Friday, October 30, 2015

BRAIN GAMES by Jen Swanson:Review & Mentor Text Study by Kathy Halsey

KAPOW! BRAIN GAMES by Jen Swanson hits a one-two punch for readers, writers, educators, and librarians. Jen's newest nonfiction book published by the esteemed National Geographic Kids really does have something for everyone, and is nominated for a 2015 Cybil for elementary/middle grade nonfiction. 
Jen was challenged to take a dense topic, make it accessible, understandable, and fun. Challenge met. Also,  this project, had a built-in challenge - to take BRAIN GAMES, the very popular NatGeo show, and make it two-dimensional and interactive. Again, challenge met. Kids will be engaged as they use their bodies and minds to solve problems and prove scientific facts. Be prepared for kids to bounce, jump, and mumble to themselves as they connect viscerally to BRAIN GAMES. 
This interior shot from BRAIN GAMES reflected my thoughts about the brain before I read the book. I had to think about thinking - metacognition - ARG! However, Jen Swanson's structure and choice of examples made this an understandable, fascinating read. Nonfiction writers will want to examine this book as a mentor text to learn the techniques Jen has employed.
Mentor Text Goodness
Structure Is King: What entices kids to pick up or discard a book? Design and structure can make the difference. Compare Jen's book with a textbook or a book for the educational market. 
  • Vibrant, color-saturated 2-page spreads introduce each chapter.
  • Every chapter ends with another 2-page spread -side one is a short summary, while side 2 highlights an illustration of the brain with pictures used in the chapter. Three major facts are pulled out in thought bubbles for easy recall. 
  • This predictable, repetitive format helps readers form an anticipatory set. They are aware of text features that aid recall.
  • Using her knowledge of the brain functions, Jen gives the brain a break toward the end of each chapter. We play brain games with pictures and puzzles. 
  • Scientific material is "chunked" into bite-sized pieces for better understanding.
  • A challenge is presented in all chapters to engage kids. On page 21 the challenge asks readers to hold a book at arm's length and  close each eye separately. The scientific explanation follows. "Your eyes see each image separately and send a signal to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe of the brain."
    Chapter 1 Intro

Chapter 1 Summary Spread

Writing style, voice, and tone are intentional:
  • The brain could be a dry topic, but Jen chose a witty, fun, breezy style to lighten the subject.
  • The theme of driving has been chosen to add cohesion. Jen's target reader can't drive, but they are fascinated with cars. 
  • Word play that kids "get" for chapters and headings, such as:  "start your engines, all roads lead to the front." (Think frontal lobe.) 
  • Questions begin most chapters to appeal to the reader. Here are a few examples: "Wish you had access to the largest storage system in the world?" and "Feeling happy? Feeling sad? Get in the mood to learn about how your brain deals with emotion."
  • Jen uses examples/comparisons that her audience likes and understands: brain energy compared to 10-watt light bulb, length of motor neurons compared to a baseball bat; knowledge the brain stores compared to 300 years of TV shows.  
Time for a brain break. Answers at bottom of each page. Every 20 minutes one should take a break. (Knowledge from book.)
Notice how text is chunked into bites for easy reading.

Join me and pick up BRAIN GAMES  by Jen Swanson. Your grey matter will light up whether you are a reader or a writer! Don't forget to read all about Jen, Monday, Nov. 2! Make sure to leave a comment that day and you could win your own copy. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Save Your Neck: Tips for Taking Care of Yourself as a Writer

 By Janie Reinart

Your eyes are blurry, your joints are stiff, and you have a pain in your neck from sitting at your computer for hours. Here are a few tips to save your neck and the rest of you!

1. Use your favorite eye drops to soothe tired eyes.

 2. Make your own heating pad.

3. Stand, walk and stretch.

Try reading and typing from your monitor while standing. I like to stand at my breakfast bar and work. My computer is
on a box so that my eyes are level with the screen.

