Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Back Matter that Matters and Sidebars that Support

 By Suzy Leopold

    Today’s craft topic is all about sidebars and back matter.

    Let’s begin with two statements. Are these sentences true or false?

1. _____ Back matter and sidebars are for nonfiction books only.

2. _____ Back matter must be one page only.

    What are sidebars?

  • An opportunity to engage the reader further
  • Fun facts to add context for a deeper understanding of the storyline
  • Adds an additional layer
  • Supports information as a supplemental text
  • Can be read along with the story side-by-side or read separately as two stories in one book
    Elements of sidebars:

  • Facts and information
  • Definitions
  • Charts, Graphs, Maps
  • Timeline

    What is back matter?

  • An opportunity to engage the reader further
  • Adds additional information and supporting facts
  • Enriches a book
  • Increases marketability
  • Supports academic curriculum as a teaching tool
    Elements of back matter:
  • Author’s note
  • Illustrator’s note
  • Words to Know/Glossary
  • Timeline
  • Diagrams
  • Activities
  • Call to action
  • Photographs
  • Letters
  • Crafts, Recipes
  • Activities, Experiments
  • Suggested reading
  • Bibliography and sources
  • Web links
    Think about a current WIP. Perhaps sidebars and/or back matter will enhance your fiction or nonfiction project. Consider features that support your story. There is no need to include every suggested element listed. Select the elements that support, strengthen, and enrich the main story.

    Note some of the suggested sidebar elements are duplicated as back matter items. For example: 

1. Do you think it is best to include definitions for new vocabulary as sidebars in the main text of your story? 
2. Perhaps the vocabulary words would best fit into a section of back matter. The reader can discover and expand on the meanings of these new words through an alphabetized list of Words to Know or Glossary.

    The following titles are recently published picture books that feature side bars and/or back matter. All make for excellent mentor texts to study and evaluate.
    Perhaps you will discover some ways to incorporate side bars and back matter in a project you are currently writing.

    I’m a Hare, So There!
    Story and pictures by Julie Rowan-Zoch 

    This fiction book is filled with humor and includes two pages of back matter.

    The back matter includes facts and information. The reader discovers eight Sonoran desert animals that are similar but not the same.

The second page of back matter encourages the reader to identify and find the Sonoran desert creatures.

    How Women Won the Vote: Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and Their Big Idea
    Written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti 
    Illustrated by Ziyue Chen

    This nonfiction book includes both sidebars and back matter.

A map is inserted as sidebars within the main text of the story for the reader to have an understanding of where the story took place. Several pages integrate photographs throughout the story with side bar captions.
    The author incorporated several elements of back matter as well as an afterword, timeline, sources and notes, further reading, an index and more.


One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey Written and Illustrated by Henry Cole                                                             2020 

This fiction picture book is unique in many ways. 

The story is told in pictures only—a wordless picture book.

It is a 48 page picture book.

The story begins on the end pages.

An author’s note is included as back matter.

Rare and Blue: Finding Nature’s Treasures                                                                         Written by Constance Van Hoven                                                                             Illustrated by Alan Marks                                                                                     2020       

This beautifully illustrated expository nonfiction story applies both picture book elements. The sidebars expand on the story line with facts and information. The four page back matter is extensive and begins with the five categories of species—rare, naturally rare, threatened, threatened, and endangered extinct. The author included words to know, more rare and blue facts, a selected bibliography, tips for viewing wildlife responsibly, and a quote by astronaut, Karen Nyberg.                                     

        To conclude this craft of writing post, I’ll share two quotes:

“If you have back matter, include it the manuscript. Agents and editors want to see your research—the quantity and the quality.” —Teresa Robeson, author

“BACK MATTER? For a fiction book?”—Julie Rowan-Zoch 

    Do you have some current picture book recommendations? Share some favorite book titles in the comments section that include sidebar and/or back matter elements in fiction and/or nonfiction picture books. 

    Check the comments section for the answers to the two true or false statements. Hope you answered them correctly.

    Perhaps you may want to visit the archive for many GROG Blog posts this summer. A Cover to Cover post shares additional information about sidebars and back matter. Part I of a Cover to Cover post covers more ideas various parts of a picture book.

    Next week the GROG Blog will begin a series of summertime posts. We look forward to sharing inspiration for your writing and creating.

    May you enjoy reading, writing, and creating this summer.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Vicky Fang puts the "tech" into STEAM books

by Sue Heavenrich

Today we’re going to chat with Vicky Fang about writing STEAM books for kids. But first, a peek at her newest book, Cupcake Fix (Layla and the Bots). Layla is a rock star and an inventor. Her robots Beep, Bop, and Boop help her design and build her inventions. 

