Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Talking Shop at SCBWI Shop Talks

by Sue Heavenrich
Writing can be a pretty solitary business and sometimes we need to connect with other children's writers. I find my tribe at the local SCBWI Shop Talks. Our regional chapter of the  Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (which we refer to as Skib-wee here in the rural outback of upstate NY) hosts an annual conference and a couple of workshops and retreats. But many of us hunger for a way to connect more locally. And more frequently.

That's where Shop Talks come in. Our group meets once a month in a book store. It provides an opportunity to meet up, network, share information, and develop ourselves as writers and illustrators. Sometimes we bring works-in-progress (pages or artwork) for critiquing. Other times we share wisdom gleaned from conferences, workshops, and retreats. It might be an idea on how to approach revision, a technique for helping find voice, or advice on making book dummies.

Some evenings our gatherings feel like "mini-conferences" or writing workshops. For example, our shop talks have featured:
  • a workshop on plotting with a local author
  • using screenwriting techniques to map the emotional arc in a story
  • when to use rhyme in a picture book
  • digital illustration with our regional illustrator advisor
  • a storytelling duo sharing what they learned when they put their stories on the page
One night the youth services librarian at the county library spoke about how they select books for their collection. Another time we did a "picture book field trip", collecting new books from the shelves of the bookstore and bringing them back to our table to study, dissect, and discuss (no books were harmed).

Shop talk inspires me to keep on scribbling. Now, as co-leader for the group, it provides me an opportunity to encourage and support emerging writers and illustrators.

How to find a Shop Talk Group
Check out the SCBWI website. Scroll down the home page to "Regional Chapters" and look for your state - or, in the case of California, New York and a couple others, your part of the state. Click on that and you'll find that many of the regional chapter pages have a list of conferences, events, and local meetings. They may even have a link to shop talks. At the very least, the regional adviser can help you find a local group.

No Shop Talk group? Start your own.
I asked one of the founding mothers of our shop talk group, how they got started. She had been a member of an active shop talk group in a larger city - four hours to the east - before moving to Ithaca. She attended a regional conference with a couple friends, and they thought it would be great to get a shop talk going in the Ithaca area. They were able to send out an email invitation to SCBWI members who lived in the area and then set up a list serve to connect writers and illustrators. They worked with an independent book store to secure a space to meet once a month. Over time the group has changed but the mission has remained the same: to provide fellowship, share information, and develop the craft both as writers and as illustrators.

What happens when you send out the invites and only a few people show up? Consider meeting in a public location where there is more visibility. I know of a group that meets in a library and their meetings are advertised on the library calendar. Not everyone who shows up is a SCBWI member, says the shop talk leader, but they are all serious about writing for kids and young adults.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Astronaut Aquanaut - A Stellar Science Book and Mentor Text for Nonfiction Writers, Too by Kathy Halsey

I can honesty say that most of what I know about science comes from children's authors like today's featured guest, Jen Swanson. Had science books been as much fun as those she's written for National Geographic Kids, I may have been something more "science-y" than an English teacher. 

Recommended for Teachers, Librarians and Homeschoolers
I highly recommend ASTRONAUT AQUANAUT: HOW SPACE SCIENCE AND SEA SCIENCE INTERACT for school libraries, science classrooms grades 3-8. This book services a multitude of multimodal lessons.

  • Teachers and parents have ready-made experiments/activities that are easy to replicate in almost every chapter. 
  • The comparison/contrast structure of astronauts and aquanauts' training and experiences will get kids wondering and English/Language Arts teachers cheering. (Students at multiple grade levels need to write comparison/contrast compositions, and Jen's book lays out a fine example of the format.) 
  • Science and E/LA teachers could easily expand on the chapter "Space and Deep Sea: More Alike Than You Imagine" for an interdisciplinary project including research.
  • Additionally, web sites, a glossary, and astronaut/aquanaut biographies are added features that librarians and student researches will appreciate.

