June 18, 2020

Seeking Diverse Contributors for "Birth Stories for Books" and "Have Swag Will Travel" Blog Series

The blog has been quiet for awhile. I've been quiet for awhile. I'm doing my best to listen. To learn. To reflect on how I personally contribute to and benefit from systemic racism. To make changes in my own behaviors. To become a better ally.

I first started my blog as way to provide free, accessible activities and learning extensions related to my books and my training and consulting company, SmallTalk Learning. Many of the teachers, librarians and families that I serve via my infant/toddler sign language workshops and early literacy training and consulting business hungered for more resources than I could effectively and affordably supply in person. Many of my workshop participants are from communities of color, and the educational resource aspect of my blog continues to be something I'm proud of and that I feel confident makes a positive difference in my community and in our world.

As my blog evolved over time, I started creating different collections of posts, for example, Quick Ideas for Getting Started with SigningStart to Finish Story Time, (as well as the expanded version of that series, Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded), and Birth Stories for Books.

I'm especially proud of my Birth Stories for Books series, and my Have Swag Will Travel series, as these posts help me (and my readers) meet and learn from a variety of different authors, and they allow me the opportunity to amplify the voices and works of other authors. The first posts in these series started with a general outreach to my personal/ professional social network seeking contributors for guest posts and/or interviews. Since then, contributors for each series has evolved through word of mouth.

What I am not proud of is that as of this writing, I have only hosted one guest of color on my blog. This is not due to a lack of interest, but it is due to a lack of intentional outreach. This must change. As I pay closer attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, and as I reflect on and learn about my own contributions to racism and the systemic inequities in our society, I understand that I personally must do better. Going forward I will intentionally seek out a wider range of voices to amplify. I will seek opportunities to discover and reach out to writers and illustrators of color that are outside of my current personal/professional circles. I will work to establish a more diverse network of contributors.

If you are a person of color, or a person from another underrepresented community, and you have an interest in your work being featured on this blog, please reach out via the contact form on the left, or through a DM on my Twitter account. I want to learn about your unique path to publication. I want to hear about the unique obstacles you faced in finding a publishing home for your book(s). I want to learn your professional tips and tricks for book events and other book promotions. I want to shine a light on you and on your work.

Please feel encouraged to share this post widely so that I can begin to expand and widen my outreach to a more diverse cast of book creators.

And ... if I've made a mistake on how I've worded something, or characterized something in this outreach, call me out. I want to be made of aware of my mistakes so that I can learn, and so that I can do better.

June 17, 2020

Have Swag Will Travel: Tips for Planning Book Events, Summary Post

Over the past couple of years, I've developed several different collections or series of blog posts, for example, Quick Ideas for Getting Started with SigningStart to Finish Story Time, (as well as the expanded version of that series, Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded), and the Birth Stories for Books series. Once there's a critical mass of posts in a particular series, I create a summary post that provides an updated list of the posts for the series.

Last year I started a series of posts called "Have Swag Will Travel: Tips for Planning Book Events." At long last, I've now created a summary of posts for this series. Keep in mind that the first several posts in the series were created by authors in a pre-pandemic frame of mind, but many of the ideas in these posts can be incorporated (in some cases with modifications to align with current circumstances, ) into the promotional events and plans for your own book(s).

This will be a good post to bookmark and follow, as I will add links to this page as new posts are added to the series.

Here goes:

Interview with Anna Monders about her Booktalk Blog (pro tips for creating your own booktalks)

Chicken Break! by Cate Berry (EGGcellent ideas including author collaborations, playful reviews, karaoke songs and videos, and themed refreshments)

untitled, by Timothy Young (school visits, sculptures, and other art-infused give-aways)

My Quiet Ship, by Hallee Adleman (interactive school visit and classroom activity plans)

There Was An Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth, by B. J. Lee (business cards, note cards, & posters)

If you like these posts, you might also be interested in Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded.

If you've found these posts helpful, I encourage you to bookmark and follow this page. I will add new links to this page as more posts go up. (And, please get in touch if you'd like to share YOUR tips for planning book events).

May 13, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: A SEARCH FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS (and more!) by Elizabeth Rusch

Elizabeth and Izzi Rusch
(Image provided by Elizabeth Rusch)
Today's blog post is a trifecta for book-reading, book-creating, and book-loving folks. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing fellow author, Elizabeth Rusch, about three new books that just launched into the world (yep, THREE book launches in the midst of a global pandemic).

And all three books are great reading for right now, so let's get right to it:

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by the blog, Liz. If I remember correctly, we first met at a writing conference in the early stages of our publishing careers. Since that time, we’ve attended each other’s writing workshops and book launch events and even collaborated on some projects and events. It’s been exciting to watch your career flourish— and it’s been enjoyable to share many of your books with the young readers in my life. I’ve also greatly appreciated the doors you’ve opened for me that have led to some of my own publishing credits. It is privilege to have an opportunity to shine a light on some of your latest books.

Speaking of light, let’s start by talking about your book, A SEARCH FOR THE NORTHERN LIGHTS, which just came out in April by a publisher we both work with, West Margin Press (co-written by Izzi Rusch and illustrated by Cedar Lee). Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication for this particular story? For example, I’d love to hear about the process and timeframe between your initial idea and the story that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor.

