Cheerful Chick: Learning from a Mentor Text

Martha Brockenbrough’s CHEERFUL CHICK, illustrated by Brian Won, is a celebration of both cheerleading and determination. It’s a great mentor text for us to study as we take a look at the way the topic and theme of a book guide decisions about rhyme and meter.
 
Remember the cheers you heard at basketball and football games? There’s probably one catchy cheer that comes to mind right away. For me, it’s this one:
 
We got spirit, yes we do!
We got spirit, how ‘bout you?
 
It has a peppy meter to go along with the rhyme.
 
DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH!
DAH da DAH da. DAH da DAH?
 
Martha kept that element of cheerleading in mind when she chose her rhyme scheme and meter for CHEERFUL CHICK. It’s written in iambic tetrameter, so each line is made up of four iambs. In other words, it goes like this:
 
da DAH da DAH da DAH da DAH….
 
Interestingly enough, Martha’s first draft of this book wasn’t written in rhyme. As an experienced writer, she knew about all the pitfalls of writing in rhyme and opted to try it in prose instead. But when she sent the manuscript to her editor, Arthur Levine, he suggested that this is a story that might actually work better with the added challenge of rhyme.
 
“Since I already had the character and story, though, the challenge was to come up with a rhythm and rhyme scheme that echoed the cheerleading protagonist’s nature,” Martha wrote in an April tweet thread.
 
She came up with a plan to give iambic tetrameter a try. When I look at how this book turned out, I can only imagine how much fine-tuning and revision went into making this work. But the end result is a book that captures the main character’s nature and rhymes without feeling forced or clunky. It reads like a cheer, which is perfect.
 
Cheerful chick worked day and night
Until at last her moves felt right.
 
And then she hatched her lifelong dream
To build a barnyard cheering team.
 
She got her muscles good and warm
And did her moves with perfect form:
 
Side splits, wing stands, super punches –
Chicken shook her feathers bunches!
 
That last line was fun, wasn’t it? When we were looking at Hena’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS yesterday, we talked about the care she took to make sure the rhymes felt natural and didn’t call attention to themselves, because that’s a gentle, lyrical story about colors. CHEERFUL CHICK has a more playful, humorous tone, so it’s fine (and fun!) if some of the rhymes stand out a bit more:
 
Ms. Cow knows all the wildest moves.
Just watch her stand on two front hooves!
 
Ms. Cow just stood and blinked and chewed.
And said, “I’m so not in the moooood.”
 
Even when the rhymes are more playful, the rhythm stays consistent, and that’s important for a read-aloud. Martha’s keen ear for meter comes from her college study of ancient Greek poems and dramas.
 
“It helped me see much better what Shakespeare is doing. Which leads me to my second point. Rhythmic writing does not have to rhyme. It will be lyrical and delightful because of the rhythm. See Shakespeare’s plays for this,” Martha wrote. “And there are lots of ways you can play with rhythm. With a forthcoming picture book, THIS OLD DOG, also edited by Arthur & illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo, I decided that every word the dog narrator thinks has one syllable. For me, this captures the voice of a dog. A good dog who likes long walks in the grass. Are you stuck with a picture book? Think about the rhythm of the language, and choose one in harmony with your character.”
 
On that note…here’s your assignment. We’re going to play around with some different voices today. Choose a character — a young person, a big old tortoise, a rowdy squirrel…whatever you want — and try writing a few lines in that character’s voice. It can be about anything – what the character loves, their plans for the day, their dreams for the future. But give some real thought to how the rhythm and word choice will reflect the character. When you’ve written a few lines, switch gears and write about the same topic but in a different character’s voice. How does that change how you think about meter and rhyme?

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: Learning from a Mentor Text

Remember the old childhood rhyme where you’d make a church out of your hands, index fingers pointed together in a steeple?
 
Here is the church
And here is the steeple.
Open the doors
And see all the people
 
That old rhyme has a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that goes like this:
 
DAH da da DAH.
DAH da da DAH da.
DAH da da DAH
(da) DAH da da DAH da.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dd0ca924-4134-44e5-a535-559dc35799e3.jpeg

Author Hena Khan’s beautiful picture book GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, uses a similar pattern as it explores colors through the eyes of a Muslim child.
 
RED is the RUG
Dad KNEELS on to PRAY,
FACing toward MECca,
FIVE times a DAY.
 