Stand up if you are chatting on the phone. Go for a walking meeting (even if its by yourself.) What about a walking desk?

4. Take a dance break.

5. Set your alarm.

Andrea LaCroix, PhD, director of the Women's Health Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego says, "The message is to reduce sitting time by breaking it up. Although experts aren’t sure how often you need to get up, they suggest getting up about every 30 minutes if possible."

6. Hydrate.
View image |

We work to write books so that kids will fall in love with reading. Don't forget to show yourself a little TLC. What are your favorite ways to take care of yourself?

Monday, October 26, 2015

NONFICTION ALERT: BRAIN GAMES with Jen Swanson Coming Soon by Kathy Halsey

Good morning readers. Stay tuned to the GROG next Monday, November 2, when Chris Mihaly interviews Jen Swanson, award-winning author of over 20 nonfiction books. One lucky reader/GROG commenter will win Jen's book, too. FYI-BRAIN GAMES is in the running for an Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction category 2015 Cybil. 
This Friday, I'll review BRAIN GAMES and do a mentor text study on it for all you NF fans/writers! Meanwhile, grab this book and watch Nat Geo's show, Brain Games, tonight. Rumor has it that Jen's book may be mentioned on TV. Talk about great publicity! 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Interview with Educational Writer: Mary Kay Carson by Tina Cho

Welcome to Mary Kay Carson, educational writer extraordinaire! She's an Ohio writer and has written around 75 books. Her husband Tom Uhlman, a professional photographer, has been on assignment with her on many of the books. I've gotten to know Mary Kay this past summer through a critique group. 

Mary Kay's book Inside Biosphere 2 debuts this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A description of the book from her website:

In the Arizona desert, scientists conduct studies and experiments aimed to help us better understand our environment and what sort of things are happening to it due to climate change. The location is Biosphere 2, an immense structure that contains a replica ocean, savannah, and rainforest, among many other Earth biomes. It’s a unique take on the Scientists in the Field mission statement — in this case, the lab is a replica that allows the scientists to conduct large-scale experiments that would otherwise be impossible.

I invited her to share her expertise with us.

You studied biology in college. So how did you become a writer?

Most writers I know started as kids—writing stories, keeping a journal, working on a school newspaper. But I actually didn’t do any of those things and am now embarrassed to admit that I only took the minimum required English courses in college! I didn't really become interested in writing until I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in my early 20s. When letter writing is the only way to communicate and rainy season traps you in a thatch-roofed shack for weeks, writing becomes an essential outlet. After returning to the US, I entered a science-writing program at New York University in an attempt to merge writing with my interest in science. 

How did you land your first book contract? How did you get into educational writing?

I actually started off in educational writing. My first writing job was on an elementary classroom magazine called SuperScience at Scholastic in NYC.

    How many books have you written to date? Which one is your favorite?

Somewhere in the 50-75 range. It depends on whether you count books for teachers and leveled readers. Emi and the Rhino Scientist holds a very special place in my heart. It's the story of Terri Roth's work at the Cincinnati Zoo to help a very rare Sumatran rhino named Emi have a calf. Emi has since passed away, so the book means a lot. Plus it was the first book I ever got published "out of the slush pile;" the first that my husband and I both got contracts for; the first for Houghton Mifflin; and I got my first starred reviews with it. 

Do you pitch ideas to editors you’ve worked with, or do they approach you and your husband with ideas? Or do you submit like the rest of us do?

No publisher has ever approached my husband and I about a book idea, unfortunately! How book contracts are obtained varies by publisher and project. A lot of nonfiction series titles are assigned. The editors come up with a list of book topics and hire writers to write them. Some examples of assigned titles from my books include all nine of the Good Question! books published by Sterling, like What Sank the World’s Biggest Ship? (Titanic) as well as Magic School Bus readers. The Houghton Mifflin Harcourt books I’ve written are “author-driven” titles. I submit a proposal to an editor and if a contract is offered and accepted, then I write the full manuscript. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. An example is the Inside books, like Inside Tornadoes. An editor at Sterling who I’d worked with invited myself and fellow writer Melissa Stewart to work up a proposal for a nonfiction book series that included manipulatives. Once it was hammered out, the contracts were divided up.

