Monday, April 11, 2011

Nonfiction is The Word for April! Enjoy!

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April, 2011
Another Book Giveaway!

The Dog that Dug for Dinosaurs


We have another wonderful giveaway by our guest columnist, Shirley Raye Redmond!

Please email Kimberley at to enter your name into the *hat* for THE DOG THAT DUG FOR DINOSAURS by Shirley Raye Redmond, published by Simon & Schuster. It's a great non-fiction book for all ages!

This is the true story about a little dog named Tray who lived in England with his owner Mary Anning, "the princess of paleontology." They unearthed dinosaur fossils together.

Feature Article


We are focusing on non-fiction books for our April issue of SPELLBINDERS and we decided to pick the collective brains of some of our author/librarian/teacher/scientist friends. Joining us this month are:

Shutta Crum: picture book author, novelist, and retired librarian. Her first book, Who Took My Hairy Toe? was classified as "retold folklore." Visit Shutta

Uma Krishnaswami: author of picture books, retold tales, and middle grade novels. She teaches creative writing at the Vermont College. Visit Uma

Fred Bortz: Fred Bortz holds a doctorate in physics and is one of the nation's leading writers of science and technology for young people with a twenty-five year career in teaching and research in physics, engineering, and science education. Visit Fred

Kimberley: Some of the questions we'd like to ask you are: what are the different kinds of non-fiction, the strengths of each type of non-fiction and some of your experiences and knowledge about writing non-fiction as well as how to use non-fiction effectively in the classroom.

Shutta: When exploring the different kinds of non-fiction, the librarian in me goes straight to the Dewey Decimal Numbers that include things like the social sciences (philosophy, crime, religion, etc.). The 300s include myths, folk and fairy tales, the 700s crafts, and the 800s include poetry, plays, short story collections, etc. The 900s include such things as travel and genealogy. You can get a shortened copy of Dewey and see what major groupings you can make with it.

Kimberley: Yes, yes, yes, Shutta! Thank you for including these crucial areas of the library. We got books from our local library under these Dewey numbers all the time with my boys when I was homeschooling.

Uma: Thanks, Shutta, for mentioning retold tales that all too often get thought of as "fiction." The point being not whether they are "true" or not (and what is that, anyway? One person's religious belief may be another's fairy tale) but what kind of research is needed to write them and what is the writer's obligations to stay true to the sources yielded by that research.

Carolee: That's a good point, Uma. As an educator in a public high school, I have trouble explaining this distinction to my students in a concise and meaningful way. When we study mythology, one of them will invariably ask if these stories are "real" or fiction. I will explain that they are non-fiction, which tends to make them think they really happened. They often assume that non-fiction means "real" or "true" which are sometimes difficult concepts to explain in the realm of non-fiction.

Uma: When I get asked the "is this real" question, I say, well, I didn't make it up. Someone else did, years ago. So when I rewrite a story like this, I need to stay "true" to that old version. In other words, I'm not going to meet Ganesha or Anansi or Grandmother Spider (or for that matter the animals from the Ark) in the parking lot when I leave here, but I need to pay attention to how I retell traditional stories because they're not mine to change however I want to. That's why retold tales are seen as nonfiction.

Carolee: It's a complex concept so I guess there's no quick and easy explanation.

Uma: If anyone wants to go into it further (as in middle or high school) I will talk about geography and the shaping of some stories, so that kernels of reality emerge--lost rivers, archeological discoveries, etc. and the technical differences between legend and myth, assuming you buy into those terminologies.

Kimberley: Does anyone have an observation about the current trends in publishing non-fiction?

Fred: The biggest recent change in nonfiction is the emphasis on series. The school/library publishers rarely do single titles anymore, and the trade publishers are doing more series also.

The biggest change in my own writing is a move toward speculative topics. My work-in-progress is about humanity's future in space, looking ahead to the settlement of other worlds and the possible exploration of other solar systems.

My latest book, Seven Wonders of Space Technology Visit Seven Wonders
has speculative chapters on "Moon Water and Moon Bases" and "Future Technologies for Space Travel" and a forward-looking chapter about the New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt (arrival date: 2015).

