harold Underdown who helped put a package together to submit to Charlesbridge. I think we were unusual in that we were an author-and-illustrator combo. Of course there were revisions. In an earlier draft I'd written the scientist chapters in first person, but then switched point of view. They flowed better that way.

GROG: Now that you've got your talons wet in kid's publishing, do you have another book in the works?

Dr. B: Yes, one about Barred owls from the work my graduate students and I did in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Thanks to Dr. Rob Bierregaard for sharing his journey - and Belle's Journey - with us.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Back to School with An Inconvenient Alphabet Written by Beth Anderson, Interviewed by Tina Cho

As a kindergarten teacher, I love ABC books. When I heard about Beth Anderson's An Inconvenient Alphabet, I had to find out more! She & I are part of the Epic 18 Debut Picture Book group, where I've gotten to know her. She's also a former educator. Welcome, Beth!
Photo by Tina Wood

1. How did you come up with this idea?

First, thank you so much for sharing AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET with your readers!
As a writer who loves narrative nonfiction, I’m always on the lookout for interesting tidbits from history or science or maybe a combo. When I saw an article on Ben Franklin’s alphabet, it caught my eye. And then, as I read Ben’s words, “Those people spell best who do not know how to spell,” it hit me in the heart – my teacher, parent, language-loving heart. But it still required lots of digging to find the premise and shape the story.

2. What was your research like? Did you travel anywhere special to find golden nuggets of info? How long did it take to research?

My research started with scouring the internet to get an overview as I considered the potential of the topic and gathered a list of sources. Then I turned to the library and began requesting books about Ben and Noah and language history. I am so grateful for all the historical texts that have been digitized and are shared on a number of databases – such incredible resources! I reached out to historical societies, the Library on Congress, museums, and other institutions.
The first round of gathering information took a few weeks. Then as I drafted and revised, I continued to get more books as one source led to more and more, a dribble of ongoing research for a few months. As I’ve found with every manuscript, I needed to do another dive into the research, rereading my notes and searching out more resources, to reframe or hone a special thread of the story after receiving critiques.  

3. What was your favorite bit of information that you uncovered?

ISH. Ben had me at “ish,” his letter for the SH sound. That along with the quote I mentioned above were my favorites. Oh, but then there was the fact that Noah and Ben were opposites, Noah being a tad pushy and wanting to legislate his ideas. And I have to admit to liking the point that Ben, Super Founding Father, didn’t hit it out of the park every time he had a new idea. He let his ideas “take their chance in the world,” which is great advice for me as a writer. So basically, I kept finding more to love. :)

4. How many drafts before this sold?

I did about 40 drafts of this manuscript.

5. What have you learned about marketing? Any tips to newbies?

I’m still a newbie at marketing, learning as I go. I’m trying to take advantage of any opportunities, learn from other authors’ experiences, keep records for the future, and have fun with it. 

6. I see you have two more picture book biographies coming in 2020 from Calkins Creek. Would you like to share anything about those?

Although these two picture books both deal with transportation in New York City, they are very different.
LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT: ELIZABETH JENNINGS FIGHTS FOR STREETCAR RIGHTS, illustrated by the phenomenal E.B. Lewis, is a civil rights story about a woman who won the first court case for desegregation of public transportation. She’s an amazing woman, much like Rosa Parks but a century earlier. To me, her story shows how we are links in time, standing on the shoulders of those who came before us and inspiring those who follow, as well as how we all need to find the courage to step up and play a role in establishing social justice.
“SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES: THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF AN ORDINARY MAN AND HIS EXTRAORDINARY NOSE, illustrated by Jenn Harney, is set in the fascinating underground world of the 1930’s New York City subway. There, James Kelly, a humble immigrant learns to use his natural talents for the benefit of all—and also finds out what it takes to be a true hero.
7. What are you working on now?

At the moment I’m working on editor revisions for a third Calkins Creek title that hasn’t been announced. I’m also revising a new manuscript on a bit of revolutionary history that I’d never heard of before that seems incredibly relevant in today’s world. And then there’s pile of research and a few ideas that keep swirling in my head…

Wow, Beth, Congratulations, on these additional forthcoming titles! You've been busy with research. I hope you all get to read An Inconvenient Alphabet! 

Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Colorado where she laughs, wonders, ponders, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same.
Beth blogs at
An Educator’s Guide will be available on 9/25 HERE

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Highlights of Nuts & Bolts of Science Writing 2018 by Kathy Halsey

What did I do on my summer vacation? One of the biggest highlights was my first Highlights workshop. In this post I'll share newbie tips along with writerly tidbits from our fab faculty. 

Newbie News
  • Plan when you invest in your writing. I waited five years before I signed up for a Highlights workshop. I wanted to be better at my craft and have some projects that could benefit from being workshopped. I also looked for specific faculty and topics that would stretch me as a writer. I found the perfect fit with Nuts & Bolts Science. I knew Jen Swanson and Miranda Paul were excellent teachers since I've attended conferences where they'd been speakers. 
  • Although I've read and studied nonfiction for children, I'd never written science, so I plunged into writing an informational picture book about gardens using a child's POV. My critique group and writer friends helped me revise and polish my WIP before I sent it to Highlights. My advice? Take a manuscript that you can't make any better on your own to a workshop. ( Be prepared with a second manuscript, too, just in case the opportunity arises for a second critique.)
  • Although it's comforting to attend conferences/workshops with a writer buddy, sometimes going alone will push you to meet new people and network. Now I have a "tribe" of 20 new science writer friends: a snail scientist, an entrepreneur who created a STEM magazine for children, an Ohio writer who is now a contributing editor for Cricket Media, and the amazing author Sarah Aronson. (She gave advice about creativity, the writing doldrums, and shared pieces of her newest book JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG.) Be open to meeting new people who will enrich your life. 
Sarah and Kathy

Fab Faculty TidBits
Take four wonderful professionals (Jen, Miranda, editor Sam Gentry, and Ohio author Tracy Vonder Brink ) together for almost five days, and soon you've had a master class in writing nonfiction, pitching, and a how-to on cracking the magazine market. There was so much insight from these women who generously shared time, knowledge, and books with us. I'll share a chunk of knowledge from all these super stars. (Newbie note - very dark skies in Honesdale PA, so you should plan to star gaze.)

Tracy Vonder Brink  
Jen Swanson, Miranda Paul, Samantha Gentry

  • All lucky attendees received a critique from Samantha, plus we had our choice of two more critiques - one with Jen and one with Miranda, depending on whether we wrote middle grade or picture books. (This is why you bring several solid pieces.)
  • Back matter REALLY matters to Miranda Paul. She had us do a useful exercise that helps writers get an overview of back matter. Take a stack of picture books, fiction and nonfiction, and read them quickly but study the back matter and make a list that includes type of back matter (author note, charts, fun facts, etc), how many pages of back matter, audience for the back matter (educators, parents, children) and if the tone/style fits the front matter.  
  • Jen Swanson swoons for research to make science sing. She begins by going to the library to actually browse the nonfiction section. Serendipity is the name of the game. Jen enjoys hunt, finding both adult and children's books on her topic. For internet research she begins her working bibliography by adding raw links, footnotes at bottom, and then uses Citation Machine or another service. 
  • Many of Jen's National Geographic middle grade books rely on interviewing experts. She has  many tips regarding experts (a person working in the field or a PhD.) You'll find them at universities or by googling your topic. Then email them to see if they have interest in  helping you and indicate what publisher you are pursuing. She recommends an email subject line like this, "children’s author working w/Nat Geo looking for an interview." Add your experts in the acknowledgements and give them a book. Best advice from Jen? Don't skimp on research
Attendees taking notes and absorbing information
  • Samantha Gentry, Assistant Editor at Crown Books for Young Readers, Random House and PRH, engaged attendees by throwing a pitch party. We recreated a twitter pitch party in real life after Sam shared pitch strategies. Sam thinks having a social media presence is helpful for a writer. She suggests picking two options from what she labeled "the trifecta," Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Follow folks who do SM well, such as Josh Funk, Sarah Albee, and Jess Keating. She stressed creating a community network with local booksellers, libraries, schools, and your local writing community.
  • Finally, Tracy Vonder Brink gave us a solid background in writing for children's magazines. She has a stellar acceptance rate. She's sold eleven stories and is now employed by Cricket Media. Writers can dig through manuscripts that didn't "work" as books or write a story with research that didn’t go into a book. Writers should analyze magazine issues in detail. Look for ratio of simple sentence to compound/complex sentences,  if questions to the reader are common, and if the reader is addressed as "you." Aim to mimic style, voice, tone, content as much as possible with your submission. Tracy feels she's been most successful when she takes a issue's main topic and thinks outside the box for a story. Her boss, Elizabeth Huyck at ASK, looks for magazine pieces that open out to larger questions or fundamentals. 
    Happy scientists and writers on the trail



Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Kimberly Ridley Talks About Writing for a Small Press

by Sue Heavenrich

One of the best things about reviewing books is that I get to meet so many interesting people. Usually by phone - I'll read a book and think: "I must find out more about why they wrote that book!" And all of them, writers and illustrators, have graciously shared their wisdom, trails to publication and trials, and their excitement about their subject.

For Kimberly Ridley, it's animals that have lived on earth for millions and millions of years. Horseshoe crabs! Goblin sharks! Tardigrades! Comb Jellies! They have lived through extinction events and keep on going...

I was first introduced to Ridley's writing through her first book, The Secret Pool. She wrote another about an estuary (The Secret Bay), and now this, Extreme Survivors, out last fall. Like her others, this book is published by Tilbury House, a small, award-winning publisher tucked somewhere in the town of Thomaston, ME.

Since it's her third book with Tilbury, I invited Kimberly to share what she likes about writing for this small press. Also, because she is a science journalist like me, we had a wide-ranging conversation - some of what you can find over at my Archimedes Notebook blog this Friday.

Extreme Survivors is part of the "How Nature Works" series. There are a number of very interesting titles in the series, and I wondered how Kim got a book included in the series.

Kim: After The Secret Bay came out, I was brainstorming with editor (and co-publisher) Jonathan Eaton. I felt like I had a relationship with Tilbury House, and I was interested in doing another book. So we began talking about horseshoe crabs - Jonathan has a background in marine sciences - and he mentioned the "How Nature Works" series. I checked out other books in the series. I really love the idea of asking "how does nature work?" - this is a question all scientists are asking - so my ideas evolved in that direction.

Kim with salamander eggs in a frisbee
I started wondering what animals, other than horseshoe crabs are ancient? What other animals haven't changed in a 100 million years? And what adaptations helped them survive? I jotted down a list of about 20, and made a timeline on a wall by posting photos and notes.

GROG: What attracted you to Tilbury in the first place?

Kim: I think it was the response I received when I pitched ideas to (editor) Jennifer Bunting. Having worked as a science journalist for a few years, I sent a letter pitching a handful of ideas for a children's book. I said that I work with scientists and wanted to write for children. Jennifer was familiar with my writing, so she acquired The Secret Pool, my book about vernal pools.

Working with a small publisher was a good fit for me. I appreciate the back and forth with editors through the revision process. The editors at Tilbury House work closely with writers, and they take tremendous care with the book through the writing and revision process. They also pay a lot of attention to detail. A good example is the care they put into acquiring the high quality photos for Extreme Survivors.

GROG: Speaking of photos, was part of your job to secure the photos for the book?

Kim: They asked me to help find preliminary photos, and then they followed up by purchasing the rights to use photos. The people at Tilbury House were also receptive to my feedback on layout and design. I admit I can be opinionated, having been an editor myself.

Kim shows wood frog eggs to students.
For Kim Ridley, doing research for a nonfiction project is "like dessert." She loves finding things out, coming across cool facts, and discovering amazing photos. Her advice to writers: go ahead and check out small presses, especially if you want to write science and natural history books for kids.

You can learn more about Kim and her projects at her website. And if you think you might like to submit a manuscript to Tilbury, take some time looking through their website.

