Teachers Write 7.24.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Hena Khan

Today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is from guest author Hena Khan. Hena grew up in Maryland, with her nose in a book. She’s the author of the picture books GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS and CRESCENT MOONS AND POINTED MINARETS as well as novels like AMINA’S VOICE and the new ZAYD SALEEM: CHASING THE DREAM chapter book series.


I spend more time than I like to admit thinking about and sometimes agonizing over what I eat, to improve my health and at times to help me shed a few pounds. A recommended strategy to stay on top of your diet involves keeping a food journal and tracking what you eat all day. But like most other recommended strategies, I find that one to be incredibly tedious and usually abandon it after a couple of days.

In POWER FORWARD, the first book in my new chapter book series, my protagonist Zayd is a 4th grader who’s small for his age but doesn’t let his size get in the way of his dreams. He is underweight and gets frequent stomachaches. Zayd’s mother asks him to keep a food journal to help figure out what might be causing them, and to help him potentially GAIN weight. She even labels the pages for him with DATE, WHAT I ATE, HOW I FEEL. But he finds it no less tedious.

When Zayd does occasionally write in the food journal, he ends up editorializing his meals and the things he eats (e.g. “pretty good with barbeque sauce,” “not as good as beef, but edible”) and how they makes him feel (“like a basketball is dribbling on my insides,” “grateful”). He is very specific about quantities or flavors (“seven goldfish crackers,” “watermelon jolly rancher”) and adds extra details that probably won’t help mom very much but make the journal a lot more fun to read.

Your Assignment:  Think back on what you ate yesterday, and create a food journal for the day. But not any regular old, boring food journal! Instead, bring each of the meals to life with descriptions that would make the most over-the-top food critic wannabe Yelp reviewer jealous. That vanilla flavored non-dairy creamer in your coffee? Even it can have a starring role if you desire. Give each of the foods you consumed context and meaning. How did they make you feel about yourself and your purpose in life? Can you find any symbolism between what you ate and your mood? Can you write any amazing metaphors or similes? Your journal entries for the day can be an ode to the food you ate, or hate mail, or a combination of both. You could keep the food descriptions simple and add categories if you choose, like “WHAT I WISH I ATE INSTEAD” or “HOW THIS RATES COMPARED TO THE BEST MEAL I EVERY HAD” Let your imagination run wild.

Don’t forget snacks. And feel free to fictionalize if it’s more fun. The pantry is the limit! I’d love to read your favorite lines or entries in the comments. Happy writing!

Teachers Write 7.23.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Sarah Albee

Good morning! Ready for your Monday Morning Warm-Up? Stop by Jo’s blog for that, and then come back here, ready to work on some nonfiction because today’s Teachers Write guest author is Sarah Albee!  Sarah writes nonfiction books for kids in grades K-9, including POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines and George Washington, First President. Other recent nonfiction titles include Why’d They Wear That?, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up. She loves visiting schools and presenting to kids of all ages. She joins us today with a mini-lesson about all the choices that go into creating a work of nonfiction.

So much of writing is about making choices. Fiction writers make many choices before setting pen to paper: What is my setting?  When does my story take place? Will the point of view be first person? Close third? Will my narrator be reliable, or not?

Nonfiction writers also make a lot of choices. If you’re writing history, the first decision is—what story from the past will I choose to tell? Which facts will I include, and which ones will I leave out? Where will I begin, in order to hook my reader? And finally—what voice will I use? Objective? Dramatic? Funny?

Informational writing can be a struggle for many student writers. Faced with an overwhelming mound of research notes, young writers sometimes bung every fact they can into their essays or research papers, with little coherency or clarity.

At school visits, I tell kids that professional writers often struggle with similar challenges, particularly making choices.

Here’s how I explain my own decision-making process to kids. I show them this picture:

It’s my 32-page biography of George Washington, alongside Ron Chernow’s 900-page biography on the same person.

I explain that I had to make a lot of choices about which facts about GW to include, and which ones I would have to leave out. I take kids through my research process, which included spending a week at Mount Vernon as a “visiting scholar.” I talk them through some of the decisions I had to make. Often the choices a writer makes reflect who the writer is as a person. For instance, I happen to be fascinated by what people wore. I even wrote a book on the subject.  So I chose to include the fact that George did not wear a wig, although he did put powder in his hair.

I also love dogs, and wrote a book about them. So I wanted to include the fact that George loved dogs.

