Tag Archives: authors

Spies Like Us

When I was a kid, my grandmother took me to see The HMS Pinafore, a Gilbert and Sullivan musical that premiered roughly one hundred and thirty nine years ago. It’s a story of mistaken identity that takes place on the high seas. Never mind that the elaborate costumes and high heeled shoes seemed utterly impractical for sailing, I was mesmerized. One thing in particular caught my attention and still drifts along behind me to this day. Buttercup, who the plot reveals to be an epic failure as a nanny (think the anti-Mary Poppins), sings a song called Things Are Seldom What They Seem. In the song, she offers a slew of ridiculous examples in support of this statement: skim milk masquerades as cream; highlows pass as patent leathers; jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.

Other than the milk reference I had no idea what she was going on about but the thought that what you see is not always what you get lit up my young imagination like a match in a gallon of gasoline. Imagine my delight to discover there were a number of authors taken with this idea, too. They wrote about spies. Who knew there were people out there in the world whose job it was to pretend to be something other than themselves? It’s no wonder that a geeky elementary school student who often wanted to blend into the walls would find this appealing. I started in on the spy novels and never looked back.

To this day I read and write about spies and spying and how things are never quite as they appear. And lucky for us, middle grade is chock full of spectacular spy writing. In no particular order, some of my current favorites. They’re not top secret so feel free to share.

  1. Spy School, by Stuart Gibbs (first in a series). Ben Ripley may only be in middle school, but he’s already pegged his dream job: C.I.A. or bust. So he’s thrilled when he’s recruited to the C.I.A.’s top secret Academy of Espionage. Only, it turns out, Ben hasn’t been brought in because the C.I.A. expects him to succeed. Instead, he’s been brought in as bait to catch a dangerous enemy agent. Now, Ben needs to step up his game before he ends up dead. Can he solve the crime, get the girl and save the day?
  1. Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz (first in a series). They told him his uncle died in a car accident but fourteen year old Alex Rider knows that’s a lie. Still, nothing could prepare him for the news that his uncle was really a spy for MI6 , Britain’s top secret intelligence agency. Recruited to find his uncles killers, Alex finds himself caught in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
  1. Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead. When 7th grader Georges moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a 12 year old coffee drinking loner and self appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer’s first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?
  1. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. First published in 1964, this novel is the grandmother of all middle grade spy books. Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?

Do you have a favorite spy novel? I’d love to hear about it! Until then, make sure no one is following you…

Horses, Horses, and More Horses

Young Whitney on Rocky

Young Whitney on Rocky

For all you horse lovers out there, I’m excited to introduce you to Whitney Sanderson, an author from the Random House Horse Diary series. In addition to the two books she’s written for that series, she has a new release, the first in her Horse Rescue series. Whitney wrote Horse Rescue: Treasure to support Little Brook Farm, a horse rescue center. Whitney will be donating 50% of her royalties to Little Brook Farm. So if you or someone you know is a horse lover, sharing this book will not only make them happy, it will also help save horses. And we’re also offering a chance to win a free copy of Treasure.

Hi, Whitney, and welcome to the Mixed-Up Files. We’re looking forward to learning more about you and about horses.

First of all, what did you dream about becoming when you were young?

Even though I loved horses from a young age, I really wanted to be an FBI agent. I was a big fan of the X-Files. Maybe it’s a sign that there will be a paranormal young adult novel in my future.

When did you start writing?

When I was four or five, I would dictate stories to my older sister, and she would type them for me. I remember the first story was called “Ten Cats” and the second was called “Five Dogs,” so I guess I have been drawn to animal stories from the beginning. I was homeschooled, and when I was around fourteen I took a correspondence course in creative writing designed for high school students.

That was the first time I got feedback from someone other than my friends and parents that I might have potential as a writer. Around that time, I joined an online community called The Young Writer’s Club, which sadly no longer exists. That was hugely influential to my writing—I was able to get feedback on and comment on the work of other aspiring teenage writers across the world. I am still in touch with a few of the friends I made on that site more than a decade ago.

Treasure CoverNEWHow did you come up with the idea for Treasure?

