Monday, April 23, 2012

Full MS critique auction--today only!

I completely forgot about blogging today. I have a shiny new idea, you see, and, well, it kind of swept me away.

BUT here I am because there's a terrific opportunity to bid on a FULL MS critique by none other than the fabulous Suzie Townsend of Nancy Coffey Lit as part of Crits for Water. The proceeds go to provide safe, clean water to people who just don't have it.

Clean water. It's one of those things we really take for granted. So many people aren't nearly as lucky.

So go! Bid! and good luck winning that critique!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Marketing Monday: Loree Griffin Burns

Welcome back, Loree Griffin Burns!

Last week, Loree shared what made her transition from science to writing for kids. Her non-fiction middle grade books: Tracking Trash, The Hive Detectives, and Citizen Scientists can be found in many (many!) schools and libraries. Today she's here to share more about how she made that happen (aside from the obvious: she wrote terrific, information-packed books that are filled with wonderful illustrations).

Your books are packed with timely information, making them perfect for the classroom. How have you reached out to teachers and librarians to get your books into schools?

I’m very lucky to work with publishers that are experts at this. Both Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Henry Holt Books for Young Readers have worked hard to get my books into the hands of reviewers who, in turn, let the world’s teachers and librarians and parents and book lovers know about my work.

Most of my own outreach is focused on personal interactions—school and library visits, conference and festival presentations, and the like. I have also tried to establish an online presence through which folks can connect with me. I have a website, a blog, a Facebook page; I catalog my personal library publicly on LibraryThing, and I share track the books that delight me on Goodreads; I’ve recently learned to tweet!

On a very practical level, I maintain a database of email contacts—friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, parents—anyone with whom I’ve connected personally over books or nature. I’ve found this a useful tool for letting people know about new books and bookish events.

What have Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Henry Holt BYR done to promote your books? Do you have a sense of how the process might differ from promoting fiction?

As I mentioned, one of the wonderful ways my publishers support me is by providing review copies of my books to a long list of kidlit reviewers at professional journals and online. They also submit my books to prize committees and support/advocate for my participation in conferences that are relevant to my work.

As a great example, I’m typing this from Indianapolis, where I’ve been attending the National Science Teachers Association annual conference. I spent the past three days talking with teachers who use my books in a classroom setting, hearing directly from them why trade books on science topics are vital to their teaching, and sharing ideas for how we (writers and teachers and publishers) can continue to inspire a new generation of science-savvy citizens.

How important are school visits to spreading the word about your books?

School visits are a great way for me to interact with my readers. Classroom visits are hugely gratifying for me, because this is one of the only times I am able to connect in person with the people I write for. I love to see student reactions to the stories I tell, and to get their (always honest!) feedback on what works for them … and what doesn’t. And if I do my job well, the word-of-mouth that follows is a great way for other teachers and librarians to hear about me and my work. All of my school visits (I do about 25 events a year) comes about by word of mouth.

In my experience, however, school visits don’t lead to more book sales. This is likely a reflection of the way I do visits: for the most part, I limit myself to local venues in my home state, and I don’t require schools to sell books as part of my event. Authors that do great visits, advertise widely, travel afar, and tie book sales/signings to their events are much more likely to impact their sales figures.

I would imagine school visits are content-based, rather than focusing on the writing process. How do you make them fun, rather than another science lecture?

My presentations are, indeed, content-based, and I think I’m pretty lucky to be always sharing stories that are naturally interesting to students. I use props and personal anecdotes, and students really respond to them. In post-visit surveys, teachers insist that the part of my presentations that are ‘most effective’ are the bits where I share my own personal story. Kids like to hear that I was once a kid, too, I guess. They love photos. When I was just starting out with school visits, I felt compelled to keep these bits of the program to a minimum, thinking that my “job” for the day was to excite kids about science through the content I’d been invited in to discuss. I’ve come to realize that exciting kids about science includes helping them to see that everyone—even a kid like me … even a kid like them—can grow up and become a scientist. Or a writer. Or both.

