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.

38 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.13.18 Friday Mini-Lesson with Michelle Cusolito

  1. Thank you Michelle for the great tips! I do have secret Pinterest boards where I pin ideas. I love researching ideas, so I’m going to hit up the Library today!

    1. Yay!

      Another tip: I make a hidden board for each new book. As I find useful resources for me or for future readers, I pin them. Once the book is sold, I make the board public. My Pinterest Board for Flying Deep is listed in the back matter as another resource.

  2. Dear Michelle,
    Thank you so much for sharing. What an interesting process. While I don’t write non-fiction, I think your research would be great for exploring topics for my fiction. For example, the MC in my current WIP wants to move to Hawaii. I believe I could apply your method to getting information for that book. I also think that it would be interesting in my library to give the kids some non-fiction books, say about sharks, and ask them to compare the books, how are they different, how is the information different. You’ve given me a whole lesson plan :). And thanks too for sharing the process, how long it took you and how you stuck with it. Sometimes we think in “overnight” success, when it’s actually months, and years in the making. Thanks again and best wishes.

    1. You can definitely use this for fiction, too. I have a fiction WIP and I followed similar steps.

      And yes, paired books! I used to do this in my 4th grade classroom using picture books. It’s a great way for kids to practice analyzing the accuracy of a book and compare the choices each author made about how to write the book (e.g. point of view, word choice, structure, etc). If I were still teaching 4th grade now, I’d pair my book with Jen Swansen’s Astronaut/Aquanaut. We take very different approaches to similar topics. There’s so much to learn about structure by comparing our two books. (https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781426328671). Another good book to pair with mine would be Otis and Will Discover the Deep by Barb Rosenstock and Katherine Roy. (https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780316393829 )

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Michelle–I am excited to read your book to my class as part of our #classroombookaday and especially because our class reads Deep Sea Danger, a drama. It will be a great partner book to read! Next, I was thrilled to read your post. I know my students will be interested in what you say as the process you go through as a writer. My students want everything to be done either yesterday, or by the time the bell rings. My students participate in genius hour and multi-genre writing projects, so I look forward to sharing your process with them as it matches the genius hour/passion project model well: driving question, research, note taking, what’s missing, etc. As writers, students are always wondering “how” authors write and many believe authors have these perfect stories that they write one time and then are done. The process itself is often the “unknown” but most critical information. Your post today if full of the “how”! Wonderful idea to use a hidden Pinterest board; I enjoy using Padlet for a similar use. While I know your focus is nonfiction, I can absolutely see how to transfer many of your ideas to fiction writing as well. After all, in fiction writing, authors need to create settings and characters with depth, so researching these are equally important. Even studying other books in a theme would be important. Thank you so much…and now, time to explore some of my ideas! I am loving the inspiration I have received from all of the authors this week!

    1. Thank so much for your comments. Oh, I remember the days of teaching writing to 4th graders and struggling to get them to revise their work…

      A detail you can share with your students: I have never written a first draft and been done. I’m certain I never will. I have about 40 different saved versions of Flying Deep from various revisions/edits. Not every version represented big changes, but I went over it that many times before it went on submission. Once my editor bought it, we went through 3 more rounds of edits before it was sent to the illustrator. Once we got early sketches back, we realized we needed to make more changes, so we made edits even after it had already been “signed off” in house.

      Thanks for sharing the play. It’s interesting to compare it to the way I wrote Flying Deep. Check out my comment above for other books you might like to add to that unit.

  4. I love this post! I’ve actually started to get to this process because it’s hard to “find the edges of research” as I call it. When I was in grad school, the “exhaustive lit” process seemed like drudgery. Now, I like it! My challenge is that I have found a topic without books about it….yay! right? Well, it’s good but the research involved is slowing down my writing….which means I need to get outta here and get back to butt-in-chair writing time. Thanks for the great advice.

  5. With all the interests in superheroes recently, I make sure to have conversations with students about what constitutes an ordinary hero, too. I’m hopeful to tie the ordinary circumstances around us to your prompt to figure out what we might find most engaging to sustain our interest to reach fruition. I’m thinking about not only how we can stop using straws to save the oceans (which might be a faraway, seemingly unreadable location for many, to informing ourselves better about backyard coexistence in suburbia and cities.

    When I arrived home from a trip this past week, I was watering neglected plants (even the natives I have been planting). When I turned to the spigot, there was a joyous scene of a little wren, flicking his feathers, as he trounced back and forth in the growing mud under the slight stream of water spraying from where the hose connects to the spigot.

