I’d dabbled with writing children’s books for more than fifteen years when I finally decided to get serious about writing picture books. My daughter had recently moved out and I chose to fill my empty nest by digging into the world of children’s publishing. Naturally, I turned to the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
I attended Writer’s Days, Agent’s Days, and Editor’s Days. I found a “best” writing friend and a critique group. I attended the summer conference where knowledge, inspiration, and advice were dished out like candy on Halloween. I entered writing contests and I even won a couple!
But the best thing I did for myself and my career, was to listen to some excellent advice: “Get to know the industry.”
I decided the best way to do that, would be to start a book club.
It began with a post to the SCBWI-Los Angeles Yahoo group: “Would anyone be interested in joining a monthly picture book club?” I wasn’t sure if I’d get much of a response, but I know myself well enough to know that the secret to reaching a goal is to make sure someone else is relying on me to get there. Even one or two members would mean I’d be more likely to fulfill my objective of learning what makes each publisher unique.
Plenty of people were interested, though. And the Picture Book Publisher Book Club was born.
Here’s how it worked: Every month, I’d ask my librarian to print a list of picture books published within the last five years by one particular publishing house. (Each month, I requested books from a different publishing house.) I would put the available book on hold and then, in the beginning, I tried to find out who edited each one. (This became too time consuming, so I stopped.) When the books arrived at my local library branch I would bring a couple heavy canvas bags to the library with me and cart my treasure home.
Then, on the second Saturday of each month, writers and illustrators would come to my house and we’d read as many books as we could, trying to discern a common thread among them.
Armed with the knowledge we gained, those of us without agents were better equipped to submit directly to editors, and all of us, agented and unagented alike, got an excellent education in the children’s publishing market of today.
As an added bonus, thanks to the book club, my community has grown by leaps and bounds – and many of us are published now!
Starting a picture book book club is one of the best steps you can take to further your writing career and community. Here’s how to do it:
- Reach out to friends, family, your local SCBWI chapter, and possibly even your librarian to find fellow picture book people who are interested in joining your book club, then set a regular monthly meeting date.
- About two weeks before your meeting, ask your local librarian to give you a print out of books carried by the library and published within the past three to five years by whichever publisher you are reading that month. (In the early days of our meetings we chose publishers who accepted unagented manuscripts because most of us were unagented at the time.)
- Once I have the list, use a combination of the library website, Amazon, and the publishing house’s website to determine which books fit your criteria for the month. (For example, we only wanted picture books and we didn’t want any books that we couldn’t ead at the meeting.)
- Put the books you’ve chosen on hold via the library website. Have them delivered to your local library branch, if possible. (I usually requested 25-30 books, though we rarely got through all of them.)
- Once they’ve arrived, check the books out and, if you have the time and inclination, try to find out who edited them. I used to use a combination of Google searches, SCBWI resources, and author notes or dedications in the books themselves. (This job is best split up between several people.)
- At the meeting, take turns reading the books aloud. (Story time for grown-ups!) Look for common themes, subjects, or writing and illustration styles, so you come away with a sense of what makes this publisher’s books unique.
- Decide on a publisher for the following month. Repeat!
That’s it! Let me know if you start one and how it goes.
I am thrilled to share the news that I have a third picture book coming out! Firefly Song tells the story of how former citizen scientist (and current firefly expert) Lynn Faust discovered a species of synchronous fireflies in the Smoky Mountains. I first read about Lynn in 2014 in an article from Mental Floss magazine titled “The Great Smoky Mountains’ Incredible Firefly Light Show.” This is how the article, written by Jen Doll, starts:
At exactly 9:27 P.M., when dusk slips into darkness in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the “light show” begins. It’s June, and for two weeks in Elkmont, Tennessee, the fireflies pool their efforts. Instead of scattershot blips of light in the summer sky, the fireflies—thousands of them—pulse this way for hours, together in eerie, quiet harmony. It’s as if the trees were strung up with Christmas lights: bright for three seconds, dark for six, and then bright again, over and over. It continues this way for hours.
As a child, Lynn Faust would huddle with her family on the cabin porch to watch the spectacle. They’d sit, mesmerized by the “drumbeat with no sound.” And though they’d appreciated the show for generations, Faust never thought the event was newsworthy. “I’d assumed there was only one kind of firefly and thought they did a nice show in the Smokies,” she says.
