business of writing

Five Key Takeaways from National Conference for Kids Book Creators

The most exciting thing I learned at the recent national conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is that the evidence continues to mount that young readers crave high quality nonfiction — especially of the expository kind, which is the style of my most recent two books. Melissa Stewart, a friend and mentor who writes nonfiction, too, has spent months compiling research from various academic studies. I got to hear her talk about this firsthand, but she has also generously laid it all out on her blog Celebrate Science. I’ve linked to a post with a big bunch of research citations, but many of her posts are relevant, so plan to spend some time digging into it.

Spending time listening to the best practitioners of one’s craft is inspiring. The mainstage panel on nonfiction included Deborah Heiligman, Barbara Kerley, Jason Chin, and Candace Fleming. All talked about how much research they did just to get to the point where they had identified the “vital idea.” Having chosen a focus often meant that much research had to be set aside and new research had to be done to fill in around the vital idea. I had so many moments where I felt like I knew exactly what they were talking about that I tweeted this:  Nonfiction nirvana. Inspiring workshops by Asked why primary sources: “I want to meet people in their own words.” asked why NF, “The world is so interesting, I just want to learn as much as I can and share it.” My peeps, y’all.

People expect an author/illustrator of expository books about math to be … well, not like me. Several people who stopped by my signing table expressed surprise at the woman behind Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature. Apparently, I’m a little more outgoing and gregarious than they expect. And, if they probe a little deeper than the surface they discover that I am only good at writing about math because I am NOT a natural mathlete. I come by my understandings by reading lots of explanations written by better mathematicians than me. And then I read a lot more explanations. Eventually, I get to where I can explain it to someone who started where I did. Rather than “write what you know,” my mantra is “write what you want to understand.”

Every industry professional — agent, editor, art director — is swamped with submissions. Every single one has more material coming in than they can possibly handle. This means we must rely on the wider community of writers and artists to help us get our work into its best possible shape — before we submit. There is no shortcut for putting in the work — even for the well-published among us. As Kevin Lewis, an agent with Erin Murphy Agency, and Alexandra Penfold, an agent with Upstart Crow Literary, put it: “Don’t jump precipitously. Wait a beat.”  “You only get fresh eyes once.”

Finally, I spent a lunch hour with #kidlitwomen organizers strategizing about ways to push for equal treatment for women and for all people from marginalized groups in children’s publishing. If you want to get involved in or follow this important conversation, please check out the kidlitwomen group on Facebook. A first step we identified is to gather data documenting disparities. These include unequal pay for the same work; fewer marketing dollars put behind work by or about women/girls/other underrepresented people, etc.

My trip to Los Angeles for the SCBWI Summer Conference was paid for in part by a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. The MAC is funded by the Mississippi Legislature and by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is in turn funded by Congress. I am grateful for this public support of the arts. My thanks go in particular to my state representative, Christopher Bell; my state senator, David Blount; my U.S. House Rep. Gregg Harper; and my two U.S. Senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith.

Thank you, Mississippi Arts Commission!

For years, I have received various types of support from the Mississippi Arts Commission. This week I learned I had received a mini-grant to defray some costs associated with attending the  2018 Summer Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Held in Los Angeles each summer, the conference offers terrific sessions on all aspects of creating books for young people.

This year I am going into the conference with a manuscript in revision at Boyds Mills Press. Soon enough, I will be turning my attention to marketing the new book. I know I will learn new strategies from my colleagues. I will also be soaking up everything I can by way of inspiration from the best nonfiction writers in the field. The Mississippi Arts Commission is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mississippi Legislature. I am grateful for the public resources that help me produce engaging texts for children — all from the nature I find around me in Mississippi.

Korean Edition of Growing Patterns

Look what was waiting for me when I got home today: my first look at the Korean Edition of Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature.

Korean Growing PatternsThe Korean edition was published by Woongjin Think Big Co., Ltd. Here’s a look at an inside page:

inside GP Korean

I don’t read Korean, but I have some friends who do. I’ll have to see what they think.

New Website

Richard built me a new website. Click here to check it out and see what you think. Please let me know if something is not working.