I also wrote a book about sanitation. While I personally find this detail compelling, could I justify including Mount Vernon’s three-seater outhouse in my 32-page book? (Kids always giggle at this one.)

That one I had to let go.

How about this super-cool Mount Vernon ha-ha? (If you don’t know what these are, read this.  Sadly, had to leave that out, too.

What about the fact that George Washington owned 316 people? The photo below shows the slave quarters at Mount Vernon.

That I felt strongly should be in the book.

Next I discuss how I decided where to begin. I call on volunteers to be my human note cards. I shuffle my kid-note-cards around in the order that I chose to lay out my biography. As I do so, I explain my choices.

I talk about how I thought my choice of an opening story would hook my readers and make them want to know more about George Washington. I explain that while it’s good to know that George was born in 1732, there’s no need to start with the day he was born. Frankly, he was probably not a very interesting baby. Most babies aren’t, except to their parents. If Mr. Chernow had started his 900-page book about George as a droolly baby, his readers might not stick it out for the next 899 pages. Better to choose a moment in your person’s life, something that you think sums him or her up and helps your reader understand the essence of that person—an event, a discovery, a moment of bravery or peril. And make that moment dramatic, with good writing.

Your Assignment: Choose someone to write about. It might be a famous person, a little-known person from history whose story you want to tell, or yourself. Write down 8-10 facts about this person’s life. Birth, family background, all that basic stuff, sure. But include at least a few pivotal moments in the person’s life—triumphs, disappointments, adversities that shaped him or her (or you).

And now, write the first two or three sentences of this biography—but make some choices before you start writing. Where will you start your story? Which facts from your list really sum the person up and give your reader a sense of who they are? What voice will you use? How will you hook your reader? Share a bit of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like!

Extra Credit Assignment:

If you’re really feeling inspired: write this person’s entire biography in 200 words or less. They should be full sentences, not bullet points. You’ll discover that you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions about what to leave in, and what to leave out. (Like, adverbs.) Your writing will be spare, but you may be surprised to find, it’s clear, too. You have zero room for obfuscation.

I told my history-teacher husband he should do this exercise with his high schoolers. Make them write their research papers in 200 words or less, before they write them in 5 or 10 pages. Maybe next year.

Choose Your Stories

Whether you’re Ron Chernow or me, a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer, a picture book writer or a poet, all writers have to make choices. And now, go forth and write, Teacher-Writer friends! There are so many stories to tell.

**Special Teachers Write Giveaway**

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’ll respond, and will draw a random winner to receive a copy of my latest book, DOG DAYS OF HISTORY, by Friday.

Teachers Write 7.20.18 Friday Mini-Lesson with Erin Dionne

It’s Friday! That means we have a Teachers Write mini-lesson for you, and you can also hop on over to Friday Feedback if you’d like to get some feedback on your work & help others as well.

Today’s guest author is Erin Dionne, whose latest book for tweens is Lights, Camera, Disaster (Scholastic 2018). Erin is the author of five other books for young readers, including the 2014 Edgar Award finalist Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking (Dial 2013). Her first picture book, Captain’s Log: Snowbound, will be released in 2018 from Charlesbridge Publishers. She teaches at Montserrat College of Art and lives outside of Boston with her husband, two children, and a very indignant dog.  Find her online at http://www.erindionne.com.

The Nitty-Gritty:

Distancing Words and Tightening Prose

When we’re telling stories, we’re inviting readers into our characters’ worlds. We want our readers to experience the same emotions and situations that our character feels, because the closer we identify with a character, the stronger the story. Also, the harder it is for that reader to put the book down (and we never want readers to stop reading!).

One of the craft elements that I’ve been focusing on recently, and wish I had known about when I was writing my earlier novels, is the elimination of distancing words. These words dilute the connection between reader and character—so instead of being in a character’s shoes, it’s as though we’re watching them live their lives through a pane of filmy glass.

We do so much work to build exciting worlds, use active verbs, give our main characters strong voices and clear wants and desires…but these distancing words can put all that work aside.

These words on the page create distance between the reader and the story. Think about the way that you experience the world. Is this the way you talk in your head?

I am going into the room.

I hear the whirring of the fan.

I realize that I left my sneakers at the pool.

I’m willing to bet that you don’t actually think this way in real life. So we don’t want our characters, and by extension, our readers, thinking this way, either. Distancing words separate readers from the main character, whether we’re aware of it or not. There’s that filmy glass plate between the reader and the narrator—and no one wants to look at or listen to something through filmy, sticky glass.