We see this pattern predicted throughout the book’s lushly illustrated pages. It’s simple and predictable – perfect for this group’s preschool and early primary readers.
 
Blue is the hijab…
 
Gold is the dome…
 
White is the kufi…
 
Black is the ink…
 
Brown is the date…
 
Orange is the color…
 
It’s important to note that when you’re writing verse like this, the rhythm doesn’t have to be exact. An extra unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line isn’t a deal breaker. But the overall pattern still has to be there. It has to work when you read it aloud.
 
Reading aloud is a great way to find out if your rhyming picture book text is working, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes when we read our own work aloud, we can force a rhythm to sound okay by the way we read it.  If you really want to know if the meter is working, don’t just read it yourself. Hand it off to someone else to read aloud for you. Does the verse roll off their tongue in the rhythm you intended? Or do they stumble a little here and there? That will tell you where your meter might still need work.
 
Now let’s take a look at the rhyme in this book. One of the trickiest things about writing picture books like this one is that it’s not enough to find two words that rhyme. They have to be the right words.  And in this case, Hena had the added challenge of working with some very specific language that relates to Muslim traditions and culture – words like Eid, hijab, kufi, Quran, and deen. For some of those, she chose to use related words as her two rhymes:
 
White is a kufi,
Round and flat.
Grandpa wears
This traditional hat.
 
One of the biggest mistakes writers make in rhyming stories is forcing a rhyme with a word like kufi. In less capable hands, this page might have written to describe how Grandpa’s kufi was flat and not poofy. But that sounds forced and (wait for it…) kind of goofy. Silly rhymes have their place in the world, but not in a lovely book about faith and culture. So instead, Hena chose rhymes that work without being distracting:
 
Yellow is the box
We fill on Eid
With gifts of zakat
For those in need
 
Eid is an easier word to rhyme, so this works in a way that’s conversational and natural.
 
Knowing how tricky rhyming picture books can be, I asked Hena if she’d share a little more about her process.

“I first decided that it was going to be a concept book and that I would follow the pattern ‘red is,’ ‘blue is,’ etc,” she said. “And at some point I decided that each page would have a ‘glossary’ word (that wasn’t the case initially I think it was more mixed). I wanted to introduce the object or concept in a rhyming couplet! And then it was kind of a puzzle figuring it all out. I wanted to try to include many of the major aspects of Islam—prayer, zakat, fasting, along with some lighter cultural things like henna and lanterns. Some colors were determined by the object like gold being the dome or orange being henna, and others were more arbitrary.”

“When it came to the meter and rhyme, I did it by ear, and then started to count syllables to make sure the lines were somewhat even. I read it aloud and listening to where the stresses of the words fell. I wanted to vary it so it didn’t sound monotonous.” 

Hena shared her first finished draft with me — and noted that this early rhyme is one that makes her laugh now. Notice how much more natural and poetic her revised lines (above) feel compared to this: 

Yellow is a box filled with stuff, 
Zakat, for those who don’t have enough.


Hena is a pro when it comes to revising rhyme. But sometimes, less experienced writers put rhyme first and story second. That’s something Chronicle Books editor Melissa Manlove talked about when I asked her about common pitfalls with rhyming picture books.
 
“So often I see a plot that’s driven by rhyme, or a pace that’s driven by rhyme, or syntax that’s driven by rhyme. Rhyme should at most be the background to those things, not the thing that changes the writer’s choices. If you think of a narrative as a path the readers follows, then plot determines where the path goes, pace determines how straight it goes there, and syntax is a big part of who’s acting as guide. Rhyme should be no more than the texture of the path underfoot.”

On that note, I’ll send you off with a short assignment. Remember last week’s writing about gratitude, using Traci Sorell’s WE ARE GRATEFUL: OSTALIHELIGA as a mentor text?  I’m going to ask you to reimagine that idea as a rhyming picture book. Make a list of some of the words you know you’ll want to include – elements of a tradition or culture or season. And then have a go at it, using Hena’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS as a mentor text. You can try the same rhyme scheme if you’d like, or use a different one. When you finish a few lines, read out loud and see how the meter’s working out.
 
Tomorrow, we’ll look at a different rhyming picture book – with a different purpose – to see how another writer made choices about meter and rhyme.
 
When you can, please take the time to read these two interviews with Hena, too!
 
https://hijabilibrarians.wordpress.com/2018/06/14/author-interview-hena-khan/
 
https://kitaabworld.com/blogs/in-focus/hena-khan-interview
 

Writing in Rhyme (is a lot trickier than you might think!)