In this newest addition to the series, Layla wants to help the community center make their Grand Opening a smashing success. She decides to build a machine that can bake, frost, and decorate cupcakes on demand. We see the Bots in action, and Layla doing some serious problem-solving when the machine breaks down at the last minute. 

This is a fun chapter book presented in graphic panels with a mix of text and speech bubbles. Aimed at young independent readers, this book (as with others in the series) includes Back Matter – a hands-on STEM activity.

Vicky joins us today for a talk about tech.

Sue:  What made you decide to integrate technology, engineering, and coding in the stories you write?
Before I became a writer, I was a product designer at Google, designing for kids and families. I love designing with technology, and wanted to share that creativity and magic with kids! I also think that computer literacy and computational thinking  are important for all kids to understand, whether or not they want to become engineers. They are such important skills for any kid to navigate and problem solve in today’s world.
Sue: Can you tell us a bit about what being a product designer is all about, and how your background informs the way you write for kids?

Vicky: As a product designer, I am in charge of designing how the product should be experienced. That can include how you interact with it, what it looks like, what it sounds like, etc. I have an undergraduate degree in Theatre and Math, and an MFA in Design and Technology. As eclectic as that all sounds, the skills all fit together perfectly for designing awesome things with technology! The process I use to design products is the same process I use to write books - and can be applied to any kind of problem solving in my life. I love talking about that with kids, because I want them to feel empowered to break down and solve problems in their own lives.

Sue: In each book in Layla and the Bots series, Layla has a problem to solve. In Cupcake Fix, she collects data through conducting a survey, then designs and builds the cupcake machine, and develops code to tell the machine how to work. Talk about how – and why – you wanted to show this process.

Vicky: I’m always excited to sneak in different tools and techniques into the stories. In the first three books, there are examples of different research techniques, from observation, to user interviews, to surveys. I try to do the same with the technology they are exploring. Maybe they’re talking about sensors, or coding logic, or soundwaves. I just want to expose kids to all kinds of ideas! As for the process, they go through a pretty classic iterative design process. I have an accompanying activity packet that describes what I call The Invention I’s: Investigate, Ideate, Implement, Improve. It’s a process that Layla and the Bots use in every book, and one that kids can use in any sort of design challenge.
I love how Layla has to fix the machine because it couldn’t deal with human behavior. That given the choice of three toppings, the first person to test the machine chose all three. Talk about how we can incorporate this attention to debugging problems into our lives.

Vicky: I think this is a callout to the importance of prototyping and trying things out! You'll probably learn something you didn’t expect. You’ll probably fail along the way! The design process is an iterative one—you'll find new problems even as you create solutions. And you have to just keep being creative and persevering until you sort it all out. Sounds a lot like life!
Sue: I am a big fan of back matter, and love that yours is hands-on exploration oriented. 

Vicky: I love back matter too! The Branches books (Scholastic) often have backmatter, so it wasn’t something I had to convince them of. Plus, the books so naturally lend themselves to some sort of hands-on activity. I originally had backmatter that talked about the Invention I’s, but we changed it to be more specific creative STEM activities that accompany each story. This makes more sense, since it’s a series – and every book has its own distinct backmatter! 

Sue: Who decided to make it graphic novel style? It’s such a great way to get additional info (such as coding) presented.

Vicky: I modeled the manuscript off of similar Scholastic Branches books (like Cyndi Marko’s Kung Pow Chicken or Andrew Joyner’s Boris), so it was always intended to be heavily illustrated, but I didn’t have it specified in comic-style panels. I don’t know who decided on that style; I guess it was probably my wonderful editor, Rachel Matson! I’m pretty sure that she suggested creating a consistent "invention diagram" style that appears in each book!
Sue: What a fun series. Thank you, Vicky, for joining us today.

Vicky: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to see kids’ creativity sparked by these books. I love seeing drawings inspired by the characters, or inventions based on the stories, or kids who tell me they want to grow up to be engineers or designers like Layla! I’m so grateful for all the teachers and librarians who have been doing fantastic programs with the books and their students. And I can’t wait for Book 4 coming out next year!

Sue: I can't wait to read the next adventure! Please check out one of Vicky’s hands-on activities from her first book, “design your own roller coaster.” She present the activity here in a video.  And you can check out my review of her picture book, Invent-a-Pet over at Sally’s Bookshelf.

Vicky is a member of STEAM Team 2021. Find out more about her at:

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Readers: The Third Leg of the Picture Book Stool by Julie Phend


It might seem obvious: books are made for readers. Yet, as creators of picture books, we are trained to think of the interplay of writer and illustrator. But the stool cannot stand on two legs. It’s not complete without the reader.