The natural world has long enchanted Faust. In college, she majored in forensic anthropology and minored in forestry. In her twenties, she circumnavigated the globe for three years, visiting islands you could only get to by boat, learning about cultures before they disappeared, pursuing underwater photography. Today, at 60, she’s a naturalist who writes scientific papers and field guides about fireflies. But she wasn’t always obsessed with the insect. In fact, her academic interest began only in the ’90s, when she read an article by Steven Strogatz, a Cornell mathematician, in which he marveled at a species of Southeast Asian firefly that synchronized its flashes. Highlighting how rare this phenomenon was, Strogatz noted that there were no synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere.
This struck Faust as odd. It contradicted the light shows she had seen growing up. As she dug deeper, Faust found that while there had been more than 100 years of colloquial accounts of North American fireflies flashing in sync, scientists discounted those reports, attributing them to lore or optical illusion. Faust knew the truth: that her Tennessee fireflies were every bit as special as the species in Asia. But how could she prove it?
Doesn’t that sound like a perfect picture book!? I knew right away that I wanted to write Lynn’s story. There was just one problem.* I didn’t have any published books under my belt. I’d done some magazine articles and I’d written a monthly newspaper column for the past seven years, but I didn’t consider myself a “Real Author.” I was afraid if I approached Lynn, she’d look at my measly credits and say no. So, I folded up the article, tucked it away, and decided to contact her once I had a book contract. Four years later, in 2018, I sold my first book. Achievement unlocked! I was a “Real Author.” (Woohoo!!) Three years after that, I finally had a book cover and some interior sketches (by the incredibly talented illustrator Nancy Carpenter) to share, so I sent Lynn an email.
“Dear Ms. Faust,” I wrote. “Hello! I hope you and your family are doing well during this strange time. I am a children’s book author. My debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, comes out on August 31 from Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, and I have a second book about a Pakistani decorated truck coming out from Chronicle Books in 2023.** I would very much like for my third book to be about you.”
I went on to explain how I thought children would love reading about her summers spent in the Smoky Mountains; and how, even though she didn’t study entomology in school, she astounded the scientific community with the realization that North America does, indeed, have synchronous fireflies. “Given that there’s a big need for picture books about women in STEM,” I wrote, “and that this particular book would have the added bonus of including information about a beloved insect, I think it will be a hit!” I also attached an article I had written for an Iowa City newspaper about the first time I ever saw a firefly. I hoped it would show her I was a true firefly fan!
Lynn responded to my email that very same day – AND SAID YES! Over the next year we spoke via WhatsApp and Zoom. We exchanged emails. I interviewed some of her family members and research partners. I devoured her wonderful book on North American fireflies, underlining especially fascinating facts and making copious notes in the margins. Lynn sent me photos from her childhood, college years, time as a young mother, and as a field researcher. She shared pictures of fireflies with me, and when I traveled to England, she gave me tips on where I’d be most likely to spot fireflies (near water in an area with lots of vegetation). I didn’t find any, but Lynn was proud of me for trying! I signed a contract for Firefly Song in early 2022 and that same year, I had the great pleasure of meeting Lynn face-to-face in the very place where she started her firefly journey – Elkmont, Tennessee. Even better, my husband came along and we got to see Lynn’s synchronous fireflies for ourselves!
Our first day there, Lynn gave us a grand tour of Elkmont. It’s considered a ghost town now, but for decades it was a summer getaway for families from the city. Lynn spent childhood days wandering through the forest, wading in the creek, and jumping into the swimming hole. It was a beloved home away from home for most of her life – until 1992 when the park took possession of the cabins and eventually tore most of them down. It was incredible to see the place Lynn had told me so much about. The cottage where she first saw the synchronous fireflies (which had belonged to her husband’s family) was long gone. Only its chimney and the stone wall that surrounded it remained.
But luckily the cottage where Lynn spent much of her childhood was still standing and had been restored, along with a handful of other cabins.
Lynn entertained us with stories of skunks wandering into cabins, bears picking apples from trees, and fireflies (of course!) lighting up the hillsides. Later that night, Warren and I came back to see the fireflies for ourselves. We met Lynn in the parking lot and she led us up a long trail to a spot where she expected the show would be good.
