writing colleagues

Mississippi Library Association Author Award 2010

I had a wonderful time on Thursday at the Mississippi Library Association annual conference in Vicksburg.
Sarah C Campbell MLA Author Award Youth 2010
I was honored Thursday night by the Mississippi Library Association. For Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator, I won the 2010 Youth Award. I am pictured here with Chris Myers Asch, the recipient of the 2010 Nonfiction Award, and Lynn Shurden (between me and Asch), chair of the Authors Awards Committee. The other two women pictured are also members of the awards committee, (from left) Ann ?, and Donna Fite. Deborah Johnson won the 2010 Fiction Award for her book, The Air Between Us. She was signing books and not available for the photograph.

This is the first time the MLA has given a Youth Award and I was delighted to be the first recipient. During the award speech and also during a session earlier in the day, I gave a short preview of my newest project, which unlike Wolfsnail and Growing Patterns, comes out of my childhood. It was fun to see Gloria Liggans, my school librarian from 4th through 9th grades, and many other librarian friends I have made since I started writing books for children.

Irene LathamMy friend Irene Latham gave the luncheon speech for the MLA conference, telling the story behind publication of her book, Leaving Gee’s Bend, published by Putnam.

The story included everything a story must, including ever-more-difficult obstacles. She shared photographs from Gee’s Bend in the 1930s, photographs of quilts made by Gee’s Bend Quilters, and a Ludelphia doll that was made for her by a school librarian.

Irene’s next novel is a contemporary one, titled Don’t Feed the Boy, which is forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press.

It was nice to have Irene join Richard and me at the awards dinner.

Irene Latham and Sarah C Campbell

We cooked a bit of a celebratory dinner the next night, using a brand new cooking pot called a tagine. We made a lamb tagine (the meal is named after the cooking pot), masala dosas, and a spinach salad. I am no good at food photography, but these will give you an idea of what we ate and how we made it.


Emile Henry Tagine

Tagine base

Tagine base

lamb tagine

Lamb Tagine from Mark Bittman's cookbook



masala filling for dosa

Masala filling for Dosa

Growing Patterns at Church, School, and a Writers’ Conference

I have been going more than usual and now I need to take a breath and tell you all about it. (Quickly, too, because I am heading back out on the road tomorrow.) I’ll catch up chronologically.

Sarah reading Growing Patterns at Wells Church

I presented Growing Patterns at a Wells Church fellowship supper. It was wonderful to be among such good friends and to share Fibonacci numbers with our neighborhood kids.

students examine Fibonacci items

A bonus for me (and I hope for the audience) was that I read from my newest manuscript. Reading it out as a work-in-progress really helps me. I need to hear how it’s working (or not). Mostly I feel like it is, which is really satisfying.

Chattahoochee Valley Writers’ Conference

I presented two workshops at the Chattahoochee Valley Writers’ Conference: “Photos+Stories=Winning Nonfiction” and “Earn $$ Before You are Published.” I had 90 minutes with each group of writers, which was very nice. I was able to use about a third of the time to hear from them about their projects and share some advice.

The Columbus Public Library was a very nice venue and the technology worked flawlessly (except one glitch of mine, which was fixed by one of the participants in my workshop. Thank you, David Johnson. I hope he publishes his project.)

tech help

work on curriculum ideas

Two participants brainstorm about ideas to take into schools

The night before my presentations I enjoyed a reading and talk by Jessica Handler, the author of Invisible Sisters. I loved the excerpts she read to us and I found what she had to say about writing memoir very interesting.

at Carson McCullers' House

Jessica Handler and Sarah Campbell at Carson McCullers' House

McWillie Elementary School Visit

mcwillie open doors students

Students at McWillie

Chastain Middle School Visit by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Jewell Parker Rhodes

Jewell Parker Rhodes reads from Ninth Ward at Chastain

Deborah Wiles at Lemuria

When I began writing for children, I searched for others who were writing for children in Mississippi. Early on, I found Deborah Wiles‘ books, but I couldn’t find her.

Deborah Wiles On the internet I found out that she lived in Maryland. When she came to Lemuria bookstore in Jackson to sign, I made sure I went. I had to work up the courage to admit that I was trying to be a writer for children, too. She was kind and encouraging. Most folks in this business are, but there was something about her “you can do it,” that I believed. Deborah  (who now lives in Atlanta) came back to Lemuria this week to sign Countdown, her genre-busting new book. It is a documentary novel, chock full of black and white photographs, advertisements and other visuals from 1962.