The First Two Legs: Writer and Illustrator

Let’s begin by talking about the first two legs of the stool: writer and illustrator. In a joint session at the 2020 SCBWI Annual Summer Conference, writer Mac Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen spoke about what makes a successful picture book. Using their book Sam and Dave Dig a Hole as an example, they discussed how pictures and text lean on each other to tell a story.

When you’re writing a picture book, they remind us, you are writing an incomplete story. The illustrator is an equal contributor. Illustrations add energy and often humor. They add detail that’s not in the text. The pictures can amplify the text—or they can say something different.

No treasure?

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole falls into the latter category. The story is about two boys digging for treasure. They dig straight down and don’t find any. They split up and go different directions. They still don’t find any. But, as the illustrations show, the treasure is there—they’ve been digging around it all along. There’s no hint in the words of what the pictures clearly reveal.

It takes a reader to see the joke.


The Third Leg: The Reader

As Barnett and Klassen point out, Sam and Dave are left out of the joke, but the reader is not. The reader seems to know more than the characters—more than the writer, even. And that’s funny.

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole leaves many things unsaid, including the ending, and invites the reader to figure them out. A good picture book encourages kids to participate. In this way, they become active readers.

I saw this principle in action many times in the past year. When the pandemic shut down school for my grandchildren, then aged 5 and 8, my husband and I started a daily story time with them on FaceTime. Over the course of the year, we read more than 100 books to them, and they read about half that many to us. We quickly learned that they preferred books with illustrations, whether picture books or chapter books, fiction or nonfiction. They loved stories with built-in humor and surprises—and books that gave them an opportunity to predict outcomes.

I noticed how often their predictions were based on the pictures. “I think he’s the bad guy. See how he’s smiling when she falls down?” Or “Look! The shark is coming closer. That diver better turn around.”

Among their favorite read-alouds were the Amelia Bedelia stories by Peggy Parish and Fritz Seibel. Amelia Bedelia takes figures of speech literally, which gets her in all kinds of hilarious trouble, as the illustrations demonstrate. They also loved the Good Crooks series by Mary Amato and Ward Jenkins and the Olivia books by Ian Falconer for their humor and fun illustrations.


Another huge hit was Jim Benton’s Franny K. Stein series. Franny, a third-grade mad scientist, gets herself into scrapes and uses scientific principles of observation and experimentation to get out of them. The illustrations say so much about the characters—my grandson was in tears when Franny was mean to her dog Igor because “His face is so sad!”

Poor Sad Igor

These books have humor and surprise at their core, yet each one carries a deeper message: about friendship, resiliency, determination, or creativity. But nowhere does the author say that. It’s left to the reader to figure it out.

Picture Books Promote Literacy

Author Eileen Meyer reads to children

That’s how picture books teach best—by allowing the child reader equal participation in the story. In this way, picture books help children become good readers.

A large body of research into reading shows that good readers engage with text in an active way.

  • visualize what they are reading (and pictures help them learn to do it).  
  •  use patterns to make predictions (children’s stories are filled with pattern.)
  •  adapt their predictions in relation to new information. (Surprise!)
  •  use context clues (both text and illustration) to create meaning.
  •  connect emotionally with characters.
  • compare content to their own experience or prior knowledge. 
  • use connections to make inferences. 
  • and enjoy reading! 

Early Literacy Favorites

I talked with children’s librarian Michelle Pursel, who says, “Storytime is the perfect introduction to the early literacy skills children need to become lifelong readers. I look for books that have an engaging story with vivid illustrations, elements that play a crucial role in audience participation."

Michelle's storytime favorites include Duck, Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Mama Cat Has Three Kittens by Denise Fleming, Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming, and Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard.

Children’s writer Katherine Patterson famously said, “Once a book is published, it no longer belongs to me. My creative task is done. The work now belongs to the creative mind of my readers.”

 So, as you write or illustrate books for children, keep in mind the third leg of your story: your readers. Give them opportunities to figure things out, connect, laugh, and be surprised—and grow into excellent readers. 

They'll enjoy the journey!


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

When Water Makes Mud: A Story of Refugee Children: Book Review and Craft Chat with Janie Reinart by Kathy Halsey

Book Review
It's a pleasure to review author Janie Reinart's debut picture book, When Water Makes Mud: a Story of Refugee Children, illustrated by Morgan Taylor and published by Blue Whale Press. (Please note that the publisher's profits are being donated to UNICEF.)

A lyrical, heartfelt picture book, this story of Big Sister and Little Sister highlights the refugee situation in South Sudan via the resourcefulness of children and the strength siblings can give each other through kindness and imagination.

