By Linda Skeers
I tend to ramble on when I write so I’m incredibly impressed with books for young readers that pack a punch in few words. I turned to my friend Debbie to get the inside scoop on how she does this so brilliantly!
Debbie Moeller writes leveled readers for children in grades K-2. She’s a former educator and Reading Specialist. She is devoted to writing high-interest books for young readers on engaging topics that spark their passion for reading. Visit her website at www.debbiemoeller.com.
What's your background and how did you get started writing books for kids?
I hold a Master’s degree in Education and taught for many years in various capacities. I was a classroom teacher in grades K, 2, 3, and 6. I also served as a Reading Recovery/Title 1 teacher (K-3), Reading Interventionist (4-5) and as the district English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.
My writing/publishing journey was not typical. I had dabbled over the years, writing story ideas on meeting agendas, backs of envelopes napkins, etc, and I put them into a file folder for ‘when I had time’. In 2007, when my last child left for college, I decided the time was right to pursue writing for children. I joined SCBWI, and began to attend seminars, conferences and classes to study the craft of writing.
I also made a career change. I left the classroom to train as a Reading Recovery teacher for our district. I LOVED it! From 2007-2019 I was working with first graders struggling to learn to read.
In 2009, Hameray Publishing Group sent out a call for submissions. They were searching for Reading Recovery teachers to write leveled readers for the educational market. I responded, and my first story in the Kaleidoscope series, Snow Fun, was published in 2010. I have contributed to the Kaleidoscope and Zoozoo series and in spring 2022, I had six titles published as part of Hameray’s new Kid Lit series featuring paired fiction/nonfiction texts for Kindergarten. I have 32 books in Hameray Publishing Group’s current catalog, and four new titles will be released in 2023.
What got you interested in writing emergent readers? (I'm not sure what the correct term is, but maybe you can explain it!)
An emergent reader is a term used to describe a child who is in the beginning stages of learning to read. They have some knowledge of books and how they work, they may be able to identify some letters with sounds, and may control a small number of known words in reading and writing. They are not able to read independently and require instruction and assistance to make meaning from print.
Leveled readers are books that support students as emergent readers, generally in Kindergarten and first grade. They are carefully crafted with attention to sentence structure, vocabulary and word choice designed to build confidence while supporting and challenging the child on the journey to becoming an independent reader. Illustrations are also an important part of a leveled reader-illustrations or photos provide clues to help with decoding and comprehension.
In the course of teaching Reading Recovery, often times I was frustrated with the texts I had available to me to use with my students at the lowest levels- Level 1-3/Level A-C. They were just sight words put into sentences without much of a story to comprehend. I wanted to tell a story with simple words that kids could read successfully, understand, learn from, and retell. Butterfly (2013) was my first published Level 1/A. It is the story of metamorphosis told in words and pictures with just 14 words!
How do you come up with topics/subjects for your books?
I think about what classroom teachers could use for instruction with their students. Equally important to me is what may interest or excite a child to pick up my book. I also consider what I would enjoy researching.
So, I try to find a subject that hits all of my target areas. I study the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSS).
HOW do you take a vast topic like SHARKS and choose what details to include and what to leave out? (this is what we all want to know!)
First, I read, read read! I read what is already out in the marketplace. I research the topic and compile pages of notes- basic information, little known facts, and exciting tidbits. Much of the information I select for a book depends on the level it will written for. Some of the research I can eliminate right away because it’s too advanced, the vocabulary is too difficult, or it doesn’t fit within the parameters of what is appropriate for the grade level. For a topic like SHARKS, I would eliminate information about physical characteristics because I believe that is something most kids already know. I would focus on what new learning they could acquire about Sharks and how they could apply it to other areas of study. For example, I may include their diet- it could support learning the food chain. I may also include hunting techniques- it could support predator/prey. Another idea may be characteristics that would help students classify them-are they a fish? Or a mammal? I would include fun facts that are incredible or peculiar and/or something surprising, scary or funny.
What advice would you give a writer who wants to break into this genre?
