Thursday, September 28, 2017

Guest Post: I Have a Chapter Book Idea--Now What? By Alayne Kay Christian

I want to welcome a kidlit friend, author, and critique partner to the Grog Blog today--Alayne Kay Christian! Her new chapter book Sienna, The Cowgirl Fairy, debuted this summer, and so I invited her to share her expertise in writing chapter books. And Alayne has an awesome prize at the end! Take it away, Alayne!

So you have a chapter book idea. Now what?

A great place to start is by getting to know your protagonist better.

Some writers do a character inventory or character profile. You can find an excellent starting point with the following links that offer a variety of checklists. However, I agree with the note on the character chart that states, “Note that all fields are optional and should be used simply as a guide; character charts should inspire you to think about your character in new ways, rather than constrain your writing.”

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, which is a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. She also has many good books and workbooks on writing. I’ve decided to let some of Janice’s Fiction University posts along with a couple SCBWI posts help me provide you with good information on developing chapter book characters and stories.

If you find character profiles and charts to be a bit too much, check out the links below where Janice Hardy offers some interesting ways to develop your characters.

Of course, there are other characters to consider besides the protagonist. The links below lead to some more good guidelines from Hardy.

The following link offers some pros and cons of getting too carried away with a character inventory


I’m a pantster at heart, so the idea of a character inventory doesn’t appeal to me. But I’ve found that playing around with methods of exploring characters can make one think beyond the surface. It is also a good way to get unstuck if you are struggling to get going on your chapter book. But, don’t let digging into your characters give you an excuse to procrastinate. In my experience, characters often reveal themselves as the story builds. Only you know what works best for you.

The approach you take with your chapter book may be different depending on where your idea starts. Does it start with a character or does it start with a plot? The answer to those questions may influence your approach to character and plot development. Check out this SCBWI post for help with forming connections between character and plot.

I’ve created a list of questions (below) that may help you brainstorm and develop your idea deeper and begin finding the plot that will fill your chapters. There is much more to writing chapter books than these questions, but it is a start. My goal for this post is to help writers who have a chapter book idea to dig deeper and get to know their protagonist’s journey a little better. Once you get rolling, you might find that your character will help lead you from chapter to chapter.

  • ·    Who is the protagonist that will drive this story idea?
  • ·    What is the question you want to set in your reader’s mind at the beginning of the story? There may be more than one question, but they will likely start with words like “Will s/he?” “Can s/he?” “How will s/he?” “How can s/he?” From here on, for the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the protagonist as she and her.
  • ·   What is the inciting incident? This is the event that pushes your protagonist out of her ordinary world and into the world of the story that you want to write. The world where the protagonist’s journey takes place.
  • ·   What is the protagonist’s goal or problem that will fuel her actions and decisions throughout the story?
  • ·   How does the big story problem escalate throughout the story?
  • ·   How does the protagonist resolve the big story problem in the end?
  • ·   How do the protagonist’s actions and realizations inform the reader? How do her actions and realizations inform her?
  • ·   What does she learn by the end of the story? Has she changed in some way?
  • ·   What is the point of the story?
  • ·   What will make the reader care about the protagonist’s journey?
  • ·   What stands in the way of the protagonist achieving her goal or solving her problem?
  • ·    What are the stakes? What does the protagonist stand to lose if she doesn’t solve her problem or achieve her goal?
  • ·    What do you want the reader to think about long after the story is over?
  • ·    What kind of challenges does the protagonist meet as the chapters develop?
  • ·    How can the big story goal or problem lead to smaller chapter problems? Perhaps there are obstacles to achieving the big story goal. How might these obstacles create tension and escalate as the chapters develop?
  • ·    What is the first problem that stems from the big story problem? How does it escalate with action and tension? How is that first problem resolved?
  • ·   What are three obstacles or challenges to achieving the goal that your protagonist might have to overcome that make her journey all the harder?
  • ·   What kind of decisions might your protagonist be forced to make as she meets twists, turns, surprises, and more setbacks? What might those twists, turns, surprises, and setbacks be?
  • ·    What is the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist? What is the moment that makes her, and the reader, feel that all is lost or there is no hope – as though she will never achieve her goal or solve her problem?
  • ·   What is the event or aha moment that causes the protagonist to climb out of that all is lost place? What kind of realization might she have? What kind of thinking outside the box choice might she make to do something different? What is that one thing that drives her into the action that leads to resolution?
  • ·   What is the resolution? Having a clear vision of the ending or resolution when you start your book will make it much easier to develop your story because you will know where your protagonist needs to end up. All you have to do is figure out how to get her there in a compelling way. Simple right ;-)
  • ·   Is there a surprise twist that will grab your reader one final time?

