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A Neighborhood in Pictures

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It’s showtime for the Davis second graders. On Wednesday morning, parents and others in the school community will gather in the auditorium to view a narrated slideshow of the 49 photographs that document the Davis neighborhood. For those of you who cannot be there or who want to see the photographs again, I have put a gallery on my website. Click on the photographs tab and then the Neighborhood Student Project. We are printing and matting 8 x 10 copies of the photographs for an exhibit next month. I’ll keep you posted on that.

Wonderful Festival

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I spent a wonderful two days at the Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi. In addition to the presentations, signings, and speeches at the festival itself, this week was the debut of Storybook Look: Illustrations by Southern Artists. The exhibit was hung at the beautiful Saenger Theater in downtown Hattiesburg and I was joined during Wednesday evening’s reception and signing by two other exhibiting artists: Rick Anderson and Daniel Powers. In addition to local folks from Hattiesburg, the exhibit drew from the festival-goers, a wonderful group of school and public librarians from across the region. Diane Shepherd, owner of Main Street Books, handled book sales and took care of many important details.

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This year I delivered a new presentation, “Seeing is Believing.” I talked about the power of photography and the importance of storytelling in children’s nonfiction. I was delighted to reconnect with librarians I had met for the first time last year and who have embraced my book.

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I heard stories of students finding wolfsnails in their yards at home and protecting them from being killed by gardeners wanting to protect their plants. A college student studying creative writing told of seeing a wolfsnail in New Orleans during a Spring Break work trip — and how fascinated she and her friends were with its lip extensions. In my sessions, I shared a draft copy I’ve made of the new book (Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature) and I got good feedback.

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I always learn from the other writers, illustrators and storytellers. This year’s group included Judy Blume, Ashley Bryan, Diane Williams, and Yuyi Morales. After describing herself as an anxious, shy, and fearful child, Blume said her first favorite book was Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. She admited to having hid it at the back of her toy drawer in the hopes her mother wouldn’t return it to the library. As she wrapped up her speech, Blume said this about writing: “If everything is going well, I can leave everything in my life behind and spend a few hours in that other place…It’s the place where I can be fearless. It’s the place where I can be as brave and as strong as Madeline.”

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Ashley Bryan urged anyone engaged in the process of teaching kids to read to use poetry. Out loud. His speech was peppered with poems by Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni. Holding a book (he said he always holds a book — even though he knows the poems from memory), he did a lot of call-and-response with us to demonstrate the way putting voice to poetry turns it into irresistible language that is connected to the words on a page. Use poetry, he says, and you will grow readers. I was convinced!

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Yuyi Morales had the unenviable position of presenting after Judy Blume’s keynote address and after a two-hour signing (which many festival-goers spent waiting in line(s)), but she was well up to the task. She brought her bag of surprises and led us through her creative journey with her books. Yuyi is a native of Mexico and Spanish is her first language. She does extremely well in English and she sprinkled lots of Spanish into her talk. She ended with a terrific tribute to longtime children’s book ambassador, writer, and teacher Coleen Salley, who died last autumn.

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Yuyi read Salley’s Why Epossumondas Has No Hair on His Tail. It was beautiful and fitting. Unfortunately, I missed out on the Coleen Salley celebration and the final day of the festival because I had a prior engagement back in Jackson. What a wonderful festival! Congratulations to Catharine Bomhold, director, and Karen Rowell, assistant director, and all the others who make this event possible — including Ellen Ruffin, director of the de Grummond collection at USM.

Muse to Market – SCBWI – Southern Breeze

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SCBWI’s Southern Breeze region wrapped up its SpringMingle’09 with advice from Caitlyn Dloughy, editor of the Simon & Schuster imprint Atheneum. Dloughy urged writers to develop characters with action: “If you find yourself starting with a few paragraphs of physical description of your character, you may not have developed your character enough.” She asked the audience to name memorable characters from children’s books and then say why the characters were memorable: Lily (of the purple plastic purse), Eloise, Max (the wild thing). Each was noted for something they did; not what they looked like. In particular, Dloughy cautioned writers to avoid descriptions such as “twinkling eyes” and “blond hair.” Recommended reading: Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos, Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, and The Underneath by Kathi Appelt.

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Our keynote speaker, award-winning author Kathleen Duey, explained that writers need to work on three aspects of the writing life: “art, craft, and filthy commerce.” The bottom line, she said, is always “write the BEST book.” She suggested that beginners should attend conferences, join critique groups, and take writing classes. Start submitting only after you know your work is really, really good. Otherwise, you crowd the mailboxes, desks, floors, and closets of editors who are getting busier as the industry downsizes. In order to feed your art, she said: “spread your wings, read poetry, read literary novels for adults.” If you stare at children’s books all the time, that will help your marketing knowledge (filthy commerce), but it won’t help your art.” She cautioned against trying to write to trends; write what you absolutely MUST write — from your heart. Recommended reading: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.

