New Projects!

I am proud and pleased to join NFL players, celebrities, educators, and other authors as a contributor to a forthcoming book titled Tackle Reading. Organized by urban literacy specialist and children’s author Kathryn Starke, the book will be donated to schools in need across the United States. Starke has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help support publication of Tackle Reading. Check it out here. My article is titled “Making Facts Fun: Using Nonfiction in the Classroom.”

Meanwhile, Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand is now at the printer! Aimed at young readers ages 5-12, the book pairs my poems with exquisite photos by award-winning photographer Lisa Goodman. We hope to have the book in hand by early May. We are still seeking support with our printing costs. You can earn some cool incentives–signed books, note cards, and more–by supporting our GoFundMe project here.



I was pleased to be featured on Education Talk Radio this morning, discussing the topic of the increasing use of nonfiction in elementary classrooms. Host Larry Jacobs asked me a wide range of questions about all of my children’s writing, and we had a lively discussion. You can access the entire interview on the Education Talk Radio website.

Larry asked me how I got involved in writing for children, how I research and write nonfiction material for the education market, and how I handle the self-publishing process for picture and poetry books. For the latter question, I talked about developing The Sound in the Basement with our mutual friend, illustrator Eric Hamilton.

I also discussed how much I enjoy visiting schools to talk about writing and to conduct writing workshops with elementary students. I described the joy I feel when I see a young reader/writer sharing my enthusiasm for a particular topic. To learn more about school visit topics, visit this page on my website.

One topic that didn’t come up during our conversation was my next self publishing project, Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand, produced in collaboration with award-winning photographer Lisa Goodman of Wilmington, so I’ll give that a quick plug here. We are currently conducting a GoFundMe campaign to help support our self-publishing effort. Learn more here.

A Look Back, A Look Forward

As I look back, 2015 was a productive writing year, with many exciting challenges and opportunities. Here are a few of the book highlights:

  • Publication of four new books through Capstone: The 1918 Flu Pandemic, The Challenger Explosion, Bold Riders: The Story of the Pony Express, and To the Last Man: The Battle of the Alamo. Six more Capstone titles are in various stages of production for publication in 2016!
  • Acceptance of a counting book, One Leaf, Two Leaves: Count with Me, for publication by Nancy Paulsen Books in fall 2017. Paulsen’s Penguin imprint publishes award-winning books by distinguished authors such as Jacqueline Woodson, Tomie dePaola, and Rachel Isadora. Needless to say, I am delighted to be in such company, and I eagerly await the publication of my book, which is being illustrated by up-and-coming artist Clive McFarland of Northern Ireland. Watch for further details as they become available.
  • Publication in September of The Sound in the Basement, a picture book about a young boy who overcomes his fear of going into the basement alone. The story is based on my own childhood experiences, and I worked on it off and on for nearly 15 years. I had a specific vision for how I wanted this book to look, so I decided to self-publish it through my brand-new imprint, First State Press. To turn that vision into reality, I teamed with artist Eric Hamilton, a long-time friend through the Association of Educational Publishers. Eric’s artwork lends just the right mix of fear and humor to the text, and we are both delighted with the finished product. To learn more or to order copies, visit

But the year encompassed more than just books. As always, I was also involved in a variety of other writing and editing projects. These included:

  • Communications work with Read to Them, the nonprofit family literacy organization that runs the One District, One Book program. I have known Read to Them’s founder, Gary Anderson, for nearly 15 years, and I am delighted to support his efforts to spread the love of reading among families and school districts throughout the United States and beyond.
  • Editing work with Delaware ShoutOut, a communications firm run by Newark resident Brooke Miles. I enjoy the work, and I learn something from each piece I edit.
  • An article for ASCD’s Education Update newsletter on using primary sources in education. I really enjoyed the research and interviews involved in this piece.
  • Working with graphic designer and longtime friend Mark Deshon to create a website for First State Press.

I also had the opportunity to do some fun school visits and speaking engagements:

  • Keynote speaker at the Young Authors’ Day conference at Keystone College in northern Pennsylvania in November, along with a school visit to Mountain View Elementary School in Kingsley, Pennsylvania. I already have several school visits lined up for 2016, and I look forward to scheduling more. I really enjoy sharing my love of writing with students.
  • Presentations at the International Literacy Association conference and the Parents As Teachers (PAT) conference with Diane Givens of PAT on using children’s books and children’s poetry to help children cope with traumatic life experiences.
  • Presentations at the State of Maryland IRA conference (on nonfiction) and the Keystone State Reading Association (on poetry).