Biosphere 2 looks like a fascinating book. Do you always visit the places you write about?  

Inside Biosphere 2 was a lot of fun to write. It’s an amazing and completely unique place to visit! The Scientists in the Field books are about scientists working, so seeing what they do and how they do it is important. Plus Tom needs to be there for photos. I don’t always visit places I write about, but I try to. My preferred writing style is a series of scenes (like a movie) punctuated with information and background. Being there makes writing scenes a lot easier! It’s part of why I choose to write about some topics. For example, I knew I’d be able to visit all the Wright Brothers sites up in Dayton when I signed on to write The Wright Brothers for Kids. Likewise with the books I’ve written about the Underground Railroad, since I live five miles from the Ohio River where so many crossed into a free state from Kentucky. 

What’s it like to work with your husband on a book? Do you write text to accompany his photos, or does he take photos to accompany your writing?

In general, there’s a lot of back and forth. Most of the photos are taken during research trips, so there is no text yet. That being said, I do have an outline with experts identified and usually some potential photo ideas. But we kind of stay out of each other’s way. Tom Uhlman is a fantastic photographer, so when we're on site together and he's taking pictures and I'm perhaps interviewing someone, I don't even think about what he's photographing. I'm 100% certain he'll find and capture the perfect images to go with the text. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to work on books and travel together. Since we’re both self-employed and work out of our home, we get on each other's nerves at times, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Mary Kay and husband Tom

 A lot of our readership is interested in nonfiction writing. What tips could you share on getting that first contract?

Nonfiction magazine work is probably the easiest to break into if you’ve not been published. If you want to get into writing nonfiction books, my suggestion would be to try to plug into a series. Research what’s been written and then write a query letter suggesting some additional titles along with your credentials and clips. If you’ve an idea for a more author-driven book, research different trade publishers and follow their submission guidelines to submit a proposal. Nonfiction picture books are like any picture book, the entire manuscript needs to be written and polished before submitting. 

I see you have many school visit sessions for educators to choose from. Any tips on school visits or setting up a session?

Because I write nonfiction, my programs are primarily built around the content of my books—bats, rhinos, the solar system, the Wright Brothers, etc. Here are two great tip-filled resources for putting together school visits: Planning Your Author School Visit: 


   What are you working on now?

Tom and I are finishing up our fifth Scientists in the Field book for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The working title is Mission to Pluto and it’s about New Horizons, the first spacecraft to visit the Kuiper Belt and Pluto. We got to go back east for the Pluto flyby event in July, which was super exciting! It will come out in fall of 2016, so we’re editing this and that and adding updates. 
I know you just presented at an OH SCBWI conference. Are you presenting at any others this year?
Yes, that was the Northern Ohio SCBWI annual conference in Cleveland. This year’s American Association of School Librarians National Conference is in Columbus, and I’ve been invited to participate in some sort of Ohio author event at the State Library November 5th, but not presenting. That will be it for 2015.

Just for fun:

Favorite color: purple 

Food: Bourdon isn’t a food, so I’ll go with shrimp, burnt ends, chocolate, or goetta. [Now I’m hungry, Tina!]

Children’s author: Tina Cho, of course! Jean Craighead George is another favorite.

Children’s book: The Giver by Lois Lowry. Love it as a story and admire it as a novel.

Most bizarre topic you’ve researched: The process of how the human body fatally freezes during extreme hypothermia; or maybe Dark Matter.

Thank you so much, Mary Kay. Your writing is fascinating. You can see more of Mary Kay at:
her website  (watch her introductory video!)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Reasons To Write ~By Suzy Leopold

All authors write for a reason. The reason a writer writes is called an author's purpose. The reason, the intent or why a writer writes is important to know and to understand.