This spring, Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame set the children’s Twitterverse on fire with a casual tweet about how bad he thought most rhyming picture books were. Aside from Seuss and Boynton, he hadn’t read many he liked. His complaint was met with an avalanche of tweets suggesting the good rhyming picture books. They’re not all bad, you know. So why do rhyming picture books have such a tough reputation?
 
The truth is, it’s just plain hard to write in rhyme. Think about it. How often do the exact words that express what you want to say happen to rhyme? Not very often, I’ll wager, which is why writing in rhyme sometimes leads authors to choose words that are…not just-right words. Here are some examples of that…
 
The Overly Simplistic Rhyme:
I like to write in rhyme.
I do it all the time.
 
The Not-Really-a-Rhyme-Rhyme:
If you like to read rhymes
You should read some of mine.
 
The Weirdly Forced Rhyme:
When you write in rhyme, you must count each syllables
That’s laying good groundwork, like soil that’s tillable.
 
(I mean, really… not much rhymes with syllable!)
 
Even writers who are great at coming up with natural rhymes often stumble with meter in a picture book. Contrary to popular belief, meter isn’t just about counting the syllables in each line.  It’s about paying attention to stressed and unstressed syllables. Most of us learned about this when we studied Shakespeare in school and talked about iambic pentameter…that da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM pattern that rolls off our tongues so easily. It’s a line of verse made up of five feet, with each foot made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.
 
The sun comes up to greet our summer days,
And bathe the sky in pink and purple rays.
 
When you’re playing around with meter, it’s absolutely essential to read out loud. You’ll figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what possibly works but feels a little shaky. (The truth is, I was thinking about pink and orange rays when I started writing this, but orange is one of those tricky words that different people pronounce different ways. For some, it has two syllables – Or-renge – while for others, it’s just one — Ornge. That can mess up your meter, depending on who’s reading.)
 
At any rate, compare that couplet above to this one, where I’m being sloppy with meter.
 
The sun rises and illuminates the summer sky.
I gaze out at the horizon, take in its beauty, and sigh.
 
The rhyme works, but the meter doesn’t. So even if you like the word choice, it’s clunky to read aloud.
 
Now that I’ve written you some examples of bad rhyming text, it’s time to look at some great ones! I love our mentor texts for this week because they’re both beautifully crafted rhyming picture books, but they’re totally different from one another.


Martha Brockenbrough’s CHEERFUL CHICK, illustrated by Brian Won, is about a little chicken who dreams of being a cheerleader, so the rhythm of this picture book is just as rollicking as any football field cheer. It’s playful, bouncy, and fun.
 
Once inside a chicken’s nest
A dozen eggs, all Grade-A best,
Lay still and warm, their contents sleeping,
All but one…who came out peeping.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dd0ca924-4134-44e5-a535-559dc35799e3.jpeg

Hena Khan’s GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS is a  lyrical, beautiful celebration of culture that looks at colors through the eyes of a Muslim child’s family and religious traditions.
 
Red is the rug
Dad kneels on to pray,
Facing toward Mecca,
Five times a day.
 
When I read those two beginnings aloud, the words roll easily off my tongue. The language feels natural and musical…effortless. But writing a great rhyming picture book is anything but that. Tomorrow and Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at how these writers did what they did.
 
Your assignment today? Try writing the beginning of a picture book in rhyme. Just a few lines is fine. Tomorrow, we’re also going to talk about how to check your rhyming picture book for meter, so you’ll need something to work with. And don’t worry about getting it wrong! Writers learn from experimenting, making mistakes, and trying again. When you’re writing in the dark, trying something new, you’re being a pretty great role model, and you’ll understand a lot better how your students feel every day.

Writing Informational Picture Books: Q&A with Traci Sorell and Patricia Valdez

This week, we’ve been learning from two amazing nonfiction picture books, and today, their authors join us to answer some questions!

Got a question about writing craft for Traci Sorell or Patricia Valdez? Feel free to post your question in the comments. Traci and Patricia will be stopping by to respond throughout the day!

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: Learning from a Mentor Text

One of the things I love about nonfiction picture books is that they come with so many different structures and styles. Yesterday, we took a closer look at Traci Sorell’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, which takes a look at the tradition of gratitude in Cherokee culture. Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, so while this is an informational picture book, it’s also very personal in its perspective.