Looking ahead, 2016 will bring publication of several more Capstone titles and the publication of another First State Press book, Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand. For this picture book, I have partnered with award-winning photographer and longtime friend Lisa Goodman. We anticipate a spring release. Watch for more details to come.

As always, I am certain that many other exciting projects will arise, and I will post updates as more details become available. I look forward to an exciting writing year!


In general, I don’t like meetings, although I realize that they sometimes are necessary. Often, meetings are boring. Even productive meetings take me away from work that I’d rather be doing.

But there’s one meeting I truly look forward to each year—the annual meeting of the Book Committee for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. For the past 15 years, a small group of educators (plus me as an author) has gathered at the office of the Dollywood Foundation in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to select the books that will be represented in the library for the coming year.

Dolly Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1995 as a way to give back to the community. Born into relative poverty in the mountains of Tennessee, Dolly credits reading with helping her see the wider world and imagine her place in it. When she became wealthy, she vowed to give other children that same opportunity. She founded the Imagination Library to provide each child born in Sevier County, Tennessee, with a book a month from birth to the age of five. Thus, every child in the county has a personal library of 60 books by the time he or she enters kindergarten.

As word of the program spread, other communities wanted to get involved. As wealthy and generous as Dolly is, she couldn’t provide books for every child in every community that inquired. So beginning in 2000 the Dollywood Foundation began making the model available and offering the economy of scale for programs to get books at a tremendous discount from Penguin Random House, which supplies all of the titles for the program. Communities fund the program through United Way, corporate support, state or local governmental funding, or other sources. In 2000, the Dollywood Foundation also established the Book Selection Committee to choose the books for the Imagination Library.

Twenty years after its inception, the Imagination Library program now operates in more than 1,600 local communities across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Later this year, the program will distribute its 70 millionth book! What a gift to children around the world!

I am proud to be able to contribute in some way to the Imagination Library. Besides, for an author and bibliophile, what could possibly be more fun than spending two full days poring over piles of outstanding children’s books and discussing their relative merits with other book lovers? No wonder I look forward to my annual trip to Tennessee.

Click here to learn more about the Imagination Library.

I have been doing research over the past month for three separate short history books. As a result, I’ve been spending a lot of time in libraries—and reminding myself how much I love prowling stacks of books, even in the computer age. I can find more and more of what I need online, and I certainly save lots of time doing research that way. Still, there’s nothing like roaming the stacks in a library and being surprised by a title that’s just what I need, even though it didn’t turn up in my Google search.

Different libraries have different personalities, too. The Newark library is open and welcoming—a great place to set up my computer for a couple of hours when I get tired of staring at the same four walls in my home office. Same goes for the Kirkwood library.

Morris Library at the University of Delaware gives off a distinctly different vibe. With its floors and floors and rows and rows of books, it’s more imposing and less homelike. But I love being able to peruse dozens of different books about the Gold Rush or the Civil War to find just the right facts and quotes to make my books come alive. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt, except that there’s no prescribed set of materials to gather.

A recent study by Scholastic indicates that nearly two out of three kids agree that they will always want to read books in print form even though there are ebooks available. I think that’s wonderful. There is something special about the look, the feel, and even the aroma of books in a bookstore or library. And there’s a special kind of magic to be found in wandering the stacks of a library that just can’t be replicated when scrolling down the pages of an electronic search.

I loved libraries as a child. I love them as an adult as a tool for my writing. I’m sure I’ll continue to love them when I retire and am once again, as I was in childhood, simply looking for a “good read.”


Last week, the world lost one of its finest advocates for children’s literature, Bernice “Bee” Cullinan. Bee’s nickname was apt—she buzzed from project to project, pollinating each with her unique mixture of wisdom and enthusiasm. Her contributions to the field of reading are too numerous to list in full, but here is a sampling.

  • Professor emeritus at New York University
  • President of the International Reading Association (recently renamed the International Literacy Association)
  • Creator of Children’s Literature in the Reading Program, a best-selling book now entering its fourth edition. The success of the first edition of this book, by the way, ushered in a period of unprecedented growth and success for IRA’s book publishing program.
  • Founder and first editor of the Wordsong poetry imprint at Boyds Mills Press
  • Editor of A Jar of Tiny Stars, a best-selling anthology of poems by NCTE-Award-winning poets

I had the extreme good fortune to collaborate with Bee in two capacities. During my long tenure at the International Reading Association, I worked with more than 30 IRA Presidents on their President’s Messages for Reading Today. I respected all of them and formed personal friendships with many of them. Bee, who served from 1984-1985, was one of my all-time favorites. I admired her scholarship, her passion for children’s literature, and her vision for expanding its role as an integral part of the reading program.