As a writer, why do you write stories? What is your author's purpose for writing stories for kids?

Here are four examples of an author's purpose:
  • To entertain, or tell a story that is either made-up or from real life.
  • To instruct, or explain how to do something.
  • To inform, or give information about someone or something.
  • To persuade, or try to get a reader to do something or buy something, or believe something.
Pick a Picture,
Write a Story
By Kristen Mc Curry
There are additional reasons why writers write.

Do you know that there are physical and mental benefits of writing? 

Writing leads to better thinking, learning and communication.
Neuroscience and cognitive science research and show evidence that correlates creativity with academic, social, and emotional intelligence. The practice of writing for just 15 to 20 minutes, three to five times a week, enhances the brain’s intake, processing, and retrieving of information.

As an educator, I am aware of the importance of writing in the classroom and the value of writing across the curriculum through all content area subjects. Embedding writing throughout the curriculum, promotes the brain's attentive focus, boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, and gives the brain time for reflection.

Teachers who encourage writing in their classrooms build better communication and confidence in students. Students who write increase their vocabulary and develop the logical brain functions required for success in school.

Writing makes you happier and leads to increased gratitude.
As a writer, I understand the importance of writing as a “thinking exercise”. Just like daily physical exercise is significant to one’s health, writing keeps your mind sharp and “in shape”. Additionally, writing makes a better writer.

Writing when you wake up is a perfect way to begin your day. It’s like a wake-up call for your brain. Instead of hitting the ground running, consider writing while you’re sipping a cup of coffee or tea. Warm-up to the day by scribing your thoughts and jotting down your blessings as you rev up your brain cells that will lead to a positive day and increased gratitude.

Most of us have busy non-stop schedules with a fair amount of stress. Many writers prefer self-exploration and reflection, jotting down thoughts in a journal at the day’s end. Writing is linked to improved mood and better well being. Writing or even blogging can alleviate anxiety and provide long-term improvements in mood, decrease in stress levels and depressive symptoms. Writing closes our “mental tabs” that will equal a good night’s sleep. 

Listed below are personal reasons to write:

Warren Buffet: 
A man who reads and thinks a whole lot, describes writing as "a key way of refining my thoughts."

        Anne Frank: 
       “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."

Bill Gates: 
"Writing is a way to sit down and re-evaluate my thoughts from the 

Stephen King: 
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. 
Simple as that.” 

Madeleine L’Engle:
“I have advice for people who want to write. I don't care whether they're 5 or 
500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write, you 
need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but 
you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think about 
things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need 
to read. You can't be a writer if you're not a reader. It's the great writers who 
teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every 
day. Even if it's for only half an hour — write, write, write.”

Beatrix Potter: 
“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a
story. You never quite know where they'll take you.” 

What is your author's purpose for writing?

The rewards of writing are many.

Write something worth reading or do something worth writing. 

As a writer, every story matters to the person living it, and our job is to tell important stories.

Writers do it write right.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Library to Libratory: Reflections on Presenting Your Passions

I recently was invited to present at TechCon 15; a gathering of educators at Northern Illinois University.  

I pitched, in early June, the idea of sharing the transformation that was taking place in my library.  We were growing from a traditional library to one that included a 'makerspace' and more.  

The pre-publicity touted the six presentations given in the morning as 'TED-Like' talks that would lead to six break out sessions in the afternoon.  Now, I'm sure you are familiar with HUGELY popular TED talks.  I was intrigued, terrified and excited to be invited and sought about thinking about how I could best share the journey that my school and district have begun with developing STEAM workshops.

Because I'm a huge nerd, I started with books.  I knew there had to be books out there about how to deliver a 'TED-Like" talk.  I came up with two and immediately ordered them both.

True to form, I started reading these incredibly short books and petered out about three quarters of the way through.  What I did take away from them, however, was that you need to speak to your passions and tell a compelling story.  That was the easy part.  Figuring out how to make 'my' story compelling to others, however, was not so easy.  

