Unabridged: a Charlesbridge Children's Book Blog


The Joys of Research 0

Terry Lynn Johnson, author of Falcon Wild, discusses the best part of writing a new book: researching.

There are a lot of great things about being an author fan mail, seeing your book cover for the first time, school visits, taking a selfie in a bookstore while madly pointing at your own name on a shelf – all amazing rewards after years of effort poured into a book. But a surprising perk, one that I hadn’t considered a good thing before, was the research you get to do.

The idea for Falcon Wild had been percolating inside me since I was twelve and read Hawkmistress by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I was obsessed with the idea of owning a bird of prey – something wild and free that comes back to your outstretched fist. What a feeling that would be! I was going to be a falconer! I spent months trying to convince my parents that it would be incredibly cool if we owned a falcon or two. For my efforts, I got a hamster. I named him Snickers and was content with that for a few years.

Fast-forward a couple of decades. I was still fascinated with the idea of forming a special bond with an animal. Instead of a bird of prey, I ended up with eighteen sled dogs. So when I wrote my first book about dogsledding, I needed very little research to portray that relationship accurately. But I’d never forgotten that first obsession with the art of falconry.

Setting out to capture, in words, the feeling of a falcon returning to your fist was a daunting task at first. I needed to get rid of a lifetime of romanticism about the sport and start actual research. Before long, I was enamored with falconry all over again.

My husband was all for research once I uttered the words “road trip.” We love to travel. So stuffing our backpacks with sleeping bags and a tent, we set off for the wild parts of Montana, which turned out to be most of the State. We interviewed interesting people, swam in freezing rivers, and went on some wild hikes. The best part was I felt like a real “author” whenever I said that we were there doing research for my book. Such a tough job!

Even better, during the next year we visited with four different falconers. This allowed me a glimpse into the life of a falconer. I felt a great affinity toward them, not just because of my interest in birds, but because of my background as a musher. I know what it’s like to dedicate so many hours, and resources toward this passion that consumes you.

Once I stood on the back of a dogsled for the first time, I was hooked. And I felt it again the first time I held a bird. When you feel the clutch of talons on your fist through the thick leather of the glove, it’s as though your heart is clutched as well. Something deep within me responded to those wild eyes appraising me. One of the falconers warned me that just holding a bird has been known to change some people. I believe him.

Seeing the cover of Falcon Wild, holding the book in my hand, those things are amazing and dream-fulfilling. But it was the research, getting to know the men and women who spend their days training with these incredible birds, and feeling the weight of the falcon on my own fist, that was the rewarding part of this journey. Getting a hamster instead of a falcon was okay, but being an author and getting to do research – what a perk!

Pre-order Falcon Wild for your readers today!

  • Mel Schuit

Writing Science Books for Babies in 3 (not so) Simple Steps 3

We asked author Ruth Spiro the not-so-simple question: What inspired you to write STEM books for babies? 

Since the first two titles in the Baby Loves Science series came out in October 2016, this is the question I’m asked most often. Fortunately, it’s also the easiest to answer!

Back in 2010 The New York Times ran the article "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children." It attributed the drop in picture book sales to the choice some parents were making to bypass picture books for their very young children in favor of more “sophisticated” reading material. I was discussing the article with friends and wondered aloud, “What do these parents want, quantum physics for babies?”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized this was an idea with potential. But when it comes to writing books, inspiration is only the beginning. Here’s the story of how the Baby Loves Science series came together in three (not so) simple steps:

  1. Start with Science

It’s a good thing that I enjoy a challenge, because I spent nearly a year researching before I could even begin writing. I knew I needed to understand the science well enough to then explain it in very simple terms. From a long list of possible topics, I picked seven to really focus on with, you guessed it, more research. The topics I ultimately chose to write about were those I could relate to common childhood experiences or observations.

Because this step is so crucial to the success of the series, each book also gets a thorough once-over by an expert reviewer, Dr. Fred Bortz, who verifies the science is accurate.