    Just a couple steps away, I was also surprised by a snake who had taken up residence on a nearby rock. Reminded me of the delightful short animated film I saw at a film fest this spring, that tells a story about how the surrounding wildlife have quickly flipped to their uses a gorgeous post modern home with outdoor patio and swimming pool, that has been vacated by human inhabitants. That’s definitely an example of how art (ether books or some other media form) gurgle in our minds to resurface with new personal connections.

    Although there are many books for various readers about water conservation and how we can help backyard animals, I’m going to try to uncover a unique focus. I’ll be researching on the patio soon, but first need to watch my wren friend or his sibling, who just landed in the grass where the hose spewed as I watered yesterday.

  6. Thank you, Ms. Cusolito, for this wonderful, thought-provoking (even idea-provoking) post.

    I loved the line, “It’s kind of like that dreaming phase when planning a vacation.” So true! Sometimes, I get so bogged down in the reading and learning aspect that I completely lose focus on why I checked out all of these books or printed articles (I love JSTOR – a digital media source).

    I look forward to reading Flying Deep. You’ve inspired me on this sunny, hot Friday afternoon to head to the library and get as many books as I can on Japanese beetles. I put in a landscape over the last two days, and they are in love with two of the plants.

    Thank you again. Happy writing, reading, and researching!

    1. Oh… JSTOR is a wealth of cool information! I used it pretty heavily for a manuscript that is out on submission now.

      Do you have a personal account or are you affiliated with an academic institution that gives you access? I had to visit a university to get access.

      I hope you find a good way to manage all of those Japanese beetles. They can decimate a garden in days.

      1. Hi Michelle,

        I found so much at the library (actually, three libraries). Also, came home with some good fiction.:) There are dozens of ways to get rid of Japanese beetles. Who knew? I do everything naturally (no chemicals), but there are many ways to get rid of those pesky beetles.

        I work at a middle school and the high school has a JSTOR account. I can access JSTOR through the digital library. I didn’t even know that the high school had the account. My class was Skyping with an author that writes nonfiction, and he told the kids (and me) about JSTOR. Our school librarian, who is invited to EVERY Skype, shared with me that the high school had an account that I could utilize. I am writing a picture book about Fleet Walker (the first African American to play major league baseball – before Jackie Robinson and the MLB). JSTOR had a ton of articles that went along with the two books that I found about him.

        Thank you for sharing this lesson with all of us and taking the time to give feedback. I GREATLY appreciate it.:)

        1. Wow that’s pretty great. I’ll have to check with my son’s (high school) librarian to see if they have an account. It would be easier to access it locally than have to drive to a university. Thanks for the tip!

          Good luck with the beetles!

  7. Thank you for sharing the steps you take to write nonfiction. I especially liked looking for a new angle to a topic that may already have many books written about it. In my second grade class, we all want to write about dogs all the time. I’m going to use this as a jumping off point to help them come up with new angles about dogs that we haven’t seen yet. Thanks!

    In terms of my own writing, I am working on a piece of fiction, but the setting historical but also local. It’s been a lot of fun digging up old photos and reading through books that have references to our area during that time.

    Thanks again for your time today!

    1. Oh, great idea to use my approach with kids, too. I remember how lots of kids would often want to write about the same topics. It sure gets boring reading the same thing over and over again. 🙂 I hope you find it helps.

  8. It’s great fun to just read all the comments here. 🙂

    My loose plan now is to consider a series of easy readers about grandgirls visiting Grandma and Grandpa and what simple discovery/learning is made with each story. And yes, I have two grandgirls, ages 3 and 5. My notes are in a word document for now. I’m at the brainstorming phase for which topics/issues are best to include. All will require a bit of research.

    I’ve read several books about grands and grandparents… nothing quite like I’m thinking to try, but I’ll keep looking.

    1. Good luck with your project. Having little kids around is great fuel for a project. My kids are older now- 12 and 16- but I have had my nieces and nephews here for several weeks (ages 4-8). Every day one of them says something that cracks me up or simply reminds me how little kids talk.

  9. Hi Michelle,

    Reading your book Flying Deep: Climb Inside Deep-Sea Submersible ALVIN was like exploring another world. I am amazed at what lies beneath the ocean and to think how many places there still are awaiting exploration and discovery! I especially like the page orientation (up and down) as ALVIN is descending to the ocean depths and the Dumbo octopus on the manipulator arm. 🙂 I shared this with a student I am working with this summer and when I went to put it away he said, “No. I want to look at that again!” The pictures piqued his curiosity and he asked a lot of questions. A wonderful book!