Emily GrossenbacherDeborah read from the book’s opening and then a tiny snippet from much further in. I could have listened much longer. I think she should record the audio book version. I feel so lucky to live in a town with a fabulous independent bookstore that has a very cool performance space for readings. Here is a picture of Emily Grossenbacher, the manager of Lemuria’s children’s store. You can read her post about Countdown here.

Swallowtail caterpillars and a review

Most of our parsley has been trying to go to seed for the last month and I’ve just given up and let it go. We noticed a swallowtail butterfly on it a few days ago, and then we noticed lots of leafless stems. The caterpillars have arrived. We decided to get up early this morning to take photographs of the swallowtail caterpillars at different stages. First, I’ll show you the most recognizable.
Swallowtail Caterpillar
Now, this is the smallest one we could find today.
tiny swallowtail caterpillar
Now, for the in between.
midsized swallowtail
I also hunted for eggs, but didn’t find any. It looks like we were too late for this group. Maybe there will be another group. … Please. While we were looking, Richard spotted this guy.
bug  mantis or stickbug

I learned today that Joan Broerman, the founder of the Southern Breeze chapter of SCBWI, reviewed Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature on her Book Log blog. “Lavish photographs by both Campbells and easy to follow diagrams support the brief but clear text so even the most math resistant reader will be drawn in, totally unaware of how much he or she is learning,” Joan wrote. You can read the entire review here. Thank you, Joan.

Reading Makes Everything Better

Reading aloud even makes statewide standardized test days more bearable. I volunteered to be a proctor during this week’s tests at my sons’ middle school. (Well, I was nudged into it by my middle child.) I was assigned to a 7th grade classroom with Mrs. Whitley, a reading teacher.

The first time I served as a proctor, a few years ago, I felt as miserable as the kids as we sat in a room with nothing to do and waited for everything to be in place for the testing to begin. In short order, I was casting around for anything to read. I grabbed the novel the social studies teacher was teaching and started reading — out loud. The kids looked at me like I had lost my mind, but they asked if I would continue after the tests had been completed and were on the way back to the test administrator.

Ever since, whenever I am talked into proctoring, I make sure I have a suitable book. Last year, for a class of 8th graders, I read from Walter Dean Myers’ book Fallen Angels. This year, I grabbed Ten Mile River by Paul Griffin. I reviewed the book here last year.

I always have to believe enough in what I am doing to bully through some of the initial reactions. Is this woman crazy? Is she really reading those words? Did she just say ‘yo’? Yo? I proctored two days and they asked me to make sure I brought the book back the next day. Several asked whether it was available at the school library. I told them how they could get it through the public library across the street, that they should pursue it through inter-library loan if it wasn’t in the collection.

Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but I know they enjoyed spending time with Ray, Jose, Trini, and Yolie. It made it much more fun for me, too. (I’m still trying to figure out how to improve the experience of walking the floor for two and a half hours while they test.) Charlie Chaplin slow motion, maybe?

“Fireside” with Northwestern Students

The final event during my recent Chicago trip was a joint effort with author Cheryl Bardoe. She and I learned of each other’s work when Cheryl’s husband, Matthew, reviewed Growing Patterns in draft form. Upon further acquaintance, Cheryl and I discovered we both write nonfiction books for children on science and math topics and we both graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (she’s younger than I am by enough years that our paths did not cross in Evanston).  When I was invited to present an informal talk, or a fireside, for current NU students at the Communications Residential College, I invited Cheryl to join me. I was an active member of the Humanities Residential College during my years at NU and helped form the Residential College Board. It was a lot of fun to be back in a residential college setting.

Before the fireside, I joined the students in the dining hall. Though I had taken some meals in that very place as an undergraduate, I noticed several changes for the better: an elimination of trays (for environmental reasons) and a stir fry bar, where I ordered a mixture of vegetables on a bed of brown rice.

Sarah Campbell and Cheryl Bardoe at NU's CRC

Communications Residential College students gather around to see the snail

Many of the CRC students are journalism majors, but a few come from other disciplines, including biology. Cheryl, the author of Gregory Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas and Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age, chronicled her path from journalism school graduate to public relations work with nonprofits to museum marketing to museum curatorial/education to children’s book author. She is now working on an MFA in writing with a concentration in writing for children.

