Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Saving Grandaddy's Stories - an Interview with Shannon Hitchcock

Leslie Colin Tribble

Years ago, when there was such a thing as in-person conferences, I traveled from Wyoming to Georgia to a lovely state park to participate in WOW, A Week of Writing. I met the other Groggers there as well as many other talented writers, one of whom was Shannon Hitchcock. Shannon recently released her debut picture book biography, Saving Granddaddy's Stories. I caught up with her via email and I'm so happy she let me tell the story of this wonderful book. 

Where did the idea for your book come from? Why was it important for you to write this story?

In 1983, the year I graduated from Appalachian State University, Ray Hicks was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. I tucked that information away in my mind, and many years later when I was searching for my next writing project, I dreamed about Ray. Ray is famous for telling Jack Tales, and my mother read Jack and the Beanstalk to me many times when I growing up.

How long did you work on the manuscript?

This is a really embarrassing question. I tried writing picture book biographies, (with no success), before I ever tried writing middle grade novels. In 2009, an early draft of this manuscript was nominated for the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award, but never published. The feedback I received was it was too regional.

You usually write MG novels? Why did you want to write a picture book?

I never wanted to write a picture book, but a picture book biography. They are my favorite kind of picture book—probably because I love history.

Do you have other pb manuscripts in the works?

Yes, I recently signed a contract for two more picture books. Saving Granddaddy’s Stories will be the first book in an Appalachian trilogy. I asked my editor, Wiley Blevins, if he would be interested in looking at a second manuscript of mine about an Appalachian ballad singer. He really liked the manuscript, but thought it should be a trilogy. I didn't have a third book written so I got busy and wrote one. It really was a case of an editor connecting with a story. Wiley is from West Virginia so the mountains and Appalachian culture resonated with him. I also included in my pitch that educators could use Saving Granddaddy's Stories as a tool to  teach figurative language, for analyzing how Jack and the Beanstalk has been retold by different cultures, and for exploring the Appalachian Region and its traditions.

Do you have an agent and who publishes your works?

My agent is Deborah Warren at East/West Literary Agency. My middle grade novels are published by Scholastic Trade and my picture books by Reycraft.

Do you have a favorite page in the book?

Yes, I like the spread with the beanstalk and the cow.

Did the publisher pair you with the illustrator? What do you like about her illustrations?

Reycraft chose Sophie Page to illustrate the entire series. Sophie is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and the folk art feel of her illustrations pairs perfectly with my figurative language. Sophie crafts her images in two and three dimensions using clay, paper, fabric, and wire.

How are you promoting your book during COVID time?

Covid complicates everything, but I’m doing virtual events and blog posts and hoping for the best. I will be participating in an SLJ event tomorrow, but it will be taped and available until December:

I also have a middle grade novel, (FLYING OVER WATER) releasing on October 20th and I'm doing a virtual launch through The Writing Barn, but will also give a shoutout to Saving Granddaddy's Stories:

I'm scheduled to appear on Kirby Larson's blog for Friend Friday on January 29th.

Thanks, Shannon for giving us this wonderful story. I really enjoyed reading it and think it will resonate with lots of children and adults. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Guest Post by Beth Anderson: Being There: In Search of Setting + a Give-away!

Beth Anderson is no stranger to the Grog Blog. She offers wonderful picture book biography wisdom. Her new book, "Smelly" Kelly and His Super Senses: How James Kelly's Nose Saved the New York City Subway debuts October 13th from Calkins Creek, & it is fabulous! Today Beth shares about setting in picture book biographies. 

Setting is one of the basic elements of story, and when a story is set in a different time or place than our own, it calls for research. Searching out clothing, technology, buildings, transportation, and more, we aim to avoid anachronisms and make our characters’ world come to life. But setting is more than a “costume” or fa├žade to make a story look right. Setting creates conflict, brings meaning, and is a vital part of point of view. So how can you “be there” as a character when you can’t travel to a place or time?

When I researched Elizabeth Jennings for Lizzie Demands a Seat, I pored over maps to get the lay of the land and locate her home, streetcar route, church, and courthouse. Putting myself in 1854 New York City, I imagined her footsteps clicking…wait…was there pavement? Basic questions like this lead us to seek out and examine images. Details on daily life, clothing, and weather help enhance scenes. 