Today’s mentor text is Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, a picture book biography of zoologist Joan Procter. It’s written by Patricia Valdez and illustrated by Felicita Sala, and it’s one of my favorites when it comes to this format.

There are countless ways a writer can approach a picture book biography. Traditionally, we think of a biography as the basic story of a person’s life, from cradle to grave, and some picture book biographies do follow this format. But many more capture just a part of that person’s life, looking at their work in the world through a particular lens. It’s especially important to consider this approach if you’re writing about someone who’s already been the subject of numerous books. The world might not need another book about Ben Franklin’s basic life story, for example, but there’s still plenty of room for books that explore a lesser-known but fascinating aspects of his life, such as Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rocklifee and Iacopo Bruno (Candlewick, 2017) and Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock & S.D. Schindler (Calkins Creek, 2014).

Some of my favorite picture book biographies fall into what I’d call the “How the Seeds Were Planted” category. They look at a person’s major accomplishment and then look back to that individual’s childhood to see where the first sparks might have been kindled, where the seeds for that great project came from. Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor is one of those books and does a brilliant job connecting the dots to help young readers understand how a girl who loved reptiles grew up to be a famous zoologist. (And this approach has the bonus of showing young readers that the seeds for their own great accomplishments of the future are being planted right now, too!)  Let’s take a look at how Patricia does that…

The book opens with young Patricia having a tea party. But it’s not an ordinary tea party! Her guests are the lizards she kept as pets. Right away, we have an interesting, kid-friendly image to begin the story. How can you not love a kid who throws tea parties for lizards? And look at how Valdez brings us into the time period of the early 1900s…

Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, a little girl named Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests.

She could have given a date – “One day in England in 1905…”  but that would have felt stuffy and more like a research report than a story. The best picture book biographies paint pictures of a person’s life with language that’s vivid and fun. I love the alliteration in these lines…

Slithery and scaly, they turned over teacups. They crawled past the crumpets.
 

Isn’t that fun to read?

In this story, we get to see Joan as she grows – as a young naturalist, taking notes on her lizards in her bedroom, as a sixteen-year-old, walking the baby crocodile she’s just been gifted, and being mentored by a curator a the Natural History Museum. The story could have started with Joan’s accomplishments as an adult, but by approaching it this way, Valdez allows young readers to make a connection with someone their own age in the opening pages, which makes it more likely they’ll stay with Joan, following her story as she grows into the famous naturalist she eventually became.

The story goes on to share Joan’s work with Komodo dragons as an adult, but at the end, it calls back to that opening tea party. On the very last page, Joan, an adult now, is shown surrounded by children at a tea party she hosted at the zoo’s reptile house, with her Komodo dragon, Sumbawa, as the guest of honor. This return to a variation on the opening image brings readers full circle and wraps the book up in a most satisfying way.

That passage, like all the others in the story, is based on historical documents and Joan’s actual writings.

(Note that at the time this was written, they thought Sumbawa was female, that’s why he’s referred to as “she” in the article.That’s one reason authors have to double-check even primary sources! We learn more about history as time goes on, and we always want the most current information.)

Anyway, these are the sources that sparked that lovely beginning-to-ending connection for Patricia.

If you’re looking at your copy of the book right now, you’re probably noticing that this “last page” isn’t really the last page of the book at all. So let’s talk about back matter…

Back matter is the rest of the story and the related bits of information and resources that come after the primary narrative ends. Pretty much all of my favorite nonfiction picture books have back matter. In Traci’s We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, it consists of a page of definitions of things mentioned in the story, from shell shakers and stickball to the Trail of Tears, along with an author’s note and a page on the Cherokee syllabary.

At the end of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor, Valdez shares a more formal version of Procter’s biography – one that includes all the dates and details that perhaps weren’t visual enough to be part of the main story. This is a way to add that cradle-to-grave version of the biography after the fun, kid-friendly story. It’s followed by a bibliography, which is included in nearly all picture book nonfiction. Other back matter might include timelines, maps or charts of relevant information, and lists of books, websites, and museums for readers to explore if they’d like to learn more about the topic.

