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Fifty and Counting

When I wrote my first children’s book in 1988—a biography of Leonard Nimoy from Star Trek—I set a personal goal of publishing 50 books before I retired. It worked out to about a book and a half a year, which at the time seemed possible, even writing in my spare time. But then I went a dozen years until my next book, Daddy Poems, came out from Boyds Mills Press. At that point, the goal seemed unlikely. I continued to do books as the opportunity presented itself, but with a busy full-time job and two young children, I couldn’t do more than one or two a year. By the time I left the International Literacy Association in 2011 to pursue writing full-time, my total stood at 16 books.

Then things started to snowball. At the ILA Annual Conference in 2013, I introduced myself to Christine Peterson, assistant editorial director at Capstone, and asked if they needed writers. From that came an offer to write a book about the Lewis & Clark expedition. And from that came the opportunity over the next several years to do about 20 more Capstone books on a wide range of subjects ranging from history to social studies to biographies. In recent years, I’ve been able to write nonfiction books for National Geographic Kids and Cavendish Square as well.

In fall 2017, my picture book One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me came out with Penguin. This was my first book with one of the “Big Five” publishers, and I’m delighted with how it turned out. The illustrations by Clive McFarland of Ireland are wonderful, and the book has drawn many positive reviews. It also got selected for the Scholastic Book Club. In addition, the book was chosen for inclusion in the 2018 Imagination Library—Dolly Parton’s book program—and sometime this fall it will be mailed to tens of thousands of young readers across the United States and Canada.

This summer, I signed on to do four books for a publisher named Hameray from California. As I finished the manuscript for the first one—a picture book about Abraham Lincoln—I realized that when this book comes out in 2019, it will be my 50th! This realization brought a great deal of satisfaction and pride, along with a bit of anxiety about what my NEXT goal should be. I feel like I’ve still got a number of productive years ahead. So what’s next? I’ll keep you posted as soon as I know.

 

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The Fun of Freelancing

I’ve been meaning to write a blog article for weeks, but I’ve been so caught up bouncing from one activity to the next that I just haven’t had the chance. In addition to my regular editorial consulting work, which occupies at least half of my time, what else has kept me so busy? Lots of activities—all of them fun. Here’s a quick overview.

Pages Party at Newark Library: On February 24, I spoke to dozens of young writers whose writing or artwork was selected for inclusion in this year’s Pages publication. The event, which was sponsored by New Castle County Libraries, drew a packed room as families joined the celebration. It was truly inspiring to be among so many talented young people!

SCBWI Regional Conference: On March 17-18, I spoke at the SCBWI regional conference in Maryland. I conducted a workshop on writing and selling nonfiction, and I participated in a panel discussion on getting and working with an agent. In addition, I held individual critique sessions with three writers. Being surrounded by the enthusiasm of fellow writers for a weekend always energizes my work for weeks after.

Mini Book Tour in New York: I organized a mini book tour in New York for March 24-25. On Saturday, I did a reading and book signing at the delightful McNally Jackson bookshop in Manhattan (where my cousin’s daughter, best-selling author Kate Milford, works). A small but enthusiastic audience listened to stories and asked questions about writing for nearly an hour. The following day, I read and signed books at the Dolphin Bookshop in Port Washington. All in all, the weekend proved quite an adventure!

Delaware Writers Studio: On April 15, I spoke about “Writing for Children” to aspiring writers at the Kirkwood Library. Attendees seemed to really enjoy the suggestions I was able to offer on writing and selling books and articles to children’s publications. I’ve reached the stage in my career where I find it gratifying to share the knowledge I’ve gained over the years with others who just beginning their journeys as writers.

School Visits: In March and April, I did writing workshops, readings, or Literacy Night appearances at Colwyck Elementary School, ASPIRA Academy, John B. Moore Middle School, McVey Elementary School, and Maclary Elementary School. May will find me doing workshops at Wilmington Manor Elementary School and Newark Charter School. Also, a special shout out to United Way of Delaware, which sponsored several Delaware authors to speak in schools across the state on February 1, World Read Aloud Day. I spoke at Bancroft Elementary School and Pulaski Elementary School in Wilmington. Sharing my books and writing tips with literally hundreds of youngsters is one of my favorite “jobs.”