But as I got to the heart of Lizzie’s story, I needed information on social aspects of life like class, gender, race, traditions, “unspoken rules,” and attitudes. How did she fit in her time and place? How did setting clash with her character? We can understand segregation on transportation being unjust, but how did it impact black lives? And Lizzie as a teacher—an educated, African American female who likely loved children—isn’t unusual today. But when we embed that fact in setting, we see her as exceptional. And when we look deeper, Lizzie as educator indicates she’s part of the abolitionist movement to secure equal rights and end slavery. Looking at her world through her eyes intensifies the emotions and adds meaning. Learning about the social fabric came from reading widely beyond her immediate surroundings, and about what happened before and after her actions. 


“Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses called for setting research with a different focus. James Kelly’s story was more dependent on understanding the physical setting. I studied photographs of New York City from the 1930s to 1950s. I pored over subway maps to find locations of various incidents. And to “be there” as a character with super senses, I had to perceive his world as he did—through his senses. What would he have smelled with his super sniffer? What sounds would’ve bombarded his ears? I found some amazing historical maps— stench, sound, and industry maps! The sound map linked to newsreel clips! Though I didn’t use much of what I discovered, I could immerse myself in his sensory world. 

I’ve always wondered what was beneath those sidewalk grates and manhole covers. I needed to know about subway tunnels and access to infrastructure beneath the street. You Tube is a treasure trove! From teens exploring abandoned tunnels to workers building the subway, I learned about the underground world. [And let me add a special shout out to You Tube. I’ve used how-to videos, re-enactments (musket shots!), tours, historical footage, videos of animals, street sounds, drives through the countryside, and so much more.]

 Kelly’s radio crackled…” Wait a minute—would he have had a radio? How did he get messages to go check out clogs or leaks? An expert answered my question. No radios. He would have used phones marked by blue lights in the tunnels. Note for illustrator. 

Skyscrapers went up…their foundations went down. The city grew. How did that impact Kelly? Broken lines and mains, more miles of track to inspect [museum records]. Drips and leaks threatened cave-ins and explosions. Kelly could be electrocuted by the third rail. Inherent dangers inspire fear, tension, action.

 Why did he investigate a leak in a hotel and a stink in a tavern? Ahhh, everyone blamed that new-fangled, mysterious underground subway. Articles revealed attitudes.

 Media and trends influence how people see their world and sometimes offer interesting possibilities for imagery and writing. Smelly Kelly’s time, the heyday of detective stories and the emergence of superheroes, inspired me to play with both, and I ended up with a superhero thread that tied into the special heart that framed my telling. 

Different stories and characters require you to dig into different aspects of setting. In An Inconvenient Alphabet, I needed to delve into education, reading, writing, and language of the Revolutionary War period. Primary sources revealed traditions, attitudes, implications, and plenty of odd spellings which provided conflict and helped me take readers into the mix.  

It’s important to get the details of setting right and present your character’s world accurately. Even if you’re writing fiction, setting details make your world real and enhance the telling. There are plenty of online tools to gain access to a character’s world: maps of all kinds, Google Earth, You Tube, photographs, images, personal narratives, first-hand accounts, town records, digitized archive materials, varied media of the time, and EXPERTS! But to get past merely “dressing” your story in setting, consider the impact of all you’ve learned about the time and place on your character and the deeper meanings that emerge. Setting isn’t a backdrop and props, it’s sort of a living entity that affects character decisions, actions, and emotions. Some of the most important parts of setting involve aspects you can’t see.

 Dig deep and wide. Wrap yourself in the social fabric. Visualize physical details. Take in the sensory world like Smelly Kelly. But don’t just “stand” in that time and place. Immerse your heart in it. Be there. So your reader can be there, too. 

Thank you, Beth! To win a copy of "Smelly" Kelly & His Super Senses, please leave a comment for Beth by October 31. (U.S. addresses only)

Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. Armed with linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, wonders, thinks, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018), LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT! (Calkins Creek, 2020), and “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES (Calkins Creek, Oct. 2020), Beth has more historical gems on the way.

Book Trailer for Smelly Kelly:

Signed copies of my books available at Old Firehouse Books  
and Boulder Book Store



Wednesday, October 14, 2020

What Past Pandemics can Teach Us ~ a conversation with Gail Jarrow

by Sue Heavenrich

In March, the schools and businesses in my county closed down for, what we thought at the time would be, a short period of time. But seven months later here we are, still in the midst of a pandemic. Humans have faced plagues and pandemics for at least as long as recorded history. Surely, in the last thousand years, we must have learned something? 

To find out, I called Gail Jarrow. She’s written about bubonic plague and typhoid fever, examining the science as well as the social and cultural events surrounding outbreaks of those diseases.