We were not disappointed! It was amazing to watch the air come alive with twinkling lights then go completely dark seconds later, as if a light switch had been flicked off. Though the Smoky Mountain synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus to the scientists) were the main attraction, Warren and I also loved watching the tiny Blue Ghost fireflies. They flew about a foot off the ground with a steady bluish light in search of potential mates on the forest floor. One of them flew right over my shoe, creating a tiny spotlight as he passed! I don’t have any photos of the Light Show, but this video will give you some sense of what it’s like. If you really want to understand the majesty of these incredible insects, you need to see the show for yourself! Barring that, in the summer of 2025, you can read Firefly Song!
My fabulous editor, Karen Wojtyla, had the job of finding an illustrator for the book. She needed an artist who excelled at illustrating light and landscapes – someone who could capture the special magic of the Smokies alight with firefly lanterns. And boy did she ever find the perfect person! Ji-Hyuk Kim has illustrated several picture books and created many book covers, including Christina Soontornvat’s Newbery Honor book A Wish in the Dark. (I love this book cover and I love the book!)
Take a quick scroll through his website, and you’ll understand why I was so happy to discover he’d be the artist bringing Lynn’s story to life. I can’t wait to see it!
So, that’s the story of how Firefly Song came to be. If you want to receive occasional information on my upcoming books (cover reveals, release dates, preorder info, etc.) and other good news, please consider signing up for my newsletter.
In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to live in an area with fireflies, grab a copy of Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs by Lynn Faust and get outside after dark! You’ll be amazed when you learn how many different species of fireflies exist and how you can best identify them. Just be careful. When you read about the females of the Photuris genera, you’ll never look at fireflies the same way again! (And if you follow that link you can never unsee those photos. You’ve been warned!)
Thanks for reading!
*Whether this was truly a problem or not is a subject for another blog post!
**Rainbow Truck is now scheduled to be released in 2024.
[Please see my School Visits page or download my school visit information packet for details on bringing me and my award-winning book, THE GREAT STINK, to your school. I would love to meet you and your students!]
The very first time I visited a school as an author, I wanted to know what the kids thought of my brand new presentation, so I asked. We had already talked about how to give critiques, so this was their opportunity to use what I’d taught them about giving feedback right away –– on me! It turned out to be a great idea, one that I still use in my presentations to this day, when time permits. If you’re an author just starting to do school visits, I highly recommend asking the students what they thought of your presentation (with the teacher’s permission, of course!).
Keep reading for a full rundown of those first school visits, or scroll down to find out what sentence-starters I gave the students and what they had to say about my presentation.
Last month, I went home to Los Angeles where I did some free school visits to practice my author presentations, and to prove to myself that I would not become a big ball of nerves and die when faced with a room full of 4th graders. Spoiler alert: I survived! I think you could even say I thrived. It was amazing!
I visited two schools in person and two schools virtually (for a total of seven presentations). The night before my first visit I couldn’t sleep. I kept asking myself why (“Why? Why?! WHY?!?!”) had I offered to do any school visits at all. Never mind that I had taught preschoolers and homeschoolers and presented at conferences. It didn’t matter that I had trained as an actor many moons ago or that I’d been a member of Toastmasters and had the blue ribbons to prove it. I was sure I would bore the kids to tears. And I felt there was a good chance I might cry, too.
But thank goodness for wise and funny friends who are authors. When I shared my concerns, Kelly Carey told me, “At least if you poop your pants, you’ll be on brand!”–which is horrifying and true. And Elisa Boxer said, “Focus less on the presentation and more on connecting with [the students].” This combination of levity and simple, straightforward advice on making connections rather than “presenting” turned out to be just what I needed.
Each school visit was different, but the one thing they all had in common, was that I LOVED every second of interacting with the kids. At my first in-person visit–a class of 4th graders–I gave the students some handouts that offered five sentence-starters and asked them to critique my presentation. This turned out to be a stroke of genius on my part because the students’ feedback ran the gamut from helpful to hilarious–and it included lots of very welcome praise, too.
Here’s some of the feedback I received:
Something I liked about the presentation was…
…it was packed with info on how you made your book.
…I liked that you had the confidence to come and tell us about your life.
…that you told us about how you get inspired.
…when you explained how you found the topic.
…when you answered questions and when you showed some of your challenges and how you fixed those.
…the amazing details.
…I loved all of it.
I started to lose interest when…
…you passed around the pictures because it took a long time for everyone to see them.
…you told us about the research–it was just a lot of information.
…when you called on so many people.
