Thursday, September 21, 2017

Suzanne Slade Talks Picture Book Biographies (and a Giveaway!) ~ by Patricia Toht

Kidlit friends, are you familiar with Suzanne Slade? If not, it's time you've met!

Suzanne is the award-winning author of over 100 books! Her picture book biographies are mainstays in schools and libraries. Her newest is DANGEROUS JANE, a lovely and lyrical look at Jane Addams, who devoted her life to social reform and helping the poorest in society. She was co-founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the US, and won a Noble Peace Prize in 1931.

Suzanne began writing this book in prose form in May 2013. Her files are filled with 82 revisions of that early piece, titled "Unstoppable Jane." She then decided to change the main theme to "dangerous," and created 18 different versions of DANGEROUS JANE. In August 2014 (after 15 months of revisions), she decided to try the story in free verse. After 26 more revisions in free verse, it found a publishing home at Peachtree Books. Now THAT'S dedication to a project!

I love picture book biographies, and I fancy writing one some day. But I admit that I am completely intimidated by the research! Well, since we have an expert in our midst today, let's pose a few questions to Suzanne:

Q: Hi, Suzanne! Thanks for stopping by! My first question is, what inspired you to write about Jane Addams?

S: For as long as I can remember, I've admired Jane Addams and how she helped found Hull House in Chicago to help struggling immigrant families. Several years ago, I stumbled upon the fact that she was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and I was surprised I didn't know anything about Jane's important peace work. Curious, I began researching in earnest. When I mentioned my discoveries about her tireless work for peace to my friends, not one was aware of her peace work either. 

So I decided I needed to share her tumultuous, true story with young readers -- how Jane went from being a beloved humanitarian, to the FBI's "Most Dangerous Woman in America," to the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I hope her fascinating story inspires a new generation to be kind to all people, regardless of their backgrounds, and to never stop striving for peace. 

Q: As a nonfiction writer, how do you organize your research? Do you use a program like Scrivener? Or do you use notecards or binders?

S: My organization "system" is rather old school. It consists of three items for each book:
  1. Email folder - This contains all the email correspondence with experts/historians, permissions to use photos/artwork, etc.
  2. Paper folder - I fill this with hand-written notes from telephone interviews, brochures or papers from museums, photocopies of research materials, and various story drafts.
  3. Source doc - This is a lengthy, ever-growing computer document I'm continually updating which contains website links (below each link I copy significant paragraphs from that site), book sources (below each book title I note page numbers with specific facts found on each page), links to online books I couldn't get in hard copy from library, and a list of sources where I found pertinent quotes. This document also has a photo sources list, along with a small copy of each photo for reference. Since Sources docs often become rather long and unwieldy, I bold the facts that end up in the story so I know exactly where I found each one. The length and size of Sources docs for different projects varies greatly. The last story I wrote had a 14-page Sources doc. Another for a space project was 35 pages and had so many hi-res photos that the file was too large to email!
Suzanne's DANGEROUS JANE folder contains a brochure
from her Hull House visit, hand written notes from that visit,
copies of 1917 newspaper articles, a 'book dummy',
various story drafts, and more.
Q: At what point in your research do you conduct interviews?

S: I generally do interviews after I've finished a fair amount of research and have a completed rough draft. That way, I'm asking somewhat educated questions and will hopefully gather the facts and details really needed for the story. Of course, I also note extra information the expert may expound upon so I have that background info. But I don't want to waste the expert's time, so I try to think of all the questions I may need answered before we talk. For DANGEROUS JANE, I interviewed several Hull House staff, and conducted email interviews with Jane Addams experts from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, the Cedarville Historical Society, and a few notable historical authors, and others.

Now if the subject of my story idea is alive, I will try to contact him or her earlier in the draft process -- after creating a story outline, but before writing a complete first draft. For example, when I proposed a leveled reader project to one publisher about Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon, I knew we'd want to include photos of his artwork (he now paints moon scenes). So I contacted astronaut Bean early on to see if he'd be willing to participate in the project. Fortunately, he said yes, and I had the privilege of chatting with one of the twelve brave explorers who has walked on the moon. Definitely an out-of-the-world experience for me!

