Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Melissa Stewart Demystifies Nonfiction and Makes It Fun! by Kathy Halsey

There's no question that Melissa Stewart makes nonfiction bewitching and accessible. With over 180+ books under her belt, she knows this category's ins and outs along with the difference between narrative nonfiction, expository nonfiction and more. (Take a look at her nonfiction tree here.)

Last week, I caught up with Melissa at my local indie bookstore, Cover To Cover Books for Young Readers. after her three day author visit to New Albany schools. Melissa tailored her talk to the crowd of seashell lovers, educators, and librarians. 

 Today I'll share my review of Seashells More Than a Home, some key points from her talk and a few fun facts. 

Book Review 

This expository dual-text picture book follows the structure set up by author Melissa and illustrator Sarah S. Brannen in their first book together, the award-winning Feathers: not Just for Flying. Written for ages 6-9, grades 1-4, Seashells is an engaging, accessible introduction to 13 seashells that "sink like a submarine," and "send a warning like the signal from a lighthouse." 
Melissa's use of similes and metaphors makes the main text a joy to dive into, while the second layer gives well-chosen facts still steeped in lyrical language. 
Sarah Brannen's brilliant watercolor illustrations invite readers to pick up their own science sketch book and take to the outdoors to examine, draw, and take note of the natural world. Even the end papers add information with maps that show the habitats for each sheet/mollusk. Young scientists, parents, and educators will enjoy dipping back into this picture book time and again. 
Third grader in Columbus, Ohio, New Albany Schools  share facts from Melissa Stewarts's visit.

Key Points and Fun Facts
  1. Melissa and illustrator Sarah Brannen created an elaborate back story for the illustrations of the children examining the seashells for the book. More work goes on in the creation of captivating nonfiction than you'd think.
  2. During Melissa's Cover to Cover author visit, we chatted about how informational fiction and true expository fiction are  confused by lay people as well as many educators. Check out Melissa Stewart's award-winning blog, Celebrate Science, to learn more here.
  3. Melissa and Sarah are in the same critique group in Massachusetts that has been meeting for over 20 years. They were paired together for Feathers: Not Just for Flying by happenstance. (Typically authors an illustrators do not know each other.)
  4. Again, in a break with customary publishing practices, Steve Jenkins and Melissa worked closely together on CAN AN AARDVARK BARK? Melissa had to go back and revise the text when Steve changed the type of porcupine depicted for artistic reasons.
  5. Even authors with 180+ books get rejections from publishers. Melissa says that sometimes industry professionals don't know how to edit expository work. They want it to have a plot. Expository nonfiction needs a structure or a pattern to create a through line, not a plot. Melissa says children can pick out a pattern/structure more easily than adults.

Cover to Cover owner Melia Wolf welcomes Melissa Stewart

    What's Up Next?
    Melissa has several school visits in her home state of Massachusetts before she wraps up the school year. She and Steve Jenkins are at work on another collaboration and she's writing a professional development book for educators. Finally, Melissa has revamped her web site which is a treasure trove for educators, librarians, and writers. Take a look soon.

    Wednesday, May 15, 2019

    Work-for-Hire: The Joys and Challenges from One Writer’s Perspective

    Meet Kara Laughlin, Children’s Nonfiction Author
    By Julie Phend

    Kara Laughlin with her books  Photo by Jim Ferry

    Kids love fact-filled books they can read themselves! While these books are a huge piece of a young child’s reading experience, their authors often go unsung because the publisher has contracted them as work-for-hire.

    Meet Kara Laughlin, who has been writing books for children on a work-for-hire basis for the past ten years. Kara is the author of over fifty nonfiction children’s books, including Sparkle and Shine! Trendy Earrings, Necklaces, and Hair Accessories for All Occasions, a series called In the Deep Blue Sea (as Juniata Rogers), and Guitars and Recorders.  

    I asked Kara to share the joys and challenges of her work and give us some advice on how to get started in this field.