Growing Patterns and Wolfsnail

Growing Patterns and Wolfsnail on display at NU's CRC

Though Growing Patterns is the new book (and therefore the focus of much of my current marketing), the star of this particular event was clearly Wolfsnail. College students are just as taken with the idea of a predatory snail as kindergartners. In fact, when the students learned over dinner that I had brought a live wolfsnail, the word spread on the internet and swelled attendance. We had gathered in a nice circle to talk, but when I started reading Wolfsnail, the students to my right and left scrambled into position up front. Unfortunately, the snail stayed inside its shell. At least, the slugs provided some entertainment.

I thank Roger Boye, the CRC master, for the invitation; Nancy Anderson, from Residential Life, for helping arrange accommodation in a guest suite; Julie Kliegman, the CRC academic chair, for arranging the fireside; and Ariana Bacle, a social chair, for taking the photos in this post.

IRA Day 2

Once again, just photos. A full report will be coming soon:

Author April Pulley Sayre with Sarah Campbell and Wolfsnail

F&Gs of Books by Author friends Jo Kittinger and Vicky Alvear Shecter

Sarah Campbell with Sarita Dyrda at Art Institute (just saw Matisse)

Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival

David Wiesner

I spent Wednesday through Friday at the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. David Wiesner, author of classics such as Flotsam, The Three Pigs, and Tuesday, was this year’s medallion recipient. In his talk, he chronicled his artistic development and influences. Some he mentioned were: Charles Knight (the artist who conceived what dinosaurs looked like), Breugel (felt like you could travel into his pictures), Dali (“weird and strange was good in my book”), and MC Escher (breaking boundaries and going from one reality to another). The biggest treat in Wiesner’s presentation was a preview of his newest book, Art and Max, which will be released in October. It looks like a winner. Two engaging characters; dialogue is the only text; clever look at different art media (paint, pastel, water color, line, etc.); and fabulous art. See a video about the project here.

Here I am presenting my workshop “Finding Math in Your Own Backyard.” It is always a pleasure to be at the book festival. I saw lots of familiar faces. Many of the librarians told me how kids are reading Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator. I heard stories of 5th graders finding it on the shelves and making 100 percent for the first time on an AR quiz for a nonfiction book; grandsons who want it read over and over; a young girl library patron who took pictures of a snail she found and brought it to the library for a positive wolfsnail id. I am so grateful to the librarians who have embraced my books and are helping to get them into the hands of kids.

Cindy, a school librarian

Interest in Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Numbers in Nature was strong. During my session, I showed the Growing Patterns book trailer. Many in my session were learning about Fibonacci numbers for the first time or, if not, learning about their connection to nature for the first time. There are always a few exceptions.

Michelle Shelton, librarian

Michelle Shelton, a graduate student in USM’s School of Library and Information Science, told me that her library in McAllen, Texas, is building a new building with a children’s department based on the Fibonacci sequence and its connection to nature. The town is turning an old Wal-Mart into a public library. Whenever I talk to graduates of art school, designers, or architects, they are all aware of Fibonacci numbers. One of my presentations later this month will be in the Evanston (Ill.) Public Library, where they have a fountain in the library with Fibonacci-influenced design.

Hester Bass

Another great thing about this year’s CBF was that I shared a hotel room with two of my writer friends, Hester Bass and Irene Latham. Here is Hester during her session, “I think I can: A librarian’s guide to writing for children.” Hester, the author most recently of  The Secret World of Walter Anderson, shared ten things librarians can do to make the dream of writing for children a reality. From Number One, “Discard the misconceptions,” to Number Ten, “Don’t Quit. Submit,” she packed at least 100 useful tips into an entertaining presentation that left us all inspired. This has been a popular workshop for Hester since she wrote a paper on the topic and had it accepted at the 2009 American Library Association Conference.

Irene Latham

Here’s Irene signing a copy of Leaving Gee’s Bend. Though Irene did not present at this conference, her book was very popular. I sat next to her at the signing table at the bookstore and I heard many people come back to tell her they had stayed up late the night before finishing the book. Many also came back to get another copy. Since we spent so much time together over the last few days, Hester, Irene, and I are cooking up a possible collaborative project. Stay tuned.
Other great speakers I was able to hear were: Richard Peck, Sharon Draper, and Maureen Johnson.

Sarah with Virginia Butler, writer and friend

Chuck Galey, illustrator, and Hester Bass, author

Joseph D’Agnese Interview: Nonfiction Monday

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.

Tuesday: Q&A with Joe at the poetry blog of Gregory K, originator of “Fibs,” Fibonacci-poetry.

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.

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci by Joseph D’Agnese

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.