“With any new disease there are so many unknowns,” says Gail. When bubonic plague came to the US in the late 1890s-1900, scientists and doctors had some knowledge of bacteria. But they still had no understanding about how the plague was spread. The disease showed up in San Francisco, brought by ship from China, and scientists scrambled to find the cause and a cure. While public health officials fought the disease, politicians tried to hide it. They didn’t want people to know that it was in their community. Meanwhile, a French scientist working in India had written up a report on fleas as the agent of transmission – but it took 10 years for the scientific community to accept his findings. 

“In the heat of the moment, people, even scientists, can decide to accept one thing about a disease only years later to discover it was something else,” Gail says. In the case of bubonic plague, scientists were rushing to find a bacteria so they could develop a vaccine. “And mistakes were made,” Gail says. While scientists raced to find a cure, health officials leaned towards quarantines, an unpopular solution that conflicted with individual civil rights.

“We see many of these same tensions being played out with Covid,” says Gail. Pharmaceutical companies, local businesses, politicians, public health officials, and community residents each bring their own concerns and interests to a pandemic. 

“Just as with bubonic plague, we are learning things every day [about Covid-19],” says Gail. “We are going to make mistakes. In 1900 they made the best decisions they could with the information they had.” This is where we are at this point with the Covid pandemic: scientists continue to learn about the disease and public health officials are trying to make the best decisions they can. 

There are a lot of similarities between our current pandemic and the 1900 bubonic plague.
  • Both originated in China, spread from animals to humans and carried around the world. In 1900 is was ships, in 2020 it’s planes.
  • In 1900 San Francisco initiated a travel ban, and California monitored train stations and ports to make sure people wouldn’t carry the disease in or out of the communities. 
  • Public health officials tested people for the disease at the ports. In 2020 there were some travel bans and airports instituted temperature checks. But the US didn’t have the capacity to test vast populations and, at least in February and early March our airports were still open.
Covid testing is an issue, Gail notes. Not only are there limitations with using temperature as an indication, but we have yet to find a sure way to identify asymptomatic people carrying the virus.

Quarantine is an age-old approach to isolating disease. In Gail’s book about Typhoid Mary, medical detective George Soper eventually traced the outbreak of typhoid to Mary Mallon. But Mary refused to comply with quarantine and other medical directives because she never had any symptoms. With Mary, it became a battle of personal freedom versus public health – and here we are, once again deliberating quarantines, lockdowns, and contact tracing.

Check out Gail’s video on Covid-19, Pandemics & Disease

Most Notorious! A True Crime History Podcast features Gail in a podcast about deadly diseases in early 20th century America.

Gail’s newest book, Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease, is out this month and kicks off her new trilogy on Medical Fiascoes. She explores the science and history of Civil War medicine through actual medical cases and first-person accounts by soldiers, doctors, and nurses. You can find out more about Gail and her books at her website.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Picture Books for Civic Engagement and Social Activism ~Christy Mihaly

A quick announcement up front: I'm excited to be serving as a Round 1 panelist for the Cybils book awards this season, in the Nonfiction category. I'll be very busy reading many fabulous books over the next couple of months! Nominations are open through October 15, and anyone can nominate a worthy book--more info here.

Today's Topic: Picture Books and Civic Engagement 
In 2020 we face an election year like no other. Amidst the disruptions to schools, schedules, and psyches, many adults are wondering how they can engage young people in meaningful conversations about our nation's challenges. 
Picture books can help. There's a cornucopia of recent releases to choose from. I asked a passel of creators of recently published picture books to share their inspirations, insights, and pointers for using these books in engaging with kids. 
Don't miss the additional titles they recommend, at the end of the post. And finally, I've included links to book-related additional resources.

Books about Civics
Sometimes we want a book that introduces the conceptual framework of democracy: elections, rights, and the roles of government officials. 

When Catherine Stier couldn't find a book to help her explain to her preschoolers what the President is supposed to do, she wrote it herself.  If I Were President (Albert Whitman, 1999, illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan) offers a kids'-eye view of the presidency. 

Stier's recently released A Vote is a Powerful Thing (Albert Whitman, Sept. 2020, illustrated by Courtney Dawson), provides a kid-friendly take on elections. Stier says she encourages adults sharing this book to talk with kids about issues that are important to them, and encourage them to design campaign posters for causes they care about.