    GROG: How would you define contract writing?
    KARA: Contract writing, or work-for-hire (WFH) is when a publisher hires an author to do a specific job for a flat fee, which pays for the work and all rights. For me, contract writing has meant the publisher tells me about a project they’ve designed. Sometimes they give me sample texts to emulate. Other times, they specify what they’re looking for in a contract or spec sheet. All of my work has been in nonfiction, but there are WFH opportunities for fiction writers as well.

    GROG: How did you get your start?

    KARA: In 2009, an online friend needed to turn down a book contract from a publisher who wanted someone to write about craft for children. I had a craft business, so I got in touch. I didn’t get the job. A year later I got an email from an editor at Capstone Publishing, offering me the opportunity to write craft books for them. They’d saved my name all that time!

    GROG: What topics and age groups have you written about? How many books have you published?

    KARA: I’ve written for all ages from tween to kindergarten on a broad range of topics: animals, weather, sports, crafts, and most recently, a set of phonics books. I have 52 books currently published, plus two coming out this fall, and a contract for six more. When I started, my husband joked that someday I’d be the author of 100 books. I laughed. Now it looks like it could happen.


    GROG: What are the particular challenges of WFH/contract writing?

    KARA: It can be a lot of work—and if an editor wants changes, you have to make them. You work under tight deadlines, which you absolutely must meet, and you have to write according to the brief, so there’s not much room for creative flights.
    It’s also important to write to the specified reading level, and it can be difficult and time consuming to distill down complicated information using one- and two-syllable words. But that’s a challenge I find satisfying. 

    You have no control over the final product. A couple of my craft books arrived with completely new projects swapped in, and there was nothing I could do about it. 

    On a personal level, I sometimes let contract work get in the way of my own creative work. And I get the impression that, in some circles, this kind of writing "doesn't count." It's not a high status or glamorous gig. 

    GROG: What are some of the joys/satisfactions?

    KARA: There are so many!

    It's thrilling when I find the perfect way to explain a difficult concept in five one-syllable words. It can lead to moments of poetry. That's what this writing reminds me of most--formal poetry. You have all these constraints, but they force you to find creative solutions. And that's so satisfying!

    I also love learning about new things. Sometimes, I annoy my family with trivia from my research. I wrote a series on sea creatures, which led to some pretty interesting dinners as I talked about all the brutal and disgusting ways invertebrates hunt for and eat their prey.  

    But I think the real reason my heart leaps up when I see a new contract is that this work feels important. There was a moment when I realized, “Some first-grader is going to pick this book up, and it might be the first time s/he learns about this topic.” That feels like a profound, meaningful way to spend my writing time.

    The best surprise is when a child excitedly says, “I read your book! I got it from the library!”

    GROG: How can a writer break into the WFH market?

    KARA: Many school/library publishers are open to working with new writers. Check their websites for how to apply. Usually, they want a resume, cover letter and writing sample. The sample doesn’t have to be published, but it should be appropriate to the age you want to write for, and in a subject you are qualified to write about.


    GROG: Talk about what to do when the contract comes.

    KARA: The first thing to do is to sign the contract and send it back to the editor. Often your contract will pay you 50% on signing and 50% on completion. If so, you should send an invoice right away.

    Then, get those due dates on your calendar!

     If you have more than one title to deliver, find out if your editor prefers them spread out or all at once. If you’re contributing to a series with other authors, make sure you understand the voice they want and any structure/content issues that must be consistent. Be sure you know what age group you’re writing for.

    GROG: What steps do you take to complete the assignment? 

    KARA: After signing the contract and invoicing the publisher, I make a work schedule. Deadlines for this kind of work are tight. Typically, I have about three months, even for a six- or twelve-book project. I put in the due date and work backwards, making my last title “due” a week or two before the deadline. I add dates for rough draft completion, research completion, and writing the back matter.

    Next, I research the subject and take notes. Usually, I learn about three times as much as I'll need, but I want to really understand the topic.

    Then I write a rough draft in my own words. It’s typically twice as long as it needs to be and at a reading level far above the intended readership.