As I said earlier, there is much more to writing a chapter book. Here is a link to a SCBWI post to help start you thinking about individual chapters, emotional core and tension, and additional characters.

The following link leads to an excellent post on inner struggle or inner conflict.

The following link leads to another Hardy post. This one is about turning your idea into a story.

Janice Hardy does a great job of laying out a way to start forming your idea into a story. Clarifying an idea.

This next link leads to a post about testing an idea. This is similar to my list of questions above. But Janice has a different approach that may spark something new for you.

Also closely related to my list of questions, Hardy walks her readers through character arc development.

A BIG thank you to Tina Cho and the GROG team for inviting me to be a guest on their wonderful, informative blog.

Alayne’s Bio

Alayne Kay Christian is an award-winning children’s book author and a certified life coach. Her picture book Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa (Blue Whale Press, LLC) received the Mom’s Choice Awards gold medal and an IPPY Awards silver medal. Alayne’s Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy chapter book series first book, Sienna, the Cowgirl Fairy: Trying to Make it Rain is now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and bookstores near you. The next book in the series, Aunt Rose’s Flower Girl, and Alayne’s next two picture books Mischievous Maverick and Magic Mabel are all scheduled for 2018 release. Alayne is the creator and teacher of a picture book writing course, Art of Arc: How to Write and Analyze Picture Book Manuscripts.

Alayne is giving away a chapter book critique (first 3 chapters) to a Grog Blog reader. If you'd like to be entered in the drawing, please let us know in the comments. The drawing will be held on October 6th. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

An Explorer's Mindset ~ Guest Post by Susan Koch

We teach kids about the world and how it works, empowering them to succeed and to make it a better place.”  
Public Domain

That's the mission of the National Geographic Society's Educator Certification Program, which provides a learning framework and resources to help K-12 teachers inspire
the next generation of explorers, conservationists, and global citizens.

Last month, in GROG's back-to-school post, Christy Mihaly interviewed me about my expedition to the Arctic as a participant in National Geographic's Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program. Applicants for the Grosvenor program need to be National Geographic Certified Educators, and we promised to come back this month and explain more about the certification program. So here goes.
Enjoying outdoor education
The National Geographic teacher certification program uses a learning framework with three elements: Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge. The program trains teachers new techniques to get students excited while learning about geography and nature. I loved the idea as soon as I heard about it, because I'm passionate about getting students outdoors for learning. I am most excited when my students can explore, inquire, and make discoveries about their world.

First grade ECO explorers
Almost ten years ago, I helped developed an outdoor education program in my community of Montpelier, Vermont. This ECO (Educating Children Outdoors) program has become a school-wide opportunity for learners to develop a sense of place by interacting with the natural environment. 

In applying to be a Grosvenor Fellow, I submitted a video about my work with the ECO program. The application required a statement about my passion, and I decided I would need to go outside to tell the story. I bundled up with a down jacket and a hat, cleared some snow from the back deck, propped up my laptop and turned to the camera. 
To watch my video about ECO, click this link

In ECO, classes spend time weekly at outdoor learning sites, to explore, inquire and make connections. Learning outside in nature helps us to create a community that values earth stewardship and sustainability. The National Geographic certification program is so appealing because it helps teachers foster this kind of learning. 

Here are the elements of the National Geographic educator framework.

ATTITUDES: The program seeks to create students who are 

Heading out for ECO

Curious: excited about new challenges and adventures.

Responsible: respectful of differences and concerned with the welfare of others.

Empowered: willing and able to work to make a difference.

ECO students observing and recording

SKILLS: The program helps students develop their abilities to

Observe: see and make sense of their observations.

Communicate: tell stories! (through spoken or written words, video, songs, and more)

Collaborate: work together to achieve their goals. 

KNOWLEDGE: The program focuses on three subject areas:

What's this find, in a Vermont forest?

The Human Journey: where we are, where we're going.

Our Changing Planet: the earth and the interconnected life forms it sustains.

Wildlife and Wild Places: far-off and in our own backyard.

Educators in the certification program complete classroom activities based on this framework. They also present a capstone project in video form, using the framework to tell the story of their students' learning. 
ECO is all year round!
National Geographic believes that telling stories is an effective way to convey our knowledge -- and listening to stories is a great way to learn. The program helps educators discover their own stories. Often learners don't believe they have stories to tell; educators can help them discover their own stories. 

A recent favorite picture book develops this idea beautifully: Everywhere, Wonder, by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr. 
With poetic language and beautiful illustrations, the book makes the point that each person's story is made of all the things they notice and imagine. It urges readers to "open your eyes and open your window and let your story out into the world." What better summary of how our stories are shaped by our world.

If you have questions about the National Geographic program, feel free to ask me in the comment section below!

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.