Q: You juggle so many different projects, sometimes releasing multiple books a year. How do you do it all? One book at a time, or multiple projects? (And do you ever sleep?!)

S: If things are going well, I'm generally juggling several books which have been acquired and are at various stages in the publishing process. (I have six books-in-the-works right now with five publishers.) I only work on one or two brand new stories at a time. Meaning, I may have one I'm fine-tweaking and/or submitting and another that's in the earlier researching/writing phase.

Before I begin a new story, I make sure I have at least two weeks without author events or any other interruptions, so that I can really get into the research and writing, and stay immersed until I have a full rough draft. As an aside, it's a scary sight when I'm wrestling down a first draft of a story. I pace around my house with uncombed hair, talking out loud, and asking myself questions. I hand write my first drafts, so handwritten pages with scribbly sentences and huge crossed-out sections are strewn everywhere, along with thick books filled with hundreds of sticky notes. 

I usually get a fair amount of sleep. I do lose sleep, though, when a story is not quite working and I can't figure out why. I keep a pad of paper and pen by my bed because sometimes I suddenly wake up with an idea to "fix" a story. Actually, some of my best ideas strike in the middle of the night. I also don't sleep particularly well before a school visit. But that's okay because the night after a visit, I sleep like a log!

Q: How much backmatter is the right amount? What do you think of sidebars? Do they distract from the telling of a story?

S: This is a tough question because the amount of backmatter depends on several things: the topic of the story, the amount of information covered in the main text, the personal preferences of the editor and publisher, and the length of the book (number of pages). For DANGEROUS JANE's backmatter, we included a great quote by Jane, two outstanding photos of Jane doing what she did best (caring for children and fighting for peace), an Author's Note with more details about her peace work, a Timeline, Selected Bibliography, Sources for quotes, and Acknowledgments of those who graciously helped with the research.
Backmatter from DANGEROUS JANE

Sometimes the amount of backmatter isn't decided until the book designer lays out the book to see what fits. Even then, things can change. For example, my book THE INVENTOR'S SECRET was originally slated for 40 pages (I think), then was bumped out to 48 pages so it would have 9 (yes, NINE!) pages of backmatter. There was so much cool science content in the story that we knew curious readers would enjoy -- like early car models, inventions, patents, etc. -- that we ended up sharing more than we originally planned.

As far as what backmatter to include in a story submission, I suggest a writer simply provide the content he or she thinks is extremely interesting and pertinent to the main topic(s) of the story, knowing that the publisher may or may not decide to include it all in the book. 

Regarding sidebars, personally I'm not a big fan of sidebars in a picture book. But for some topics and layout styles, they work extremely well. Again, it depends on the topic and vision of the publisher. If an author thinks that sidebars would be great with a story, there's no harm in including them. Then just see what the publisher thinks of them and edit accordingly.

Q: Do you share your research with the illustrator? Or does the illustrator do his or her own research?

S: I always email my Sources doc to the editor after acquisition so he or she has the option of sharing it with the illustrator.  So far, every editor has forwarded my sources to the illustrator. I also ask the editor to let the illustrator know I'm happy to answer any questions as best I can.
Illustration of the interior of Hull House with period details
in clothing, home decorations, etc.

Of course, illustrators do their own research to learn about settings, buildings, clothing, and hair styles, etc., but at least my notes give them a list of reliable sources (and experts) to start with, which hopefully saves them time. Alice Ratterree, who illustrated DANGEROUS JANE, did a great deal of her own research, which really shows in her gorgeously detailed and accurate illustrations.

Wow, Suzanne! Thank you so much for shedding light on the research process, as well as tips on writing and organizing a picture book biography.

And now, readers, I have a special treat! 

It's time for a 


For your chance to win a copy of DANGEROUS JANE, please  comment below and tell us the best way to reach you. 

Good luck!