Note: I will post more about the conference in the coming days. Check back for more from other speakers: Abigail Samoun, Daniel Powers, and Liz Conrad.

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Shelli Johannes-Wells, one of our own Southern Breezers, launched the conference with a great talk on marketing. She made a convincing argument for writers to begin marketing during their “pre-published” years. I couldn’t agree more. She explained branding (including the often overlooked shadow brand.) Her talk was funny and full of good tips. You can find more of the same on her blog called Market My Words.

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Mary Kate Castellani, an associate editor at Walker Books, cautioned writers against trying to write to trends. In her talk titled, “Young Adult Fiction: What Works?” she explained some of the characteristics of YA books: immediacy (everything for teens is happening right now; not much perspective of past or future) and offer some hope. To keep up with what’s being published and finding success in the market, she recommended a newsletter. I thought she said YA Pulse, but the only thing I could find with a similar name is the Check Your Pulse newsletter from Simon & Schuster. Anyone else find the YA Pulse? Recommended reading: Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher; Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson; What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell.

Nathan’s Pet Snail — Photo Friday

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Nathan’s Pet Wolfsnail.

Writing for Readers

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I have been planning this post for some time, but several things (scanner down, computer down) conspired to keep it from going up until now. And I’m glad. Earlier today, I learned that Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator had been named a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book by the American Library Association. The award recognizes authors and illustrators of beginning readers “for their literary and artistic achievements that demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.” Here’s the committee’s description of Wolfsnail: “An exciting nonfiction look at the carnivorous wolfsnail trapping and devouring its victim, this science book uses bold block type against a white background to enhance the ease of reading. The magnified, detailed photographs and playful, informative text will amaze and attract readers.”

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The above picture shows a young reader, named Jackson S., who read Wolfsnail in the first months after it was published. He sent me my first (and only) fan letter. I will quote from it here, keeping his invented spellings:  “I like your book because the plot helps me learn about woulfsnails in a fun way! Are you going to write any more books? Maybe you could write about spiders or lizards. I would prefer lizards.” He also told me about the wolfsnail he and his older brother found in their yard. “I let go my wolfsnail because I was afraid it was goining to die. It ate about one snail evre two days. I got its food off our brick wall! It staid in its shell about an hour and then it would come out and search for food. We named it wolfy!”

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I telephoned my editor, Andy Boyles, when I heard the award news and he suggested one of the reasons I won was the fact that I take children seriously. I do. The chair of the Geisel committee, Joan Atkinson, told me the panel liked the fact that the book had a story arc, that it included some suspense. Though some of the language seemed at first glance a little more advanced than in your typical beginning reader (“toothy tongue”), it was appropriate to the story and well supported by the photographs. The above photograph shows me signing my book for a beginning reader who at age four negotiated “toothy tongue” and the rest of the text just fine. (This photo was taken at the 2008 Children’s Book Festival in Hattiesburg. See previous post.) I am so glad these kids are diving into books like Wolfsnail and discovering the wonderful world of reading and the joys of nature.

Update I visited St. Therese Catholic School in the fall and the librarian wrote a tribute post today. I feel so honored.

Nice lists

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator appears on three new lists: a national magazine’s holiday gift guide, a blogging librarian’s best new nonfiction list, and a children’s literature consultant’s best books of the decade list. I am excited to see Wolfsnail make these lists.

Check out Natural History Magazine’s Gifts for Budding Scientists. Diana Lutz, a freelance science writer and editor, compiled the list. She writes: “Told in larger-than-life photographs, the story has a nice narrative arc and more drama than you might expect. Young children will warm to the snail, which has comical handlebar mustaches (mouthpiece extensions that help it track prey), and shares their predicament of being very small in a big world.” Other books Lutz recommends for young readers are: Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City and Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life.

Gwen Vanderhage is a librarian who blogs at Your Friendly Librarian. She’s put together a list of best new nonfiction books “for those sometimes reluctant readers who are really intrigued with facts and amazing nature photos.” Wolfsnail is in company with Trout Are Made of Trees (April Pulley Sayre), The Black Book of Colors (Menena Cottin), Wild Tracks (Jim Arnosky), and Nic Bishop’s Frogs.

Kathleen Baxter, a children’s literature consultant, included Wolfsnail on her best books of the decade list. This is a list she keeps updated for a popular workshop she presents for librarians and teachers. As she notes, “Creating a list like this for a fairly brief talk is almost absurd!  Estimates of the number of new books published in the U.S.A. every year range from 15,000—29,000, so no wonder we all feel behind.  I thus selected a healthy dose of fine 2008 titles and some that I doubt everyone knows from other years.”