So how do you fix it?

Distancing words are easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for, and make an incredible difference once they are gone.

Distancing words (sometimes called “filter” words) include:

I heard/hear/saw/see

She smells/feels/thinks

They realize/understand

We look/watch

One way to think about these words is that they are telling readers what the action the character is doing, as opposed to directly showing readers the character’s actions.

Here’s an example:

I saw the cat enter the room.

Without the distancing word:

 The cat entered the room.

 The reader already knows we are in a first person narrative, and that the narrator sees with their eyes (assuming this character is not visually impaired). So the we as the writer can safely eliminate the distancing word and restructure the sentence to be more of a direct experience for the reader.

Now, my two caveats to all of this: 1.) this is a great craft element to focus on in revision, or to help you warm up for the day’s writing by reviewing the previous day’s work. This is not something that I focus on while drafting, because I’d be so busy worrying about distancing words that I wouldn’t get work on the page!

2.) Sometimes you need a distancing word—the sentence/idea won’t work without it. That’s okay! If you try to remove the word and you can’t, you likely need it! And that’s how you know you’re using those words to the best of their ability.

Ready to tighten your story and get rid of those distancing words?

Your Assignment: Select a section of your work – either from a work-in-progress or from something you wrote for camp earlier in the summer. Print it out (or you can do this on the computer, but I like to work with paper when I revise). Highlight all of the distancing words that you find in the section. Then, go through them: are there ones that are necessary to keep? Ones that you can get rid of?

Make the edits and review the tightened section the next time you’re at the computer. Does it feel more immediate to you? What does it do to your pacing?

Leave me your thoughts in the comments. I’ll respond, and draw a random winner on July 24 to receive a copy of my newest novel, LIGHTS, CAMERA, DISASTER (Arthur A. Levine, 2018).

Teachers Write 7.19.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Heidi Schulz

Our guest author for today’s Teachers Write quick-write is Heidi Schulz, the author of the New York Times Bestselling Hook’s Revenge, and a sequel,Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, published by Disney-Hyperion. Bloomsbury Kids published her picture book debut,Giraffes Ruin Everything, in August 2016. Her short story for children, The Day the Puddles Stomped Back, can be found in Oregon Reads Aloud, an anthology to benefit S.M.A.R.T. (Start Making A Reader Today).

Setting as a Lens for Character

“Ma cracked the window to let some fresh air in, Momly’s car always smelled like a freshly scrubbed bathtub. Like…clean, but poisonous. Cleanliness was next to godliness, huh? So next to godliness that you might die from it. Maddy and me were used to it, but it irritated Ma every single time she was in the car.”—Patina by Jason Reynolds

Effective settings are important to grounding readers in a scene and helping them to feel truly immersed in a story, but they can convey character attributes. Take a look at the paragraph above. What kinds of things can you guess about the main character, and the relationships she has with those around her from that short selection?

The way a writer chooses to describe a setting can offer great insight into character, and can be an excellent way to follow the old writing advice: Show. Don’t tell.

Take, for example, this selection from Illusive by Emily Lloyd Jones. What information about the main character are you able to glean from this reading?

“Arm in arm, she and Devon emerge into downtown Manhattan. Despite the fact it isn’t yet noon, the sun already beats down on the back of Ciere’s neck. She sucks in lungfuls of hot, humid air, tasting sweat and exhaust. Steam flows up from sewer grates, and people swarm the sidewalks—everyone from the homeless with their blackened teeth and sunken eyes to businessmen with tailored suits and briefcases. Ciere has to dodge several tourists as they shuffle past. She tilts her head back and gazes at the city. The buildings are an odd mix of classical arches, sleek skyscrapers, and the grunge that has taken root in these urban areas like mold in an old bag of bread.”

I love this example because it’s so visceral. Words like “swarm,” “grunge,” and “mold” paint a vivid picture and it is abundantly clear that Cierce does not like the city. This works far better than a neutral description of the city and a line of dialogue from the main character such as, “I really hate the city. It’s so gross and dirty.”

(Also note that in this example, the point of view is not first person. Conveying a character’s feelings through setting description works just as well in close third.)