To find out more about Suzanne Slade, visit her website.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Searching for Text Structure with Melissa Stewart

by Sue Heavenrich

Melissa Stewart has written more than 180 science books for children, and is one of those authors who supports and encourages emerging writers. I met her at a Falling Leaves nonfiction master class, and again at a 21st Century Children's Nonfiction Conference. So when her new book, Can an Aardvark Bark? came out this summer, I could not wait to read it. It's about the diversity of sounds animals make, from grunts and squeals to barks, whines, and roars. Like other books, this one has layers: a line of text that young children will have fun reading, and sidebars with more in-depth information that a reading buddy, parent, or older sibling can read. It's fun to read, and the illustrations are marvelous cut and torn paper by Steve Jenkins. (My review, and "beyond the book activities" is posted at Archimedes Notebook)

This book was born during a trip to the zoo. There was a plaque next to the tamarins that said they bark. "That night at dinner, my nephew asked if we could make a list of animals that bark," she remembers. From there the list grew into sounds different animals make. She knew there was a book there ... just didn't know what that book would look like. The journey from idea to finished book is always full of crumpled papers, edits, revisions, more revisions, and sometimes a total make-over. Contrary to popular belief, picture books take a long time to write. Years. In Aardvark's case, four. Years. Not counting research.

Over those years, Melissa tried different ways to structure the text of her book. First she tried "compare and contrast", but after a short time she decided that didn't capture what she wanted to say. She tried a couple of "description" styles, and a "question & answer" format. She went back and forth, tried combinations, and at times put the project on a shelf. 

"It's important to spend time away from a project between draft and revision," she said. It might not be a long time - you could finish a draft before lunch and come back after recess (or running to town to do errands), but the important thing is to get that chance to look at your manuscript with "fresh eyes and a fresh mind".

Melissa generously shares her accumulated wisdom, trials, and drafts of her manuscript in a wonderful timeline. One of the things she was looking for, as she experimented with styles, was a hook. "Animal sounds are cool," she said. But she needed a way to get the kids engaged. "I wasn't sure what that hook would be, but I knew it had to be special." At the New York SCBWI conference an editor was talking about sharks, and the phrase, "can a shark bark?" popped into Melissa's mind. Then, half a year later at another SCBWI conference an editor mentioned an orange aardvark.

"By now I'm obsessed," said Melissa. "Can an aardvark bark? No! But could I come up with an order of animals and sounds that would allow some sort of backwards connecting thing?" In search of a solution, Melissa wrote animals and the sounds they made on post it notes - and then stuck them on a wall. Now she could move them around looking for a structure that connected them - she had 300 animals and 50 sounds!

"Writing a nonfiction concept book is not easy," Melissa said. "And writing a picture book is not simple!" That's why she created timelines for this book and an earlier one, to show the careful thought, planning, and years of writing/ stepping back / rewriting that go into a picture book. 

Melissa's next book, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating the Animal Underdogs, is coming out next fall (Peachtree, 2018). You can find out more about Melissa at her website and on her wonderful blog, Celebrate Science.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Writing Inside the Box

   By Janie Reinart

There are many benefits to using a sauna: 

*stronger immune system
*stress relief
*better sleep
*writing time

Yes, you read that right-thirty minutes of uninterrupted writing time.  This is what happens in the box.


You can't leave. You can't walk away from the paper and pencil. You need to do something to help the time pass.
You write. Talk about Butt-In-Chair.
"How to write: Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair."~Anne Lamott


The temperature in an infrared sauna soaks into your bones.

“Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think too much. Just enter the heat of words and sounds and colored sensations and keep your pen moving across the page. If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.~Natalie Goldberg


In the silence you can focus on your breathing and your heart beat. You can hear yourself think.

"A writer needs certain conditions in which to work and create art. She needs a piece of time; a peace of mind; a quiet place..."~Margaret Walker

What new places have you found to create art? Share with us in the comments. 

NOTE: Congratulations David McMullin you are the winner of the giveaway for A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale by Penny Parker Klostermann.