So here’s your assignment for today: Make a list of five people whose lives you find interesting. They can be famous historical figures or little-known people who have amazing stories. And then, for each one, try to imagine three different ways you might write a picture book biography of that person, other than the cradle-to-grave model. For example, in writing about George Washington, one might choose to focus on Washington the Soldier, or Washington the Enslaver, or on one small chapter in Washington’s life that changed its course. Got the idea? If you need to take a little reading & research time, go right ahead. And then spend a little time brainstorming angles for your own picture book biographies!

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga – Studying a Mentor Text

Before I share this morning’s Teachers Write post, would you take a minute to celebrate with me? I have a new book in the world today!

Ranger in Time: Night of Soldiers and Spies is the latest in my Scholastic chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog and takes Ranger back to the days of the American Revolution. If you’d like a signed, personalized copy of this new book or any of my other titles, just call The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid at 518-523-2950. I’ll be signing there on Friday, and they’ll happily mail your books so they arrive next week. You can also order online & just make a note in the comments about how you’d like it signed. I’m happy to personalize books for your class or school, and if you mention that you’re part of Teachers Write, I’ll do a special inscription for you as a fellow writer! 

Okay…now on to today’s mentor text! 

Often, when we hear the word “mentor” we think of larger-than-life figures like Albus Dumbledore. But the truth is, finding a mentor is as simple as asking the question “How are you doing that?” And as writers, we can ask that question of books we love as well as people. We call those great books “mentor texts,” and we can learn so much from them by spending a little time picking them apart and looking at how they’re built.
 
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, written by Traci Sorell and illsutrated by Frané Lessac. It’s a beautiful and lyrical picture book that’s won a pile of awards, including a Sibert and Boston Globe Horn Book Award Honors.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga
Written by Traci Sorrell &
illustrated by Frané Lessac

One of the first questions a writer of nonfiction has to ask herself is “How do I want to tell this story?” Let’s take a look at how Traci structured this look at the tradition of gratitude in Cherokee culture.

She leads with a clear, simple explanation of the book’s title and its refrain: Otsaliheliga.

And from there, the book winds its way through the seasons, looking at expressions of gratitude in fall, winter, spring, and summer. Each season begins with a similar refrain…

When cool breezes blow and leaves fall, we say otsaliheliga…

As bears sleep deep and snow blankets the ground, we say otsaliheliga…

When showers fill streams and shoots spring up, we say otsaliheliga…

As the crops mature and the sun scorches, we say otsaliheliga…

That structure – grouping the many expressions of gratitude by season – gives both author and reader a way to organize all of that information, and all of those vivid images. It’s a structure that was actually inspired by a mentor text that Traci read when she was studying picture books herself.

“I loved the structure and concept in Joann Rocklin’s 2015 fictional picture book, I Say Shehechiyanu, illustrated by Monika Filipina (Kar-Ben). It follows a child’s first experiences through the four seasons as a new sister, going to school, etc. with her saying the Jewish blessing ‘Shehechiyanu’  each time something new is experienced.”

The books are very different from one another – one fiction and one nonfiction – but that structure provided the foundation on which Traci could weave the language that paints Cherokee culture.

You’ve probably already noticed some of that carefully chosen language in the lines shared above – the way the alliteration of phrases like “cool breezes blow” and “showers fill springs and shoots spring up” evoke what’s happening in nature in that season. Did you notice the way, when you read the words “bears sleep deep,” those rhyming long-e sounds force you to slow down? Just like nature slows down when it’s time for creatures to hibernate. While this is a work of nonfiction, it’s also utterly poetic – something that makes for a magical read aloud.

In fact, if you have the book, read it aloud right now. (It’s okay. I’ll wait…) And as you do, jot down the phrases that feel particularly evocative, the places where the word choice really sing. What did you notice?

Here’s one more assignment for today. Try a little writing of your own about gratitude. Choose a season and using Traci’s structure as a mentor text, write a few lines about that season and what it means in your world, what you’re grateful for, and perhaps how you express that gratitude. Consider a repeated refrain. Consider word choice. Make that season sing.

Picture Book Nonfiction: What Do You Wonder?

Good morning, and welcome to Teachers Write! I’m so glad you’re writing with us this summer. Together, we’ll be working on our craft through five amazing mentor texts this summer. We’re going to start with a focus on informational writing.

Sometimes, when we’re trying to help writers choose a topic, we ask them questions like “What are you good at?” or  “What do you know a lot about?” Nearly every writer has heard the age-old advice, “Write what you know,” and while that can be a great starting place, perhaps a better question for writers of non-fiction is “What do you wonder about?”