I spent the summer volunteering at Little Brook Farm in 2009. I wanted to use my profession as a writer to help spread the word about the good work they were doing, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. At the time, I was working on a book for the Random House Horse Diaries series, which are all told from the horse’s point of view. From there, I had the idea to make up a story about the life of one of the Little Brook horses, based on the facts that were known. There were so many interesting horses on the farm that it was hard to pick just one, but I ended up settling on Treasure because she was such a sweet mare
who was so valuable to the farm despite being “just” a mixed-breed pony who had been saved from slaughter. I was also able to work in a lot of the other horses’ tales, because in my story the horses can talk to each other.

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Young rider with Treasure at Little Brook Farm

Can you tell us why you’re passionate about the charity you’re supporting with this book?

Little Brook Farm is the nation’s oldest horse rescue, established by Lynn Cross in 1977. They have rescued hundreds of horses, ponies, and other animals. People sometimes think that only sick, lame, or behaviorally difficult horses end up homeless or at slaughter auctions, but that is far from true. The farm has a number of rescued horses who have competed in eventing, dressage, and vaulting competitions. Some of these horses do need special care, but still make wonderful horses for pleasure riding or competition. I think it’s so important that people realize rescues are more than throwaway horses.

I also love that Little Brook Farm offers kids from a city environment the chance to experience farm life on class field trips. Lynn showed me some wonderful letters from people who visited the farm as children and wrote years later to say that one trip changed their lives and motivated them to do well in school or seek out careers working with animals. Horses reconnect us to a part of ourselves and our heritage that is easy to forget in a culture where most of our days are spent inside staring at screens or books. In the end, I believe horses help us as much as we help them.

Whitney, you’ve written other horse books. Can you tell us about those and about the research you did for them?

I have wrGOLDEN SUN jacket copyitten two books for the Random House Horse Diaries chapter book series, which my mother, Ruth Sanderson illustrated. Each book is about a different type of horse at the time when that breed was developed. Golden Sun tells the story of a Native American boy and an Appaloosa horse as they grow up on the western plains together in 1790. My second book in the series, Darcy, is about a Connemara pony working on an Irish farm in 1917.

Even though they are fairly simple stories, they required a lot of historical research. Something as simple as not knowing what the weather would be like at a certain time of year or what kind of tack a horse would be wearing can lead to a lot of frustration—because if you don’t get it right, the copyeditor will call you on it later!

In Golden Sun, I made the mistake of just guessing on some things that ended up not being correct, and then having to do a lot of revisions. With Darcy, I was careful to seek sources for anything I was unsure about. It’s one of the challenges of writing historical fiction. One of the benefits is that you end up learning a lot about topics you’d otherwise know nothing about, like Native American vision quests or farming in rural Ireland.

Can you tell us what you like best about horses? And are any of the books based on horses you’ve owned?

One of my favorite things about horses is how individual their personalities are. My Appaloosa, Thor, has a wise and calm disposition—I like to call him a horse philosopher. Another horse I owned, Gabriel, was kind of an equine Abercrombie model—very cute, a little sulky at times, and loved to be the center of attention. Both Thor and Gabe were actually models for two books in the Horse Diaries series—Golden Sun and Koda.Koda

My mother, Ruth Sanderson, takes really detailed photo reference for each illustration in the books, so she often has to set up scenes with various horses and people in costumes…it can be pretty involved. Thor took it all in stride when a bunch of people dressed in American Indian style clothing showed up at the stable to have their picture taken with him for Golden Sun, but Gabe seemed really excited to be in the quarter horse story, Koda. There was one scene where the girl in the book is sick, lying on the ground, and Koda is trying to get her to wake up. Gabe was really hamming it up, circling around and nuzzling her. I think he missed his calling as a Hollywood star. If they ever make the books into TV episodes, he’d be perfect!

You’ve alThe Black Stallionways loved horses–that’s clear. Did you also read horse stories growing up?

Yes, many of them. I read the Black Stallion books, the Thoroughbred series, and all of the Marguerite Henry books. But by far my favorite was The Saddle Club series by Bonnie Bryant. Until pretty recently you could throw out a random nuMistymber between one and a hundred, and I could tell you the title of that book in the series and describe the plot. When I was around nine, I wrote to Bonnie Bryant and was so excited when she wrote back—I kept the letter on my bulletin board for years. Now I sometimes get letters from readers of Horse Diaries, and it’s so cool to realize that kids are enjoying my books the way I once looked forward to the latest Saddle Club.saddle club

It’s awesome to think that maybe someday the fans of your books might end up as authors themselves. I hope you don’t mind answering a few more questions as I’m sure those eager readers would love to know more about their favorite author.