  1. Make It Accessible

I’d previously written picture books, but envisioned this project as a series of board books for babies and toddlers. Was this a realistic goal? Once again, I hit the books and spoke with professionals to learn all I could about early literacy and how babies acquire language, because I wanted my series to be age-appropriate.

Interestingly, it turns out the most effective way to make abstract ideas more accessible is to present them within the context of a story. Listening to a story activates the language processing center of a child’s brain and helps make the information more memorable. (This is true for adults, as well.) Taking it a step further, when the story is told from the point of view of a character the child can relate to, areas of the brain literally “light up” as if they are experiencing events right along with the character. How amazing is that?

So, while concept books have their place in baby’s first library, I’d need to take a different approach. I decided that the best way to structure my books was in the form of a story, told through an appealing main character, and related to a familiar real-world experience or observation. I was especially happy to discover that this scientifically supported structure just happened to align with my experience as a children’s book author!

  1. Make It Irresistible

As soon as Irene Chan signed on to illustrate, I knew these books would be adorable. The beautiful babies featured on the covers and throughout each book practically leap off the page, adding another layer of interest for even the littlest listeners.

You may have noticed that babies love to look at pictures of faces, and especially faces of other babies. It turns out there’s science behind that, as well.  “Babies are hardwired to recognize faces, which helps them connect with their caregiver early on,” says Michael Frank, a brain and cognitive sciences researcher at MIT.  So, even before a baby understands the meaning of the words in the text, they are practicing their focusing skills on the bright, colorful illustrations. It’s no wonder that parents report their babies are drawn to these books like little hummingbirds to nectar!

All humor aside, the Baby Loves Science books only appear to be simple in their writing and design. In reality, they’re the result of collaboration between an entire team that works very hard to ensure they are accurate, age-appropriate and irresistible to our young audience - because we believe they deserve nothing less.

We’re pleased to report FOUR new additions to the Baby Loves Science family will arrive in 2018! But since we all enjoy an element of surprise, we’ll be announcing the titles closer to their arrival!



 Purchase any (and all!) of the Baby Loves Science books for your readers today!

  • Mel Schuit

The Science of Writing and Illustrating a Biography for Children 2

Author and illustrator Mary Ann Fraser breaks down her scientific process for creating an educational biography for young readers. 

Recently I was asked to speak at a STEMposium about the creation of my latest book, Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call. The book chronicles Alexander (Aleck) Bell’s childhood. I’m not an educator, but while preparing for my talk, I looked at the current science standards for elementary education and made a remarkable discovery — the process I use as an author and illustrator of children’s books is much like the method employed by scientists. Using Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call as an example, the steps typically break down something like this:

1. First, much like a scientist, I posed a question. In the case of the Bell book, I asked, “How did Alexander Graham Bell grow up to become the inventor of the telephone?”

2. Next, I conducted background research. Whereas a scientist might examine previous studies and other experts in the field, I sought out archives, museums, literature, and libraries. Along the way, I gathered visual references, Bell’s own notes, and family photos. 

3. I developed multiple strategies and solutions by testing out various points of view to determine how best to tell my story. A book is a puzzle with many pieces that must work together to make a whole. Often, I use a storyboard as the map to putting them together. Later I add very rough sketches.

4. I created a prototype. I started with a loose dummy, which is a mock-up of the book derived from my final storyboard. I then refined the layout through multiple revisions which included re-sketching, shifting elements between pages, multiple edits to the text and its positioning.

5. Following the sale of the project, I then spent over two years testing, evaluating, and redefining my work. This involved developing a new approach to my art. Bell and his family had embraced photography early on. I decided to do the same by incorporating reproductions of photographs from the Bell archives, as well as original photos of my own, into the art. I scavenged for ephemera which could be added to enrich the imagery. I drew diagrams to explain complex concepts.

The outcome of these five steps was not only the book, but also a new way of looking at my process. I no longer consider my work space as simply a studio or office. I think of it as a laboratory — a story laboratory, and I am the inventor.

Purchase Alexander Graham Bell Answers the Call for your readers today!

  • Mel Schuit
A Tomorrow for Vivian

A Tomorrow for Vivian 2

Author JaNay Brown-Wood, author of Grandma's Tiny House: A Counting Story, discusses adding her own shades of color to children’s literature and breaking down stereotypical walls.