Every one of my informational picture books has started with that sense of wonder, that big curiosity that makes us ask more and more questions. And then the answers beget more questions still.

The spark for one of my first picture books came on a school field trip. I was snowshoeing in the Adirondacks with my seventh grade students when our naturalist guide  pointed to a set of a tiny tracks that led to a hole in the snow and whispered, “Look! We’ve had a visitor from the subnivean zone!” I listened, enchanted, as she described the secret network of tunnels and caves under the winter snow. On the bus ride home from the field trip, I scribbled the beginnings of picture book, and many drafts later, Over and Under the Snow was published, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal.

Another flash of wonder hit one afternoon while I was reading a book about Charles Darwin that included a quote from the famous naturalist’s autobiography.

“One day on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”

If you’re anything like me, this passage fills you with questions, not the least of which is, “What kind of person thinks it’s a good idea to keep a beetle in his mouth for safekeeping?” But I had other questions, too. What kind of beetle was it? And how exactly did it get Darwin to spit it out?  Question led to question, and I discovered that later experts thought it was probably a bombardier beetle, which is known to shoot a hot chemical mist out its rear end when it’s threatened or annoyed.  Pretty neat trick, right?

That made me wonder even more. Just how many insects had secret super powers like that beetle? Lots of them do, it turns out, and that’s what my November 2019 picture book is all about. It’s called Insect Superpowers: 18 Real Bugs that Smash, Zap, Hypnotize, Sting, and Devour. Jillian Nickell brilliantly illustrated insects-with-powers that can rival any comic book superhero. And yes…Darwin’s beetle made the cut.

Talk with any author of nonfiction and deep down inside (or not so deep, for some of us) you’ll find a curious kid. And that’s very much the case with the creators of our mentor texts for this week, Traci Sorell, author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, and Patricia Valdez, author of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor.

Traci Sorell, who is an enrolled Cherokee Nation citizen, moved from Oklahoma, where her tribe is located, to Southern California. That’s when she realized how invisible the Cherokee and other Native Nations were to most Americans. “No one in my new community knew or understood that I was a dual resident of the Cherokee Nation and the United States,” Traci shared in this Celebrate Science nonfiction post.

 “Even the tribes from the San Diego area didn’t figure into the local news or community events, and they certainly weren’t included in the school curriculum. Talk about identity crisis.”

Hungry to learn more about her tribe’s history and contributions, Traci majored in Native American Studies in college and pursued advanced degrees to learn more. We Are Grateful: Otsaliheligaillustrated by Frané Lessac, is a book about the Cherokee tradition of gratitude that certainly fits into that “Write what you know” category. But it was also fueled by Traci’s curiosity,  and that same sense of wonder has led her to the two picture book biographies of Native women she’s writing now. 

Patricia Valdez, author of Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor (illustrated  by Felicita Sala) is a scientist as well as a writer, and curiosity has served her well in both callings. Her book started with the Komodo dragon at the National Zoo.

“My family visited him often at the zoo, and I read articles to learn more about these fascinating reptiles,” Valdez writes in this Kidlit411 interiew. “One article briefly mentioned that Joan Beauchamp Procter was the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920s. I immediately had to learn more about this woman. I found out that she cared for reptiles her entire life, since she was a little girl. She also designed a state-of-the-art Reptile House at the London Zoo, which is still in use today. Plus, she pioneered new techniques to perform surgeries and care for the reptiles. She even took a Komodo dragon for walks around the zoo and helped dispel the myths surrounding these animals.”

Tomorrow, we’ll take a closer look at where that curiosity led the authors of our mentor texts and how exactly they worked to craft books that inspire that same sense of wonder in their readers. But we’ll wrap up today’s post with a short assignment:

What do you wonder about? Spend ten minutes making a list. It can be anything from Komodo dragons to how babies learn to what happens in our brains when we cry. Anything you’ve ever wondered about. Because wonderings can be the best beginnings for writing. Ready…set…wonder!

CHIRP Cover Reveal (and a poem)

My next novel for young readers comes out early next year, and I’m excited to share the cover with you today! But first, a little about the book. Here’s the publisher’s description…

From acclaimed author Kate Messner comes the powerful story of a young girl with the courage to make her voice heard, set against the backdrop of a summertime mystery.

When Mia moves to Vermont the summer after seventh grade, she’s recovering from the broken arm she got falling off a balance beam. And packed away in the moving boxes under her clothes and gymnastics trophies is a secret she’d rather forget.

