I visited third graders at St. Therese Elementary School in Jackson today to begin a project I cooked up with librarian Julie Owen. (See her post here.) She and I are field testing a project we will be featuring during our workshop at the International Reading Association Conference in Chicago next month. The workshop is called “Seeing is Believing: Photography in Nonfiction.” Each student will take a digital photograph in the schoolyard. Then, each will write a Fib poem inspired by the photograph. The final step is making an accordion book (with folds based on the Fibonacci sequence).
Today, I began by reading Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature. I loved hearing the smattering of “wow”s and “that’s cool”s. I got asked, as I often do, how long it took me to make the book. After I answered two years (which was from idea to publication), I backtracked and explained that it wasn’t two years of solid work on nothing but that. I also got asked: “What does this book mean to you?” Wow. Answer: While writing and photo-illustrating and getting one book published felt like climbing a very big mountain and made me very proud, I was worried about whether I could do it again. Would I find the right idea? With this book, I feel like I’ve answered that question with a big fat affirmative. And, it’s math. Cool.
Here we are trying out our newly-made paper frames. The third graders will practice with their frames when they go outside for recess and at home after school. Tomorrow, we got out with digital cameras. The third graders have already written haiku and cinquains. I can’t wait to see their photographs, poems, and Fib books.
My middle and youngest sons spent the day Friday at the Mississippi Science Olympiad at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. They competed in events such as trajectory, elevated bridge, Wright stuff, pentathlon, and dynamic planet. I went along to chaperone and take pictures. The photography challenges were that most of the events we could watch were held in the gymnasium and the student union. I had to use a very long lens to get close enough, but my flash wasn’t effective at that distance. I propped the lens a lot to try to steady it. You can judge the results.
I have an interview with my new friend Joe D’Agnese, the author of Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. Read my review of Blockhead, too. At the end of the interview, you’ll see where else Joe will be this week.
What is Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci about?
It’s a lightly fictionalized biography of Leonardo of Pisa, the real-life medieval mathematician who is best known for the number pattern called the Fibonacci Sequence. He lived during the 12th to 13th centuries, and details of his life are sketchy. But what we do know is very exciting (at least to me). He grew up in one of the great Italian cities during a time of upheaval and war, he traveled on behalf of his merchant father to Algeria, he studied accounting, and was amazed to discover that Algerian merchants used numerals that looked different from the ones used back home in Europe. Europeans used Roman numerals. The Arab nations used numerals they had borrowed from Indian mathematicians, and which looked like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. They also had the numeral zero, which is the key to understanding place value. Leonardo’s genius was recognizing that Hindu-Arabic numerals were superior to Roman numerals. He brought those numerals back to Europe, and led the way toward Europe’s conversion. Some people say that without his contribution to mathematics, the Renaissance as we know it would not have happened. His famous number pattern grew out of a word problem about multiplying rabbits that he put into his first book about the “new” math.
What (or who) turned you on to math?
When I was a kid, math and science were probably my least favorite subjects. I got okay grades in those subjects, but I wasn’t in love with them. Based on the choices I made when I was in high school and college, you could argue that I was prepared to avoid these subjects entirely for the rest of my adult life. But fate is funny. One of my first jobs out of college was as editor of a kids’ math magazine, called Scholastic DynaMath. And when I left the magazine, I embarked on a career as a freelance journalist, writing mostly for science magazines. So I guess the moral of the story is, you will end up fascinated with the things you try to avoid. It was while I was at DynaMath that I first learned about Fibonacci and starting writing the book. It was while I was a freelance journalist that I sold the book to Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.
Why did you decide to write about the man we call Fibonacci?
There are a couple of things that interested me in the story. One is that my mom was born and raised in Italy, and Italian culture has always been a source of curiosity for me. I was intrigued by the setting and time period. Who doesn’t love medieval times? And lastly, I loved learning about the Fibonacci Sequence. Believe it or not, I came to it late in life. I never learned about it in school as a kid, nor in college. I was genuinely fascinated by the number pattern, particularly its appearance in nature. As the whole, Blockhead just seemed like the perfect project for a geek like me.
Tell me about the research for Blockhead.