Where have you lived (or visited) and how has that influenced your work?

I grew up in Ware, Massachusetts, which is a pretty rural town. My family had a Victorian house with an old barn, and when I was about eight years old, my parents fixed it up so we could have horses on the property. It was wonderful to be able to go out and see the horses any time I wanted—although I was homeschooled, so it also probably contributed to my rushing through my work so I could get out to the barn faster. The English lessons mostly stuck because I liked reading and writing, but don’t try to quiz me on algebra!

As far as places I have traveled, I was able to visit Ireland with my mom and sister while I was researching Darcy. Being able to see the landscape and culture where the book was set made it so much easier to come up with authentic descriptions. I met a woman who owned Connemara ponies and ran thDarcy jacket copye local pony club for decades, and we got to take a wonderful ride along the windswept coast of Ireland. The internet can tell you a lot, but there is no substitute for visiting the place you are writing about.

Do you have any advice for anyone who dreams of becoming an author?

If you want to be an author, I would say become comfortable with the whole writing process that comes before publication. I tend to start a lot more projects than I finish, but I always feel a sense of pride when I have a completed manuscript that I have sent out to an agent or publisher, regardless of whether I ultimately sell it. Even if that particular work isn’t accepted, the rejections can teach you a lot about the process, and about what not to do. Even if you don’t sell your first story, or your second, just getting practice with carrying through a project from start to finish will serve you well when you finally hit on something that an editor thinks is gold.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I’m currently working on another Horse Rescue book, this time set at Blue Star Equiculture, a draft horse rescue in Palmer, MA. Another project I have in mind is a young adult series about a group of teenage girls who get into the sport of three-day eventing.

What super power do you wish you had?

The power to overcome writer’s block! Or to really be able to talk to horses instead of just imagining what they might say.

Do you have a funny story about when you were young?

Well, it’s funny in retrospect…Once, when I was about fourteen, I was riding on a trail with my friend on her 12-hand pony, Widget. There was a small tree fallen across the path, about 3 feet high. I jumped it with Thor, but Widget had second thoughts and ended up only half jumping it. So she was literally balanced on the tree on her stomach with her legs dangling above the ground. She couldn’t seem to get the leverage to move either way, and although she was surprisingly calm about it, we were worried she would panic and really injure herself.

I rode back to the barn for help, but my parents weren’t home and no one was around, so I left some incoherent note about Widget being stuck in a tree on the trail. Then I found a hand saw and a container of jellybeans and rode back into the park. People that I passed on the road gave me very strange looks. Fortunately, the hand saw turned out to be unnecessary, since Widget scrambled over the log as soon as she heard the container of jellybeans rattle. My friend and I decided the moral of that story was “always carry jellybeans in your pocket, because you never know when you might need to get a pony out of a tree.”

Thinking about your parents reading your note about a pony being stuck in a tree makes me laugh — now that I know you got her out safely. I’ll have to remember the jellybean trick. I never realized horses liked jellybeans.

What’s one thing you’ve always dreamed of doing?

Someday I’d like to be able to adopt a rescue horse—and I’ll know where to find one when that day comes!

Whitney on Thor

Whitney on Thor

About Whitney Sanderson:

Whitney Sanderson is the author of Horse Rescue: Treasure. 50% of the proceeds from the book will be donated to Little Brook Farm. Whitney is also the author of Horse Diaries: Golden Sun and Horse Diaries: Darcy, both from Random House. You can find out more about Whitney on her website and about how the various horses were photographed and painted on the Horse Diaries blog.

About the Interviewer:

WantedGraceandtheGuiltless_smA lifelong horse-lover, Laurie J. Edwards has an MA from Vermont College and is completing an MFA in Children’s Writing and Illustrating at Hollins University. With more than 2200 articles and a dozen books in print, she is the author of the young adult Western, Grace and the Guiltless (Capstone, 2014), about an orphaned teen whose only friend is her horse. Laurie would love to connect with readers on Facebook and Twitter, or visit her blog.