    Finally, I pare it down and simplify the language, editing and re-editing until I’m satisfied.

    GROG: What advice would you give writers to succeed in this business?

    KARA: Be thorough in your research, and be a perfectionist when it comes to saying exactly what’s true. You can’t sacrifice the truth to your reading level or your word count. Be pleasant and on time. Publishers need to know that you can take feedback, that you’re meticulous about research, and you can write to deadline.

    GROG: How can a contract writer build a business?

    Photo by Lori Munro
    KARA: It’s very possible to do school visits with these books. Nonfiction is huge in schools right now, and teachers appreciate having published authors come in and reaffirm what they’ve been telling their kids: choose your sources well, edit and re-edit, know how to tell truth from fiction. Because there is no royalty agreement, I charge for school and library visits. 

    Getting more work from publishers is just a matter of delivering an excellent manuscript on time and putting yourself out there.

    GROG: I asked Kara to recommend some resources for people getting started. Here are a few of her favorites:

    Hemmingway online for real-time approximate reading level.

    Rebecca Langston George has a wonderful article on considering work-for-hire:

    This list of work-for-hire publishers by Evelyn Christensen. She also has a great list of resources here:

    Thank you, Kara, for sharing your work with us!

    Wednesday, May 8, 2019

    A Quick Instagram Primer

    By Leslie Colin Tribble

    Have you wanted to jump on the Instagram bandwagon, but didn't know where to start? Keep reading for a quick guide on how to use this social media platform for personal and professional use.

    First off, a disclaimer. I've been on IG for nearly six years and I still don't really know much about it. I just post my little photos and enjoy seeing other people's pictures. That being said, I do think it's a fun platform and I think kidlit writers should be branching out to embrace the Gram. The name Instagram is a combination of Instant Camera (mobile phone camera) and Telegram - sort of an instant postcard.

    Why You Should Have a Presence on IG
    Insta has been around for about nine years. It appears to be growing in popularity, especially with a younger demographic. I'm a Baby Boomer and all my friends use Facebook. Some of them are on Twitter but very few are on IG. As of 2017, there were 800 million Instagram users, with a vast number of those folks being under the age of 35. Facebook is a great platform, but picture book authors need to go where adults with young children are, and right now, that happens to be Instagram.

    Getting Started
    The first thing you need to know is that Instagram is designed to work only on your cell phone. You can't access it with your laptop without a lot of effort. But creating an account is painless and the IG app for iPhone and Android is easy to use.

    You need to decide on a user name - if you're an author and you want to use IG primarily for promoting your work then you can use just your name. If you chose a different name, you can link your personal name to that so followers can still find you by searching your name.

    You have the option of making your account Public or Private. If it's public, anyone in the world can find you. People don't have to request to follow you so you'll definitely get some odd balls. You can block followers, though, if necessary.

    You want to see and be seen on IG, just like any social media. Tell all your FB followers that you're now on IG and ask them to follow you there as well. You also need to follow others on the platform - oftentimes you'll get a return follow.

    The best way to get followers is to use and follow hashtags. If you're on Twitter you know this already, but for anyone not on Twitter, hashtags are nothing more than key words (remember learning how to write essays and choosing your key words?). For instance, I post mostly landscape photos of Wyoming so I use these hashtags - #nature, #explore, #hiking, #getoutside, #wanderlust, #simplebeauty, #greateryellowstoneecosystem. IG helpfully provides a list of hashtags to choose from as you begin to type. When I first started, I wrote down other people's hashtags and used those.

    This is my homepage, where you can see my massive 563 followers, which today was down to 553.

    Because IG is primarily a visual platform, try to post decent photographs. Don't use out of focus or poorly planned shots. Even cell phones that are a few years old take great quality photos, so make the effort to post something nice. The built in photo editor is wonderful and easy to use. To post a photo click on the + button at the bottom of the screen and chose a photo. Click NEXT and then you can edit your photo by using a filter or the editing tools. At the very least you can add a filter to enhance your photos, but try using the editing tools. I primarily brighten up my picture, bring up the contrast, bump up the warmth, and deepen the saturation of the colors. Then I use the Structure tool to sharpen the focus and give the photo depth. A good photo will get you followers, but bad photos will get you unfollowed.