If you are part of the educational community as a teacher or librarian, you definitely have an edge. But if you aren’t-don’t despair! You just need to do your due diligence. Educate yourself about the standards, research publishers and study their catalogs, visit classrooms, talk to teachers, and see what is successful in the market. Read hundreds of leveled readers from a variety of publishing houses. Many educational publishers who produce leveled readers have strict guidelines and expectations for word count, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. Try writing at different levels and get feedback from your critique group and possibly from a reading teacher at the grade level you are targeting.
What is your writing process like from idea to finished manuscript?
Sometimes I choose the topic on my own and sometimes I’m asked to write a particular text based on a need they have-a certain level, or instructional topic. Either way, I’m sure my process is much like anyone else’s.
From there, I may be asked to make minor changes, or in one case, completely rewrite-it was too similar to another book coming out in the series!
What's the most fun or rewarding part of writing for kids?
I would say hands down the best part is when I use my books to teach students. They are excited to be successful readers and are amazed that I’m the author!
Just for fun: if you had a pen name, what would it be?
My favorite character is Scarlett O’Hara. And I’m fascinated with phoenixes. I love mythical creatures.
Any advice, tips or suggestions for aspiring writers?
Writing is a solitary endeavor. So the most valuable thing for me as a writer was finding my people. Other writers as passionate about children’s literature and writing for kids as I was.
By Pat Miller
Writers often say theirs is a lonely job.
It’s true that when it comes to putting words on the screen or paper, it’s just you. But before that, accomplished authors will visit your home, stay for weeks, and show you exactly how it is done.
No need to feed them or put fresh sheets on the guest beds. You will invite them through their published works. Their books have successfully survived the journey you want to send yours on.
You can take theirs apart and figure out how they did it. Then you have a recipe for your own work. This process is called using mentor texts. The work of another is going to be your teacher.
Mentor texts have long been used in elementary classrooms to teach writing. Familiar books are used as exemplars of everything from using capitals in kindergarten to using humor in fifth grade.
Adult authors quickly caught on to how deconstructing a successful children’s book could be a private course in writing. Mentor texts can reveal how to build suspense, how to rhyme deftly, ways to pull on the readers’ heartstrings, and much more. Likely, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard the term. You may even have lists of mentor texts. But if you’re like me, you could use a demo on how to take one apart.
So, let’s do that now. I’d like to show you how I would take apart a 2019 Caldecott Honor book, The Rough Patch, written and illustrated by Brian Lies (Greenwillow Books, 2018).
THE POWER OF THREE + A KEYBOARD
For picture book mentor texts, I read them three times. The first time is before I even know it will be a mentor. Not every book will meet your writing needs. This is another reason why writers read hundreds of children’s books. But you’ll know it when something about the story resonates.
The first reading is simply to enjoy the story. In The Rough Patch, Brian Lies tells the story of a fox whose beloved dog dies. It portrays his anger and grief in dealing with the loss of his best friend. It ends with hope.
The second reading is to savor the illustration. It’s a good lesson on how an illustrator can add to the richness of our text if we give them room. If you’re an illustrator, studying Brian’s book will show you how he brings the deceptively simple text to life.
Third, I read to dissect it (Spoiler alert: You might want to read the book before continuing.) Before the third reading, I type the book in a Word document exactly as it is on the page, double spacing between spreads. The beginning of The Rough Patch would look like this:
Evan and his dog did everything together.
They played games
and enjoyed sweet treats.
They shared music
Doing so allowed me to see the rhythm of the story, where the author wanted the reader to pause. In this short excerpt, I saw that Brian used no adjectives or literary devices. Short and sweet. The illustrations show their personalities.
ANALYZING THE STRUCTURE
The Rough Patch only has 365 words, but it delivers a powerful story. I wanted to see how Brian structured his story to do that.
The traditional three-act structure has a beginning, a middle divided into two halves, and an end. Each act ends with a change.
The job of Act One is to introduce the characters and let us know the problem or what the MC wants. Brian creates an idyllic world in which the friends exist happily, and we settle in. What they want is unspoken—they want to keep enjoying one another’s companionship.
Then comes the inciting incident. It changes everything. On page 8-9, a double spread has just six words, But one day, the unthinkable happened. The dog is curled in his bed away from the reader. Fox kneels beside him with his paw on his friend’s shoulder. His ears and tail droop, his eyes are closed in sorrow, and the background on both pages is the empty white of shock.