About 10 years later, when my children were very young, I had an idea for a children’s book. Eager to encourage fathers to become actively involved in reading to and with their children, I conceived the idea for a book of Daddy Poems—poems about dads designed for dads to share with their children. One day I shared the idea with Bee, who was then serving as the head of Wordsong, the poetry imprint at Boyds Mills Press. Her reaction: “That’s a great idea, John. Go do it.”

It was then that I had to admit to her that I had no idea how to go about compiling a poetry collection. Like the great mentor she was, Bee patiently guided me through the process of how to find poems and poets, how to gather permissions to use selected poems, and how to balance the collection between new and previously published material. Gradually, the manuscript took shape, and finally I submitted it, certain that it was the greatest poetry anthology ever compiled.

Imagine my shock when the manuscript was returned a couple of months later. The reviewers said they loved the idea but thought some of the previously published poems I had selected were too dated. They also thought the poems I had written needed some more work. They encouraged me to revise and resubmit the piece.

I should have been encouraged by this response and gotten right to work. After all, the reviewers had said they loved the idea and had given me specific advice for revising the manuscript. Still, I was crushed by what I saw as rejection. I literally stuffed the manuscript under my bed, and there it sat for months. Then Bee called one day and asked how the revisions were coming. I sheepishly admitted that I hadn’t worked on them. She paused for a moment, then asked what my dream was. I replied that I dreamed of a poetry book with my name on it—a book dads could share with their children. She paused again, then asked if that dream could ever come true if the manuscript sat under my bed. No, I replied, I needed to get to work on the revisions. “Go do it,” she commanded.

Once again, Bee mentored me throughout the process. She paired me with author and educator Allan De Fina, who helped me with poem selection and permissions issues. She even invited me to spend a weekend at her house on Long Island, where I immersed myself in her vast poetry collection and bounced wording for my own poems off her for feedback. The day Daddy Poems was published in 2000 was one of the proudest moments in my life.

But Bee wasn’t done mentoring me yet. As I basked in the glow of Daddy Poems, she asked me a simple question that changed my writing life forever: “What’s next, John?” I had never thought beyond that single book, but with Bee’s encouragement, Daddy Poems was followed by Mommy Poems, Grandparent Poems, and No Boys Allowed: Poems About Brothers and Sisters. My success with those books opened doors for me to approach other publishers with other ideas, and I’ve now published more than 20 children’s books.

So it is with a heavy heart indeed that I say farewell to my colleague, friend, and mentor Bernice Cullinan. She made the world a better place for many people, and I count myself fortunate to have been one of them.


Two very cool packages arrived in the mail last week—advance copies of my latest books. The books are titled The Challenger Disaster and The 1918 Flu Pandemic, and they are part of Capstone’s Fact Finders “What Went Wrong?” series. These mark my 20th and 21st published children’s books, representing a nice mixture of history books, biographies, and poetry.

I must admit that I don’t get as excited about my new books as I did years ago. Maybe the thrill of each individual title has grown less as I do more of them. Also, however, there is a bit of superstition on my part. I simply don’t like reading my books once they are published. I’m always afraid I’ll find an error—or at least something I don’t like. For instance, one of my favorite poems from my Mommy Poems book is “The Keeper of Dreams,” but there’s one line in it that makes me cringe every time I read it. I wish I had written it differently, and sometimes when I read it in schools I actually change to what I wish it had been.

Part of it, too, is that for me the process of doing the book is just as important as the product. I love researching new topics and immersing myself in a subject over a period of time. That is why, even as I celebrate the arrival of my new titles, I am just as excited about getting ready to dive in and begin research on three new books for Capstone. I can’t discuss the specifics yet because I haven’t formally signed the contracts, but they are all history topics, and I look forward to researching all three of them.

I’m also excited about a picture book I am self-publishing titled The Sound in the Basement, with illustrations by New York City-based illustrator Eric Hamilton. Another exciting aspect is that I plan to help support its publication through a Kickstarter campaign that I will launch soon. This means that my friends and relatives will have a chance to get involved in the project and earn some cool things such as signed copies of the book before they are available to the general public. Watch for more details soon!

Tag Cloud