Now take a look at this selection from Love, Ish by Karen Rivers:

“There are a million billion stars shining through the blackness and it’s totally worth it to be out here even though I can’t sleep. The constellations slide by above me so slowly I can barely see it happening unless I close my eyes for a bit and then open them again. I see three falling stars (which are really just meteors, but it’s prettier to think of them as stars). Tonight, the moon is a crescent and if you follow the end of the crescent, you can see Mars. It’s blurry and so so so so so small. I can’t believe I’ll go there one day. I mean, I know I will, it’s just hard to imagine being that far away, being in a hammock on Mars (in a biome, of course) looking at a blurry Earth.”

Aside from conveying a positive association with space (“shining through the blackness” “prettier to think of them as stars”), there is also a sense of wistfulness conveyed in the description of Mars being so far away, and the thought of one day looking at the Earth from a similar perspective. We gain a lot of insight into this character from this one short description.

One last example from my book Hook’s Revenge.

“A miasma of overripe fish, gun smoke, and unwashed bodies hung in the briny air. Schooners, sloops, frigates, cutters, and many other varieties of ships in various conditions were moored offshore. Sailors swarmed over their surfaces like roaches on leftovers, inspecting rigging and performing repairs. Before her eyes, a brawl broke out on the deck of a twenty-gunner. The air was filled with sounds of the roaring sea, screaming gulls, shouted curses, breaking glass, and breaking bones.

A wide smile grew on the girl’s face. For the first time in her life, Jocelyn felt truly at home.”

Here, I’ve used words and phrases with a typically negative connotation (“swarmed,” “roaches,” “screaming,” “breaking bones”), leading the reader to expect the character to feel negatively, but then I reverse those expectations for comedic effect. Try playing around with this technique in your own work.

Your assignment:

Choose a setting. Make a list, using all your senses, of that place’s attributes. Try to use neutral words/phrases. Then, using that list as a guide, make two more lists, one recasting those neutral descriptions in a positive light; the other, in a negative. Feel free to consult a thesaurus if it helps.

I have created a chart, pictured below, using the example of an old barn.

Now try writing about this place, first from the point of view (either first person or close third) of a character that has a positive association with that place. Then reverse it and write the negative. You do not need to use every item on your list, but try to include multiple senses. See my examples below.


A sudden cloudburst was all the urging Leah needed to find refuge in the old barn. Inside, it was warm and cozy. Billowy cobwebs draped the beams above, softened all the barn’s hard edges. In the sweet-smelling hay underfoot, Leah heard the bustle of small animals going about their business, while overhead, flies buzzed lazily, caring little for the storm outside. From the shadows, a tall horse, soft and brown, moved slowly toward her and Leah quickly pulled the left-over apple slices from her lunch bag. The mare gently took each piece as offered, her velvety muzzle and warm breath tickling Leah’s palm. Leah hoped it rained all afternoon.


A sudden cloudburst forced Leah into the old barn. Inside, it was damp and smelled of rot. Spiderwebs hung everywhere, concealing fat spiders that Leah felt certain could drop into her hair at any moment. In the limp, musty hay underfoot, Leah heard the scuttling of rodents and she took a small step back toward the door.  From the shadows, a monstrous horse approached. Hands shaking, Leah pulled the left-over apple slices from her lunch bag and tossed them on the ground, hoping to either distract or appease the animal, then ran for the door. She’d rather take her chances in the storm.

Of course, negative and positive associations are among the least complex emotions you can convey. Take a look at your setting again and see if you can describe it in such a way that conveys loneliness, anxiety, contentment, pride, relief, or some other feeling—perhaps something from a character you are currently working on? Post that description in the comments below.


Teachers Write 7.18.18 Q&A Wednesday with Mike Jung and Jess Keating

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering. Today’s author guests are Mike Jung and Jess Keating.

Mike Jung lives in Northern California with his wife and kids. He writes middle grade fiction, and his, novels GEEKS, GIRLS & SECRET IDENTITIES and UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECTS were published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. He’s also contributed essays to numerous anthologies and is a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books team.