Book Writing: Sandwiched in between all these other activities (and my consulting work), I was able to make progress on several book projects. I finished editing/proofing Capstone books on Kids’ Legal Rights and Decoding Propaganda, and I signed contracts for five new books. In the coming months, I will be writing biographies of Ruth Brader Ginsburg and Tecumseh, as well as a You Choose adventure book, all for Capstone. I also will be doing updates of books about the states of Pennsylvania and Illinois for Cavendish. In addition, I’m working on two picture book manuscripts. I don’t want to say too much about those for fear of jinxing them, but I’m excited about both. One is a collaboration, and the other is a potential follow-up for One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me!

Freelancers always say that it’s better to be too busy than not busy enough, and I have definitely been in the “really busy” category for the first four months of 2018. Given the projects already booked for the summer and fall, I foresee busy times ahead. I feel truly blessed to be able to work on projects that bring me so much satisfaction and joy.

 

Celebrating Reading in February

February offers several great opportunities to celebrate reading. First of all, it’s I Love to Read Month—and cold winter weather makes it a perfect time to curl up with a good book. Second, February 1 marks World Read Aloud Day. I was pleased to be part of the celebration this year, as the United Way of Delaware invited several Delaware authors, including me, to visit schools throughout the state to read with students. I visited Bancroft Elementary School and Pulasksi Elementary School in Wilmington, reading from my books and talking about writing. Furthermore, participating students each got a signed copy of one of my books, courtesy of United Way funding. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and I thank United Way for inviting me to participate.

To celebrate Black History Month in February, schools and libraries across the United States host African American Read-In events. Since its establishment in 1990 by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English, the initiative has reached more than 6 million participants around the world.

This occasion made me think of all the great children’s books by African American authors I have read over the years—books by John Steptoe, Faith Ringgold, Ashley Bryan, Mildred Taylor, Nikki Giovanni, Jacqueline Woodson, and many others. One of my favorite African American authors—and people—was the late, great Walter Dean Myers. I loved his choice of subject matter and his characters. Especially, however, I admired his writing style—gritty and realistic, yet eloquent.

Not only was Walter Dean Myers a gifted author, but a wonderful person as well. In the late 1980s, I had an opportunity to interview him for a feature article for the International Literacy Association’s Literacy Today newspaper, and he truly impressed me with his wit, his wisdom, and his humble nature. Over the years, I’ve done dozens of author interviews, and his remains one of my very favorites.

A few years later, I had the privilege of introducing Walter for his featured author speech at an ILA convention. Because I admired him so much, I spent a lot of time crafting my introduction. I wanted it to reflect the deep respect I felt for him. I must have succeeded, because when Walter took the stage, he looked over at me and frowned. “I hate it when the introduction is better than my speech,” he growled, and for a moment I felt panicked. Then he smiled to let me know he was kidding. And then he launched into one of the most eloquent author speeches I have ever heard.

Our paths crossed a couple more times over the years. I was always pleased to see him, and he always said he remembered me, which I found impressive. I was saddened to learn of his death in 2014, but I am pleased that his son Christopher, with whom he collaborated sometimes, continues to carry on the family tradition of excellence.

The We Need Diverse Books initiative, launched in 2014, promotes increased diversity in children’s books. The organization’s Walter Awards, given in memory of Walter Dean Myers, recognizes diverse authors whose works feature diverse main characters and address diversity in a meaningful way.

I encourage you to celebrate African American Read-In month by enjoying some excellent books by African American authors and celebrating the diversity such books reflect!

A Great Year Behind, An Even Greater Year Ahead

It’s hard to believe how fast 2017 sped by! It was certainly a productive year for writing, capped by the release of my picture book One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin in September. The book turned out wonderfully! Clive McFarland’s illustrations are gorgeous, and the book earned great reviews from School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. It has not yet become the bestseller I had hoped, but I plan to do another big publicity push for spring, as the book’s descriptions of leaves growing on the tree in the spring and dropping in the fall make it appropriate for both seasons.

I also wrote several other books in 2017. I did books on the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Children’s Legal Rights, and Decoding Propaganda for Capstone, and I wrote books on Teens in Prison and the State of Wisconsin for Cavendish Square. All are slated for release in 2018/2019. I have other projects in development as well, but they are not very far along yet, and I don’t want to jinx them by talking about any of them in detail.

When I left the International Literacy Association in 2011 to pursue life as an author, I set a goal of publishing 50 books before I retired. At the time, I had 15 books to my credit, and 50 seemed a long way off. I often wondered if I was being unrealistic. Entering 2018, I have 44 books either in print or in process, and it seems likely that I may reach 50 books well before I turn 65. I guess I’ll need to set some new goals!