Monday, September 11, 2017

What's New at the Library?

By Leslie Colin Tribble

We order new books every month at our public library and since I'm in the cataloging department, I get to see all the new titles as they come in. Here are a few picture books that have hit the shelves recently. This is a mixed bag of stories - hopefully there's something in here for everyone.

Rhino in the House - Daniel Kirk (author of the Library Mouse series)
Because I can't pass up a great animal story, this was the first book I picked up in our children's library. It's a true story with a great ending so it's a win-win for me. In his author notes, Daniel Kirk explains he wrote the story because he found a photo of a woman, Anna Merz, sitting next to a black rhinoceros, Samia. In his research, he discovered that Anna founded a rhino sanctuary in Nairobi, Kenya to protect the animals from poachers. Samia was a calf born on the sanctuary, but wasn't being cared for by her mother.  Anna took the baby to her house and successfully raised her.

First off, what a great story! As a child, I asked my parents for all sorts of animals (we did have dogs, so I wasn't totally pet-deprived) including a giraffe, penguins (thanks to Mr. Popper's Penguins) and a baby musk ox. A baby rhino would have been right up my alley. I loved that Anna Merz brought tiny (a relative term when speaking of rhino's) Samia to her home and even snuggled with her in bed - this is my kind of woman.

Daniel Kirk did a wonderful job with the illustrations - Anna looks like a nice, loving grandmotherly-type and Samia is adorable. He brings in other African wildlife and gives readers an understanding of what Samia's native habitat looks like. I also love that he included pictures that illustrate Samia's communication with Anna - "Hoo hoo hoo" means "I'm coming!" followed by a picture of a charging baby rhino.

This is a wonderful book for children who love animals. It beautifully illustrates a true conservation idea along with the work of a woman who was determined to see it happen. Rhino in the House is a great starting place to introduce the idea of "passion" to children and how we can all find something we're passionate about.

The Giant of Jum - Elli Woollard; Illustrated by Benji Davis
This fun book is a take off on Jack and the Beanstalk. If you have a child that knows the refrain, "Fee, fi, fo, fum ..." this will be a rollicking read. The Giant of Jum is a rhyming picture book about a grumpy old grouch of a giant who pines to eat a child on a dish. He stomps off in search of a child, especially the boy Jack which his brother told him about. The children out-smart the giant by convincing him he really is quite nice and he couldn't possibly eat Jack or any other child. Instead, what giants prefer is . . . cake.

The illustrations are perfectly child-friendly and give an adorable sense of size and proportion. Everyone is excited when the giant cake appears, because seriously, who isn't excited by cake? The rhyme is fun to read and the rhythm accentuates the story. This is a great read-aloud because you can use lots of different voices, especially your grouchy giant voice.

Someone Like Me - Patricia McLachlan; Illustrated by Chris Sheban
The soft edges and subtle colors of the illustrations in this picture book enhance the dreamy quality of the story of a young girl who is a gatherer of stories. When she's not reading, she's listening to people telling stories and trying to teach her dog and chicken to talk. She climbs into trees to watch the sky and like her great-grandmother loves the dark prairie earth. When she grows up she might be someone like the author - a writer.

I really enjoyed this book. The illustrator gave the girl's face a pensive expression - she's thinking deep thoughts about everything, something writers are known to do. There's an ethereal feel to the book, giving weight and importance to words and books and stories without coming out and telling us they're important. Children wonder deeply about their worlds and here's a book that says it's ok to do so.

Blue Sky, White Stars - Sarvinder Naberhaus; Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
I saved the best for last. This book will find a home in the hearts of everyone. Using only 68 words (most of them the same on each spread), this book defines America and what it means to be an American. The author takes the symbols on the United States' flag - its red rows, blue sky and white stars - and uses those same words to describe America.

This is a stunningly beautiful book in both words and illustrations. It's a tear-inducing read and kids will wonder why you're all choked up by the end of the story. It's guaranteed to stoke patriotism even in the heart of complete cynics. This is the perfect book to read on holidays like Independence Day, Veteran's Day, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King Day, and President's Day.