Louisiana Book Festival

I’ll be in Baton Rouge Friday and Saturday for the Louisiana Book Festival. Come see my presentation on Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature at 10:15 a.m. in the State Library’s First Floor Seminar Center. At 11:15 a.m., I’ll be signing books at the Barnes & Noble Jr. tent. For more about the festival, click here.


Growing Patterns to be Published in Korean!

Great news is coming in fast and furious around here. It’s hard to keep up with the reporting.

growing patterns overGrowing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature will be published in Korean by a Korean publisher.

Here’s how I found out: I received a nice check in the mail from my publisher with no explanatory letter. The memo on the check just said “Advanced Pay.” I sent off an email to my editor asking about the mystery check. She passed it on to our rights manager who told us that the Boyds Mills Press international team had sold the rights to publish a hardcover edition of Growing Patterns in Korean to a Korean publisher. Wow!

My check is an advance against royalties so the hope is that eventually, there might be further royalties from the deal. I haven’t seen any royalties from my first foreign rights deal, which was to publish Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator in China in 2011.  I keep scouring the twice-a-year royalty statements, and occasionally bugging my editor, who then bugs the international team. I’ll keep you posted.

News, news, finally, some news!

I got word today that Boyds Mills Press is ready to commit to my latest work-in-progress. It’s gonnna be a book, y’all!
broccoli macro

I can’t wait to push this project through the rest of the steps to publication.

Growing Patterns Featured in Book on Mathematical Literacy

I contributed a short essay to a book published this month that encourages teachers to use trade books in mathematics instruction. I wrote about how I conceived of, wrote, photographed, and designed Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature.

cover art for math litTitled Mathematical Literacy in the Middle and High School Grades: A Modern Approach to Sparking Student Interest, it was written by Dr. Faith Wallace and Mary Anna Evans and published by Pearson. (ISBN: 9780132180979)

My essay appears in a box in Chapter 5, titled “Picture Books: Where Math, Text, and Illustrations Collide.”

The authors contacted me in the summer of 2010, a few months after Growing Patterns was published and asked me to contribute. I am thrilled to be included in this book. The inside cover includes a chart showing how teachers can use material and activities in the book to meet Common Core standards for grades 6-12.

It’s particularly satisfying to have this book come out a month after I co-presented a workshop on Visualizing Math Stories at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Conference.

Good News All Around

I was awarded a fellowship in the literary arts by the Mississippi Arts Commission. With my fellowship, an award of $3,900, I am charged with creating new work. Earlier this year, I described the process the Commission uses to evaluate fellowship applications. You can read about it here. I very much appreciate the help of Diane Williams, the MAC program director with oversight of the literary arts programs. I also appreciate the panelists.

The Work-in-Progress that I submitted for evaluation is tentatively titled “Not White.” It is a coming-of-age memoir.

In addition to the fellowship, I applied to be included in the MAC’s rosters of Artists and Teaching Artists. This will be my second three-year stint on the roster of Artists (for the literary arts) and the first stint with the Teaching Artists. In addition to Diane, who helped with the roster process, I also thank Kim Whitt, the program director with oversight of the teaching artist roster.

The final piece of good news is that all my struggling earlier this year with my Picture Book Work-in-Progress is really bearing fruit. I’m nearly ready to send it out into the world — again. Wish me luck!

Here’s a leaf I saw on the tip of an Island north of Seattle. Even with expanses of water, I am drawn to veins in a leaf.



Listening to “Blind” Reviewers

mac logoEarlier this year, I submitted three applications to the Mississippi Arts Commission. One was for a fellowship in the literary arts. This year’s literary fellowship categories were creative nonfiction, playwriting and screenwriting. My submission was in the creative nonfiction category.

Last week, I sat in the room while an independent review panel discussed this year’s eight fellowship applications. Before the meeting, each panelist had read for each application a 15-20 page work sample and an artist’s statement (with all identifying information removed).

Besides me, two other applicants came to listen to the panel.

The panelists were identified by name cards on the conference table. I knew two of them from their work in the arts community. Two others were new to me.

It was very strange to listen to my writing being talked about in that setting. Because my work-in-progress is a memoir, the panelists did at least have the luxury of using the pronoun “she” when they wanted to speak about the author, namely, me. From the discussion, I learned that other applicants’ work samples ranged from a literary cookbook to a play to newspaper column-style family reminiscences.