As a zoologist and author, Jess Keating has been sprayed by skunks, bitten by crocodiles, and
victim to the dreaded papercut. Her books blend science, humor, and creativity, and include the
acclaimed My Life is a Zoo middle-grade trilogy, the award-winning picture book biography,
SHARK LADY, and the hilariously informative World of Weird Animals nonfiction series. You can learn more about her upcoming books at www.jesskeating.com, or find her on Twitter @Jess_Keating.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

Teachers Write 7.17.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Debbi Michiko Florence

It’s time for our Teachers Write Tuesday Quick-Write, and today’s guest author is Debbi Michiko Florence! Debbi is the author of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series, about a Japanese American girl. Book 4 in the series, Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper (a Junior Library Guild selection) just came out this month. Before Debbi started writing as a career, she worked at a pet store, volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator, interned as a zookeeper’s aide, taught fifth grade, and was the Associate Curator of Education for the Detroit Zoo. A third generation Japanese American and a native Californian, she was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles and has called many places home – Michigan, Mexico, Massachusetts, New York, and China. Today, she lives in Connecticut with her husband, a rescue dog named Kiku, a bunny named Aki, and two ducks named Darcy and Lizzy.

My idea for Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen (and subsequently for the rest of the series) sprouted from my memories of family traditions, specifically Japanese traditions related to holidays, such as making mochi for New Year’s and setting up the doll display for Girl’s Day. Using tradition as a jumping off point can help you find your way into a story or help develop a character. Let’s give it a try!

Your Assignment: Set a timer for five minutes. Make a list of family traditions or activities that you remember from your childhood and ones that you do with your family today. These do not have to relate to culture or holidays. When my daughter was young, every last day of summer we had a Mommy and Caitlin Day where we planned fun activities for just the two of us. Museum visits, a carousel ride, treats from the ice cream truck, a hike; we crammed as much fun into one day as possible. And as sad as it was to bid farewell to summer, we both looked forward to Mommy and Catlin Day.

Now that you have a long list, go through it and pick one to expand upon. Set your timer for ten minutes and write as many details about this tradition as you can recall. No detail is too small!

Optional if you have a character you’re developing: Now set your timer again for ten minutes and write about a character experiencing this particular tradition. How do they feel about it? Create details specific to the character and their family/friends.

I hope this gets you jump-started on a new story or helps you learn more about a character. Feel free to share in the comments below! Happy writing! I’m cheering you on!

Teachers Write 7.16.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Anne Marie Pace

Good morning! Need a quick prompt to get your creativity fired up? Head over to Jo’s blog for your Monday morning warm-up. And then come back…because we have a great mini-lesson today!

Our guest author is Anne Marie Pace, author of the Vampirina series and other picture books, including her latest, BUSY EYED DAY. She joins us today to talk about picture book revision. This is a great lesson to share with kids when you’re talking about word choice.

We’re all familiar with the writing process.  Whatever terms you use with your students, it’s basically the same five steps: prewriting, drafting, revising, proofreading, publishing.  Revision is my favorite part of the process.  I love making sure I’ve told a strong story with a strong plot in the strongest way possible.  Part of telling that story in the strongest way possible is through very careful, even nit-picky, examination of each sentence.

Personally, I tend to write clean, so even my drafts have complete grammatically-correct sentences and few spelling and punctuation errors.  (That’s not a requirement for being a writer; it’s simply something that I’m able to do. I know lots of wonderful writers who write messy and that’s fine.) So you might assume that once I’ve ensured the story is well-told, with complete sentences in the right order, I’m done.  But I’m not.  Grammatically correct sentences are fine; but I want to give more to my readers than serviceable writing. I want each word in my picture books to be the best word I can find. We know what Mark Twain said: “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I want rhythms that are fun to read aloud, even in prose.  I want my books to be the best I can create at that time in my writing journey—and I can do better than serviceable.

Here are some examples from some of my published and upcoming books. I’ll give you the original and revised versions and explain why I made the changes I did.


Original: If you wish to become a ballerina, you have to do more than wear a tutu and dream about dancing all day long. 

Final: If you are going to be a ballerina, you have to do more than wear a tutu and dream about dancing.

There is nothing wrong with wishing.  Wishes are hopeful and give us direction.  But here I want Vampirina to be more assertive.  Being a ballerina isn’t something you wish for, that a genie in a bottle can grant you.   Being a ballerina takes hard work, and to do it well, you must be determined to do that work.  Thus I replaced “wish” with “are going to” and it was a good change.



Original: Even though snow is flying everywhere, Pigloo keeps his eyes open so he’ll know when he’s found the North Pole.

Final: Snow is flying everywhere, but Pigloo keeps his eyes open so he’ll know when he’s found the North Pole.