Blue Sky, White Stars showcases history, the beauty of the land, immigration, and civil rights, as well as the concepts of achievement and freedom. If you're looking for a picture book to give children a crash course in Civics, this is it. It would also be a helpful reminder for most adults. This book deservedly received four, starred reviews and I hope it continues to win favor and acclaim.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Cooking Up Stories With the Help of Poetry (plus a Giveaway!) ~ Penny Parker Klostermann

Today, the GROG welcomes author Penny Parker Klostermann! 

Penny's delectable new book, A COOKED-UP FAIRY TALE, is the story of young William whose love of cooking makes him a bit of an oddball in the land of fairy tales. One day, when he finds a box containing apples, a pumpkin, and a few beans that is destined for Fairy-Tale Headquarters, William uses his culinary talents to whip up some delicious dishes. But, what will happen to the fairy tale characters who are missing key ingredients to their stories? 
Doesn't this look like a delicious book?
Read on for your chance to WIN A COPY!

Penny's debut picture book, THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT, won the "Best in Rhyme" Award at the first ever Rhyme Revolution Conference.
Penny with the founder of
Rhyme Revolution, Angie Karcher
Penny is our guest today and has some advice for you about using poetry to pump up your writing. So, without further delay, on to the main course!

Penny: As writers, we often hear that we should read, and even write, poetry to help with our picture book writing skills. There's a valuable connection. 

Even though writers often hear about the value of poetry, many dismiss the advice because they feel like they don't have the time or they don't see the value. They wonder:

Why spend time with poetry when I don't want to 
write a poetry collection?

Why spend time with poetry when I'm not interested 
in writing a rhyming picture book?

Why spend time with poetry when there are only 
so many hours in the day and I have so much 
to learn about writing what I want to write...
which is picture books, not poetry?

So, why?

Because a poem is a tiny moment told in just a few words. A poem teaches the economical use of words. A poem uses words and language that will paint a picture in the reader's mind. A poem is meant to be read aloud so poets use words, language, and poetic techniques that add to the read-aloud experience.

You might be thinking, "Whoa! Wait! Hold on! Aren't those the elements of a successful picture book? Isn't this redundant?"

I can promise you that it's not. The reading of poetry will give you an appreciation of language. It will heighten your awareness of techniques that will make your work a pleasure to read aloud. And if you will go a step further and write poems, you will strengthen your skills even more. If you're not a rhymer, don't worry. Writing free verse will benefit you, too. Slowly you will feel poetry influencing your choice of words and language in your picture book manuscripts. 

It's pretty obvious how poetry helped me with THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT. It's a rhyming picture book, so immersing myself in rhyme and meter made sense. But my second book, A COOKED-UP FAIRY TALE is in prose. Yet the reading and writing of poetry had a huge influence on its text. When I compare early drafts to the final text, the revisions I made enhanced the story due to better word choice and the use of poetic techniques. The language and read-aloud-ability are much stronger and helped bring my story to a polished point. 

I encourage you to start making poetry a habit. Even spending 10-15 minutes several days a week reading poetry will have an influence on your writing. Where do you start? There are many resources on the Internet and I have collected many of my favorites on my website in the Poetry Resources page. 

Happy poetry-ing!

Thank you, Penny, for sharing your strategies with our readers!

And now, for the icing on Penny's post -- 


a copy of A COOKED-UP FAIRY TALE! Just comment below to enter the drawing (U.S. residents only, please).

As one final treat, gather around and listen to Penny read THERE WAS AN OLD DRAGON WHO SWALLOWED A KNIGHT:


Monday, September 4, 2017

Analyze and Examine Mentor Texts ~By Suzy Leopold

The temperatures are dropping and days are becoming shorter on the Illinois Prairie—all signs that summer is coming to a close. Many are celebrating the last unofficial end of summer during this Labor Day weekend. The autumnal equinox, when night and day are roughly equal in length, officially takes place on September 22nd.
The morning sun
on the prairie.
With a new season around the corner, it is time to revisit your writing goals. Adjust as need be.