Photos of Kimberly Ridley are from her website and used with permission.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Collaboration on a STEAM book: Interview of Dr. Margaret Albertson and Paula Emick by Tina Cho

It's back to school for some folks (like me), and so today I'm interviewing two authors, Dr. Margaret Albertson and Paula Emick, who collaborated on an educational book, Music: The Sound of Science published by Rourke. These ladies are special to me because when I lived in California, we all belonged to an in-person critique group headed by Nancy Sanders. I was blessed to see Margaret again this past summer. 
Nancy, Margaret, Paula, Tina
Tina, Margaret

1. Can you tell us about this book and one of your favorite parts?

Music the Sound of Science is the first in a new series published by Rourke Educational Media called Project STEAM. This acronym is used to describe the marriage of the sciences with the arts: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art (visual and performing), and Mathematics. This book mixed music and physics.

Kids read an introduction to a science concept. For example, music is made up of sound waves. Readers then do an activity. They are asked for the most part to make, play and observe. The text then presents the scientific “why” of what happened.

Paula: I enjoyed taking the lead on the drum project, because I remembered making them as a kid. Anybody can make music with a drum. Plus, the artist in me loves decorating them.

Margaret: Working on the whole project was a lot of fun. If I had to pick only one favorite part, it would be the chapter on making music by buzzing your lips. Musicians play trumpets, trombones and even tubas this way. When I was a kid, I played the trombone in the school band, so I guess I was partial to this chapter.

2. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Paula: Margaret saw the call out for children’s nonfiction writers. Both of us wanted to try a short nonfiction book. We then submitted a writing example and our resumes to Keli Sipperley, who then became our editor at Rourke. Within six or eight weeks she offered us a contract to write this book. We were given the title and some loose parameters. Because our book was first in a new series, we had no mentor texts. Talk about needing to brainstorm!

Margaret was the music major. We had both taught elementary school and knew how these books were laid out. Since she had the music background and knew the terms she took the lead. The book fell together very naturally. We both had ideas that blended together. When working with a partner no one can be a prima donna. The ego must be put aside and just focus on telling the story. Each person puts in ideas and it all gets blended and molded into the final piece.

3. Why did you decide to write it together? How does that work?

Paula: We were attending the same writer’s group for several years and found we had a common interest in children’s books. Because we had helped each other and edited each other’s work, Margaret suggested we try to publish together. Our work styles complement each other. That is necessary when collaborating on a project.

We often met in person at a local restaurant for an extended lunch. Sometimes we emailed, phoned, and texted back and forth. We’d email a Word document using the markup tools.

4. Do you have any other published articles together or something on submission?

Paula: The music book is the first to be published together. We have a couple other pieces written and are sending them out. 

5. How did the two of you meet, and what got you working together?

Paula: We first met at church many years ago. Margaret and her family moved to another church. I remember her well because she sat behind me. When she sang, it sounded like a host of angels singing with her, the most amazing sound. Years later we met again in Nancy Sander’s writer’s group, CHAIRS, in Chino, CA. We got to know each other as writers and found we worked well with each other. To our amazement we also discovered we lived just a few blocks away from each other!  

Margaret: Paula’s style of writing really impressed me. Her sense of humor spilled out into her writing. I called it her “Paula Pizzazz.” She is very fun to work with. I now consider her a close friend.

6. What are you working on next?

Paula: We are still looking to publish our bilingual alphabet book, and another on prehistoric art.  Currently, we are working on separate projects. I started working full-time as an art teacher and only write part-time.  (I am doing this interview during my prep period.)  There are a few ideas percolating in my brain cells.  I have a couple middle grade mystery/fiction books to rework and send out. 

Collaborative writing sounds interesting. Try it out sometime!

Margaret Albertson, Ph.D. began writing a mystery book when she was in fifth grade. Her hopes of being an author were dashed when she read a published book with the same plot. She persisted and by eighth grade she had published an article. Now, in addition to her book, Music: The Sound of Science, Margaret has authored more than thirty-five articles and stories. Some of these have appeared in Clubhouse, Clubhouse Jr., Brio, Brighthub, LiveStrong, and in a textbook for educators. She resides in Southern California with her husband and her dog.
You can find Margaret at

Paula Emick is a native Southern Californian. In addition to writing, she teaches art to elementary schoolchildren. She and her husband continue to live in Southern California with their dog and cat. Paula also has authored two pictorial history books, Rancho Cucamonga, and Old Cucamonga  by Arcadia Publishing.