Treasure CoverNEWTo win a copy of Horse Rescue: Treasure, leave a comment below. Share this post on Facebook and Twitter and let us know for extra chances to win. Winner will be chosen on January 3, 2014.

 

Congratulations to Debbie McLeod, the winner of the free copy of Treasure!

The Nonfiction Family Tree

A few weeks ago, I attended the New England SCBWI conference in beautiful Springfield, MA. I had the pleasure of sitting in on a workshop given by  Melissa Stewart and Sarah Albee on Nonfiction. It was fascinating!  There was so much GREAT information that I felt it would be good for others to learn about it. I contacted Melissa and she graciously agreed to be interviewed.   For those of you that haven’t heard of  or been lucky enough to meet Melissa, here’s a little about her:

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Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 150 science books for children. She has always been fascinated by the natural world and is passionate about sharing its beauty and wonder with readers of all ages.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Union College in Schenectady, NY, and a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University, Melissa worked as a children’s book editor for nine years before becoming a fulltime writer in 2000. She has written everything from board books for preschoolers to magazine articles for adults.

Melissa believes that nothing brings nonfiction writing to life like firsthand research. While gathering information for her books, she has explored tropical rain forests in Costa Rica, gone on safari in East Africa, and swum with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands.

When Melissa isn’t writing or exploring the natural world, she spends time speaking at schools, libraries, nature centers, and educator conferences. She serves on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Keene State College Children’s Literature Festival.

With the advent of Common Core, nonfiction seems to be taking off. Can you give us a little background of how nonfiction has changed over the years? Wow, it’s changed A LOT. Fifteen years ago, most nonfiction text was rather dry. If an author wrote a manuscript with a strong voice, it was edited out. Today editors want, no demand, a strong voice. In the past, authors were supposed to be unbiased, but today it’s perfectly okay for writers to express a point of view.  Art and design has also changed. Ever since desktop publishing software was invented, illustrators and designers have been experimenting. The result is dynamic designs that kids can’t resist. The upshot is that today’s nonfiction has a dual purpose. It delights as well as informs.  

 

In your talk, you broke nonfiction up into seven categories. Can you explain these categories? Sure. In my talk with uber-talented author Sarah Albee [link: http://www.sarahalbeebooks.com/], we drew upon the work of a group of highly-respected academics who call themselves the Uncommon Corp [link: http://nonfictionandthecommoncore.blogspot.com/]. They classify nonfiction books into seven broad categories. Data: In more friendly terms, you might call this category Fasts Facts. It includes Eyewitness Books, The Guinness Book of World Records, and my own book Animal Grossapedia. These are the concise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read together and discuss.

Expository: You might call this category Facts Plus because the facts are interwoven into a content-area explanation. This is could be considered “traditional” nonfiction in some ways, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about today’s expository titles. Their engaging text and rich, dynamic art and design are sure to delight as well as inform young readers.

Narrative: This is a category we’ve heard a lot (I mean A LOT) about in the last few years. It’s the current darling of awards committees. Narrative titles present facts in the form of a true story with a narrative arc.   As you learn about the next few categories, I think you’ll see that some of the books that have been lumped into the narrative category should really be thought about on their own terms, based on the author’s approach to the information.

Disciplinary Thinking: These books reveal how scientists and historians go about their work, how they evaluate evidence and form theories. The structure could be narrative, but it usually isn’t. This category might also be called something like Experts at Work. Scientists in the Field books are the perfect example, but there are plenty of other examples. Skull by Mark Aronson is one that immediately comes to mind.

Inquiry: This category could also be called Ask and Answer. In these books, the author raises a question or a group of related questions and then seeks the answer. Sally Walker’s Written in Bone and What Bluebirds Do by Pamela F. Kirby are great examples.

Interpretation: For these books, authors research a topic widely, find their own meaning in the information, and present the content from that point of view. Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman is the first title that leaps to mind, but I’d also put books like Those Rebels, Tom and John by Barbara Kerley in this category. I think we’ll see more of these books in the future because this type of presentation directly supports Common Core.

Action: This is category offers a separate spot for titles that invite young readers to take action. The most obvious examples include Citizen Scientists by Loree Griffin Burns and the Science Play series by Vicki Cobb. I’m not sure this system is the be all and end all, but it’s a very interesting way for writers, teachers, librarians, and other book lovers to think about nonfiction. It stretches the way we think about current books and future possibilities, and I think that’s extremely valuable.

