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Sunday, January 30, 2011


Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo is quoted as saying, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” That's the way I feel when I start writing a new book. It's all in my mind. My task is now to get it out onto the page--or the computer screen.

I know some people are intimidated by all the blankness of that starting point. I see it as pregnant with possibilities. For one thing, this is the moment to make key decisions, ones that will make all the difference in what kind of book you write. It’s like collecting flour, sugar, butter and eggs and then deciding whether you’re going to make a cake, bread, or cookies.

As you can see, the beginning stage of writing your book is important. So to get you started, let’s go through the initial choices you’ll need to make one-by-one.

First, you’ll need to choose who you’re writing for. Publishers divide children books into four general age groups:
Baby through 3 years
Young children ages 4 through 8
Older children ages 9 through 12
Young adult ages 12 and older

The book’s structure, or format, how long it is, and the vocabulary and sentence structure you use will be guided by who you select as your target readers. So will the book’s length. Books for the youngest group are usually twenty-four or thirty-two pages long. These, of course, are generally picture books meant for an adult to read aloud to the child. Books for children ages 4 through 8 are most often a minimum of thirty-two pages and more frequently forty or forty-eight pages. Books for children 9 through 12 and young adults are often sixty-four pages, or longer. However, a nonfiction book for children is rarely much more than a hundred and fifty pages.

Next, be aware that each book contains the following:

A title page (at the very beginning of the book)

A page with the copyright information, dedication, any acknowledgments, and any photo credits. This may come at the beginning of the book (called the front matter) or at the end of the book (called the back matter).

Nonfiction books for children also frequently include one or more of the following optional extras:
A glossary of key words
Amazing facts
A list of books, websites, or other sources of additional information suitable for your target reader
An index
A hands-on activity

Before you go any farther, I suggest you spend some time in the library, a book store, or even on one of the on-line sites that lets you look inside books. Check what age group the book has listed as its target audience. See how many pages long the book is. And take a close look at what is included in the back matter. While you’re at it, read a little of each book you sample and note the vocabulary and sentence structure.

Once you’ve homed in on who you’re writing for, how long you think your book will be (something that can change within reason once you start writing), and what extras you’ll include, you’re ready to make the next major decision. You’ll need to choose the structure or format you’ll use to present your book’s special information. I always think of this as building the book’s skeleton. Then the information and pictures will flesh out that skeleton and bring the book to life.

Today it’s a given that children’s nonfiction books are heavily illustrated. Whether your book will include art or photos, the format you choose is all about deciding how the text and illustrations will fit together.

Here’s a look at five different formats I frequently use to give my books good bones.

Integrated: Finding Home (Charlesbridge, 2008) shows how the text just naturally merges with the illustration.

Boxed: Spiders: Biggest! Littlest! (Boyds Mills, 2004) is a good example of how photos appear in boxes with the text above, below, or to one side.

Boxed Plus: Animals Marco Polo Saw(EXPLORERS SERIES) (Chronicle, 2009) Demonstrates how, in addition to separate boxed illustrations, some extra information may be boxed.

Arachnid World: Black Widows: Deadly Biters (Lerner, 2011) provides another example of using boxed text. In this case a special shape is used to highlight the additional information.

Sidebars: Animal Heroes: True Rescue Stories (Lerner, 2008) shares an approach for layering information. The book presents a main stream of information. However, from time-to-time, key concepts need further explanation. Or there may be a related bit of extra information that’s longer than a sentence or two, like this discussion of why cows float. To avoid interrupting the main flow, this extra info is shared in a sidebar. The reader may choose to read this first or skip over it and come back to it. It’s definitely a stand alone section.

Dual: While I’ve only ever used this format once in How Many Baby Pandas? (Walker, 2009), it was very effective. I will definitely consider using it again in the future. Basically, it lets the book reach two different groups of readers simultaneously. For example, the BIG idea for How Many Baby Pandas? is to use baby giant pandas, which little children love, to create a counting book that also shares how giant pandas grow up and what’s being done to help preserve this endangered species.

