Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Intentional Emotional Roller-Coaster--Guest Post by Beth Anderson

Author Beth Anderson is no stranger to the Grog Blog. In celebration of her latest picture book, Tad Lincoln's Restless Wriggle, that published October 5th from Calkins Creek, she's here with more expertise about writing narrative nonfiction. 

Take it away, Beth!

Last year I did a presentation at an SCBWI conference about navigating the author’s journey. It focused on being intentional in one’s choices, and to do that you have to self-reflect, identify your needs, seek opportunities, and choose the path that will move you forward. As I write and revise new manuscripts, learning more with each one, I find a similar intentional process creates a story journey for the reader.

I write historical fiction or narrative nonfiction, so I’m working with pieces of a puzzle. I seek out my “heart” thread first, choose scenes that will build an arc, attempt to craft an opening that invites and an ending that resonates. All very intentional. Yes, I’m a “plotter.” But there are also “pantser” elements as the story flows onto the page. Well, actually it’s more herky-jerky and a very long process of revising and crafting. Eventually, if I’m lucky, revisions smooth it into a story that looks and sounds pretty good, maybe even submittable. But wait! This is the make or break point.

 While a story needs to unfold seamlessly, it also has key emotional points that need to pop—spots that need to be recognized and sharpened. Sometimes I have so much backstory in my head that it all seems obvious. Confession: I tend to leave more to the reader, and that’s why I’ve had to learn to be intentional about strengthening and clarifying these points. It’s not enough to let it fall on the page. (And it’s too much to be didactic.)

From critiquing others and myself, I’ve learned that most of us tend to focus on the physical plot. The physical plot is interesting. But it’s the emotional arc that’s compelling and resonates in the end—the reader connection. Because the emotion runs beneath the surface and isn’t as explicit as the physical conflict, it helps to be intentional to ensure that we provide the depth needed for a reader to become invested in the story, to feel the pull, and to go vicariously on the journey.

As I get closer to final revisions, I print off the manuscript, lay it across my desk, and attack it with colored highlighters. Here are some of the elements I’ve learned to look for in the emotional arc and a few examples from TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE: PANDEMONIUM AND PATIENCE IN THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE.

 middle of revision 19 (subbed rev 25), looking at push back, learning differences challenges, emotional rewards

First and foremost is my “heart” thread, also referred to as the “so what?” or vital idea (Thank you, Barb Rosenstock and Candace Fleming!). It’s not theme, but my unique take, why I had to write the story. Every scene, every action has to serve and support that idea. This creates a tight, meaningful focus.


Tad and Abraham Lincoln each provided what the other desperately needed. I loved that a boy sustained a president! One way I threaded this through was the twinkle in Abe’s eyes when he’s lifted by Tad’s joy. I made sure that the twinkle appeared in key spots to help carry that idea.


Motivation is key to understanding characters. [And…besides character motivation, what’s the writer’s motivation for each scene?]


Tad’s learning difficulties motivate him to seek positive experiences, like a hug from Papa. “But letters didn’t make sense to Tad. Lessons launched him down the hall and out the door.”


Abe’s twinkle also serves as a motivating factor for Tad. “But Tad had seen the twinkle in Papa’s eyes…” 


For every action, there’s a reaction. Reactions keep the main character front and center, and connect to motivation.


Tad is very reactive throughout, but in one of the beginning spreads where Papa is the active character, “Tad watched and listened and learned.”


Stakes are huge and provide the pull for the reader. Unique traits or issues of the main character can be used to enhance stakes.


From the start, with Tad’s unintelligible speech and learning difficulties, he is faced with failure and rejection. His ability to be a child and the comfort of “home” are at stake. Towards the end, his pet turkey’s life is on the line.


I sharpened a few spots to show how his disabilities further threatened his success and also show his strengths. “Though numbers on a slate confused him, Tad understood business.”


Enhance turning points. These are the height of inner conflict that steer the story. Slow the pace a bit and dig in.


“Papa’s shoulders slumped lower, and his face sagged sadder” is motivation for Tad and also a turning point where he takes action.


Another turning point where Tad uses his voice came through loud and clear when I finally found the right words. “When the cook protested—this was the President’s House!—Tad persisted. But this was his home!”


After discussing editorial revisions for my latest manuscript under contract, it’s clear that this is a learning process, that each story presents unique challenges, and I have a long way to go!  :)  Intentional crafting of the emotional journey allows the reader to experience the bumps and potholes, the depth of conflict, the pull around the curves, and the intersections where choices must be made. So let’s get out our highlighters and sharpen the heart thread, motivation, reactions, stakes, and turning points. Take the reader for a ride on an emotional roller coaster!