In this case, the first sentence is grammatically correct, and for older readers the compound-complex sentence would be fine.  But the cause-and-effect in the first sentence isn’t necessary to the sentence’s meaning, and using “Snow is flying everywhere” brings importance to the snow and paints a picture.  “Even though” diminishes the image of the snow flying everywhere in a way that isn’t as effective.


Original: “Oh, you know Bunny,” Moose said.  “He’s always scrambling this time of year.”

Final: “Oh, you know Bunny,” Moose said.  “He’s always holed up this time of year.”

Among other things, GROUNDHUG DAY is Groundhog missing Valentine’s Day because he goes back to his hole for the last six weeks of winter. But the final illustration of this book shows Bunny dyeing beautiful Easter eggs.  The visual joke is that Groundhog has emerged, but now Bunny is unavailable.  I liked the first version because it plays with the concept of eggs without being explicit; however, in the end, I realized that kids of picture book age tend to be quite literal. I didn’t want kids to think the Easter Bunny was going to scramble the contents of their Easter baskets! It’s not that there’s no place for word play in picture books—of course there is—but I felt the last joke had to stand on its own, without being explained to the child. And Bunny being “holed up” reflects Groundhog being holed up earlier in the book.


Original: Glitter-eyed girl/Skitter-eyed squirrel

Final: Squirrel-eyed girl/Girl-eyed squirrel

I loved the rhyme of glitter and skitter, but in the end, I chose the version that implies the squirrel and girl are gazing at each other.  A girl wearing glitter sunglasses and a squirrel glancing around nervously doesn’t tell the same story as two beings taking note of the other, and the book is primarily about noticing, so the second version was more appropriate.


No more spider,/No more bug.

Two-armed mama/Gives a hug.


No more spiders/No more bugs

Loving mama gives big hugs.

At first I liked the contrast of all the “–eyed” constructs, which make up every couplet, with “two-armed.” But in the end, I decided the contrast didn’t add anything to the final story. Also Sammi has been away from her mother for some time, and it makes sense that she’d run to Mama for a hug after seeing a bug that made her nervous.


Original: Whether or not you come out on top, finishing with grace makes you a real winner.

Final: Whether or not you come out on top, finishing with grace is what makes you a real winner.

I’m usually looking for ways to cut words, not add them, and the final version is definitely wordier.  The “is what” is unnecessary to the meaning. However, the final version reads aloud more smoothly, with better rhythm.

I hope these examples have given you something to think about in your own writing.

Your assignment: Use your work-in-progress, or go back to one of your earlier writing exercises from this week.  Find a merely serviceable sentence, and rewrite it to make it sing.   If you like, share your revision in the comments!

The Brilliant Deep: A Conversation with Illustrator Matt Forsythe

Picture books are magical collaborations, and there are so many exciting moments along the way to their publication. As an author, when I’m writing, I’m imagining the page turns and the art, but at that point, I have no idea who each book’s illustrator will be. I was thrilled when I learned that Matt Forsythe would be creating the art for THE BRILLIANT DEEP: REBUILDING THE WORLD’S CORAL REEFS, and even more enchanted as I watched his sketches evolve and saw the words and pictures come together.

This book, about the life and work of Coral Restoration Foundation founder Ken Nedimyer, earned a starred review from School Library Journal, which called it “A book that can be used in so many ways—a study in biography, science, conservation, and volunteerism. A must for nonfiction collections.”

Now that the book is out and making waves, I thought it might be fun to share a conversation with Matt about his process for creating the art!


Kate: Hi, Matt! I’m so excited to chat with you about your work illustrating The Brilliant Deep, but first, I have to tell you that when I originally saw the finished art for this book, it absolutely took my breath away. And it made me wonder how your vision for this project evolved from the day Chronicle touched base to ask if you’d be interested in illustrating. I know that illustrators have to pick and choose when it comes to projects. What was it that made you want to say yes to this one, and what was your first thought as to what your approach might be?

Matt: I was really excited to see your script because:

  1. It was so beautifully written
  2. It had an environmental message
  3. I knew your work with Chris Silas Neal, which I loved so much; so I was excited to get to work on my own nature book with you.

Before this project I had been working on an animated fiction TV show – which was great fun, but it was exciting to have the opportunity to work on a non-fiction project – about an issue that is so current and pressing.

That’s why it felt important for me to write, too. And I’m so glad you felt that connection because I can’t imagine more perfect art for this project. Could you talk a bit about your process for this book?

This was my first non-fiction book, so the visuals required much more research than previous projects.