To make this book a fun counting book and still deliver the key concepts, the lefthand page of every spread is for Baby through age 3 readers. The type is large. Information is shared in a very simple way.

The righthand page of every spread is for older children and for adults to read and summarize for young children. It’s in smaller type, the vocabulary and sentence structure suits older readers, and there’s a lot more information being shared. Both pages in every spread have “Wow” photos guaranteed to grab readers of all ages and visually share basic information about how giant pandas change as they grow up.

Once you’ve made all of the key decisions needed to launch your book, you’re ready to go to work digging up the information you’ll share. You may want to read books and journal entries written by experts. However, I also highly recommend tracking down experts to interview. If you get a chance, do some research yourself. Writing my nonfiction books for children has allowed me fantastic opportunities to go places and investigate things first hand. Some of the wonderful places my books have taken me include, the South Pole.

In fact, here's a photo of me all smiles at the South Pole with a flag from my Alma Mater Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

I've also had the opportunity to experience working inside the trainer used by astronauts preparing to fly in the Space Shuttle, stand at the shoulder of a scientist dissecting one of the first ever recovered bodies of a giant squid, be in the operating room observing open-heart surgery, and lots more.

Once you've researched your BIG idea, I recommend outlining your book. To do this make a general list of what you'll share on each of the book’s spreads. A spread is a lefthand and a righthand page viewed together. It’s important to think of your book in terms of spreads because that’s the way your readers will see the information and accompanying illustrations.

To give you a feel for how I work through the early outlining stages of going from words to book, below you'll find the first page of the three earliest outlines I made for what became Slippery, Slimy Baby Frogs (Walker, 2006).


Is a general break down of topics to be covered. It includes possible experts to contact.


Lists more specific information to cover. Divides this into what will be shown on the lefthand and righthand page of each spread. Lists some photo ideas.


Detailed list of information to share on each spread. For some spreads, a first draft of the text. Every stage that follows moves closer to becoming a first draft for the book. I call this process "getting the clay out".

Here's a look at a finished spread from Slippery, Slimy Baby Frogs (Walker Books for Young Readers, 2006). I developed this as a thirty-two page book for children ages 4 through 8 using the Boxed format.

Okay, now you're ready to go to work, turning your BIG idea into a book.

Once you have a first draft, check back. What's coming up will help you turn that book into a winner--one publishers can't wait to buy and share with young readers.

Coming Soon

PART THREE—How Do You Make Your Work Sellable?

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I’ve read lots of articles about writing fictional stories, but few about writing nonfiction—even fewer about writing nonfiction for children. So I’d like to share what I’ve discovered during a career’s journey spanning nearly thirty years that’s produced over two hundred books for young readers, including ANIMAL PREDATORS: Mountain Lions (Lerner, 2009).

Happily, many of those books have been honored with awards.

So, if you want to write a nonfiction book for children, where do you start? First, you need something to write about—an idea. It needs to be something that interests you because over the next three to six months—possibly longer--you’re going to be thinking about it a lot.

In fact, like Animals Christopher Columbus Saw (Chronicle, 2008) was for me, it’s going to be as if you’ve been dropped into an unexplored frontier without a map. You’re going to have to find what you need onsite to survive, gain insights from the natives so you can thrive, and finally figure out how to find safe passage home. It’s going to be an adventure. But take heart in knowing that the more discoveries you make and share the more interesting your book will be for readers.

As for tips on where to find ideas, the truth is my built-in idea antenna is always on. I pay attention to what’s going on around me, collect news stories I chance upon while travelling, and just plain take time to let my mind wonder. I constantly search topics that interest me on-line or in print, looking for a new break-through or discovery. I read about the bush fires in Australia and went digging for a real life story to tell. That story became Finding Home (Charlesbridge, 2008).