Act Two, Part One, begins with the first plot point after the big change. Evan lays his dog to rest in the garden they both loved “and nothing was the same.” Those who’ve lost a loved one will understand the illustration’s background of various shades of scratchy blacks and browns. Evan grieves. Then comes the pinch point, the change that amps it up. Without forethought, Evan takes a hoe and slashes his garden to the ground. We see that grief can wreck you. Weeds take over the garden.
Act Two, Part Two, begins when a pumpkin vine crawls under the fence from his neighbor’s garden. “He let it be.”
Evan begrudgingly begins to care for the vine. A new normal begins as tentatively as a seedling. Evan eventually discovers a pumpkin beneath the vine’s leaves, and nurtures it for Fair Week.
The final act begins with another change that makes the resolution possible. Evan takes the pumpkin into town and ends up hanging out with other fox friends and enjoying the fair. “It felt good to be out again, even if it wasn’t quite the same”. Hope peeks through for Fox and for the reader.
Evan’s pumpkin wins third place and Evan can choose between $10 or a puppy in a box. He chooses the cash but can’t resist taking just a little peek into the box.
The last page turn is hugely satisfying and filled with hope and promise for the future. The reader lingers on this illustration, adding all their own emotion to the ending.
OTHER TEACHING POINTS
Story structure isn’t the only thing I can imitate from Brian Lies.
EMOTION: I also noticed how he pares down the story to its essentials without removing the emotion—a true gift. He does not use manipulation to make you feel sad. Nowhere in the story will you read sentences that tell about his feelings. None of these appear:
Evan was lonely without his dog. (telling)
Never again would he see his dog’s wide-faced grin or his liquid brown eyes. (manipulating the audience’s feelings)
I used a highlighter to go through the story and color the lines that elicited emotion from me. Like this one: If Evan’s garden couldn’t be a happy place, then it was going to be the saddest and most desolate spot he could make it.
Then I went through my own story looking for emotional resonance. Using highlighters makes it evident that I needed more.
ADJECTIVES: Using another color, I highlighted all the adjectives in Brian’s story. There were few of them. Like this sparse but powerful sentence: Evan laid his dog to rest in a corner of the garden…” Brian didn’t get out the thesaurus and try to fancy up the nouns or verbs. He chose his simple words deliberately. I went back to my own MS and highlighted the adjectives.
ILLUSTRATOR NOTES: Granted, Brian doesn’t have to write notes for his illustrator. Much of the richness of the story is in the illustrations. What can writers learn from this?
Note the simplicity of the text and the complexity of the illustrations. I discovered that Brian Lies’ sentences were crafted so artfully that they gave lots of possibilities and freedom to the illustrator, even if it hadn’t been himself. The beginning, shared above, contains just 19 words. Yet they gave the illustrator much to illustrate in a double spread and four art spots. Does my text do the same? Rarely does the writer need to give direction, but the text has got to be alive with visual possibilities.
The next time you feel stuck as you write your picture book, or wonder how to improve your manuscript, head for the library. A habit of reading books similar to what you write will provide you with lots of mentors to inspire, exemplify, and instruct.
Thanks to willing mentors like Brian Lies, writing no longer has to be a lonely business.
By Peggy Thomas
How do you include everything in a person’s life when writing a children’s biography? The answer is: you don’t.
No matter what your word count, it is impossible to tell the whole story. Your job is to reveal the essence of a person. But some biography subjects are overachievers with too many fingers in too many pies. That’s what I found out with Norman Borlaug who earned the Nobel Peace Prize for feeding millions of people. His work took him around the world. He had interests in forestry, patents in industry, and revolutionized plant breeding. He also was a teacher, had a family and a prominent place in little league baseball history. I wasn’t sure if I could pull out that single thread of continuity that was tangled up in tons of details, settings, situations, and themes.
I knew my focus would be on his Peace Prize work – How he developed a wheat that could grow almost anywhere, and a network by which he could teach agricultural students from around the world, especially in countries threatened by poverty, famine and war.