    The "unwritten" social norm is no more than one post per day. You can get started by simply posting a photo of a book, or a pretty landscape and let folks know you're ready for engagement.

    Not my photo, but I wish it was. @ChristinaAdelephoto takes wonderful photos of Glacier National Park.

    IG Stories
    At the top of your feed, you'll see people you follow with circles around their user photos. These are IG Stories - little vignettes of life that are visible for only 24 hours. To make a story, swipe right and a camera will appear. You can take video or still shots, add text and stickers and have fun. If you're having a book signing, or other event, Stories is a great way to highlight it.

    The Negative
    Unless you're a self-made model or you have a really cute dog, it is hard to get a lot of followers these days on IG. Even Stephen King only has 1.1 million followers while Jiffpom, the Pomeranian, has 7 million and Doug the Pug has 3 million. But even without a lot of followers you can still get likes and engagement by people who follow some of the hashtags you use.

    Spam comment on the bottom. 

    There's also a lot of spam on IG - a lot of people are simply out to build their numbers so they comment something like 'Nice feed. Follow me.' And you can purchase followers if you're willing to pay the money and play the game. But as a kidlit writer, if you just be yourself you'll eventually garner a decent following. You want real people to follow you, not necessarily a brand or product.

    Are you on IG? Tell me your username and I'll give you a follow. If you want to see photos of Wyoming, you can find me at sagebrush_lessons. Enjoy!

    Wednesday, April 24, 2019

    April Showers and Baby Shower BOOKS! PLUS Welcoming NEW GROGGER, Julie Phend!

    By Eileen R. Meyer

    You know the saying . . . “April showers bring May flowers.” This April also brought BABY SHOWERS to mind as a close friend’s daughter and son-in-law await the birth of their first child.  This will be my friend’s first grandchild and she hosted a baby shower to help the parents-to-be prepare for the new arrival.

    The shower invitation suggested congratulatory cards could be replaced by the gift of a CHILDREN’s BOOK for the couple, establishing this young family’s starter library in one afternoon. What a genius idea! Each gift giver inscribed the book with a special thought or wish for the family. The parents would see and be reminded of these fond wishes every time they read the books to their growing family.

    Many of us give classic children’s books as gifts (more on those fan favorites later), but I would like to suggest a few new titles for your baby shower or birthday gift-giving list. Here are some of my current favorites:

    Ruth Spiro’s BABY LOVES SCIENCE series 
    Young parents love to encourage curiosity and an interest in the world around them. Spiro’s innovative science board books do just that. Published by Charlesbridge, these are “Little books about big ideas: Take your little scientist on a tour of the world around them! Fly high with the basic concepts of aerodynamics, get down to earth with the forces of gravity, think step-by-step like a coder, and celebrate the thermodynamic power of the sun with this collection of four board books.”  Colorful and beautiful illustrations by Irene Chan make these science books a baby and toddler favorite.

    Heidi Bee Roemer’s PEEKITY BOO! What Baby Can Do!
    A well-know and award-winning poet, Roemer’s newest title is a nurturing rhyming book. "Writing in soft, rolling rhymes, Roemer walks through a toddler’s nighttime routine as doting parents alternate caretaking roles . . . Wohnoutka’s chalky art creates a sense of homey contentment—like a warm blanket."--Publishers Weekly   Roemer effectively uses playful, silly words and this Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt book is sure to be a favorite read-aloud for the young set!