Shutta: I might add that one of the more exciting things I have seen in the last ten years is an explosion in nonfiction picture books. This usually takes the form of a picture book that focuses in on a very specific event, person, period, etc. It is presented with large illustrations as picture books are, and sometimes there are end notes to fill out the details. I am thinking of books like: Bad New for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves by Vaunda Nelson, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson, and Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Hill just to name a couple. I love this . . . it provides a good point of access to nonfiction for young readers who may still be a little fearful of text-laden nonfiction.

Carolee: I've been delighted to see the expansion of non-fiction picture books. I work with poor readers, many of whom are boys, and they often prefer non-fiction over fictional stories. Quality non-fiction trade books contain great visuals and facts that grip their attention. A textbook biography is often boring, but a biography that is structured to read like a novel or short story based on fact can be fascinating.

Fred: It's not just bios that feel like novels, and it's not just sci/fi that looks at speculative ideas.

I began to get a little bit of notice nationally when a reviewer said that my 1995 book Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure--and Success "reads like an adventure story," and was one of nine designated a Selector's Choice on the National Science Teachers Association/Children's Book Council list of Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children for 1996.

It was then that I realized that I was at my best as a "teller of true tales." Catastrophe! was more like a short-story collection around a common theme (Murphy's Law as a recipe for success) than a novel.

Kimberley: Speaking of awards, what are the non-fiction awards out there? I know some like the Sibert, but I know I'm probably missing a lot.

Fred: I am also a winner of one of those other awards. I imagine there are several other fields that offer them. Mine was the American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for works intended for young readers in 2002 for Techno-Matter: The Materials Behind the Marvels. That was not a true-story book, but rather an overview of materials science and engineering, though I tried to work in a little storytelling in some of the technologies I described.

Kimberley & Carolee: This is wonderful, thank you all so much! You've clarified several things as well as given good examples and the direction of series and awards. Thanks to all of you for joining us for this month's issue of SPELLBINDERS.

Special Guest Column
The ABCs of Nonfiction for Kids
with Shirley Raye Redmond

The ABCs of Nonfiction For Kids


Shirley Raye Redmond

Years ago I ran across a copy of Joyce Milton's nonfiction early reader, Dinosaur Days. I was amazed to learn that it has sold more than one million copies in 60 printings since it was first published by Random House in 1985. Milton's little book is even mentioned in Marc McCutcheon's, Damn! Why Didn't I Write That? How Ordinary People Are Raking in $100,000 or more Writing Nonfiction Books & How You Can Too.

Very few children's picture books or middle grade and young adult novels can boast the same success as Milton's nonfiction book about dinosaurs. Many novels don't even earn back the advance the publisher paid the author. But I didn't know that when I wrote my first children's novel, Grampa and the Ghost. I received a modest $3000 advance and was thrilled when the title later became a Weekly Reader selection. However, the book soon disappeared from shelves and book club flyers.

On the other hand, my first nonfiction titles, Lewis & Clark: a Prairie Dog for the President and Tentacles! Tales of the Giant Squid have both sold more than 200,000 copies, generating thousands of dollars in royalty income since they were released in 2004. The Lewis & Clark title even became a Children's Book of the Month Club selection, which brought in money from subsidiary rights. Is there a lesson here? Yes! If you want to break into the children's book market or earn regular writing income, try writing nonfiction.

Here's some more good news: you don't have to be an expert with a Ph.D. on the subject you want to write about. Most publishing houses have fact checkers to edit the manuscript. They will ask for your list of sources. Take careful notes. Larger houses hire professionals in the field to vet or examine the material for accuracy. Dr. Clyde Roper, a leading expert on giant squid, vetted my manuscript about this mysterious creature and provided photos for the book. Such expert examination earns high marks from teachers and librarians. I'm always happy to see my title for sale in aquarium bookstores across the country, and was delighted when the book made a recommended reading list put out by a national teachers' organization to coincide with the hit movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

Research can be fun. I love the thrill of the chase, particularly when researching a topic I'm keen about. I went to Iceland to get up close and personal with Atlantic puffins, toured Revolutionary War battlefields back east when working on Patriots in Petticoats and spent a week at Yellowstone while researching the Lewis and Clark expedition. No time to travel? Go to the library and find grown-up books on your topic. Pay attention to the authors' acknowledgments' and authors' notes. Photocopy the bibliographies and use these books as your sources. As your research folder fills up, narrow your topic to the aspect that interests you the most, and simplify what you've learned so a child can understand it.