Ruth Spiro's "Baby Loves Political Science" board books explain democracy's basics to even younger kids. (Charlesbridge, 2020-2021, illustrated by Greg Paprocki.) It's never too early to start!
Ruth explains that these new additions to her popular "Baby Loves Science" series use everyday events and observations to teach the fundamentals of government. Democracy introduces elections, while Justice, along with the forthcoming Congress and The Presidency, cover the three branches of government.

In a similar vein, in Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means (Albert Whitman, 2020, illustrated by Manu Montoya) my intention was help kids appreciate the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, and to understand how these freedoms shape our lives. I incorporated poems, historical vignettes, and a contemporary story in which kids exercise their rights to make the world a better place. While some high-profile adults don't always seem to understand the Constitution, I hope this book gives young readers a good start on the road to civic engagement. 

Books to Foster Social Engagement

What better way to capture a young reader's imagination than with a well-told story? That's what these picture books do. Here's a selection of excellent recent and forthcoming PBs that use true stories to bring history to life, promote empathy, and encourage young people to get involved in their communities.

No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History (Charlesbridge, 2020) profiles 14 contemporary young activists with brief bios and poems by diverse poets. Edited by Lindsay Metcalf, Keila Dawson and Jeanette Bradley, with art by Jeanette Bradley, this book invites kids to read it again and again. It includes back matter explaining the poetic forms, profiles of the poets, and suggestions for activism.

Jeanette Bradley says her daughter inspired her to create this book. After reading other picture book biographies, she told Jeanette, "I wish I lived in the past, so I could change things." This child had concluded, from her reading, that only famous dead people could make a difference in the world! Jeanette hopes that by collecting the stories of modern activist kids, she can correct this misconception and "empower kids to speak out and act when they see a wrong." 

The book's editors also created additional materials to inspire engagement. Keila wrote an activity guide, and Lindsay and Jeanette collected book club materials for teachers on Flip Grid. As Keila says, not only should kids learn about leaders from the past, but they also "can be a part of making history too."
Author Elisa Boxer is drawn to unsung heroes. In The Voice That Won the Vote: How One Woman's Words Made History (ill. Vivien Mildenberger, Sleeping Bear Press, 2020), she celebrates a lesser-known figure in the women's suffrage movement. Febb Burn was a mother who helped push through the ratification of the 19th Amendment by writing a letter to her lawmaker son. This story resonated for Elisa, who knew it could "help children realize the power of one voice, and one vote." She hopes her book will "inspire children to give voice to what matters to them." 
Beth Anderson was also moved to tell the story of a lesser-known woman. Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights (ill. E.B. Lewis, Calkins Creek, 2020) introduces readers to a young African American schoolteacher in New York City who fought against segregated streetcars in 1854, a century before Rosa Parks took her stand.

In presenting this book to young people, Beth highlights how the "heroic people that come before us inspire us and how we, too, have a responsibility to leave 'footsteps' to inspire others that follow us." Beth leads the kids in an activity in which they trace their feet on colored paper and cut out "footprints." On one footprint, she asks them to write the names of those who have inspired them, and on the other, how they'd like to inspire others.

Author Traci Sorell works to bring greater visibility to members of the Native Nations in literature for young people, and to empower kids to use their voices. Her first Picture Book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (ill. Frane Lessac, Charlesbridge, 2018), offers readers a look at contemporary Cherokee life. Traci continues to bring Native stories to light in many formats. Look for her forthcoming nonfiction picture books, Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer (Millbrook 2021), and We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know (Charlesbridge 2021).

Do you have other favorite books to share on these topics? Please leave them in the comments! 

More Recommended Recent Picture Books for Young Activists
☑ Sometimes People March, by Tessa Allen (Balzer + Bray, 2020)
☑ Shirley Chisolm is a Verb, by Veronica Chambers, ill. Rachelle Baker (Dial Books, 2020)
☑ Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968, by Alice Faye Duncan, ill. R. Gregory Christie (Calkins Creek, 2018)
☑ Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World, by Susan Hood, ill. Sophie Blackall and 12 more (Harper Collins, 2018) 
☑ We Are Water Protectors, by Carole Lindstrom, ill. Michaela Goade (Roaring Brook, 2020)
☑ Vote for Our Future! by Margaret McNamara, ill. Micah Player (Schwartz & Wade, 2020)
☑ Peaceful Fights for Equal Rightsby Rob Sanders, ill. Jared Andrew Schorr (Simon & Schuster, 2018)
☑ The Teachers March: How Selma's Teachers Changed History, by Sandra Neil Wallace, Rich Wallace, ill. Charly Palmer (Calkins Creek, 2020)

Additional Resources

Thursday, October 1, 2020


From the desk of Suzy Leopold

Do you know some names of owls indigenous to your state? My state of Illinois is home to eight owls.