    Pat Zietlow Miller’s REMARKABLY YOU
    Ever since Miller’s picture book, Sophie’s Squash, first came on the scene in 2013, I’ve been a huge fan of her work.  This new title, Remarkably You, celebrates uniqueness and individuality – and what better message to share with a new little one?  From School Library Journal’s review: “Miller’s story and Barton’s illustrated characters are diverse and encourage young readers to not only be themselves, but to also do good deeds. There is an important underlying theme of treating others with respect and dignity. An excellent upbeat addition to any collection.”

    I can’t forgo listing my own SWEET DREAMS bedtime title as a gift-giving option. I’ll let this review provide the sweet details: “A cozy combination of restful rhymes, natural history notes and close-up pictures of snoozing creatures.... Slumber and science in harmonious combination, equally suitable for bedtime reading or for sharing with wakeful groups.”--Kirkus Reviews

    And, if the family expecting a baby has little ones awaiting the new addition, I recommend Miranda Paul's new title, NINE MONTHS: Before a Baby is Born. This is the perfect book to share with a young child awaiting a new sibling. Contrasting the baby's development in the womb with the changes and excitement building for the family, this book details "just enough" information about the new arrival for a  young child to understand and digest. Gorgeous art by Jason Chin. Just out in bookstores this month.

    Of course, we can’t forget about classic gift-giving options, either. I polled a circle of friends and here were a few of their favorite gift books to welcome a new baby:

    Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
    Love you Forever by Robert Munsch
    Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see? by Bill Martin Jr.
    The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
    Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox
    Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey and
    any of Alice Schertle’s Little Blue Truck books.

    BUT WAIT, there’s more.
    Spring is a season of renewal – and it is fitting that we have a NEW GROG BLOGGER, my friend and fellow author, Julie Phend! Allow me to introduce Julie to our readers with a short Q & A.

    Eileen:  Welcome, Julie! Tell us a little about your background and your interest in joining the GROG blog.
    Julie: I’m a big fan of blogs that connect teachers, writers, and readers. We are a symbiotic community—we need each other to create readers and to create books that provide meaningful experiences for young readers. I’ve admired and learned from the GROG blog, and I’m eager to contribute to its ongoing mission to connect these populations.

    Julie at a holiday author event

    Eileen Can you give us a sixty-second summary of your experiences in children’s publishing?
    Julie: In my career as a middle school teacher, I loved connecting students to great books, as well as encouraging them to explore their own talents as writers. My teaching experience led me to my first publication—D-Day and Beyond was written with WWII veteran Stanley Edwards after he visited my classroom to talk about his experiences in the war. This project wakened a dormant dream of writing for publication. I joined SCBWI and began to research a historical novel based on a true story. That led me to an awesome critique group and a whole community of writers who care about children.

    Julie with her dog, Duke
    Eileen Would you tell us something that people may not know about you …
    Julie: In college, I double-majored in English and Theater and discovered a love of Creative Drama with children. I taught creative drama in school and after-school programs throughout my career and produced dozens of plays with children. In almost every case, the kids and I wrote the scripts ourselves. It’s a dynamic creative process that can’t be beat.

    Wow, I’ve known Julie as a friend and fellow-critique group member for over a decade and I didn’t know that she had been a Theater major in college!  I’m delighted to welcome Julie to the GROG Blog Family and I’m already looking forward to her first blog post in the coming weeks.

    To all our readers--thanks for stopping by and welcoming Julie Phend to our blogging family!

    Wednesday, April 17, 2019

    All About Elaine Kiely Kearns

    by Suzy Leopold 

    Kids love dinosaurs. Kid lit writers love Elaine. 

    Today the GROG Blog features Elaine Kiely Kearns and her debut picture book: 

    by Elaine Kiely Kearns
    Illustrated by Colin Jack

    Related image

    No need for introductions. We'll skip over the formalities. 

    Everyone knows Elaine as the founder of KIDLIT411. Together Elaine and Sylvia Liu form an outstanding team providing a one-stop place for writers and illustrators.

    Join me for some online chit-chat as we learn more about Elaine as a writer and debut author.

    Just look at that cute smile!
    "I write. What's your superpower?"
    Q1: Everyone wants to know about your debut book. Tell us about NOAH NOasurus? Did I spell the title correctly?