Don't know what to write about? Keep school curricula in mind. Most textbook companies and publishers of educational materials and school library books have a calendar of themes that are covered by teachers in classrooms across the country. Did you know that Music in Our Schools month is observed nationwide each March and that September is dedicated to Character Building? Did you know that elementary youngsters do a transportation unit each fall? That helped me sell my nonfiction picture book manuscript, BLIND TOM, The Horse Who Helped Build the Great Railroad. If you tie your topic to a curriculum theme, it will pique the interest of an editor. Once the book is published, it will stay in print much longer, earning you more royalty income.

Current events can provide a wealth of ideas too. Simon and Schuster bought my nonfiction book about a real-life Pigeon Hero!when I pointed out that there was very little World War II material for first graders.

However, elementary students across the country had been helping to raise funds for the new memorial in Washington, D.C. The Alamo was released to coincide with the release of the Disney movie of the same name. Pop culture can provide marketable ideas too. Even though there's already a deluge of fairy books on the market, I convinced an editor to buy mine-- a TRUE story about the Cottingley fairy photos. The Fairy Hoax will be released by Random House in May 2012.

Years ago, an editor at a writing workshop lamented that most writers don't want to write nonfiction for children because "it isn't glamorous." Perhaps it isn't. But for the past several years, I have found it to be challenging and enjoyable, as well as profitable. Maybe you will too.

Shirley Raye Redmond

Shirley Raye Redmond knew she wanted to be a writer when she was only 12 years old. After reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, she made up her mind to be just like Jo March. She even tried eating apples while she was writing her stories...just like Jo!

In high school, she joined the journalism club and worked on the student newspaper. She went on to college and earned an M.A. in English from the University of Illinois-Springfield.

She wrote more than 400 magazine and newspaper articles before writing her first book for children. Now Shirley Raye writes full time. She's always working on a new book. Check out the Books section of this of this website to find out what she's been up to!

Read Shirley Raye at her Website!

Kimberley's Book Buzz
Kimberley Griffiths Little

Kimberley Little

Kimberley Griffiths Little

More from Shirley Raye Redmond: Using Nonfiction Books in the Classroom

I love to receive letters or emails from young students who read my books. Many teachers and librarians require youngsters to write to the authors to tell them what they liked best about their books. Recently, I had an email from an 8-year-old in England whose teacher had read THE DOG THAT DUG FOR DINOSAURS in class and asked the youngsters to come up with an art project. Lydia decided to make finger puppets of Tray and Mary Ann.


Some teachers combine a geography lesson with the reading of a book. Have youngsters trace Lewis & Clark's route across the United States from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean or G. I. Joe's flight from Italy to the Allied airfield in France. The publisher of BLIND TOM, THE HORSE WHO HELPED BUILD THE GREAT RAILROAD actually included a map and a "Learn More" page at the back of the book, with activities and a link to my website where interested youngsters can read an article about Chief Spotted Tail and his race against the Iron Horse.

Blind Tom

I always provide a list of kid-friendly websites at the back of my nonfiction books for Kidhaven Press, such as CERBERUS, MERMAIDS, and OAK ISLAND TREASURE PIT. These sites often provide mazes and puzzles, vocabulary lists and even recipes.

CerberusOak Island


Do you have a hard time creating ideas (or finding the time to create lesson plans and ideas) to bring real books alive for you students or children?

Today with the ease of the Internet, every author has a website and most authors have created Teacher's Guides or have Teacher and Parent Pages with ideas on how to use their books in the classroom or home.

Using already made guides can save lots of time or help you to incorporate all those fantastic books from the Dewey Decimal System into your class and home life.

Google a few authors and discover with a few clicks the ease of using all those very cool, nonfiction books! Especially for your kid readers who can't sit still with a novel and want pictures, photographs and fun charts and diagrams.

