Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Lovely Lydia Lukidis talks about NO BEARS ALLOWED By: Sherri Jones Rivers

     It is my pleasure to be able to interview Lydia Lukidis about her upcoming book NO BEARS ALLOWED from Blue Whale Press. As an added bonus, she will be giving away a copy of her book to one lucky GROG participant who is a US resident. Now, without further ado, let's get started:

(The winner of the book give-away was chosen by my cat Sophie. Jilanne Hoffman, you are the winner! Congrats!)

GROG: Tell us a little bit about your writing journey.

LYDIA: I'm never low on inspiration, that's for sure. I get ideas all the time and my creativity is always spinning wildly. Sounds great, right? But the issue is that with so many ideas, I get pulled in many different directions. I'm learning the art of being selective, and of spending more time developing the best ideas.

When the inspiration behind NO BEARS ALLOWED was sparked, I knew it was a keeper. But it remained in my "ideas folder" for at least a year before I sat down and actually pounded out the first draft. The concept of the story was 100% character driven. At first, I didn't necessarily know what would happen, but I knew who it would happen to. Rabbit, who spends his time worrying and being afraid of everything, was the starting point. Soon after, a big, oafy yet lovable Bear was born.

GROG: Where did the idea come from for your cute story? What do you want the take-away to be for readers?

LYDIA:  Believe it or not, the idea came from an inside joke. 

Admittedly, it makes little sense, but somehow I always felt there was something there. My inspirations are varied; they can be sparked by an image or a word, or in this case, the phrase "no bears allowed."

I wanted the story to be about the power of friendship, and the importance of not judging others or letting our fears govern our actions. Bear and Rabbit are different, to be sure, but they eventually learn they have more in common than they ever thought. These themes directed the flow of the entire story.

GROG:  How did the story change from your first draft and do you have any idea how many drafts it went through?

LYDIA: Writing NO BEARS ALLOWED was a process. It took time, patience, and multiple drafts! I wrote about 30 drafts initially, but kept getting stuck on the ending. I had to shelve the text for a while so I could get the creative juices flowing again. I always knew I would go back to it. And when I did, I sent it out to all my critique partners to help me whip it into shape. When I was ready to query, I was overjoyed when Blue Whale Press saw its magic. And then, of course, it was edited further. I don't always feel this way about my books, but with this one, I'm happy with the final product and wouldn't change a thing.

GROG:  What do you think about the illustrations? Did anything surprise you when you saw the art work?

LYDIA:  Blue Whale Press was generous enough to allow me to have a say in who we chose as an illustrator, so that was a real treat. I was immediately drawn to the whimsical, unique style of Tara J. Hannon, and I was over the moon when she agreed to take on this project. She exceeded my expectations. She put her on spin on things. I can't express enough how critical a role the illustrator plays, especially with picture books.

GROG:  Is there one spread or page that you particularly like?

LYDIA:  For the first spread:

I love the start of the story, and how Tara captured Rabbit's fearful personality by having him hide beneath the burrow. Suspicious of the world, he inspects everything around him with his binoculars.

And then for the page with bear:

Here's an example of how important the illustrator can be. I never gave Tara directions to make a poster of Bear, or a survival list. That was her own idea, sparked by my story. And that's the magic of a true partnership: when you give space to the illustrator for his-her own creative visions. The book ends up including things you may have never imagined!

GROG: Are there other projects in the works you can tell us about?

LYDIA:  I just released my third STEM book, THE BROKEN BEES' NEST, published by Kane Press. It's part of the Makers Make it Work series that encourages young readers to not just think critically, but also engage. I do a lot of WFH projects as well and have some new books coming out this year on varied topics ranging from ghost hunting to the immune system.

I'm also hard at work on a slew of other trade books. I'm currently developing several picture books, and I seem to be drawn to the world of nonfiction as of late. And, I'm excited to be working on my first middle grade novel based on Greek mythology. Stay tuned for more details!

GROG: Any writing advice for our GROG readers?

LYDIA:  Being a writer is a wonderful journey, but it's also filled with ebbs and flows. I've learned, through the years and the huge pile of rejections letters, to not take anything personally. Not every editor or agent out there will fall in love with your work, and that's okay. As long as YOU love your work and are committed to learning your craft and becoming a better writer. Another thing I learned, through some hard times, is to NEVER compare your path to someone else's. You are on your path, and they are on theirs, so you need to honor that. It's not a race to get published; everything will unfold in due time. Work hard, research the industry, and persevere. And most of all, keep writing. That's where the true joy is, so don't forget to connect to that!

Lydia Lukidis is a children's author with a multi-disciplinary background that spans the fields of literature, science and theater. So far, she has over 40 books and eBooks published, as well as a dozen educational books. Her latest STEM books published by Lane Press include The Broken Bees' Nest
and The Space Rock Mystery.

Lydia is also passionate about spreading the love of literacy. She regularly gives writing workshops in elementary schools across Quebec through the Culture in the Schools Program. Her aim is to help children cultivate their imagination, sharpen their writing skills and develop their self-confidence.
For more info, please visit here.

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!