I have always been a storyteller at heart. When I was younger, I’d make up stories using my Barbie dolls and teddy bears as the main characters. When I learned to write, I’d capture stories on paper. And when I learned to type, there was no stopping my fingers from creating a world on my computer screen. I write because I love to create and because I enjoy pushing the possibilities of my own creativity.

However, I’ve come to realize that I write for a bigger cause now. Yes, it’s therapeutic and fun, but now writing is so much more than that for me. You see, in late January, I welcomed my first child into this world, a beautiful baby girl who is my everything. And although I’ve always known that diversity is important, it feels even more dire. Now, I write so that I can help kids see themselves on bookshelves, in libraries and bookstores, in stories that make it to the big screen. I write so diversity can be embraced and transformed into acceptance and compassion instead of fear and disdain for the unfamiliar. I write for a better tomorrow for my daughter, Vivian (pictured below).

Let me take you back.

When I was younger, I don’t remember seeing myself in the books I read. Even though there were some stories that featured black children, I remember many of them being about experiences that were a part of my history, but were not my story. For example, I remember reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, but never feeling like I saw myself. It felt more like a history lesson. I know that there is so much value in books like these, historical fiction or stories seeped in the tension-fraught history of African Americans in this country, but that book wasn’t a mirror for me. Off the top of my head, I can think of very few stories that came across my lap that I felt reflected me as a kid.

JaNay front and center wearing red and white with her Grandma behind her

With the current push for diversity, we hear of the importance of windows and doorways to see the experiences of others, as well as mirrors to reflect, and walls or stereotypes to be broken down. This is so important! This allows for people to look at differences as strengths and to accept each other despite these differences. And it has to start early. It has to be seamless for young readers so their acceptance of diversity is so inherent in their experiences that they don’t know any other way. Then, they can feel validated when they see someone like themselves overcoming obstacles in the pages they read at home and in school. If that had been the case for me, I wonder how it might have shaped the person I am today.

See, when I was younger, I was not a fan of reading at all. I despised it. My older sister could lock herself in her bedroom for days and read books as if she didn’t need food because her books were nourishment enough, but I couldn’t. I didn’t. Books were boring. I wonder if I had found books that I saw myself in, that sucked me into the world of literature, whether I’d be telling a different story about my past right now. It really wasn’t until the Harry Potter series came out that I began loving to read, and I was reluctant to pick those books up—I didn’t even touch them until I was well into my late teenage years because of my aversion to reading. And even so, those books didn’t reflect me; they were just so entertaining to read. So this made me wonder: what if as a young teenager, I had found a book like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and had the chance to read about a young black girl coexisting in both a very black and also white world. Or, who’s natural hair stands tall and proud on the cover of the book. Might that have colored my world in a different way? Even as an adult, reading this book touched me at such a deep level because I could relate to Starr in multiple ways.

JaNay holding one of her baby cousins

All children should have this opportunity: to see themselves while also being able to learn about and see others who are different than they are. And then learn to embrace diversity. And so I write.

With Grandma’s Tiny House: A Counting Story, I’ve already heard so many people of differing backgrounds and skin colors say “that’s how it was at my grandma’s house, too!” Talk about breaking down stereotypical walls with works that double as mirrors and windows as readers see themselves and realize the similarities they share with each other. I can’t wait to have discussions with children about their own family gatherings, so they can hear from the kids in their classes and see that many share similar traditions—whether it’s piling into a grandma’s house, eating similar dishes, or something else entirely.

So, I am realizing that I do write because I love it, because it’s a part of me and has always been. But, I am also writing to help add my own shades of color to children’s literature, adding my mirrors so others can see themselves, too. And what an accomplishment it would be for children’s literature if in the future, when Vivian talks about the books she read and was read to as a child, and those she studied in school, that she can’t choose just one to talk about because so many reflect her. That would show progress.

And progress is a really, really good thing.

Purchase Grandma's Tiny House: A Counting Story for your readers today!

  • Mel Schuit