My next step was to collect and study the photographs of my library before I began as the director.  Thankfully I had the forethought to take photos of the entire place before began to overhaul it.  My desire to begin was so strong that I nearly forgot this critical step.

After gathering all of my photos, I pulled together the presentations I had made to the Parent Teacher Organization and School Board.  I put them all in a folder and did what I usually do when I have something really important:  I procrastinated.  Well, on the outside it probably looked like that, but to me it was me letting my thoughts and ideas marinate.  Turns out that's how I do my best thinking.  In fact, I tend to do that sort of thinking subconsciously.  It happens when I drive to work (an hour each way) and when I sleep. 

After a month or so of marinating, I needed to put the presentation together.  Much like drafting a manuscript, I dug in and started with the one sentence I wanted people to walk away with:  "Libraries are changing to meet the needs of their patrons: we are becoming Libratories!"  

From there I let my images speak to me.  I laid out the images in a logical order and started thinking about how to pair my ideas down to the ten minute time limit we were given.

After dozens of drafts, I printed it all out and started reading it aloud.  I tweaked and teased the text.  Finally, I cut and pasted it all onto notecards and practice reading aloud many more times.  I was as ready as I could be.  

After so much focus on the ten minute presentation, I had a minor panic attack  when I remembered I had to also create an hour long break out session on the same topic.  I decided on an active workshop using design thinking.  I would have each participant 're-imagine' their spaces to meet the needs of the 21st Century learners.

When the day arrived, I learned that I was going to be the first presentation.  I think I was relieved.  I would be able to get it over with and then begin thinking about my breakout session.  

Curious as to how it went?  I hope you may find it useful:

EdTechCon15 Presentation 480p from Todd Burleson on Vimeo.

The organizers of the conference did something really cool in between each presentations, they set up a 'back channel' that allowed everyone to contribute to key questions the presenters posed.  Mine was:  "How does the evolution of a library to a 'libratory' impact teachers in their classrooms?"  Folks responded in 'Tweet-like' responses that all of us were able to view and react to.  I thought it was a neat way to interact with a large group; especially for those, like me,  who tend to be rather quiet in this setting.  The best feedback tweet I got:  "It's like HGTV for libraries!"

I have several more presentations coming up in the next few months.  All of them on a similar theme.  I'm sure to use what I learned in this talk and breakout session to tweak how I deliver the message next time.  It's always humbling and exciting to speak from your heart.  I hope folks took something valuable away from my sessions because I sure did!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Salina Yoon Opens My Eyes on Her Midwest Tour by Kathy Halsey

Salina Yoon, Floppy, & me at Cover to Cover 
Yup, that's THE Salina Yoon, author of 200+ books, and me, writer out on submission. If you live in a large city or moderate size one, chances are lots of authors are waiting for you! How do you meet them? Why meet them? What can happen when you do? Read on and get your welcome wagon ready!

How to Meet Published Authors
  1. If you are a bookstore junkie or library hound like me,  get on the email list or join the Friends of the Library group. Know your local children's librarian and establish a relationship with the children's buyer/manager at your local bookstore. 
  2. Get connected via Facebook or Twitter and let the author know you will attend. Salina is very friendly and even chatted with me about her board books via  private message long before I met her in person.
  3. Offer to make the author's visit a bit more relaxed. Salina was on a fast track Midwest tour. I offered to bring coffee or get her food. Don't push, just offer. 
  4. Take advantage of your unique skill set. As a former school librarian and Past President of OELMA, I was well-connected with many schools. Salina's publicist asked if I could secure a few school visits, but our wonderful indie bookstore Cover to Cover had Salina "covered." 