Kimberley Griffiths Little is the author of:

The Healing Spell (Scholastic)

Circle of Secrets (Scholastic, October 2011)

To find out more about Kimberley, her books, book trailers, and Author School visits, visit her website at

The Secret Language of Stories
Carolee Dean
Carolee Dean
Carolee Dean

This column usually explores the structure of fictional stories. This month, with the focus on non-fiction, I will use my 12 step story analysis method to discuss the true story of a girl named Sadako who developed leukemia as a result of radiation exposure during WWII.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr is available through Puffin Books as both a short chapter book (ISBN 0-14-240113-7) and a picture book (ISBN 0-698-11588-0)Sadako Cover

OLD WORD - Sadako enjoys life with her family in Post World War II Japan. She loves running and wants to be on the junior high track team the following year. As the story opens, she goes with her family to a Peace Day celebration on August 6th to commemorate the dropping of the atom bomb. Sadako lights a lantern in memory of her grandmother who died from radiation poisoning.

CALL AND RESPONSE- Sadako begins to feel dizzy frequently when she runs, but decides not to tell anyone. One day she faints at school.

CROSSING OVER-Her parents take her to the hospital where the doctor tells them she has leukemia, brought on from radiation exposure.

MENTORS, GUIDES & GIFTS- Sadako's best friend, Chizuko, visits her in the hospital and tells her that according to an old, Japanese folk tale, if someone gets sick and they make one thousand paper cranes, the gods will make them well.

NEW WORLD- Sadako must stay in the hospital without her family. She must get used to frequent shots and being alone. She does her homework, writes letters, and makes paper cranes.

PROBLEMS, PRIZES, PLANS- Sadako sees some of the leukemia patients getting well and she becomes determined that she will make one thousand paper cranes and get well, too. Her friend, Chizuko, brings paper from their bamboo class and her father saves paper from the barber shop. When she makes the cranes, her brother hangs them on the ceiling so they look like a flock of birds. She soon has three hundred cranes.

MIDPOINT CHALLENGE- One day when Sadako is too weak to work on the cranes, she befriends a boy named Kenji. He soon dies of leukemia and Sadako despairs that she will be next. Her bamboo class sends her a special Kokeshi doll to cheer her up.

DOWNTIME- Sadako starts to get her strength back. When she is halfway to her goal of one thousand cranes, she improves enough to leave the hospital, just in time for O Bon, a celebration for spirits of the dead.

CHASE/ESCAPE/PURSUIT- Many people come to visit Sadako while she is at home. She becomes very tired and has to return to the hospital. The doctor gives her blood transfusions and shots almost every day, trying to battle the disease ravaging her body.

CLIMAX- Sadako's family comes for a special visit. Her mother brings a gift, an expensive kimono she has made. Sadako's best friend, Chizuko, is allowed to come as well and the whole group sings songs and plays games. Sadako makes one last paper crane.

DEATH EXPERIENCE- Sadako is too weak to make any more cranes. She falls asleep in exhaustion and when she awakens, she sees her family standing around her. She is happy to know that she will always be part of that loving circle. Death can't take that from her. As she feels her life slipping away, she reaches out to touch a golden crane and it makes her feel stronger. Right before she dies, she looks at the flock of cranes hanging from the ceiling and she thinks about how beautiful they are.

REWARD- Sadako had made a total of 654 paper cranes. Her classmates fold the remaining 356 paper cranes so that Sadako can be buried with one thousand. Her bamboo class collects her letters and journals and they begin to circulate around Japan in the form of a book entitled Kokeshi, the name of her favorite doll. She continues to live on in the hearts and minds of people who read her story. In 1958 a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane is erected in the Hiroshima Peace Park. A Folded Crane Club places thousands of paper cranes at the base of her statue every August 6th on Peace Day.

This story is a compelling example of a biography told in beautiful narrative form. Information presented in the form of a story compels readers so much more than facts and dates ever can.

For an example of how to use non-fiction resources to encourage students to create stories, see this month's writing activity on my Blog

Carolee Dean is a high school speech-language pathologist and young adult author of:

COMFORT (Houghton Mifflin)

TAKE ME THERE (Simon Pulse)

NO WAY OUT (Simon Pulse, 2012)

To find out about her books, writing activities, and author/poet visits, go to her website.

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