The first thing I did was make a list of my key words – food, farming, plants, growing, feeding, etc., and to a lesser extent hunger and violence. These would help me keep on track.
The next thing I did was create a timeline, a chronological outline that might show me a pattern I could use for structure. No pattern of events emerged, but a pattern of character did. No matter what Norman faced he was dedicated and worked hard. So, where did that work ethic and dedication come from?
I sifted through his early years and pulled out key moments that showed his dedication, and the key people in his life who influenced his sense of duty and perseverance. That was the easy part.
His college days and early work was all over the place. He was a top wrestling student. That could reinforce Norm’s character development, but it wasn’t really related to agriculture. However, there was a connection to hunger and violence. I could weave wrestling into the narrative.
Norm also studied forestry and spent months alone atop a fire tower in Idaho. He even battled a forest fire by himself until help arrived. This clearly showed his dedication, hard work, sense of duty and perseverance, etc. And it involved plants. But it took the main trajectory of the story gallivanting off on an unhelpful detour. I hated to leave out such an action-rich scene, but I also didn’t want to lose readers who couldn’t follow the meandering flow I now had. So, I cut it.
So far, I hadn’t mentioned his wife and two kids, but he was often away from home months at a time. And what about baseball? He played baseball as a kid, and he created the first little league in Mexico. That shows initiative but doesn’t involve agriculture. But it is kid-friendly. My solution was to create recurring sidebars. One is titled ON THE HOMEFRONT. There is one for when he got married, others for the births of his daughter and son, AND baseball, because he started the little league team for he and his son to do together.
Another recurring sidebar is called FOOD FOR THOUGHT. These bits help explain more difficult concepts that are mentioned in the text without bogging down the flow. For example, I have one on how plants tell time, and another on how seed banks were created.
So, the next time you tackle a biography try this:
1. Establish your character’s primary accomplishment, or at least, the one you want to focus on.
2. Create a list of key words. They will help as you do your research, and more importantly, act as a lens through which you view other parts of your character’s life.
3. Assess other parts of your character’s life through this lens. Does an event directly relate? Can it be used as an example? Or does it distract and need to be cut?
4.Uncover the key personality traits that allowed your character to be successful, or not. How did these traits develop? What scenes clearly show this? Who was instrumental in his upbringing?
5. Streamline your narrative arc by experimenting with single or recurring sidebars.
6. Cut unnecessary information – information that Does Not reinforce the theme, or reveal personality or growth.
Peggy Thomas is the author of Hero for the Hungry The life and work of Norman Borlaug, out September 1st from Feeding Minds Press.
By Nancy Churnin
One of the questions I get asked most frequently is: Where do you get your ideas?
The truth is I find them everywhere, but there’s one place in particular that never fails me. Since I write for children, I go back to my inner child which is always asking, as kids still do, Why? Why? Why?
It turns out that this is one of the best questions an author can ask. Because the best children’s book ideas often come from looking at something that seems familiar and asking Why? Why do we have this? Where did it come from?
Why do we have signs in baseball? I found out that it was because of a Deaf player, born when Abraham Lincoln was president, who taught American Sign Language signs for safe and out to umpires so he could play the game he loved. That became the heart of my book, The William Hoy Story.
Why do people decorate trees for Christmas? I found out it was because of kind Queen Charlotte, a German princess who married England’s King George III. She dedicated herself to helping children and came up with the idea of delighting a party of 100 kids by dragging an entire tree inside Windsor Castle and decorating it with fruits, nuts, and candles on the branches and then strewing presents underneath. That became the key moment in my book, The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, Queen Charlotte’s Gift to England.
Why is there a charitable organization named Hadassah? I found out that Henrietta Szold dreamed all her life of helping her people the way Queen Esther had in the Bible. When she founded the first charitable organization run by women, she gave it Queen Esther’s Hebrew name, Hadassah. That double Queen story became the theme that runs through A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah.
So look around you – in your home, on your walk, in your conversations, everywhere you go, every place you read something surprising – and ask yourself: Why do we have this? Where did that come from? and How did that make our lives better or happier in a way that’s meaningful to a child?
If you come up with wonderful story ideas, as I hope you do, you’ll know why you’ve been reading our Ninja Notebook!
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.