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Nothing better than providing inspiration just by sharing your own story!

Thank you so much, Loree, for sharing your experience with us!

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Loree writes books about science for children ... and she loves her job. From an oceanographer who tracks plastic ducks through the world ocean to an entomologist who studied mason bees in his backyard to an astronomer who spent her life puzzling over ground drawings in the desert of Peru, the scientists she meets every day — in person or through her research — are fascinating and passionate people. She loves to share their stories through her  books.

Monday, April 9, 2012

MMGM: Loree Griffin Burns

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is the brain child of middle grade (and young adult) author Shannon Messenger, who wanted to highlight the fabulous books out there for middle grade readers. 

I know most people who blog about MG books focus on novels, but there's some outstanding (fun, informative) non-fiction, too.

Please welcome Loree Griffin Burns, author of Tracking Trash, The Hive Detectives, and, most recently, Citizen Scientists. I first learned of Loree's books from Kathy Erskine at the Highlights Foundation's Children's Writers Workshop last summer, and I am SO glad Kathy pointed them out.

Goodreads blurb for Citizen Scientists:  
Anyone can get involved in gathering data for ongoing, actual scientific studies such as the Audubon Bird Count and FrogWatch USA. Just get out into a field, urban park, or your own backyard. You can put your nose to a monarch pupa or listen for raucous frog calls. You can tally woodpeckers or sweep the grass for ladybugs. This book, full of engaging photos and useful tips, will show you how.

As a former scientist and general lover of all things nature, this is my kind of book. Loree provides a seasonal progression of science-based activities for kids, each of which not only broadens a child's understanding of the natural world, but also contributes to scientific understanding of the world around us.

Loree has a remarkable ability to make science accessible. Her writing is engaging and her topics salient. And she even agreed to an interview! Please welcome Loree Griffin Burns.

Most Ph.D.s write for adults; what got you started writing for kids (and how difficult was it for you to make the switch, after writing for other academics)?

I’ve been a reader and a writer my whole life. For some reason, though, it never occurred to me to write about science. Instead, I wrote poems and short stories and even attempted longer works of fiction—from middle school right through to my graduate school days—always believing this hobby of mine was simply a nice outlet, a break from the intensity of a life focused on subjects like math and biochemistry. When my husband and I started our family, I decided to put my research career on hold while our three children were young. It was while I was home with them, reading lots of children’s literature and thinking hard about the things I most wanted to share with my own kids, that it finally hit me: perhaps I should write about the topics I was most passionate about. And so I began to write true stories of science and nature.

I should add that I honestly don’t think of my work as being just for children. I write for curious people of any age who are interested in the same things I am interested in: our world, the creatures that live in it, the people who explore it, and the ways they explore it. Of course, most of my readers ARE children, and I do consider that when I am choosing topics, structuring stories, and thinking about things like context and voice and word choice. My first drafts are always riddled with technical language that I slowly, through several rounds of revision and with the help of patient editors, smooth out. I do blame this tendency toward techno-speak on my science training!

What gave you the idea for your first book, Tracking Trash?

In the spring of 2003, I read a newspaper article about a decade-old cargo spill that had dumped nearly 30K plastic tub toys into the Pacific Ocean. The article predicted some of those toys would wash ashore in New England, where I live, over the following summer. This story captivated me. Who knew plastic ducks would float in the ocean that long? I wondered what route they followed from the Pacific to the Atlantic—across Arctic Ocean? around South America and through the Southern Ocean? short-cut through the Panama Canal? It was also clear from the predictions that someone, somewhere, was following these ducks. Who was that person? How was s/he following them? And, for the love of Pete, why was s/he following them? I began to look for more information on the story, and as I uncovered it, became convinced it would make a great hook for a book about the ocean, how it moves, and what it moves. Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (Houghton, 2007) was published four years later.

After writing about the plight of the honey bees, what state do you think our apiaries are in? Are we headed for bee-mageddon (and the resulting loss of human food), or can science help turn things around? (Or can native species pick up the slack)?