Mia’s change in scenery brings day camp, new friends, and time with her beloved grandmother. But Gram is convinced someone is trying to destroy her cricket farm. Is it sabotage or is Gram’s thinking impaired from the stroke she suffered months ago? Mia and her friends set out to investigate, but can they uncover the truth in time to save Gram’s farm? And will that discovery empower Mia to confront the secret she’s been hiding—and find courage she never knew she had?

In a compelling story rich with friendship, science, and summer fun, a girl finds her voice while navigating the joys and challenges of growing up.

Some amazing people read a very early copy of Chirp and said lovely things about it, which made me cry in the best possible way…

Kate Messner strikes the perfect balance of joy, pain, and strength in this deftly-layered mystery about family, friendship, and the struggle to speak up.”

—Laurie Halse Anderson, Bestselling author of Speak and Shout

“CHIRP is so many things: a mystery, a family story, and a story of the power of friendship. It’s about learning to speak out when it seems the whole world would rather you shut up. Sure to be passed from kid to kid to kid.” 

—Laura Ruby, National Book Award Finalist and author of the YORK Trilogy

“Once again, Kate Messner has written a book that will be a dear and important friend to her readers. A loving and compelling ode to the joy of friendship, the many kinds of strength, and the everyday bravery of girls.”

—Anne Ursu, author of The Lost Girl

“Messner’s fantastic book will resonate with readers across generations, who will appreciate Mia’s steady determination. Her story will inspire others to chirp. Loudly.”               

–Sara Hines, Eight Cousins Bookstore

Chirp is the book that will pass student to student, with whispered recommendations, and barely take up any space on my library shelves. Chirp is the book I wish I had had as a kid.”

—Katherine Sokolowski, Grade 7 Teacher, Central Illinois

“Kate Messner has written a timely, honest, heart-filled story that will invite courageous conversations and empower young readers to use their voices about boundaries, consent, harassment, and gender equality.”

—Melissa Guerrette, Grade 5 Teacher, Oxford, ME

“I wish I had this book when I was a young girl. I wish I had a book that would have let me know that I wasn’t alone, that I shouldn’t be ashamed, that I should be brave. This was an amazing read.”

—Vera Ahiyya, The Tutu Teacher

Illustrator Christopher Silas Neal is responsible for Chirp’s amazing cover art. Here it is…

And here is a poem that I wrote about this book that I wrote. It’s for anyone who doesn’t think we should talk about tough subjects in fun books for kids. But even more than that, it’s for the teachers & librarians who do the essential work of putting the books kids need in their hands every single day.

#BecauseGirlsCan
by Kate Messner

Why have you written a fun summer mystery about a girl with a secret?
Why that kind of secret?
Who would put that in a book for kids?
Why do people have to keep talking about this stuff?
It just happens, you know.
We didn’t used to talk about it. We just dealt with it.
That’s just how boys are how men are how things are.
You don’t have to go talking about it.
Can’t people just move on?

Actually, no.

We need to talk about it.
It might be how things were,
How you thought they’d always be
When you figured it was best to let it go.
But just because you did
Doesn’t mean we should.
Just because it could have been worse
Doesn’t mean it’s okay.
Just because you’d like us to be quiet
Doesn’t mean we will.

We won’t.

Now that we’ve established that,
It’s a fun summer mystery about a girl with a secret
Because girls can do both.
Girls who are struggling and grieving,
Girls who are trying to forget but still remembering,
Girls who wonder what they could have should have done differently,
Girls who are learning to be enraged,
Rejecting old ideas,
Getting ready to speak up.
Those girls?
They get up every morning, tuck their secrets away and get dressed.
They got to school and camp and soccer games.
They kick goals and write code, and solve problems.
They love their friends fiercely.
They jump off rocks into clear, cold lakes
And they laugh.
They notice what the world takes from girls
And they’re getting ready to take it back.
So yeah…
It’s a funny summer mystery about a girl with a secret
Because girls can do both.

Announcing the Teachers Write Summer 2019 Mentor Texts!

Who’s ready for a great summer of writing? For those who don’t already know about Teachers Write, it’s a free summer writing camp that I offer for teachers and librarians (and anyone else who loves to write, too!). This summer’s camp runs from July 8-26. Each weekday, Monday through Thursday, we’ll be learning from mentor texts, talking about writing craft, and chatting with the authors of those mentor texts for some Q&A. You’ll get each day’s Teachers Write post via email if you sign up.