Thank you, Beth!

Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. With linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and a penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, ponders, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. She’s the award-winning author of TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE, “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!, and AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. Beth has more coming in 2022: REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT: LEADING THE MINUTE WOMEN IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE, illustrated by Susan Reagan; FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, illustrated by Caroline Hamel, and CLOAKED IN COURAGE: THE STORY OF DEBORAH SAMPSON, PATRIOT SOLDIER, illustrated by Anne Lambelet.

You can visit her at; @BAndersonWriter on IG, Twitter, and Pinterest; and on FaceBook

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Celebrating WATER with Christy Mihaly

by Sue Heavenrich

Barefoot Books Water: A Deep Dive of Discovery 
by Christy Mihaly; illus. by Mariona Cabassa 
64 pages; ages 8-12
Barefoot Books, 2021

Kick off your shoes and roll up your pant legs, because exploring Christy Mihaly’s newest book is bound to get your feet wet. It will whet your appetite for learning more about our watery planet. And water world we are; water covers a titch over 70% of Earth’s surface. That’s 326 million trillion gallons of water. If you add all the zeroes it looks like this:
326,000,000,000,000,000,000. Looks like a lot, but (because most of Earth's water is ocean or ice) less than 1% of that is precious fresh water, good for drinking.

Filled with stories from around the world and hands-on STEM activities, this book introduces water as an ecosystem, a resource, a science lab, and a challenge for the future. Gate-folds allow extra room for annotated maps and provide an interactive component. A comic water droplet chimes in with commentary and the occasional fact ~ and every now and then you come across little invitations to DIVE DEEPER! 

Flip up the flap to reveal instructions for an experiment or activity.

There are so many things going on in the book, and I wanted to know how Chris was able to keep all the moving parts going in the right direction. So I picked up the phone and called her….

Chris: Barefoot Books is committed to publishing books that highlight environmental and social justice issues. In early 2020, the editorial staff was creating their fall 2021 list, and wanted to focus on conservation, community, and connectedness. They identified water as a theme they wanted to pursue. They wanted a book that would put water into a global context. Then they went looking for an author. They found me through a chain of connections: one of their authors knew an environmental activist who knew me. It was a little bit of serendipity and a bit about becoming known as an author who writes for kids.

Me: This book was a “pandemic project” for you, right?

Chris: Totally! Back in March 2020, I had a calendar full of bookstore and conference events for Free For You And Me, my book about the First Amendment that released that month. But with everything cancelled, I ended up with a lot of blank space on my calendar. So when Barefoot Books called, I had plenty of time to devote to a new project.

Me: Talk about doing research during a pandemic. Was it easy to locate resources?

Chris contemplating water...
Thankfully, I didn’t need to travel to visit archives. There was so much great information available online from reliable government and academic resources. And the book was reviewed by scientific experts. One thing I did was use footnotes during the drafting process. I love footnotes; they help me keep track of what sources which facts came from. That information helped as I went through the many revisions of this manuscript, and needed to check on facts. And the cool thing: footnotes are easy to insert while writing, and then you can take them out at the end.

Me (flipping through the pages): Water seems like such a huge topic… there’s salt water, fresh water, the water cycle, things that live in water...

Chris: It is! Even though the book is divided into sections, everything is related to everything else. I wanted to convey how wondrous water is, along with Earth and all its natural systems, to provide facts, share ideas, and give young readers a sense of hope. I want kids to come away from this book caring about water and feeling empowered to act.

Me: Often the writer has little opportunity to talk with the illustrator. What was your experience like?

Chris: Isn't the art amazing? I haven't talked directly with Mariona Cabassa, the illustrator, but I saw numerous rounds of her sketches and rough art and had plenty of opportunity to review it both for accuracy and for how concepts are presented. I did some educating, for example, about the shape of raindrops (round) versus the shape of water drops from a faucet (tear-shaped). (It has to do with surface tension and gravity.) And I had countless conversations with Emma Parkin, who did both editing and art directing, about not only the text but also the design of spreads, including where we might place gatefolds and the fold-up flaps for activities. The whole process was extremely collaborative, more than any other project I've worked on. 

Me: Opening the gatefolds and the Dive Deeper invitations created a nice interactive touch. Thanks for dropping by the GROG today. 

Check out the book trailer here. Chris is a member of #STEAMTeam2021. You can find out more about her and her wonderful books over at her website. Review copy provided the publisher.