I’m truly not qualified to answer this question; it would be better posed to one of the hive detectives. But from what I’ve read and heard from my beekeeping friends, our apiaries are in terrible shape, at least compared to the apiaries of the 1980s, a time before Varroa mites and the bee diseases they help to spread, before systemic pesticides and the enormous expansion of our agricultural system. It’s clear that each of these changes is impacting the overall state of apiculture. Just this week, the results of two new studies were published that seem to indicate, once again, that systemic pesticides are harmful to bees. We’ve got a lot to figure out.

As for a bee-mageddon, though, I don’t think that is where we are headed. I am an eternal optimist. Part of the message I hoped to share in The Hive Detectives is that we humans are very good at detecting problems, analyzing them, and figuring out ways to circumvent and overcome them. Some truly fine scientists are working to understand Colony Collapse Disorder, and they are learning things that will help us figure out how to help the honey bee survive.

Your newest book, Citizen Scientists, is an account of the many opportunities for kids to get involved with citizen science projects. Why do you think this is important?

Firstly, I think citizen science is an incredible tool for empowering people of all ages in these days of environmental uncertainty. Bad environmental news can be overwhelming sometimes—trash in our oceans, decline in honey bee populations, changing climate, disappearing species, oil spills, natural disasters. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed. I find that having something to do—something concrete that I can do with my own two hands and that will make a difference—is comforting. Citizen science can be that something.

Even more than that, though, I like the way practicing citizen science—carefully observing the world around me, recording what I see, and sharing that record with professional scientists who are interested in the information—slows me down, reconnects me to the natural world I live in, better acquaints me with my one small patch of the Earth, reminds me of just how incredibly beautiful our world is.

I hear criticism sometimes that the data collected by citizen scientists—children or youth or adults who are not trained as scientists—is not as dependable as data collected by professionals. These critics worry about protocols being followed properly, data being misunderstood or misreported. They also point out that data collection is not, in itself, science. While these are valid concerns for those who use the data collected by citizen scientists, for me—and for parents and educators and naturalists everywhere—citizen science is about tuning people in to the living, breathing natural world. It’s a learning tool. It connects people with their environment. It invites them to participate in human discovery. For me, these are the deeper value of citizen science; the data is a bonus.

What project are you working on right now?

I'm working on two books at the moment: my first picture book and a new Scientists in the Field book. Both will be illustrated by Ellen Harasimowicz ( The picture book is a butterfly life cycle book with a twist: did you know that most of the butterflies flitting about the live butterfly exhibit at your favorite museum or butterfly house very likely spent their caterpillar days in Central America? Our new SITF book is called Beetle Busters, and its about a tree-munching invasive beetle that has invaded North America and, of course, the men and women who are studying it.

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Thank you Loree! I can't wait to see what your next books bring.

Join us next week for Marketing Monday to learn how Loree and her publishers get her books into the hands of middle graders, teacher, librarians, and parents.

And check here for more terrific MMGM reviews.

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Loree writes books about science for children ... and she loves her job. From an oceanographer who tracks plastic ducks through the world ocean to an entomologist who studied mason bees in his backyard to an astronomer who spent her life puzzling over ground drawings in the desert of Peru, the scientists she meets every day — in person or through her research — are fascinating and passionate people. She loves to share their stories through her  books.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

No comprende

I started a Spanish class this week. My 4-year-old son is learning Spanish, and I thought it might be useful to have some idea what he's saying. And it will come in handy when we go to Costa Rica this summer.

There's also the fact that French and German (my other foreign languages) just aren't commonly encountered here in the U.S., but Spanish is everywhere. I think it's important to have at least a grasp of basic words and phrases, and some understanding of other cultures. Yes, the official language here is English, but Spanish--and Spanish-speaking immigrants--are here to stay. It will make life easier for everyone if we all make at least a small effort to understand each other.