I keep files and make lists. Right now, on a pull-out section of my desk, I have notes for three potential book ideas. When I need a break from the current book I’m writing, I play with these ideas by seeing what else I can find on them. A lot of the ideas I generate—even ones that go so far as to be ones I spend some effort developing--are never used. Or get filed to think about again some time in the future. However, out of all the many seed ideas come the ones that sprout into a BIG idea.

What makes an idea a BIG idea like the one that became Hip-Pocket Papa (Charlesbridge, 2010)?

A BIG idea is one that excels when put to these three tests:
1. Is it something children will want to read about?
2. Is it going to share fresh information or a fresh angle on a subject?
3. Will it fill a hole in the market?

To find out if children are likely to want to read a book based on my idea, I talk to teachers, librarians, and parents. I don’t usually ask children if it’s something they’d like to read about because they’re so kind they always say, “Yes.” However, I do visit libraries and schools and read books aloud to kids. I read and watch their faces and gauge which of several different kinds of books make their eyes light up. Make them want to know more.

Happily Hip-Pocket Papa lit up a lot of faces. I'm pleased to share it was a 2010 Junior Library Guild Selection, named to the 2011 NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12 list, was honored as a 2011 ALA Notable Children’s Book and selected for the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) 2011 best-of the year list in The Natural World category.

I’ve learned over the years that publishers value books with a curriculum connection. So it's also good to think whether an idea could offer stealth learning, presenting concepts in a way that's so enjoyable learning just sneaks up on children.

Slowly over several years, three of my series built a strongly interwoven curriculum connection that shared different habitats and food webs from the predator's, the prey's, and the scavenger's points of view. These series are: Animal Predators, Animal Prey, and Animal Scavengers (Lerner).

Finally, for me, the key difference between whether an idea is just interesting and whether it’s BIG enough that I’m willing to commit the time and effort to turning it into a book is its freshness.

For example, I’ve always been interested in penguins. While digging for a fresh angle, I discovered little had been written about the female emperor penguin’s role in the life cycle. While, on the other hand, there are books galore about the male emperor penguin hunkering down to keep the egg warm during Antarctica’s fierce winter. I might add what I discovered about the female’s role made me feel her job was, frankly, a whole lot harder. And that the female emperor penguin, thus far, had been largely unappreciated.

So I wrote A Mother's Journey, (Charlesbridge, 2006), the story of the huge effort a female emperor penguin has to go through to find her way across miles of ice to the sea to feed and while there avoid fierce predators. Then she has to return, in the dark and through terrible storms, across a landscape that has now totally changed and find her mate in time to deliver a belly full of food to her newly hatched chick.

WOW! When I wrote out the BIG idea for A MOTHER’S JOURNEY, I was immediately hooked, and I knew kids would love this story. The idea also received a BIG idea tick when I tested it against the third question. I checked on-line and visited bookstores, looking for what books on this topic for children were already in print and what was scheduled to be released in the near future. I was searching for that allusive hole in the market. Most of the time we think of a hole as a negative, but, when it comes to thinking of the next BIG idea to write about, a hole is a wonderful thing to find.

Here are a few other examples of my recent books. Check them out in a bookstore, a library, or online. Decide what pushed each of these ideas into the BIG idea category—and then into print.

HOW MANY BABY PANDAS? (Walker, 2009)
SHARKS: BIGGEST! LITTLEST! (Boyds Mills, 2008)

Coming soon:
PART TWO—How Do You Go From Words to Book?

PART THREE—How Do You Make Your Work Sellable?

Friday, January 21, 2011


My son Scott recently told me that when he was a little boy he thought the house we lived in was haunted.

I said, "My word, why?"

His answer was that he would wake up at night when the house was all dark and hear a patter, patter sound going on and on. I laughed because as he knows now what he heard was me. Those were the days of manual typewriters and I was still teaching full time and working on getting published by writing whenever I could squeeze in a minute. With two young children, that was usually either late at night or very early in the morning when the house was deliciously quiet.