I feel like an old man when I tell this story because most of the research was conducted in the 1990s, in the days before everyone had high-speed Internet in their home and offices. So a lot of the research was old-school. I went to libraries, read encyclopedia entries, began collecting journal and magazine articles about the Fibonacci sequence, and tried to find books about Leonardo, mathematicians, and the origin of our modern number system. I also did a lot of weird things on my own to understand the Fibonacci Sequence, like draw lots of family trees of multiplying bunny rabbits. The biggest liberty I took in the book was to suggest in a whimsical way that Leonardo actually knew the significance of the Fibonacci Sequence. He did not in real life, but I saw no other way to incorporate the Sequence into his life story. You can’t tell Leonardo’s tale and then leave out the only reason most people remember him.
How did you overcome the challenge of writing about math and not being a mathematician?
During the writing of the book, when I encountered gaps in Leonardo’s life, I would call upon my background in journalism and simply phone or email professors, math teachers and mathematicians for advice. I was nervous about making those calls because my knowledge of Fibonacci’s contributions ends at the number 377 on the famous Sequence. But everyone was kind enough to listen and help me. I discovered that many of the questions I had about Leonardo’s life were genuine mysteries. For example, Fibonacci’s nickname seems to be “blockhead” or “bonehead” (hence the title of my book) but no one really knows why. A good theory is that his neighbors were poking gentle fun at him for being an absent-minded professor, and that he incorporated this nickname into his byline in his writings. Some famous ancient Romans embraced their nicknames. And this is somewhat typical in Italian culture, even today.
What was the path to publication for Blockhead?
Everyone tells writers that they need to be prepared for rejection. They need to be persistent, and someday they will have a finished printed book in their hands. Well, I’ve gotten rejections from editors since I started writing in my teens. Rejection is like a pal to me! But in this case, the story’s slightly different. I sold Blockhead to the first publisher I ever showed it to. I was elated. No rejection. But after that quick success came 12 long years of waiting for the book to be produced. We went through two editors and two illustrators. So now it’s out 14 years after I first started writing it. So guess what? A writer still needs to be persistent even after they’ve sold the book. And someday they will have a finished, printed book in their hands!
What are you working on now?
As a freelance journalist, I am always writing magazine pieces for kids and adults. The two audiences are always blending together for me, even in my book writing. Last year, my wife and co-author Denise Kiernan and I published a book called Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame & Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence. We wrote it for grown-ups, but many teachers and librarians use it in their classrooms. I am currently working long-distance with a mysterious European scientist to write a mysterious grown-up nonfiction book about a mysterious object. Hopefully, you won’t have to wait 14 years to read it!
See more Nonfiction Monday posts at Miss Rumphius Effect.
Wednesday: Q&A with John O’Brien, Blockhead‘s illustrator, at the blog of illustrator Carolyn Croll.
Thursday: Joe’s essay at I.N.K.
Friday: Joe’s book trailer at his blog.
Saturday: “Saturday Sketch” at Henry Holt’s blog: See before-and-after art of the book.
I first heard about Blockhead from the manager of the children’s section at my local independent bookstore: “There’s another Fibonacci book coming out this spring, too.” I was worried for a tiny little minute that someone else had had the same idea I had. Would there be enough room in the market for two Fibonacci books? I was relieved when my internet search revealed that the book in question was very different. It was an illustrated biography for a slightly older audience. I was really curious and interested.
About the same time I was finding out about Blockhead, its author was learning about my book. We got in touch and, in the way things often go in this business, I now consider Joseph D’Agnese a friend. We sent each other copies of our books; he hosted me on his blog during my launch week; and I am returning the favor.
I have one advantage over him in my part of this virtual tour: I got to read his book before this post. So, instead of only an interview, I can offer my informed opinion. I enjoyed this book a lot and I think it has serious kid appeal. Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci is an interesting hybrid between picture book biography and fable. D’Agnese, a freelance writer who used to edit a math magazine for kids, wanted to write about Fibonacci and the relationship between Fibonacci numbers and nature. The problem was there is no evidence that Fibonacci knew about this connection. So D’Agnese imagined a scenario in which Fibonacci does see the connection. In D’Agnese’s story, the young Fibonacci faces pressure from his schoolmaster and his father who aren’t sure he is applying himself to his lessons with sufficient diligence. What kid can’t relate to that?
It may be that I have more appreciation for D’Agnese’s text than the average reader; I know intimately the potential pitfalls involved in writing about: a) someone who lived so long ago (when names were not like our names) and b) a sequence that solved a number problem with more than a few convoluted conditions. I am referring here to the Rabbit Problem. Take my word for it, D’Agnese handles these problems with ease. Blockhead is a delightful tale about an important mathematician, his world travels, and his breakthrough ideas.