I wanted to make sure I got Ken and his family right for each time period – even the scuba/snorkeling technology had to be right for each era – and I needed to ensure the waterlife was accurate or I knew that the fact-checkers at Chronicle would have my head!

To help me out, Ken, himself, sent me a bunch of photos of his family and his early years with the Coral Restoration Foundation. Also, the underwater life had to be specific to each location where Ken dove in the Florida reefs.

For example, at one point, I wanted to draw Manatees; but Ken said I couldn’t because manatees are actually much closer inland than his dive-spots.

So: no manatees.

Kate: I am sorry about the manatees. That would have been fun.

What media did you use for this project, or was it a mix? I know there were sketches early on, but I don’t think I ever saw the in-between stages, before final art. Can you talk a little about the steps you go through when you’re creating a piece for a book like this?

Matt: It was a mix. I always use watercolour, gouache, pencil and then gouache again – usually in that order.

The first step is a very quick, loose run of small sketches through the book to capture some energy and flow in thumbnails.

Then I enlarge those and tighten with pencil. Once we have a final sequence of images agreed upon with the editors, I might do a quick value test on the computer before I go in with a watercolour wash to establish a colour story. And then I will use gouache and pencil to get the values right.

I like the colours to move from warm to cool with the story, depending on the situations. This was a particular challenge, because the second act of the book is about dead reefs. Which are by definition, lifeless and – very visually unappealing. I tried to focus the images on Ken and his work for this part of the book; varying the angles to hopefully create more interest and movement.

Here are some examples of pencil sketches:

 Here is an example of trying to establish values before going in with paint:

More sketches:

And here’s some of the final art…

Kate: This is so interesting to see – thanks!! One last question… What are you working on now?

Matt: Right now, I’m designing a Netflix animated show called 12 Forever. It’s a really fun show about a girl who doesn’t want to grow up – so she sort of fights her fears and fantasies on this magical island. I’m getting to design a lot of the creatures on that island. It will be out in 2019.

I’m also writing and illustrating my own picture book which should be out in Fall 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

What are you working on? What’s your next picture book going to be about?

Kate: I have a few things in the works and am excited about all of them. Chris Silas Neal and I are doing a couple more books in our Over & Under the Snow series – one set in a Costa Rica rainforest and another set in the desert. And I also have an upcoming Chronicle picture book called Where’s the Next President? which I just learned is being  illustrated by Adam Rex.

Thanks again for taking time to talk process with me today! I’ll wrap up with a link to a feature about our book that was just posted on the wonderful blog, Brain Pickings, where Maria Popova sums up Ken’s work so beautifully“What began as one man’s labor of love in the Florida Keys — the locus of his childhood love of the ocean — has become a global model of hands-on resistance to the assault on nature.”

Teachers Write 7.13.18 Friday Mini-Lesson with Michelle Cusolito

Happy Friday! Our guest author for today’s mini-lesson is Michelle Cusolito. Michelle spent her childhood mucking about in the fields, forests, and swamps around the farm where she grew up in southeastern Massachusetts. As an exchange student in high school, she temporarily traded rural living for city life in Cebu, Philippines. These early experiences set her on her current course exploring nature and culture like the locals. She spent 10 wonderful years as a grade 4 teacher. Now, when she’s not mucking around in the world, she’s usually in her office or local coffee shop weaving these experiences into stories for children. Her new book is FLYING DEEP: CLIMB INSIDE DEEP-SEA SUBMERSIBLE ALVIN.

Like most authors, I have an ever-growing list of topics I might write about. But how do I decide which topic warrants a whole book? For me, the biggest factor is my interest level. (Tip: I have a “hidden board” called “Ideas” on Pinterest. I pin interesting stuff I find so I can come back to it later).

I spent about a year deeply researching, writing, and revising Flying Deep before it went out on submission. Once it sold, we went through many rounds of edits to get it ready for publication. Now, 3½ years after writing that first draft, the book is out in the world and I’m talking to kids, teachers, librarians, and parents about it. I need to love my topic to be able to sustain my excitement as I share it years after I first started researching it. I also need to consider what is already out in the market. How do I do that? Here are my steps:

 I start with Amazon. I narrow my focus to kids’ books and search on my specific topic and
related topics. For example, when writing Flying Deep, I searched Alvin, hydrothermal vents,
Chemosynthesis, deep ocean, deep-sea vehicles, etc.
 Then, I search my library’s on-line system to see if I can get the books delivered to my local
library. (I also use the library’s search engine, but I’ve found it isn’t as robust as Amazon’s.
Occasionally, I find some gem not on Amazon, though). Why the library? It’s free! I get every
book I can, even if it seems like it won’t be that useful. You never know.
 If I can’t find a book, I ask my librarian to search for me. I’ve gotten books from New York and
Pennsylvania this way.
 If there are books I can’t get through the library, I assess how valuable that book will be and if I should buy it. If it’s a kids’ book that’s so hard to get, do I need to worry about it? It’s clearly not widely available. On the other hand, if it’s a book that seems like it might be helpful to my
research, should I purchase it? (Note: many people tell me they have also searched on https://www.edelweiss.plus/ I haven’t done this, yet).

Ok, so I get the 5 or 10 or 20+ books currently available. Then what? Read them all, of course! I love this phase of research. It’s kind of like that dreaming phase when planning a vacation: I snuggle up on the sofa (or perhaps the hammock if it’s summer) and read every book. Instead of dreaming about places I’ll visit, I dream about what I might write. I look to see what the books have in common and how they’re different. I look for things I’m curious about that are not covered in the books. I also check the bibliography for resources I might consult later. I take notes. I also consider these points:

 Is there a lack of books on this topic? Why might that be? (A lack of books doesn’t necessarily mean one is needed- there may not be a market for it).
 Is the market already flooded with books on this topic? (Multiple books already in the market
doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t write one).
 If there are multiple books already out, what new angle might I bring to the topic. (For example,I consider what I was curious about that isn’t in the available books).

Once I’ve done all of that, then I decide if I want to pursue the topic further. If I decide to proceed, I use the information I’ve gathered to guide my research. I look for a new angle to the story and the hidden gems that will bring my topic alive in a new or interesting way.

Your Assignment: Give this a try today. What topics have you been thinking about? (You have an idea file, right?) Follow my steps to see what you can dig up that has already been published and request the books from your library. Then see where your idea fits with what’s already available. While you’re looking, be alert for ideas that pop into your mind and jot them down. (Note: If you don’t have a list of non-fiction topics and you’d like to build one, check out my Teacher’s Write post from 2016 “Follow Your Curiosity.” In it, I give more background about Flying Deep and offer tips for finding topics)

Feel free to share your reflections for today in the comments! And a reminder: If you have a work-in-progress, you can also visit Friday Feedback to share a bit, get feedback, and give feedback to others, too.

Teachers Write 7.12.18 Thursday Quick-Write with Justina Ireland

Good morning! It’s time for our Thursday Quick-Write, and today’s guest author wrote one of my favorite books of the year – Dread Nation.

Justina Ireland is also the author of the teen novels Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows. She enjoys dark chocolate and dark humor and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. You can visit her online at www.justinaireland.com.

When I think of writing, I usually think primarily in the fundamental building blocks of story: setting, character, and plot.  For me, this is the Holy Trinity, and manipulating any single one of these elements will impact the other two.  Is your character a plucky girl from 1880s Wisconsin? That’s going to make her a lot different than a plucky girl from 1980s Wisconsin. And moving either of these girls to California would also change them as characters and would require some manipulation of the plot.

But keeping these three elements in mind when writing means that improving any of them requires us to look critically at the other two. To fix a broken plot means to consider both the character and setting.  To change a setting means modifying character actions and plot development, and so on and so forth.

So the exercise I have for you today involves thinking about your character critically, and using a modification of setting to understand them on another level.

Your Assignment: Every character has a place where they are comfortable and uncomfortable, and a common exercise involves writing a scene where your main character is somewhere they would love and somewhere they would hate (in Dread Nation this is the main character killing the dead in the woods around Miss Preston’s and killing dead at a university lecture, respectively).

But a better way to fully understand the depth and breadth of a character is to completely remove them from their time period.  How does your 1980s girl fare in the 1880s? What trends does she love and what does she miss about home?  Writing these kinds of quirky, irreverent scenes can help to get you out of the rut of your plot, and help you build a deeper, more nuanced character.

So: take your main character and write a scene with them a hundred years in the future or a hundred years in the past. As you write keep the following in mind:

What do they love about this new time? What do they hate?

How well do they adapt and what does that look like?

What is the hardest thing for them to overcome about the time shift? What do they miss most about their own time?

Feel free to share a bit of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like!