Recommended Mentor Text for Nonfiction Writers
Nonfiction folks, delve into an author study of Jen Swanson's books to see in-depth how she breaks down complex topics and makes them factual and kid-friendly. (Click here.) I've reviewed several of her books for the GROG.  Here are a few techniques that nonfiction writers will want to emulate. 
  • When tackling dense topics such as space vs. oceans or nanotechnology, write simply and use a cohesive style/structure throughout the text. Predictive text structure help readers relax and concentrate on new material. Every chapter in this book is set up in a similar format with questions, interesting ancillary material in sidebars, an "explorer's notebook," and activities with questions to expand the reader's thoughts after the experiments.
  • Drop definitions into the text deftly and think about alliterative titles, too. Here are some title examples that kids will appreciate: "Darkness Descents," "What Goes Up Must Come Down," and "Expanding Our Horizons." 
  • Look at this example of a quick definition that doesn't stop the reader with an information dump. " 'Micro' is another way of saying 'very small,' so microgravity refers to extremely small gravitational forces."
  • Think about you point of view. Ask questions to entice readers. Jen uses second person POV and as you'll see from our interview (Q & A below), National Geographic prefers this option also.  
  • How you use comparisons matters. Jen creates her own concrete comparisons using ideas kids already know. In describing how pressure feels in the deepest ocean she says, "...the pressure is great than 15,7000 psi. That is a thousand times the amount of pressure you feel when standing on the ground." In a further comparison she states that amount of pressure is like "... one person holding up 50 jumbo airplanes."
Q & A with Jen Swanson

There have been several good blog interviews with Jen on ASTRONAUT AQUANAUT, so I chose to focus on questions nonfiction writers might find instructive. 

K: Do you outline/propose your books now to NatGeo or do you have specific editor w/whom you work?
Jen:  I have been lucky enough to work with one editor at  NGKids on several projects. We have a great, collaborative relationship which makes it really fun to work on books together. Because of this, my submission process is more relaxed. I may not create a full-blown proposal with completely outlined chapters, but more of a “this is what I want to do” sort of thing. It takes awhile to get to that point, and works well for the two of us, since we are also friends. But my agent is involved in the process and still handles all of the contract negotiations.
K: What informed your choice of 2nd person POV? 
J:  That is NGKids style. They love the 2nd person, informal type of language. This allows the reader to feel as if they are going on the journey with the book as they read it. The goal is for them to experience life up in space and down in the ocean, just like the experts did!

K: Do you decide what information is in sidebars?  If not, who does that?

 J:  Everything you see in the book pretty much started with me. Of course, my editor may make suggestions for areas that might need more expansion or ways to improve the book, which I definitely pay attention to, but I wrote all the sidebars. Specifically, it was my idea to approach experts (astronauts and aquanauts) and ask them questions that I thought my readers might want to know. It took a lot of effort and a great deal of persistence to catch up with some of them. But I think it is well worth it.  

K: Where do you find those cool comparisons? On a web site? 

J:  Nope. I just come up with this all on my own. I’m trying to get the reader to understand how big or little something is and the best way is to compare it to something they already know. This is a great tool for writing science books for kids; one I use in all of my books. 

K: What “in-person” research did you do for the book?

J:  Unfortunately, traveling to these amazing environments was not a part of my research. Maybe someday. I did, however, travel to NYC to meet Aquanaut Fabien Cousteau in person. A thrill of a lifetime and the picture of us together with Liz Bentley-Magee, a female aquanaut featured in the book made it into the back page.

K: Your writing tips for tackling science for kids…

J: Think like a kid! Make your writing FUN and EXCITING! Science is best when it’s hands-on because kids can see it happening right in front of them. While you can’t always do that with a book, you can make them feel the excitement of trying it if your words are active and engaging.

K: What are you working on now? 

J: I’m so very excited about this book with Peachtree Publishers coming out next April. It’s called Save The Crash-Test Dummies and it’s a book about ENGINEERING and car safety. I write engineering in all caps, because it is really a big thing for an engineering book to be published by a trade publisher. This book is an out-of-the box and fun look at the history of car safety engineering.  It even has a snarky, talking crash-test dummy as your guide through the ages. I have see the initial layouts and they are stunning. I am REALLY looking forward to this book! Go Engineering!

Finally Jen and Miranda Paul will be teaching their "Nuts and Bolts of science Writing" at Highlights again this summer Attendees will learn the ins and outs of writing fiction and nonfiction science books and will be able to submit to 5 different trade editors. Check out more information here