For all of you who've asked the secret to getting published. My answer is two words--Intelligent Persistence, meaning stick with it but be smart about what you're doing.

It didn't happen overnight for me. I WANTED to be published. I invented slogans to motivate myself, like "This is the year I get in print." However, after two years of creating books and writing articles and stories, and sending them out to potential agents and editors,I was still unpublished. And I was frankly losing hope. I didn't stop writing, but I stopped sending anything out. My work became like my children. I loved them and I didn't want to hear anyone say anything bad about them.

Then two things happened. A dear friend who knew I'd been sending my work to different publishers asked where it was now. I replied, "In the drawer."

My friend said, "Not likely to get published there, is it?"

The other thing that happened was I realized I wasn't just writing because I loved writing--which I do. I was also writing because there were ideas and stories and really interesting information I wanted to share with readers. So, if that was going to happen, I decided I'd better figure out what people wanted to read.

At that point, I marched off to the local library and collected boxes containing the last three years worth of Highlights For Children magazine. I chose a magazine because I figured magazines needed to publish more articles every year than book publishers produced books. I selected Highlights because I'd like that magazine since I was a child, and I liked sharing it with my own children. I was especially interested in science and nature so I focused on Highlights magazine's science features. I made a list of every topic they'd published in those three years. Little did I know at that moment that magazines usually don't repeat a topic within a three year cycle. I also counted the number of words in each science feature and paid close attention to the tone and writing style.

Then it was back to the drawing board. I picked a topic--orb weaver spiders--because I find them fascinating. And I wrote an article just for Highlights, Artists In Silk. With my heart pounding, I typed it up and mailed it in.

Somebody ring the bells!!

Highlights For Children was the very first place I was ever published. How wonderful that years later, in 2005, I published SPIDERS: BIGGEST! LITTLEST! with Boyds Mills Press which is the book publishing arm of the company that still publishes Highlights For Children. That book was honored as the winner of the Texas Mockingbird award.

After branching out to publish in other magazines, I also produced a number of workbooks, like PRIMARY SCIENCE SAMPLER.

Next, I tackled the challenge of getting a book published. First, I visited libraries and bookstores, searching for books that weren't there, meaning ones that had not yet been written. I settled on the idea of sharing lots of interesting facts about winter and activities to do outside and indoors during that season. I wrote the book, laid it out in pages, and carefully illustrated each with pen and ink drawings, like this sample.

Then, once again with my heart pounding, I sent my baby out into the world.

Marcia Marshall at Atheneum saw promise in my idea. She sent my manuscript back with notes telling me which parts she liked. It was up to me to make the rest of it as good. With a lot of hard work, EXPLORING WINTER bebecame my very first book sale.

I remember the joyous day I put a giant three word message on our garage door so my family and neighborhood friends would know, I DID IT!

I've now had over two hundred books published and happily won many awards. My book, A MOTHER'S JOURNEY is my biggest award-winner. It's been honored with eight awards and is available in several different languages.

I still get rejections and still have to keep working with INTELLIGENT PERSISTENCE. And every new book I sell is a thrill because it's another chance to share my ideas, my thoughts, and all the interesting things that excite me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


ARACHNID WORLD is a brand new series of mine just being launched by Lerner Publishing. There will be twelve books when the series is complete so these first six books are the first half: BLACK WIDOWS, Deadly Biters; SCORPIONS, Armored Stingers; HARVESTMEN, Secret Operatives; TICKS, Dangerous Hitchhikers; WOLF SPIDERS, Mothers on Guard; ORB WEAVERS, Hungry Spinners. And they provide a dynamite introduction to these amazing creatures. Until I started researching this series, I never realized how many different kinds of arachnids there are. Or how many of them carry out their lives right under our noses--well, make that our feet. I can guarantee these books will make you take a closer look at the wildlife you might not normally give a second glance.