  • Barn Owl
  • Bared Eagle Owl
  • Eastern Screech Owl
  • Great-Horned Owl
  • Long-eared Owl
  • Northern Hawk Owl
  • Northern Owl
  • Snow Owl
Most of the species that live in my state are mentioned in today’s featured picture book on the GROG Blog.


written by Annette Whipple made its debut yesterday!

This informational picture book is published by Reycraft Books, 2020. The thirty-two page book is written for ages 6-10.

Now for another question . . . Do you know how many owl species there are in the world? There are 250 Strigiformes that belong to this order of birds.

The information presented in this book uses the Q & A format.

Check out this amazing two page spread:

Note the question, What’s For Dinner? 

The answer follows to tell the reader what this predator hunts for. A photograph is included to show small mammals on a dinner plate! The outstanding photography is sure to amaze the reader and encourage more curiosity about these majestic birds of prey.

Here is another spread:
Once again an answer follows the question, Whooo’s There?

This time focus on the sparky, open-eyed owl. Several animated owls are included throughout the book. These illustrated owls share answers to questions, too. This feature is included on each spread along with the superb photography.

If you're not familiar with the anatomy of an owl, page 29 includes information about eyes, ears, ear tufts, feathers, talons, and facial disks. 

One section explains how the reader can help owls and states:

"You can help owls and other wildlife by letting nature be wild."

The back matter includes a list of seven words in a glossary and several links to helpful websites.

Thank you, Annette, for sharing your love of owls and for encouraging readers to explore the world around them through your many nonfiction picture books.

This book is not only a hoot to read, the reader will acquire new facts about this interesting bird. 

Now I know! Next time I hear a screech, a whistle, a trill or a bark, I will see if I can identify the owl.

I give this book a total of five stars out of five.
And now Annette shares a craft of writing tip about first lines and how they matter.

From the desk of Annette Whipple

When I was revising Whooo Knew? The Truth About Owls, I knew I loved most of the text. It’s a picture book in question-and-answer format. Every page spread in the informational book has one Q & A as well as a related sidebar. The sidebars bring humor to the text. 

As I revised, I suspected my original first lines just wouldn’t hook a reader. But I felt a bit stuck.

“Owls are easy to recognize. They have big heads, flat faces, and hooked beaks. They’re known for their hunting skills. But do you really know these birds?” 

While at a Highlights conference, the instructor wanted us to focus on first lines. I knew it was an issue with my manuscript, so I was thrilled to do so.


I scribbled and scratched until our instructor asked us to stop. Then, like in many workshops, he asked if anyone wanted to share what they wrote. Without missing a beat, I raised my hand with a grin.


First, I read aloud the original introduction/nonhook.

Then, I shared my new introduction which became…

“The unforgettable call. The glowing eyes. The fierce beak. You recognize an owl when you hear or see one, but do really know these birds?”

See the spread above Whooo’s There? in the ARC [Advanced Reading Copy].

(They actually cheered! I was shocked at that. Writing friends matter.


Oh, the Highlights faculty member who led that session? He works with Reycraft Books, the publisher of Whooo Knew? The Truth About Owls. And next year Reycraft will continue The Truth About series. The next two books are about dogs and spiders! They are all in Q&A format and highly visual with tons of photographs. Each page spread includes an illustrated sidebar.

Now, anytime I know something isn’t working, I sit down with focus. I set the timer and don’t change tasks (or tabs) until the timer goes off. 


First lines matter. Make your manuscript more enticing—and more sellable—by dedicating time to them. That’s the first lesson of this blog post. The second? Attend conferences and workshops like SCBWI and Highlights—even online. You’ll be challenged to try new techniques.

Thanks so much for having me here today. We know first lines are important, but sometimes it takes some extra effort and time to really hook the reader.

For more information about Annette click on these links:

Check out this previous GROG Blog post from August 2020.

Annette Whipple, Children’s Author, Inspiring Curiosity and Wonder

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Annette Whipple celebrates curiosity and inspires a sense of wonder in young readers while exciting them about science and history. She’s the author of eight fact-filled children’s books including The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide (Chicago Review Press), Whooo Knew? The Truth about Owls (Reycraft Books), and The Story of the Wright Brothers (Rockridge Press). Annette is a fact-loving, chocolate chip cookie-baking children’s nonfiction author from Pennsylvania. Get to know her and learn about her presentations at