It's also humbling to put yourself in the shoes of a person who doesn't speak the local language well. It reminds you that just because they don't speak well doesn't mean they're stupid (which I think a lot of people tend to believe). Far from it. It simply means they don't speak it well, or aren't comfortable doing so.

How do I know? I spent five years as the person who didn't speak the native language. I am an articulate person (when I've had my morning coffee), a well-educated person (I didn't spend six years in graduate school for nothin'). But for the first several years we lived in Germany, I dreaded having to talk to anyone in--gasp--German.

Why? Because every time I had to talk to someone about something, one of several things would happen. Early on, my brain would go into its default foreign language mode (French), and I would say some bizarre combination of French and German (once with a little Italian thrown in--don't ask me where that came from). The person to whom I was speaking would look at me like I was an idiot, then automatically switch to English.

As I learned more German, I would carefully figure out how to properly say something, so I knew the other person would understand. I knew I'd come a long way when he/she would respond in German. But then I was stuck, either unable to understand what they had said or unable to figure out how to respond. After a few moments of struggling, the other person would switch to English.

After several years, my level of comprehension improved greatly, but there still wasn't that natural response just forming in my mind. I still wasn't thinking in German, which meant that I had to translate what they had said into English, then translate my English response into German. This process takes time--a few minutes if you want to get all your verbs and modifiers in the right places--and by then I was usually getting one of those looks that made it clear the person thought I was an idiot. And then they would switch to English. Or, if the person didn't speak English, they would wave me off.

It is incredibly humbling to be treated like an idiot when, in fact, you know you are not (usually).

We take communication for granted, particularly here in the United States, where we expect everyone to speak English. Very few people here make the effort to learn another language, unless it is required for school. And I am the first to admit, it is extremely difficult to learn another language when you have no chance to practice using it. The U.S. is a huge country. When you drive from one state to the next, the language stays the same. It's not like Europe, where you go from one country another and change languages. To be like that here, almost every state would need to speak a different language. We just don't have that incentive to learn.

Unfortunately, our lack of willingness to learn another language is viewed negatively by other nations. They resent that we come to their countries and expect them to speak our language. Rightfully so. We expect people coming here to speak English, so we should do them the same courtesy of making an attempt to speak their language. And really, the effort goes a long way.

So now I'm speaking some bizarre combination of German, French, and Spanish (Gernchish? Fremanish? Spamanch?). People will look at me like I'm an idiot when we go to Costa Rica, I'm sure. But I'll get a few words and phrases right, I'll make the effort. And that goes a very long way.

Adiós mes amies. Ich wünchen Ihnen un buenos dias.

What experiences have you had with foreign languages (whether you speak or others were speaking to you)?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Dream vs. reality

Last week, I painted the library in our house. The realtor who showed us the house called it a formal dining room, but what can I say? We like books better than dining sets that get used about twice a year.

Okay, this isn't our library, but I wish it were!

It was supposed to be easy--good quality paint, a single coat, and voila: the library of our dreams. Er, well, not exactly. You see, over the past several days, I've discovered that painting is a lot like writing.
  • The hardest part is to get that first draft coat.
  • Sometimes, when you take a step back, you'll realize that what you thought would be an incredible, amazing story color turns out to be god-awful, and you'll start from scratch with something new.
  • When you think you're done and take a step back to admire your work, you'll find it's full of holes. Some places just need a little touch-up, while others are big enough to drive a truck through. Time to revise apply a second coat.
  • The hardest part is getting the details just right.
  • Sometimes, that brilliant idea that will finish it all off turns out to make the whole thing wrong. So you revert to a previous version of the document paint over it. Unless you run out of paint. (What? It could happen. I'm just saying ...)
  • When the above happens, you can't just throw an alligator through the transom* stick a plant in front of the spot to fix it.
  • All the advice in the world doesn't teach you the craft as well as just doing it. (And redoing it.) 
* chapter 23 of Jack M. Bickman's The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes

What has life taught you about writing? And what would your personal dream library look like, if you could build it?