    My interests lie in exploration above the earth. I have always been fascinated with space, but that is a very broad topic for this assignment, so I narrowed it down to satellites. I belong to an astronomy club and a few of the members track satellites. At first I thought how boring that must be until I found out how many satellites there are orbiting the Earth. I spent some time at the library this afternoon and found three children’s books on the topic. All three described different types of satellites and their uses. The Story of Satellites by Steve Parker is very comprehensive in its explanation of the satellites including the history behind them. It is also chock-full of pictures and labels. My idea initially would be to create a book explaining different satellites and their uses, but it looks like that’s been done, not that I couldn’t do it a little differently. Then I thought maybe a book showing what’s up there in space just orbiting the Earth’s atmosphere–all that space junk circling overhead. Even though we can’t see it, it’s something we need to be concerned about cleaning up in the future. I’ll keep brainstorming ideas….

    Thanks for joining Teachers Write today and for sharing all your great tips!

    Jane 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience of reading my book with a child. It’s such a wonderful gift for an author to hear stories like that. And I agree with you: Nicole’s art is fabulous. I happen to love the other vertical page when you are returning to the surface. I love all of the jellies and siphonophores on that page.

      I wonder if you could take your experiences viewing satellites and write a narrative non-fiction or even fiction book related to that? Perhaps a child is interested in satellites and joins an astronomy club like you did? I don’t know if that has been done before, but it could be interesting.

      Also, for your own interest, check out Jen Swansen’s book that I listed above.

    2. Thanks for the suggestions! Writing a narrative non-fiction on this topic might be worth exploring. I just checked out Jen Swansen’s book and other resources on her amazing website. What a great resource!

      Jane 🙂

  10. Hi Michelle,

    Thank you for your great post. I really like research as well. Sometimes if I get too much, it is overwhelming. Your ideas are refreshing. I just looked “Inside” your book on Amazon and ordered a copy. I have an illustrated book that I have been working on, and I also had someone illustrate it, but it has sat for 3 years. I need to figure out the next steps! My husband and I adopted two children from Tonga, and they are now 22, 23 and it is the story of one of their legends which they frequently dance to. I need to research publishers I guess.
    Thanks again!

    1. Thank you for ordering my book! I appreciate the support.

      The first step will be to decide if you want to pursue traditional publication or if you want to self-publish. If you want to pursue traditional publication, I encourage you to join SCBWI and learn about the submission process. (I know they’ve been adding more information for self-publishing, as well, but I haven’t used it).

  11. One source I also really like (coming from a librarian) is NoveList. Ask your librarian to help you with it or teach you to use it. You can search for all kinds of things like different genres, multiple perspectives, character driven, plot driven, and that’s just scratching the surface. It will show you books not in your library, too. That was the source I used besides my library catalog. Usually it’s used for reader’s advisory, but it can definitely work for this purpose, too.

  12. I was traveling home from my Florida to NC yesterday. That was my first vacation in 35 years. But one of my stops today WILL be the library.

  13. It is hard to decide what direction to head towards because there are many things that interest me. One thing that is really a passion project of mine is talking about the idea behind the cliche “when life gives you lemons through them at life’s balls”. While I can see that title might be offensive, there has been so much adversity and challenges placed before me that I want to show that there is hope. I am not sure how this is going to look but I really want it to materialize soon. I have some tools that I have learned along the way and want to share them because they are evidenced based and have done more to help me than anything else.

  14. I just ordered your book (many years ago I wrote about ALVIN in an educational book called New Frontiers). I’m a fellow research junkie–I can spend oodles of time going off on crazy tangents that have nothing to do with my book idea, but hey–these might blossom into other books someday!

    1. Thank you!

      I’m curious about what you wrote. Was New Frontiers a basal reader? I didn’t come across it when I was doing my research for Flying Deep.

      When you find those cool tangents, pin them to a hidden board on Pinterst like I do (or, others use a padlet) and go back to them later. That happened to me when I was researching the PB Bio I have out on submission right now. I came across a fascinating woman I wanted to go read more about, but I stopped myself. (I may have been reciting “Do not get distracted… do not get distracted…” haha). Anyway, I pinned what I had found. Once I finished that WIP, I went back and researched her further. Now I’m toying with a way I might write about her.