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.
Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, written by Keila V. Dawson and illustrated by Alleanna Harris, discusses recent acts of violence against Black motorists in the back matter.
Evelyn the Adventurous Entomologist: The True Story of a World-Traveling Bug Hunter, written by Christine Evans and illustrated by Yasmin Imamura includes a Q&A with an entomologist working in the field today.
Code Breaker, Spy Hunter: How Elizabeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, written by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by Brooke Smart, includes a section on “Cryptography Today.”
The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem written by Colleen Paeff and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter includes a section called “Poop Pollution Today” that goes into cholera and water pollution in today’s world and offers tips for kids looking to keep their local waterways clean.
An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution written by Beth Anderson and illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley ties Ben and Noah’s story to computers, texting, spell check, and some of the spelling issues kids deal with today. It also addresses new words appearing in the English language today and how they take their place in the latest editions of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Mario and the Hole in the Sky: How a Chemist Saved Our Planet, written by Elizabeth Rusch and illustrated by Teresa Martinez, has back matter that compares the hole in the ozone layer (a problem we solved) to the global warming of today (and problem we have the power to solve).
This is an ongoing list, so if you know of any books that should be included, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!
Record-setting Jeopardy winner James Holzhauer read children’s books as part of his strategy to gain knowledge, but you don’t need to be a Jeopardy dynamo to appreciate nonfiction picture books for children.
1. They make exploring new subjects easy.
Ready for a new nonfiction novel, but not sure which topic you want to tackle? Read a few nonfiction picture books first. When you find a book on an intriguing topic, check for a bibliography—most nonfiction picture books have them these days—and start your adult reading with one of those vetted titles.
2. They eliminate non-essential details.
Check out all the books I read when I was researching my forthcoming book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem. And I’m not alone. Children’s nonfiction authors regularly read through thousands of pages of research materials, but the books we write rarely use more than 2000 words. We take huge amounts of information, encapsulate the most important elements into as few words as possible, then turn them a story that even the most reluctant reader will find appealing. When we do our job right, the resulting book is just as interesting to adults as it is to kids.
3. The illustrations are incredible.
The quality of the artwork in today’s books for young people is astounding, and nonfiction books are no exception. Just look at Kadir Nelson’s museum-worthy masterpieces in The Undefeated, Eric Rohmann’s finely detailed oil paintings in Honey Bee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera, Thao Lam’s paper cuts and collage in her wordless, semi-autobiographical book The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story, or Sophie Blackall’s gorgeous water colors in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear. Illustrators do painstaking research to get the images in their nonfiction books right—and readers of every age reap the benefits.
4. The back matter.
“Back matter,” found after the main text of the story, provides additional information on the book’s subject, and it’s a goldmine of interesting information. The unsavory aspects of a complicated story are likely to be addressed in the back matter. There might be a detailed timeline, suggested reading list, or, as I mentioned before, a bibliography. Sometimes it includes a more straightforward retelling of events covered in the story, or it may bring a historical subject up to date. The Great Stink covers events that happened before 1900, but the back matter is all about cholera and water pollution today.
5. They cover a wide variety of topics.
If you’re worried that books for children won’t offer the diverse range of subject matter adult readers require, take a look at Librarian Betsy Bird’s 2019 list of recommended nonfiction picture books. These books cover the Stonewall uprising, how plants use color to communicate, the birth of the ramen noodle, the first moon landing, the search for life on other planets, and the lives of Japanese-American illustrator Gyo Fujikawa, inventor Rube Goldberg, Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina, and surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, to name a few.
Ready to explore the amazing world of nonfiction picture books? Consider starting here:
- 2021 Children’s Book Council Best STEM Books (Here’s the 2020 list.)
- Librarian Betsy Bird’s recommended Nonfiction Picture Books of 2020 (Here’s her 2019 list.)
- Robert F. Sibert Medal and Honor Books
- New York Public Library’s 2020 Best Nonfiction Picture Books
- School Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2020
- Kirkus’ Best Picture Book Biographies of 2020
Note: some of these lists include books for older children, but you’ll find plenty of picture books to choose from—and you might like the books for older kids, too.