I found the list, which includes 108 books, on the website of the Central Massachusetts Regional Library System. Baxter notes that lesson plans and activities are available online for many of the books on the list. Click here to see a teacher’s guide for Wolfsnail.

Educational Materials

I’ve written before about creating educational materials that can be used with Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator.  I thought some of you might be interested in the process. Many writers of children’s books come from among the ranks of teachers and librarians; they certainly know how to create educational materials. Those of us who came to this business via other paths have some things to learn.

Creating the coloring page was easy — Richard had already done a nice (electronic) pen drawing of a snail and I used Adobe’s Photoshop, InDesign, and Acrobat to size it right and to add labels for the parts. During some school visits, I project the coloring page with labeled parts while the students color and label the parts on their coloring pages.

The second set of educational materials was different. I created three different sets of classroom activities: Introduction to Snails, Using Photographs to Prompt Story Writing, and Telling Stories Through Photographs: Write Your Own Caption Activity.

The first step in the process was to look at the curriculum. I chose to look at Mississippi’s since, at least initially, most of my visits will be close to home. In most states, the k-12 curriculum is available online. I reviewed the objectives in science, language arts, and visual arts.

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator meets science curriculum objectives in all elementary grades, but it is a particularly good match in first and second grades when students learn to identify living things that are indigenous to Mississippi, discover that plants are a food source for living organisms, and begin learning about the food chain.

For example, here are the relevant competencies and objectives for first grade:

1. Explore the basic patterns of living systems. (L)
c. Observe and sequence the life cycles of plants, insects, and animals.

2. Investigate the diversity of living things. (L, P)
a. Classify plants and animals according to external features (scales, feathers, fur, etc.).
b. Identify plants and animals indigenous to Mississippi.
c. Compare plants and animals in Mississippi with those found in the jungle, desert and arctic regions.

Introduction to Snails outlines some activities students can do with snails in the classroom to meet these teaching objectives.

Using Photographs to Prompt Story Writing and Telling Stories Through Photographs: Write Your Own Caption Activity are activities that address competencies in language arts. In particular,

2. The student will apply strategies and skills to comprehend, respond to, interpret, or evaluate a variety of texts of increasing length, difficulty, and complexity.

For the third set of educational materials, I set up an account with an online puzzle creator to create a crossword puzzle and two word searches: one for first graders and one for third graders.

All of these are available as downloadable pdfs on my website. Click on About Sarah and click on Educational Materials.

I hope you will let me know what you think about these educational materials — especially you teachers and moms out there who decide to use them with your students or children.

Web Presence with Teaching Books

Richard and I were asked to record short audio webcasts for the TeachingBooks.net author name pronunciation guide. Click Sarah and Richard to listen.

I am going to look into getting some of the educational materials I’ve created for Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator listed with their book guides. I’ll keep you posted when I find out how that works.

Update:

Dankia Morphew-Tarbuck, the Web 2.0 Content Producer, for TeachingBooks.net got in touch with me about the educational materials. I’ll be submitting what I’ve created to the TeachingBooks.net Information Manager for review. I’ll let you know what happens.

Southern Arts Federation Touring Exhibit

I learned recently that the illustrators gallery show I participated in earlier this year has been chosen to be a traveling exhibit through the Southern Arts Federation. Elizabeth Dulemba, the illustrator coordinator for the Southern Breeze region of SCBWI, put the show together and shepherded it through the SAF selection process.

This is a new experience for me — never having had my photographs shown in a gallery setting before. I am learning about giclee prints, about framing, about procuring prints for sale along with the exhibit, etc. I have also put together a 10-page packet of educational materials for use with Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator. All the time I spent working alongside teachers at Davis Magnet School sure came in handy as I developed activities to meet language arts, visual arts, and science curriculum objectives. I’ll be posting the new materials to my website soon.

The exhibit will tour for two years and we have been told to expect opportunities to talk about our work and sell our books. I am grateful to Elizabeth (and to Liz Conrad who helped hang the original show) for her work on this project. Elizabeth continues to act as our organizer and general adviser.

Successful WordPress Update

We approached this latest WordPress update with a little fear and trepidation because last time we updated, we lost all previous posts and I had to manually re-enter them. This update went much more smoothly — though there was about an hour in there where I thought we would be down for an undetermined length of time. Richard persevered and prevailed!

Once again, I invite you to visit our new and improved website. Since I last blogged about it, we’ve posted reviews for Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator and filled in the page about my work helping students create their own books. Find the “Creating With Children” page under the About Sarah tab.