Today I'll share a friendly reminder about the importance of studying, examining, and analyzing mentor texts. I'll share some thoughts and pose some questions.

When a writer reads and studies high-quality books in the genre one writes you'll discover many important elements that make for stellar book. Examine books and discover how doing so provides a writer with support, encouragement, and motivation along your writing journey of becoming published. 

Time to grab a magnifying class and discover what makes a book a book and apply it to your own writing.

There are many aspects to consider and interpret when examining a stack of well written books as mentor texts. I'll point out a few for our GROG Blog readers.

From the cover with the title to the back matter, including an author's note and everything in between, there is much to consider. How does the author hook the reader in the beginning of the story? Are the characters believable? Do you note a well-paced plot with words that fit just right?

Analyze the text structure of well written books. Examine and determine how the text is organized. This deeper understanding can help you as a writer to better understand how to use text structure more effectively in your own writing. 

Investigate, compare, and contrast, and discover ways quthors use transitional words to move the reader along. Are there excellent page turns included keeping the reader focused and wanting to know more? 

Study the word choices used by the author. Does the author use higher level vocabulary and well-constructed sentences? 

When a writer dissects books and notes what is working and what is not, all of the acquired knowledge will carry over into the writer's own stories. Investigate, compare, and constrast to discover, and interpret the theme and the "so what" of the story. 

"The use of mentor texts is intentionally using the rich relationship between reading and writing to improve writing."
David Willett Premont, 
Professor, Brigham Young University 
A Mammoth Sunflower
from my prairie garden.

Finally, keep in mind the target audience you write for. Publishers generally assign age groups and classify children’s books into categories. Listed below is one variation of many that describes reader age groups:   

  •  Birth to 24 months

Look for minimal text—one word per page; no more than one to two lines of text per page. Are there bright primary colors and contrasts between dark and light? This helps develop babies’ vision. Photographs are great for babies and toddlers. Now pull out the manuscript that you set aside and think about how you can revise your book to appeal to these littles.
by Ruth Spiro

  • 2 to 3 years

Do you note one to two sentences per page for limited attention spans? This age group enjoys stories that allow participation and movement. Board books are excellent choices for engagement. There are those who may believe writing for this age is easy. I know you’ll disagree. Does you picture book project include participating and movement for toddlers? It may be time to polish your work.
By Monica Brown

By Jennifer K. Mann
  • 4 to 5 years
Books written for this age group are longer and more complex. The stories include more detail and description. Excellent examples should allow for participation, (same for 2 to 3 year olds) creativity, and conversation. The story line should keep the readers’ attention and develop language preparing kids for school readiness. Revisit your manuscripts that are *under construction* and keep these tips in mind when you revise.
  • 5 to 9 years
By Helaine Becker
Read books that make for excellent read alouds and keep this in mind as you write your stories. Look for books that use playful language, such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhymes, rhythm, and tongue twisters. Think about stories that allow kids to participate and provide conversation for the reader to question and respond. This helps children develop literacy skills and instills a love of reading. What about early chapter books? Look for interesting characters and plots filled with adventure, mystery, and a hook that keeps the reader turning the pages.

  • 10 to 12 years
The preteen years can be a time for big changes in our youth, both physically and emotionally, along with increased self-consciousness. This age group wants to make a connection to dynamic characters and memorable plots. These tweens desire to see themselves in the books being read and want to read about the struggles of daily life and growing up. Kids in this age group read books that offer confidence boosters, determined characters with a can do attitude that problem solve and grow for the better. From mystery to adventure to well-written nonfiction books, kids this age want inspiration, entertainment, knowledge, and information. 
by Amy Sarig King
There are many more important elements to consider when examining and  analyzing mentor texts. Hopefully, these few will serve a purpose with your writing.

Share your thoughts and comments about specific elements that you feel are important to consider when analyzing books as mentor texts.