…I didn’t lose interest.
I wanted to know more about…
…why you wrote about a poop problem out of all the things.
…how you found the research.
…how you wrote all your drafts.
…your struggles because I struggle a lot in writing.
…what was the main thing that keeped you going when you were writing this book?
…your trip to London.
…the first time you wrote.
I was confused when…
…I wasn’t confused because you explained everything in your presentation, so keep doing that.
…I thought that you drew the pictures.
…you said that writing the whole book was hard because there has to be at least one part where you felt really good and strong about.
…I was not confused. You said it clearly. Don’t be nervoes you did amazing.
…the guy was swimming in the poop.
My favorite part was…
…when the guy was swimming in the poop.
…when you talked about where you traveled to write “The Great Stink.”
…when you shared great tips for writing.
…when you told us how you organized your research because it was very strong.
…when we got to see the original illustrations.
…when you showed us the super stinky draft.
…when you showed us your cat.
…everything. No joke.
It turned out to be really valuable information–and not just because so much of it was positive! The next time I presented to a class, I changed the section on research, based on what some of the kids had said. I think the presentation was better because of it. I also know now not to pass around pictures while I’m talking. It’s too distracting. So the kids let me know what I should think about changing and what I was doing right. I couldn’t have asked for anything better from my own critique group!
Now that I’ve conquered author visits in California, I’m taking the show on the road to London! I’ve already got three author visits lined up for late March, as well as a book reading and signing event at the Crossness Pumping Station on March 20!
If you know any teachers or librarians in the UK who would be interested in a free virtual visit (entire UK) or an in-person author visit (greater London area only) the week of March 21-25, please let me know. And if you’re not too far from Crossness, I hope to see you there on the 20th!
World Read Aloud Day is coming up on February 2, 2022!
For the first time ever, I am joining millions of book lovers around the globe as we celebrate the power of reading aloud with World Read Aloud Day, held annually on the first Wednesday of every February.
I am so looking forward to connecting with students and teachers on this very special day. Should you choose to sign up, here’s what our 20-minute WRAD virtual visit will look like:
1-2 minutes: Hello! I’ll introduce myself and my book.
3-5 minutes: Let’s read! I’ll read a short picture book or a short excerpt from a longer picture book aloud.
5-10 minutes: Q&A time! I’ll answer some questions from students about reading, writing, or creating books.
1-3 minutes: Read this! I’ll recommend some books I love (but didn’t write!).
Ready to celebrate reading aloud? Book me for a free 20-minute virtual visit here:
See you in February!
We tend not to think about things like bridges and roads, or water treatment, and sanitation facilities unless something goes wrong, but cities can’t function without them. Healthy infrastructure means healthy citizens! To celebrate the passing of the infrastructure bill, here’s list of picture books to help young readers learn about infrastructure:
Someone Builds the Dream
Subway Systems Around the World
by Uijung Kim
I am the Subway
by Kim Hyo-Eun, translated by Deborah Smith
How Emily Roebling Built the Brooklyn Bridge
by Rachel Dougherty
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
The Great Stink:
How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem
by Colleen Paeff, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
How One Community Harnessed the Wind and Changed Their World
by Allan Drummond
by David Macaulay
by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock
The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks
by Joanna Cole, illustrated by Bruce Degen
A Celebration of Building
by Christy Hale
Building Our House
by Jonathan Bean
by Anastasia Suen; illustrated by Paul Carrick
Opening the Road:
Victor Hugo Green and his Green Book*
by Keila V. Dawson; illustrated by Alleanna Harris
I am Farmer:
Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon
by Baptiste and Miranda Paul; illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Billions of Bricks:
A Counting Book about Building
by Kurt Cyrus
Builders and Breakers
by Steve Light
The Secret Subway
by Shana Corey; illustrated by Red Nose Studio
When Jackie Saved Grand Central:
The True Story of Jacqueline Kennedy’s Fight for an American Icon
by Natasha Wing; illustrated by Alexandra Boiger
Up! Up! Up! Skyscraper
by Anastasia Suen; illustrated by Ryan O’Rourke
*Social infrastructure. Start an interesting discussion with your students or children about different types of infrastructure and why they’re necessary.
It’s Independent Bookstore Day and and I’m celebrating by giving away a $25 gift card to one winner’s favorite bookstore.
Here’s how it works:
That’s it! You’re in.