I kept imagining that the panelists could tell it was my work they were discussing. I was sure it showed on my face. All three of us observers took notes during the entire discussion, but I wrote more assiduously when they were discussing my work.

It was interesting to hear how the opinions of the panelists were in some cases diametrically opposed. “Unique and interesting” versus “Didn’t see the originality.”

Though it was a strange experience, I think all artists should take any opportunity to listen in on this kind of discussion. Perhaps most importantly, the process allows you to see how effective (or not) you are at conveying your goals and at displaying the expertise to carry out those goals. For example, in at least one case, a writer, in his/her artistic statement, proposed a biography, but the work samples were unrelated to the biography project.

At the end of a brief discussion, panelists were asked to give each application a series of numerical scores, based on certain criteria (originality and vision of the work; technical skill and mastery of the artistic discipline).

Observers were not allowed to see scores. We were asked to leave before the panel had its final discussion. In my past experience with arts commission panels (when I wrote project grants for schools and nonprofit organizations), this final discussion is where the panel’s ultimate preferences are revealed. (Observers used to be able to stay in the room for these discussions. I’m not sure when/why the change was made.)

I will have to wait until July to learn whether I will get a fellowship. The panel’s recommendations go to the Mississsippi Arts Commission‘s governing board, which meets in June.

The Not-Blind Part

The other two applications I submitted to the arts commission this year were for its artist rosters. I have been on the artist roster for the literary arts for three years and it was time for me to re-apply. In addition, I applied for the first time to join the teaching artist roster.

My application to be included on the artist roster for the literary arts went for review to the same panel that reviewed the fellowship applications. In this case, however, the panelists knew my name, saw my resume, my marketing materials, my work samples, and a list of the presentations and signings I’ve done in the last three years. I could tell from the comments by panelists that all of them supported my application to be on the roster.

The story was largely the same for the teaching artist application, though it went before a different panel. During the discussion, several panelists said they wished they had more information on which to base their recommendation. Some suggested the application requirements should be amended to include examples of student work. I would have loved to have shared my students’ work. You can see some of it here and here.

Another interesting aspect of the discussion was something I’ve struggled with over my years of trying to make the most of the resources available from the Mississippi Arts Commission. In order to apply for individual support (fellowship or grant) or to appear on rosters, an applicant must chose a particular art form. So, though I am equal parts writer and photographer in the creation of nonfiction picture books for children, I must choose for the purposes of each application whether to apply as a literary artist (writer) or as a visual artist (photographer). The rules about work samples make it hard to show my picture book work — because I am limited to typed manuscript pages on the literary arts side and photographs on the visual arts side.

I wonder if the panelists are allowed to and/or encouraged to look at the online materials of the applicants for rosters. I have so much information available on my website and on this blog that could have filled in some of the information panelists seemed to be seeking.

Have any of you blog readers experienced a similar “blind” review process? What was it like?

Wolfsnail Going to China

geisel coverMy semiannual royalty statement came this week and it included an entry I didn’t understand. When I checked on it, I found out that Boyds Mills Press has contracted with a company in China that wishes to publish Wolfsnail in the Chinese market. In this pay period, I received a modest advance against (hoped for) future royalties. This will be interesting. I hope I will see a Chinese copy someday.

Speaking of the royalty statement, I am pleased with the fact that both books continue to sell. After nearly a year on the market, Growing Patterns remains well behind Wolfsnail in lifetime sales, but, if Amazon’s numbers from book scan (in Author Central data – NOT sales rank) are to be believed, Growing Patterns is outselling Wolfsnail this Spring.

More Thank You Notes

When I was California earlier this year, I visited Liz Woodward’s fourth grade class at the International Community School. You can read about the visit here. These are some of the thank you notes I got from the students.



ICS yellow


ICS heart
With pencil writing against the blue background, this may be hard for you to read so here it is transcribed:

“Thank you for teaching us about the wolfsnails. Thank you for expeachly teaching us the Fibonacci numbers. They come from nature. Thank you for giving me advice for writing a book. Althoo I’m not the greatest neat writer I want this thank you letter to touch your heart.”

It did, Hector.