I enjoy the process of writing books (most of the time), but even more rewarding are the related activities: visiting schools, libraries, and day care centers; speaking at conferences for educators, librarians, and other writers; and doing signings at bookstores. In November, I visited Rupert Elementary School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. It was especially meaningful to me to share my writing and my experiences as a writer with youngsters from my hometown. I hope it inspired them to follow their dreams, just as I did.

For 2018, I look forward to several school visits that are already scheduled for the winter and spring, as well as speaking at the SCBWI regional conference in Maryland in March. I’m sure other opportunities will arise, and I look forward to those as well.

Like most children’s book writers, I supplement my author income with other writing work. I continue to do editing and writing work for the Global Reading Network and Read to Them. I feel fortunate to be able to support literacy-related efforts and continue the interests I developed during my many years working for ILA.

In short, I am blessed to be able to continue to do work that I find both meaningful and rewarding. As the classic Jimmy Stewart holiday movie points out, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

 

Counting Down to a Counting Book!

Sometimes inspiration comes from the small details around us. In October 2014, I was participating in a Highlights Foundation Unworkshop (an unstructured writer’s retreat) at the Foundation’s retreat center outside of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, when I saw the last two leaves hanging tenuously on a tree. I watched them twitch in the breeze for several minutes, wondering if I would see them fall to the ground. As I watched, a line popped into my head: “One leaf, two leaves on the tree, three leaves, four leaves, count with me!”

With that line as an inspiration, I rushed back to my cabin and pulled out my laptop. By the end of the day, I had roughed out a manuscript telling the story of leaves growing on the tree from 1 to 10 in the spring, dropping from 10 to 1 in the fall, and then growing again the following spring.

After getting feedback from my fellow writers at the Highlights Unworkshop and colleagues in the northern Delaware SCBWI critique group, I sent the manuscript to my agent, Erin Murphy. She loved it and submitted it to Nancy Paulsen, President and Publisher of the prestigious Nancy Paulsen Books imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. Nancy accepted it in just eight days and then enlisted the talented Clive McFarland of Ireland to bring the words to life with his illustrations.

Now the countdown is on for One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me! The finished book will be released on September 5, just in time for the fall foliage season.

Here’s how Penguin’s promotional webpage describes the book:

“This playful counting book shares the colorful highlights of the four seasons in charming illustrations.   Count your way through the seasons! In spring, the tree’s leaves appear, one by one. By summer, there’s a glorious canopy. And when autumn winds blow, leaves fly from the tree, one after another, leading us into winter. There’s a world of activity to spy in and around this beautiful tree as the wild creatures, and one little boy, celebrate the cycles of nature. As little ones count leaves, look for animals, and enjoy the changing seasonal landscape, bouncy rhymes and bold illustrations make learning to count easy—corresponding numerals reinforcing the learning fun.”

Of all my 35 books, I think I may be most excited about this one! I will have further updates on the book as publication grows closer. Here’s the cover.

My Favorite Meeting: The Imagination Library

Each spring for the past 15 years, I have had the honor and privilege of traveling to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to participate in book selection for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. It’s my favorite meeting, and I look forward to it each year.

Dolly Parton initially founded the Imagination Library as a way to benefit the children of Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up. She credited reading with helping her envision the wider world beyond her isolated mountain home. Through her generosity, every child in the county receives a book a month from the time they are born until their fifth birthday. This means that each child enters kindergarten owning a personal library of 60 books.

Over time, other communities wanted to implement the program. Funded by state or local governments, local United Ways, banks, and other donors, the program now operates in hundreds of communities throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Operated by the nonprofit Dollywood Foundation and using books published by Penguin/Random House (which has both a rich collection of classic titles and a broad selection of new books each year), the program now distributes more than a million books every month. It is poised to distribute its 100 millionth book early in 2018!

For three days each May, the Book Selection Committee meets to choose the books that will be included in the program for the next year. We read and discuss roughly 100 new books and debate which might replace books that are currently in the program. Always, we keep in mind factors such as the developmental stages of the recipients, racial and gender diversity, and which books we believe will truly stimulate the imaginations of young readers.