Come back tomorrow for the interview.
I went back to Davis Magnet School today to facilitate the writing of captions. If you remember, I went out with second graders earlier this month as they photographed their neighborhood for a unit called Davis on the Map. Today, I sat with groups of four or five at a time at a kidney shaped table and we talked about proper nouns, active verbs, capitalization, spelling, and pronouns. We learned words: official, baptismal, peel, kiln, convince, unresolved and Jamaica. We had to consult dictionaries, the internet (which was slow and ineffective – ha!), and the teacher’s notes.
As the teacher and I worked with each group writing captions, the other students spent time going from one center to another. One of the centers was dedicated to books that were related to our unit. I added a work-in-progress of mine to the pile and invited the students to read it and make comments. Once our caption writing work was done, I talked with three students about the manuscript. One girl expressed her observations in the form of “text to self connections and text to text connections.” This particular manuscript is missing an ending so I asked them to give me their ideas and, of course, they had some good ones. I love interacting with my audience!
Wolfsnail update: A new review of Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator went up on Maggie Reads, the blog of a librarian in the northeast part of the state. I really appreciate the kind words about the book and the recommendations for its use with kids. She also mentioned Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature.
It is almost time for Mississippi’s third through fifth graders to vote for their favorite book among this year’s nominees for The Magnolia Award. I learned about this award at the 2009 Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival and asked Virginia Butler, a writer friend and independent reading specialist who is part of the Award’s nominating committee, to bring me up-to-date.
Voting will take place at public and school libraries in April. Any student who has read at least half of the books is eligible to vote. The creator(s) of the winning book will be invited to receive The Magnolia Award at the 2011 Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival.
In establishing this award, Mississippi joins about 30 other states in recognizing excellence in children’s literature and getting young readers excited about new books. Linda Perez, librarian at Madison Station Elementary, spearheaded the push to create a children’s choice award. It is a goal of organizers to expand the award to other age groups in coming years.
The Magnolia Award is a partnership between the Mississippi Department of Education; the Mississippi Library Commission; the Mississippi Reading Association; the University of Southern Mississippi School of Library and Instructional Science; the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival; the University of Southern Mississippi School of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education; and the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection.
If you have questions, or comments, please contact Catharine Bomhold (cbomhold at yahoo dot com). If you have suggestions for next year’s nominees, please follow this link.
What do you think of my new bag? I had a ton of fun putting this together during a sewing session with my friend, Julie. She spent the time working on pillow cases. When she posts some photographs, I’ll link to them here.
Visit Sew, Mama, Sew to see the pattern and instructions. The pattern calls for using a single piece of fabric, but I am fairly obsessed with stripping. My other purse, which I did using a string pattern, was starting to show some wear. Plus, I thought it was time for a new style. Everything I used to make the bag was already in my sewing room.
Another view of the bag shows what I was carrying around today: postcards for Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature. Isn’t the sunflower a perfect accompaniment for a bright spring bag?
Richard went in search of interesting objects to photograph with the macro lens. These are the things he found — most of them on the kitchen counter.
A technical problem occurred with the blog this week and, in an attempt to fix it, my subscriber database was wiped out. Richard and I went through our list of comments and tried to re-create the subscriber list. This is why you may have gotten an email from the blog requesting confirmation that you are a subscriber. If you didn’t and you want to subscribe, please do so on the left column of the blog. Sorry for the inconvenience.
It was a big weekend for Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature. On Friday, I started the day as a guest on The Gestalt Gardener, a radio show on Mississippi Public Broadcasting hosted by Felder Rushing. We talked about the book and getting kids excited about the natural world, math, and gardening. I am a longtime listener to Felder’s show so I was familiar with its rhythms; Felder fielded about 8 calls and we fit our conversation in around them. The show was re-broadcast the next morning, which coincided with our signing at Lemuria. Many of our guests at the signing told us they had heard the show. I thank Felder and Ezra Wall, the show’s producer, for having me.
Lots of friends, old and new, came out for the signing, which began during Lemuria’s regular Saturday story hour. (Thank you, Patty, for taking photographs.) One attendee, named Kimberly, brought along an observation she wrote after spending some time talking about Fibonacci numbers and pinecones with her grandmother. (Her grandmother had heard the Gestalt Gardener show.)