Why Meet Them?
  1. Well-established authors have much to share with newbies, pre-published folks as well as kids and parents. I took notes about how Salina conducted her Columbus visit. She's a pro!
  2. Authors may miss family and be a bit lonely. I took Salina out for iced tea at a funky  gathering place across the street from Cover to Cover. (I asked her in advance if she was interested in meeting somewhere.) We had a great chat. Remember authors may need their "down" time and would prefer meeting you at the official visit.
  3. Be respectful, but ask questions about them, their books, how the tour is progressing, AND (gulp)...maybe about your own writing. Salina genuinely wanted to know about what I was working on. I let her lead that part of the conversation.
  4. Sometimes authors have small audiences.  I witnessed this at a Peter Brown visit in Phoenix. Most writers are thrilled to have  knowledgeable audience members who can ask great questions.
Board books and concept books for the youngest of readers

What Can Happen When You Connect
  1. Cover to Cover had a huge array of Salina's books. What an opportunity to really peruse her concept books, board books, and her traditional picture books! I internalized how the styles/formats differed via the book type. I realized by comparison that my manuscripts were too complicated and wordy for very young children. (Big, big "ah-ha" for me.)
  2. Salina shared  some possible mentor texts published by Bloomsbury(S&S) with me. I am struggling to find the best structure/age range for my biography and the "Women Who Broke the Rules" series opened my mind.
  3. Salina complimented me on starting career 2.0 at my age. She liked my NF biography idea and indicated the importance of the topic. She validated me and my journey! All writers need this support, and you never know who can help you.
  4. The best gift Salina gave me was simply being Salina...a writer with hundreds of books a super star due to talent, perseverance, personality and her willingness to give back to others. 
    Kamsahamnidathank you so much, Salina!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A RIVER OF WORDS-Studying an Award-Winning Biography By: Sherri Jones Rivers

     I really enjoyed reading Jen Bryant's A RIVER OF WORDS, and decided I would do some sleuthing and find out what tools she might have used to make it such an outstanding read. It was named an ALA Notable book, a New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Book, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, and an NCTE Notable Children's Book.


     In studying the book, I looked for tools that the author used to bring the story to life. Here are some of the things I found. (These tools came from several different articles.)

     1. Build suspense early on with a page turn.

       "Like the other boys in Rutherford, New Jersey, Willie Williams loved to play baseball and to race his friends up and down the street. But, when the other boys went inside...

     * This makes the reader want to continue to find out what Willie did instead.

     2.  Use time elements to move the story along.

          "In those days..."
          "As Willie grew older..."
          "In high school..."
          "One night...."
          "At age nineteen.."
          "When he graduated..."
          "After his long doctor's day..."

    * These time markers take us from scene to scene.

     3. Use a question to draw the reader in.

          "Willie liked the idea of healing people and providing for a family. But could he do both?"

     * The reader is invited to read on and find the answer.

     4.  Provide half dialogue where one person's words   are interspersed with narration.

          "My Willie has sharp eyes. He notices everything."
          "Dr. Williams is the busiest man in town."
          "Willie is always in a hurry."



     *  Dialogue heightens reader interest and provides clues to personality and character.

     5.  Use a repeated refrain.

           "And it was true" was used after each of the above-mentioned bits of half dialogue.

     * Children like repetition and like to predict where the phrase will come next.

     6.  Use onomatopoeia when appropriate.

           "Gurgle, gurgle--swish, swoosh. Gurgle, gurgle."

     * So fun to say!

     7.  Use alliteration.

          "...slipping and sliding over smooth rocks.."
          "...rhythm of the river he had rested beside.."
          "...delivered babies, healed hurts and bruises, set broken bones..."


     * Using alliteration brings a lyrical quality to the story.

     8.  Use internal monologue. 

          "Willie did not feel hurried."
          "The river's music both excited and soothed Willie."
          "Poetry suited Willie."


     * This device presents a character's inner thoughts and emotions in third person.

     These are the tools that stood out to me in this story, which is a beautiful blend of text and illustration. I also like that early on we see him loving the outdoors and resting beside the Passaic River, where the river's sounds perhaps first introduce him to the rhythm of poetry--hence the title, A RIVER OF WORDS.