    A1: It's just NOAH NOASAURUS or Noah Noasaurus because a noasaurus is a real dinosaur! (Weird, right??!!)

    Well, I learned a new dinosaur name, Elaine! Click here for more facts and information about this interesting dinosaur and remains found in Argentina.

    Q2: Tell us about the writing process and your journey for this picture book.

    Q2: My writing process usually begins with an idea for a title. I like to think about an idea for awhile before I began writing. This is going to sound odd but I do some of my best thinking while I am vacuuming. I don't know if it's the drone of the vacuum cleaner or the task itself but it works. After thinking about the story and getting a rough arc in my brain, I will sit down and write a sloppy first draft.

    Q3: Did you and illustrator Colin Jack communicate with each other about the illustrations?

    A3: Nope! Not a single time. I am absolutely thrilled with how the book turned out and his art and his vision for NOAH NOASAURUS was perfect.

    Q4: Tell us about your book launch.

    A4: My book launch was held this past Saturday, April 13th and we held it at Scattered Books in Chappaqua, New York. The day was perfect and it was absolutely everything I imagined my launch to be. It was a bit reminiscent of the old, "This is Your Life!" show as the day went on. All of my best friends were there, friends from high school that I hadn't seen forever came to see me, childhood friends and neighbors that I hadn't seen in a long time, former students, teachers that I worked with, my family, their friends, and I even got to sign a picture book for Chelsea Clinton's children, Charlotte, Aidan, and her expectant new little one. It was a perfect day! I am still on Cloud 9!

    Q5: What kind of swag are you preparing/sharing for NOAH NOASAURUS? 

    A5: I bought the usual swag--bookmarks, stickers but by far the biggest hit was temporary tattoos that I had made of Noah. The kids love them!

    Q6: Share your author history. Did you always want to be a writer or did that accomplishment come later while being an educator and a mom?

    Q6: I had always thought about writing but life was busy working as an elementary school teacher. It wasn't until I had my girls and was home with them that I decided to seriously pursue the idea. I joined SCBWI right away and then joined Julie Hedlund's 12 X 12 (where I also met my critique group members). Once I got into the industry, I loved everything about it! Kid lit people are the best people!

    Q7: How long did you write until you became published?

    A7: This story happened pretty quickly. It took less than a year from the first draft to sold. However, it had a ton of drafts and rewrites in that short time. The ending and the opening line took me the longest. I rewrite them countless times but I do love my opening line.

    "Noah Noasaurus woke up feeling very . . ." 
    Probably because I can relate to it. 
    That is too funny, Elaine! Everyone seems to have "NO" Days!

    Q8: Tell us about your special place where you like to write. 

    A8: I write at the kitchen table or on my couch.
    This spot looks familiar.

    Looks comfy and inviting.
    Q9: Do you write every day? Most days?

    A9: I'm always writing and right now I am on various stages of different manuscripts. (And  maybe something that I cannot discuss yet because--this is publishing!)

    Q10: What's the best piece of advice you've received as a writer? What is your advice for writers "under construction"?

    A10: From Aree Chung, "Make the dummy." Even though you may not be an illustrator make the dummy.

    Q11: What are you currently reading?

    A11: Write now I am reading lots and lots of picture book that have a series and lots of Early Readers.

    Q12: Share some accomplishments that make you proud.

    A12: My girls are my best achievement. I know every mom thinks their kids are the best but I have been blessed with the most perfect kids. I love them so much!

    Q13: Do you have a favorite treat?

    A13: I love pizza. Any kind of pizza except meatball. I know pizza isn't normally considered a treat but it can be if you try hard enough!

    And finally,

    Q14: Where can readers find out more about you?

    Web site: KidLit411
    Instagram: elainekielykearns411

    Thank you, Elaine! I picked these flowers for you and Noah, too! 
    Everyone loves Noah!
    Spring Lilacs for Elaine & Noah!
    Happy Easter, GROG Followers!