Not sure which indie bookshop to order from? Find one on Indie Bound.
Already ordered the book? No problem! Just tag the independent bookstore where you placed the order.
I’ll announce the winner on Monday, April 26, 2021.
Independent bookstores in the USA only. Giveaway ends at 11:59 PDT on April 24, 2021. No purchase necessary.
Thanks for supporting our independent booksellers–and me!
The 2021 Virtual Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival is happening this week, April 12-16, 2021. If you watched either of my sessions and are looking for additional information on breaking into publishing after age 50 or STEAM-ing up kidlit, you’ve come to the right place!
Breaking into Publishing After Age 50
You don’t need to be young to write books for young children. Seven children’s book creators share their experiences breaking into publishing after 50, offering tips to help older writers stay current, create community, and draw (literally) on life experiences while avoiding the “teaching” book trap. Other topics will include the importance of NOT acting your age, how to access your authentic childlike voice, why representation matters, and the joys of funneling both lifelong passions and passing fancies onto the page. Attendees, regardless of age, will gain the tools and inspiration needed to put their publishing dreams into action.
STEAM-ing Up KidLit
How can schools and libraries use picture books to model and facilitate hands-on learning in science and engineering? Eight authors of STEAM books for elementary schoolers will discuss how their books can serve as a launching point for activities, exploration, and engagement, both in schools, public libraries, and homes. This panel will include practical resources and activity ideas for use in all three spaces. A list of similar book titles will be provided for collection development.
Download: “STEAM-ing Up KidLit” handout
For instructions on using the hands-on STEAM activities that I discussed in this presentation, please see “Hands-on STEM/STEAM Activities to Pair with THE GREAT STINK.“
MAP THE ROOM
As a young engineer working for the city of London, one of Joseph Bazalgette’s first jobs was to map the city’s existing sewers. For this activity, have students use tape, blocks, toilet paper rolls, and other materials to create a map of the classroom or another room they know well. (Challenge older students by asking them to create a hand-drawn map of the classroom using a scale ruler.)
Why was it important for Joseph to map the existing sewers before designing a plan for new sewers?
Our maps show the classroom as a bird might see it from the sky. How is this different from what a groundhog might see as she tunneled beneath us?
What do you think a groundhog would see beneath your school (or home) bathroom?
MEET IN THE MIDDLE
Joseph had to tunnels beneath buildings in order to add new sewer pipes. If you and a friend were going to dig a tunnel beneath the classroom, starting on opposite sides, how could your map help you to be sure your tunnels would meet in the middle?
Put a blanket or a sheet over a large piece of furniture–a desk in the classroom or a dining room table at home is perfect.
Ask students to find a friend to “dig” with them. If they’re on the floor, on opposite sides of the table, and they can’t see one another, what can they do to make sure they’ll meet exactly in the middle? Have students test their theories! Did it work? If not, try again.
Kids can try this activity on the playground, too, using a large cardboard box or a sheet held up by two volunteers to provide the “buildings.”
This project easily adapts to school-at-home.
Each student will choose a clear glass or jar, and fill it with organic matter: food, spices, plants, soil, condiments–it’s all fair game (as long as it doesn’t belong in a toilet!).
Students should top the container up with water, then take some field notes:
- date and time
- location of jar
- weather (Hot, humid, cold, etc.)
- measure the water level
- describe what they see
- describe what they smell
Put the container in a sunny spot (outside if possible) and every 24 hours, observe any changes. Each day, take the same notes listed above. Do they smells get more or less pungent as the water evaporates?
Download the FREE ACTIVITY SHEET here: Smelly Potion Field Notes
A MAGNIFIED DROP OF MONSTER-FULL WATER
In 1850, eight years before the Great Stink, Punch magazine published a cartoon that imagined a magnified drop of water from the Thames–it was full of tiny monsters. In this activity, students create their own microscopic monsters.
Download the FREE ACTIVITY SHEET here: A Monster-full Drop of Thames Water
Afterwards, you might show students an actual microscopic image of Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria that causes cholera.
You might also like:
The Groundwater Foundation has a searchable database of activities and curriculum guides for all grade levels.
Be sure to let me know how the activities go! And if you have suggestions for additional activities to pair with THE GREAT STINK: HOW JOSEPH BAZALGETTE SOLVED LONDON’S POOP POLLUTION PROBLEM (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter), please share your ideas in the comments.