Getting together with the other members of the Book Selection Committee is like meeting old friends from camp for an annual reunion. And exploring so many great children’s books is an energizing experience. The staff of the Dollywood Foundation provides wonderful hospitality. Some years, if she’s in town, Dolly even stops by to greet us. She takes great pride in the Imagination Library and the impact it has on children’s lives.

To learn more about the Imagination Library, visit the project’s website. As for me, I’m already looking forward to the 2018 meeting!

 

Looking Ahead to 2017

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly six years since I left the International Literacy Association to pursue my second “dream job” as a children’s book author and freelance writer/editor. I’ve found this new career exhilarating, challenging, and immensely rewarding. I’m up to 32 published books for children and young adults, with more on the way. I’ve found a niche doing elementary-level history and social studies titles for Capstone, an educational publisher. In 2016 I had books come out about the Civil War, the War of 1812, the Pennsylvania Colony, Explorers and Native Americans, People and Places of the Northeast Region of the U.S., and People and Places of the Southeast Region of the U.S. There are at least five other Capstone books in various stages of production, and I hope to write more in the year ahead.

This past year also marked the release of my second self-published book through my new First State Press imprint. I partnered with award-winning photographer Lisa Goodman to produce Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand, a book designed to appeal to beach loves ages 4 to 84. Lisa and I made several trips to the beach to do signings at bookstores and events. We hope to make another big push before summer 2017.

Editorial Consulting

I’ve also had an opportunity to do some interesting writing/editing work that takes advantage of my long background in literacy education. I do communications work for Read to Them, a nonprofit organization that builds family literacy and reading interest by getting all the elementary families from a school or school district reading and discussing the same children’s book at the same time. Hundreds of schools throughout the United States and Canada participate in One School, One Book and One District, One Book programs.

This past year, I reconnected with Sakil Malik, a former colleague from ILA who now heads the Global Reading Network. Since June, I’ve been editing their online newsletter, organizing blog posts, and doing a variety of other writing and editing assignments. The Global Reading Network specializes in providing information and support for early grade reading in developing countries. I’ve really enjoyed this work, too!

Working with Students

I love working with young students and sharing my writing with them. In 2016 I made multiple visits to Newark Charter Elementary School, talking to third graders about writing nonfiction and poetry. I also did visits or readings at John Bassett Moore Intermediate School in Smyrna, Mt. Pleasant Elementary School, William Cooke Jr. Elementary School, and ASPIRA Academy in Delaware and at the Penn-Delco School District in Pennsylvania.

For 2017, I already have return visits scheduled at Newark Charter, along with day or evening programs at Newark Day Nursery and Wilmington Manor Elementary School. I am also in discussion with other schools, and I hope to add some more school visits over the course of the year.

“Counting” on Success

I’m really excited about a counting picture book I have coming out in September 2017. Titled One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count With Me, the book allows children to count along as leaves sprout on a tree in the spring and fall off in the fall. It concludes by showing new leaves once again budding on the tree the following spring. I am “counting” on the combination of counting and seasons making this book popular both in schools and homes.

One Leaf, Two Leaves will be published by Penguin. This is my first time with a “Big Five” publisher, and I’m thrilled. Specifically, the book is part of the prestigious Nancy Paulsen imprint. Nancy publishes authors and illustrators such as Jacqueline Woodson, Tomie de Paola, E. B. Lewis, and David Ezra Stein. The advance teaser for One Leaf, Two Leaves on the Penguin website says: “Count your way through the seasons!.… As little ones count leaves, look for animals, and enjoy the changing seasonal landscape, bouncy rhymes and bold illustrations make learning to count easy—corresponding numerals reinforcing the learning fun.”

The book is illustrated by Clive McFarland, a talented young artist from Northern Ireland. When Nancy showed me samples from his book A Bed for Bear, I could tell immediately that his style was perfect for One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count With Me. The preliminary sketches bowled me over, and the almost-finished book is stunning.

The book came to me in a flash during a writer’s retreat sponsored by the Highlights Foundation in the fall of 2014. As I watched the final two leaves hanging onto a tree branch, these lines popped into my head: “One leaf, two leaves on a tree. Three leaves, four leaves, count with me.” I literally ran back to my cabin, and by that evening I had the text roughed out. This marked one of the handful of times in my life when I truly felt the magic of the muse, and I feel truly blessed with the result.

Watch for further updates about One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count With Me in the months to come—along with other writing news. I think 2017 will be a banner year!

 

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