Teachers Write 2019 won’t begin for a while yet, but here are some things you can do now to get ready.

  1. Click here and sign up to join us, if you haven’t already!
  2. Get a notebook and a pen or pencil you love, if you prefer to do quick-writes by hand.  If not, get your laptop or tablet ready to go.
  3. Order this summer’s mentor texts, or pick them up from your library, and start reading.

Here are our mentor texts for this summer. Please consider taking the list to your local independent bookstore if you have one. Indie booksellers support our communities in so many ways!

Week 1, we’ll be taking a close look at two amazing nonfiction picture books.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga
Written by Traci Sorrell &
illustrated by Frané Lessac
Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor
Written by Patricia Valdez &
illustrated by Felicita Sala

Week 2, we’ll look at two more picture books – both written in rhyme. You may have heard from other writers that rhyming picture books are among the toughest to write well. That’s true – but these two authors are masters of the craft and will have some great tips for us!

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns
Written by Hena Khan &
illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Cheerful Chick
Written by Martha Brockenbrough &
illustrated by Brian Won

Week 3, we’ll be looking at what I think is one of the best middle grade novels published in 2018. This one is a master class in character development, dialogue, and so many other elements of craft.

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

We’ll have official Teachers Write posts Monday through Thursday each week. I’ve left Fridays open for other authors who would like to offer a mini-lesson or writing prompt on their own websites. If you’re an author who’d like to do that, just use the hashtag #TeachersWrite so our campers will be able to find your post on social media!

Teachers Write has always been free for participants – all I ask is that if you can, you support it by purchasing one or more of my books this summer. Or if you can’t do that, please request them at your local library.

If you work with readers in early elementary school or want to write picture books or easy readers, you might like one of these…

If you work with chapter book readers or want to explore series writing, you might want to choose one of my Ranger in Time historical adventures.

And if you work with older readers or want to write novels, maybe try one of these…

The countdown is on for our summer of writing and learning together! Spread the word, share the sign-up form, pick up your notebook, start reading, and I’ll see you in July!

Announcing Teachers Write 2019!

Hello, teacher/librarian/writer friends! Here’s an update on Teachers Write, our free online summer writing camp for teachers & librarians. Many of you have reached out to ask about this summer, and I hope you’ll be excited about the news I’m sharing today! I’m a little late with this year’s information because I’ve been busy writing books. Like this one…

Ranger in Time: Night of Soldiers & Spies
Illustrated by Kelley McMorris and out July 9th from Scholastic!

And this one…

Insect Superpowers: 18 Real Bugs that Smash, Zap, Hypnotize, Sting, and Devour!
Illustrated by Jillian Nickell and out November 5th from Chronicle Books!

But now those projects are put to bed, and it’s time to talk about summer camp, which will be just a little different this year. As most of you understand, coordinating an ongoing online project like this involves many hours of work. This has been a labor of love for me since Teachers Write began in 2012, but I’m at a point in my writing and personal life where I need to spend fewer hours online. I’m also mindful of the fact that this project has asked for many hours of free labor from our amazing guest authors, who are also busy writing books and doing other good, important work in the world.

Don’t worry, though – Teachers Write isn’t going away! This summer’s camp will just have a new format. Teachers Write 2019 will run for three weeks, from July 8-26. Instead of coordinating blog and social media posts, I’ll be sharing a daily newsletter, Monday through Thursday during those three weeks. Each week, we’ll focus on learning and practicing some element of writing craft by studying a mentor text or two. This summer, we’ll be learning from five amazing mentor texts – four picture books and one novel – and we’ll have a visit from the authors of our mentor texts each week for some Q&A. The list of books will be coming soon, so you’ll have time to purchase or request them at your library.

This summer, I’m leaving Fridays open for other posts that folks in the writing/publishing community would like to share with Teachers Write campers. So author friends… if you’d like to offer a mini-lesson or writing prompt on a summer Friday, just share it with the hashtag #TeachersWrite. I won’t be involved in these, but our teacher-librarian-writers will be able to search the hashtag for more inspiration & lessons on our summer Fridays and throughout the year.

Ready to sign up and write with us this summer? Just sign up for my email list here:: http://eepurl.com/grB4p1

And watch for our list of Summer 2019 mentor texts, coming next week!