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Saying Farewell to the School Year; Looking Ahead to Next Year

Having worked on the periphery of education for many years, I tend to view time in terms of school years almost as much as calendar years. As I think back over the past year, I realize that some of my most pleasant times were spent in classrooms working with children.

During the past school year, I had the opportunity to visit a number of schools, sharing my writing with students from kindergarten through eighth grade and working to get them excited about their own writing. I have many fond memories of these visits, but here are a few highlights.

In March, I visited Rupert Elementary School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. I grew up in Pottstown, and that’s where my dreams of being a writer were first formed. It’s always a thrill to be able to share my work with the town’s next generation of young writers. I really enjoying seeing their eyes light up when I told them about my first attempt to write a book in second grade and that I have since gone on to publish 50 titles. I encouraged them to follow their own dreams, for who knows what may happen?

This spring I made my annual visit to work with second- and third-grade students at Newark Charter School. I worked with the second graders on poetry and with the third graders on persuasive writing. I am always amazed by how much these young writers already know about the writing process and how enthusiastic they are. I also did a poetry workshop with 6th through 8th grade students at Mount Aviat Academy, and it was fun to see some of the sophisticated poems they created. These students also sent me a package of “Thank You” poems that showed how they were putting what they had learned into practice.

Last December, I worked with 6th graders at Oldham School District in New Jersey on persuasive writing. They were arguing that we should do away with plastic straws. They impressed me with their passion and with some of the interesting facts they found to support their position.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, on February 1st I worked with United Way to help students at Bancroft Elementary School celebrate World Read Aloud Day. Throughout the year, I also took part in Reading Nights, Poetry Week events, and other celebrations of books and reading. In every case, I found myself impressed by the students and teachers I interacted with.

Like students and teachers, I will take time off from school over the summer and concentrate on some book projects I want to finish. But when the school doors open again in the fall, I look forward to scheduling more school visits and sharing the love of writing with more students!

Fun Meeting Makes May Merry

May is always one of my favorite months, and my annual trip to Tennessee is one of my favorite weeks. For nearly 20 years, I have served on the Book Selection Committee for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library project. To date, the program has given away more than 120 MILLION books to preschool children across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. To learn more about the program, visit the Imagination Library website.

Of all her many honors, Dolly Parton has said she appreciates her title of “The Book Lady” most of all. Growing up poor in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, she credits reading with showing her the wider world and dreaming of the life she might one day lead.

Children in participating communities receive a book a month from the time they are born until they turn five. They enter kindergarten owning a personal library of 60 books, including award-winning titles, classics, and books from some of today’s most popular authors.

For several days each May, Book Selection Committee members read and discuss more than 100 new books from Penguin/Random House, which supplies all the titles for the program. After examining the writing and illustration quality, racial and gender diversity, appropriateness for the intended age range, and other factors, we decide which of the current year’s selections should receive further consideration for inclusion. We then look at the current books in the program and decide which titles at each level should be updated.

Our discussions are lively and intense. We each bring unique perspectives, and we each look for specific things as we read the books. Over the years, we have all become good friends who look forward to our annual “working reunion.”

Sometimes, when Dolly is in town, she visits us while we are meeting. This year she stopped by on our final day and complimented us on our work. The next day, several committee members, along with other friends of the Dollywood Foundation, Dolly’s nonprofit wing, were invited to attend the grand opening of the Wildwood Grove attraction at Dollywood. What a cool experience!

Then, one by one, we got photos taken with Dolly. After the photo, she thanked me for all I was doing to support the Imagination Library program and children’s reading. She’s given away 100 million books, and she’s thanking ME. That truly brought a lump to my throat.

Each year, I look forward to this meeting. Each year, I’m sorry when it’s over. This year was even more special than usual. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Celebrating World Read Aloud Day

February 1 marked World Read Aloud Day. I was fortunate enough to be able to celebrate by sharing my books with 75 fourth and fifth grade students at Bancroft Elementary School in Wilmington. Through the generosity of United Way of Delaware, I was among several authors who traveled to schools across Delaware to share the love of reading. In addition, United Way purchased nearly 40 copies each of my books The Sound in the Basement and Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand. This meant that every student received a signed book to take home.

For decades, research has indicated the importance of reading aloud with children. We often think that such reading should stop when kids are old enough to read on their own. Teachers know better. Students can understand stories that are far beyond their capability to read on their own. Reading aloud to elementary—or even older students—allows teachers to introduce higher-level concepts and vocabulary.

One of my fondest memories of elementary school is my third-grade teacher reading aloud to us each day from a biography of Wild Bill Hickok. I don’t remember much about the book. In fact, I don’t think it was even a particularly good book. But I do know that I looked forward to hearing her read aloud to us at the end of each school day.

That’s the beauty of reading aloud to children. It’s our enthusiasm about a book and our joy in reading that matter even more than the titles we choose. So let’s celebrate World Read Aloud Day all year long by sharing our love of reading with children. In a world that far too often revolves around electronic stimulus, the sharing of a real printed book with children is a greater gift than ever before.


Lots to Look Forward to in 2019

As a writer, I had a lot to celebrate in 2018. I passed the milestone of selling my 50th book around mid-year. Now I’m up to 52 and counting. My picture book, One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me was included as both a Dolly Parton Imagination Library and Scholastic Book Fair selection. I got to research and write new books about some really interesting topics, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tecumseh, Abraham Lincoln, Geronimo, and more.

In addition, I continued to do interesting writing and editing work for the Global Reading Network, an initiative funded by USAID to support early grade reading in low- and middle-income countries. In many ways, that work is reminiscent of the work I did for so many years for the International Literacy Association, and I continue to enjoy it.

As rewarding as 2018 was professionally, I am hoping for an even better year in 2019. What’s next? I don’t really know yet. Regular clients, such as Capstone and Cavendish Square, always seem to approach me with interesting topics to explore. New clients often crop up at unexpected times with projects I hadn’t previously considered.

Furthermore, I am working on several interesting books on my own. They aren’t far enough along to discuss yet, but I hope to have news to share as the year goes on. Many of the books I write are commissioned—publishers ask me to write a book on a particular topic, often as part of a series they are developing. I enjoy such projects for two major reasons: 1) I get to research interesting subjects I might not otherwise have thought to explore; and 2) I know if I execute the book well, I have a guaranteed sale. That’s important when you are a freelancer.

The projects I pursue on my own have different appeals and challenges. The main appeal is that I get to choose any subject that interests me and develop it in whatever manner I wish. The main challenge is that I have to convince my agent that it’s a salable book, and she has to then convince a publisher. The risk is that I may invest a lot of time, effort, and passion on a project that may never get published. That does happen, and it hurts. But when it works out, as it did with One Leaf, Two Leaf, Count with Me, it’s truly exciting. Each year, I work to find the appropriate mix of projects.

I also have several school visits lined up for the winter and spring. It’s really fun talking with students about writing and getting them excited about working on their own writing projects. I always look forward to the days I spend in schools.

In short, 2019 is already shaping to be a busy and productive year. And, if recent history is any indication, there are other exciting projects coming down the road that I haven’t even considered yet. I look forward to seeing what lies ahead. One of my goals for 2019 is to be more regular about doing blog articles, and I will keep you posted on my progress on various projects.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2019!

With Dolly Parton at the Library of Congress in February 2018 celebrating the distribution of the 100 millionth book through the Imagination Library.

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.


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!