For those of you with children, and those of you who are still curious kids at heart, I'd like to offer the following activities as a way to investigate ARACHNID WORLD. You see I was a full time teacher for 11 years, an educational consultant for decades, and the Mom of two--plus a pal to any neighborhood kid interested in exploring with me. So I just couldn't let you think the ARACHNID WORLD books were only for reading. I think of them as "explorers guides for the naturally curious". Here's some discovery ideas for you.

WHAT IS AN ARACHNID? Check out the introduction in each book to see how the featured arachnid is different from one of its cousins, such as an insect, a centipede, or a horseshoe crab.

LETS MOLT All arachnids molt, or shed an armor-like exoskeleton, as they grow bigger. Get a feel for what this is like in this fun relay race. Form a group into two teams. Supply each team with a long sleeve pullover shirt or sweatshirt. One that's likely to be small enough to be a snug fit to most players is best. Start the race by having the first person put on the shirt. Their job is to then molt (peel off the shirt) and pass it to the next player on the team. That person must put the shirt on, peel it off, and pass it on. The team that completes it's molt first wins. Of course, please remember that arachnids usually molt while hanging on upside-down.

BIGGEST! LITTLEST! Check the "How Big" section in the back of each book. Next, sort the ARACHNID WORLD books so they are arranged from the one whose featured creature in the largest to the one that's the smallest.

HELPFUL OR HARMFUL Check out the "Helpful Or Harmful" section in the back of each book. Sort the books into two piles, those whose featured arachnids are mainly helpful to people and those that are mainly harmful.

FAMILY AFFAIR Read the featured life story in each book. Sort the books into two sets: those who have a parent guard the eggs or young and those that abandon their young as soon as the eggs are deposited.

BORN ALIVE Check out the "Becoming Adults" chapter in each book. Sort the books into two sets: those whose females deposit their eggs and those that carry the eggs inside their bodies and give birth to live young.

ACTION PACK Take time to do the activity shared in each book. These let you develop special insights into the featured arachnid's life.

BLACK WIDOW TAG Write the Glossary words on index cars. Write the definitions on separate index cards. Shuffle these two decks together. Lay the cards, words down, on a table. Take turns turning over two cards. Collect the cards when a words and definition match. When a match is made, the player continues playing until he or she fails to make a match. If there's any doubt about a match, check the book's Glossary. When all the matches are completed, the player with the most matches wins.

MYSTERY ARACHNID Each player is given a different ARACHNID WORLD book, They'll need to read this in advance and identify key traits. Once the game starts, each player offers up one clue through actions or by coaxing responses out of the audience, charade style. The first player whose mystery arachnid is correctly identified wins.

A STAR IS BORN Decide which arachnid is your favorite. Offer five reasons why it should be everyone's favorite. FEEL FREE TO EMAIL THOSE TO ME.

WHO EATS WHO? Pick one featured arachnid. Write its name in a cirle in the center of a sheet of paper. Read the book about it and look closely at the photos. Find out what that arachnid eats. Write the name of each prey animal on the paper. Draw a black arrow from the prey to the featured arachnid. Now, look for predators that eat the featured arachnid. DWrite their names on the paper. Draw a red arrow from each of these predators to the featured arachnid.

THE GOOD LIFE Pick one featured arachnid. Read the book about it to discover what environmental condition it needs to live. Use a shoe box. Build a diorama of a good home for this arachnid. Be sure to include a model or a picture of the arachnid in its home. Add a note on the outside of the box telling how long this arachnid can be expected to live, or its normal life span.

A TALE IN THREE LINES Choose a featured arachnid. Write a haiku about it. Haiku is a traditional Japanese form of poetry that tells something special about a subject in just three short, non-rhyming lines.
Here's an example to start your creative juices flowing.

Lone hunter spinning
Silken traps enduring
Fangs the only weapon

For even more action visit Lerner Publishing's eSource by clicking on this link

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