 

Do you think certain topics lend themselves to certain categories? Yes. I think narrative nonfiction works very well for biographies and books about historical events. These topics naturally have a beginning, a middle, and an end. With enough research, an author can craft the alternating scenes and summary architecture that characterizes narrative nonfiction. When writing about science, math, or the Arts, narrative nonfiction may not be an option. Even if it is, it may not be the best choice. For a broad overview of any topic, expository usually works best.   Two great examples are Bugged: How Insects Changes History by Sarah Albee and 9780802734228_p0_v4_s260x420 A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami Decristofano.     If writers think about these categories at the beginning of a project, I think they may have an easier time coming up with a great way to approach a topic and a solid structure for their book. It provides some options, so we aren’t just shooting in the dark.  

 

Which one do you think is most popular with kids? Why? Data books are clearly the most popular with kids. Most school librarians will tell you that titles like The Guinness Book of World Records is almost constantly checked out. Elementary-aged readers love fascinating facts, so Data books can be good for hooking beginning readers. But many educators worry that these books don’t do much to help kids build their reading skills. Right now, thought leaders like Jonathan Hunt and Marc Aronson feel that we need a new breed of book that forms a bridge between Data books and long-form nonfiction that students are expected to read in middle school and high school.

 

Which categories do teachers tend use in their classrooms? In recent years, teachers didn’t use much high-quality trade nonfiction in the classroom at all. But the hope is that Common Core is changing that. Right now, teachers are struggling to learn about nonfiction, and they are building their classroom libraries. Luckily, most school librarians have been singing the praises of the new nonfiction for several years now, so they are becoming trusted advisors in schools where they exist. We need more school librarians!

 

Any tips for readers about how to find fun, engaging nonfiction books? Here are some lists to keep an eye on. They include great nonfiction titles from all seven categories:

  • AAAS/Subaru Prizes for Excellence in Science Books
  • ALA Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
  • CRA Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award
  • Cook Prize for STEM Picture Book
  • Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices List
  • Cybils Nonfiction for Middle Grade & Young Adult
  • Cybils Nonfiction Picture Books
  • NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children
  • NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12
  • YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults

 

How do you see the world of nonfiction changing for the future? That’s a great question, and I’m not sure I really know the answer. My hope is that we’ll see more nonfiction being published for children. Although I think many editors are now more open to reviewing nonfiction submission than they were in the past, what I hear is that they aren’t yet acquiring significantly more nonfiction manuscripts. This may be because many editors are still trying to get up to speed on the market. They need to familiarize themselves with what’s out there and gain an understanding of the characteristics of best-selling and award-winning nonfiction. Some editors may also be in a wait-and-see mode, wondering how long Common Core will stick around. There is a lot of controversy regarding the testing associated with CCSS, but the standards themselves are sound. Still, educators are famous for a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater mentality. They tend to move in completely new directions every decade or so, abandoning previous ideas rather than revising them.

 

Of all the books you have written, do any stand out as having been really fun to write? Perhaps they were about a topic that you loved or in a format that you enjoyed.  I guess I’m still an elementary-aged fact-lover at heart. One of my favorite books to research and write was Animal Grossapedia because it’s so chock full of amazing examples of how animals use pee, poop, vomit, slime (mucus), and spit to catch food and stay safe. But what I also really like about this book is that as kids read example after example, they gradually come to the book’s central idea—that animals have an amazing array of adaptations and behaviors that make it possible for them to survive in the world. So I’m sharing an idea that’s a central tenet of biology, but in a package that they find irresistible. To me, that’s a successful book.

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Thanks so much for helping us to understand the wild and wonderful world of nonfiction, Melissa!!

To learn more about Melissa see her website at www.melissa-stewart.com.  Melissa also has a great blog called “Celebrate Science” where she focuses on cool nonfiction books, how she writes them, and talks more about the classification and structure of nonfiction books. Check it out here:  www.celebratescience.blogspot.com

 

**** Jennifer Swanson is the author over 20 fiction and nonfiction books. She is a science nerd at heart and loves to learn new and fun science facts which is why her shelves are filled with books!!