Author Reinart creates a reassuring, child-centric problem for the two sisters that kids around the world can identify with - what to do when you're sad, when you have to move, or worse, when you may even have nothing but the clothes on your back and little else? The immediate problem is solved as big sister relies on critical thinking, problem solving, and her environment to soothe her sister's feelings. A stick sketches a story from home, pebbles create a puzzle, a bag becomes a balloon, and finally Big Sister creates a doll that brings happiness to Little Sister.

The magic of creativity and reality is woven together by Janie's poetry, illustrator Morgan Taylor's warm, yet realistic illustrations, and a stunning final photo by Nora Lorek of ten-year old Susan James with a real clay doll. (See the true ingenuity of Bidibidi's children and their toys photographed here in the National Geographic article.) Although Amazon indicates the book is for ages 4-8, this fictional account grounded in real world problems is a perfect introduction for older children to discuss poverty, imagination, and the design process. The perfect question may be, "How can first world children make something out of nothing and help others as Big Sister has?"

Authors Marcie Atkins, Sherri Jones Rivers, Kristen Fulton, Kathy Halsey and Janie Reinart kick up their heels at a nonfiction retreat in Georgia, 2014.

Craft Chat with Janie Reinart

Chatting with Janie about children's books and writing is something we've done together since we first met at the WOW Nonfiction Retreat, 2014, with amazing writers, many who are now published authors. Today I'm kicking up my heels for Janie's debut picture book and the years of writers' craft that brought When Mud Makes Water to fruition.

Kathy: I notice lots of repetition and parallel structure  in your lyrical text, such as “something from nothing” and the structure of “something is something until . . .” Here's an example ,“A bag is a bag until . . .” Was that a “happy accident” or did you plan it?

Janie: Kathy thank you so much for interviewing me on the GROG. The repetition and parallel structure was more like a “happy plan.”  I wanted the text to be playful and invite the child reader to interact and say the lines with me. 

Kathy: Please share the inspiration that photographer Nora Lorek and writer Nina Strochlic’s National Geographic piece had on your story. Many writers wonder how to get photo permissions. Did you reach out to the NatGeo team or did your publisher? How does that work?

Janie: The photos pulled me in and the story grabbed my heart. In my case after reading the article, I noticed that Nora was on Instagram. I gathered my courage and contacted her. Nora gave me her email and we began to correspond. She became my inspiration and resource. Nora asked to see my story when it was done. She loved the story and said it reminded her of this photo. When I clicked on the link it was the very picture of Nora’s that started the story for me. I wanted the picture in the back matter.  It was so important to me for children in the USA to see that photo to empathize with children in other places in the world. Nora directed me to her agent in London. I purchased the photo. 

Kathy: Illustrator Morgan Taylor’s work is evocative, yet realistic. What surprised you most when you first saw Morgan’s art?  Are you collaborating with her for book promotion? 

Janie: I saw sketches early on and was blown away by Morgan’s talent.  Her use of color and the emotions captured in each picture takes my breath away. Morgan and I are collaborating on book promotion and hope to do some virtual author/illustrator visits together too!

Kathy: Janie and I would like to share a post that highlights illustrator Morgan Taylor's illustration background and process for this collaboration with Janie here.

Kathy: I know  you’ve begun virtual author visits. Will you share some of your highlights and challenges for our readers, please? How did you tailor the visit to different age groups? 

Janie: I love working with all ages. I divide my author visits: K-2nd grade, 3rd-5th grade,  6th-8th grade, and high school.  I include singing and reading the picture book story with K-2nd grade. With 3rd-5th grade and up, I include a readers theater version of the story and more writing prompts. These are some of the best responses I received this year to the question--Why do we write? 

“We write to change people’s lives.” 3rd grader in Minnesota

“We write to bring joy.”  3rd grader in Cleveland

“We write to express our emotions.” 5th grader in Cleveland

I loved a response from a kindergarten group in Cleveland. The students were sitting on a rug. Interspersed during the visit, I told jokes. There was always a pause--then they would literally fall on the floor laughing. It was so much fun to laugh with these students! 

A challenge was having kindergarteners on individual computers. They all had to be muted to keep the noise level down. I also couldn’t see anyone when I was sharing my screen. The teacher sent me little videos of the kids following along singing and doing the hand motions.

Kathy: What are you working on now? 

Janie: My husband and I previously traveled to France to walk in the footsteps of a saint. I am working on a rewrite of that story.

Janie revels in playing with words. As an author, educator, storyteller, and poet, words are her tools. Janie’s passionate about encouraging emergent writers of all ages to find their voice, share their stories, and experience the sheer joy of writing. She lives in Chagrin Falls, Ohio with her charming husband. Janie relishes reading historical novels and poetry, writing picture books and singing, and delights in playing with her 16 grandchildren.