By Elizabeth Rusch, Izzi Rusch, and Cedar Lee

Elizabeth Rusch: My teenager Izzi homeschooled for 8th grade and after witnessing the total solar eclipse we talked about other natural wonders we would like to see. We started talking about and researching the northern lights and decided to take a trip to Alaska to see if we could spot them, as well as do some hiking and exploring there. We found a few days when a magnetic storm was expected and planned our trip around that. It was raining when we landed and overcast much of time. But we had fun trying and experiencing all that Alaska had to offer while we were there. Then, while on the phone with an editor at West Margin, I told her about the experience and that we were committed to trying until we saw the northern lights. She thought it was a great idea for a book, so I wrote a proposal and she signed it. We had the year of homeschooling to search.

DP: What a great backstory, Liz. And what a fantastic goal for you and Izzi to set your sights on, together.

When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different?

ER: Well, Izzi and I traveled to Iceland to see the northern lights but didn’t see more that a slight glow and green arc there (there were blizzards shutting down the country most of the time we were there). We included that experience in the first draft, but the narrative of it was so similar to the Alaska trip (and we thought most readers would not get to travel to Iceland) so we all agreed it needed to be cut (except for an extensive thank you to the wonderful family that hosted us there.)

DP: Wow, you really took this quest seriously. That's really inspiring. 

I'd also be interested to know if there is anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

ER: We were glad that though the story is about a search for the northern lights, it captures many of the other amazing outdoor experiences we had while searching. You can only search for the northern lights at night so we had many daylight hours to do other things. We were glad that we got to keep that part of the story in because they were such an important, and unexpected, part of the experience.

DP: That's great that you were able to experience so many adventures with Izzi and that you were able to keep that element of your experience in the story. 

What was it like collaborating with your teenager on this book?

ER: Izzi and I learned a ton about each other by writing this book together. We learned that it worked best to divide the book into sections and work separately on drafting different sections. That worked better than sitting down and trying to write together because we are both pretty opinionated. We made notes to each other on the first draft and each did some revisions on our parts. Only then did we merge our pieces together. We each read separately and made more notes and then sat down together in front of the computer and edited. These discussions were lively, passionate and full of humor. Even though I was a well-published author, I had to take her ideas and reactions seriously and address them. It was challenging but I really believe it helped us make a better book.

DP: It sounds like a memorable experience all around, Liz. 

You have another picture book that also launched in April: GIDGET THE SURFING DOG (Little Bigfoot). When you compare the path to publication for these two books,  what are some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each?

By Elizabeth Rusch
ER: Well, the Gidget book is a follow-up of sorts to a book that published last year with Little Bigfoot called Avalanche Dog Heroes: Piper and Friends Learn to Search the Snow. With the northern lights book Izzi and I had to create something from scratch. With the Gidget book I had a really great model to build on. I wanted a gripping story about a real dog learning and striving to develop a skill accompanied by lively photos and lots of science diagrams. So I knew while reporting the book what elements I wanted and could identify immediately when I found them.

(Images provided by Elizabeth Rusch)

DP: Wow, Liz, if those photos don't hook a reader, I don't know what will!

You also have a very timely book for teens and young adults that came out in March: YOU CALL THIS DEMOCRACY?: HOW TO FIX OUR GOVERNMENT AND DELIVER POWER TO THE PEOPLE (HMH). Not only is this book for a different age range and audience, but it’s with a different publisher. Have there been notable differences in the publication processes for this book as compared to the others?

By Elizabeth Rusch
ER: In some ways, I’ve been writing the democracy book for more than 20 years. In the mid-1990s I got a masters in public policy and then spent a year working as a fellow in the U.S. Senate. Then I turned back to writing. My husband used to tease me that I wasn’t using my masters, and I used to joke back that I use it every day when I read the news! And that was really true. Over two decades I was reading and filing away in my mind all the ways that our democracy falls short of the promise of one person, one vote. Americans have become increasingly discontent with how our government functions, and I wanted to pull all this together into a book. And I wanted to aim it at young adults and new adults because I believe deeply in their power to change the world.

I pitched the idea to my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and she asked for a proposal. It was remarkably easy to write the proposal because these ideas had been floating around in my mind for two decades.

But, writing the book? Not so easy! I had to delve deeply into so many different issues – the electoral college, gerrymandering, the role of money in politics, etc. I had to be accurate and engaging, and I had less than a year to write it so that it would come out in time for the 2020 presidential election year.

DP: I'm so glad that young readers (and voters!) will have this book available to reference ahead of the 2020 election and many elections to come. Thanks so much for writing it! 

One of my favorite parts of being an author is connecting with young readers at schools, libraries, and bookstore visits, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. You maintain a very active schedule of book-related events. What advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful events? (Note: This question was asked and answered in a pre-Covid19 frame of mind.)

ER: For book store events, I believe we have to do more than just read from our books. We have to offer something more that will draw people to the store. That could be a visit from a celebrity surfing dog, hands-on science activities, or advice for writers or parents.

For school visits, I think that taking a storytelling approach is really fun and effective. After all, we writers are storytellers, so finding ways to say what you want to say through a series of stories can keep the audience – and you – engaged.

DP: Excellent advice, Liz. 

You have a lot of creative projects competing for your attention. How do you balance the time between your different projects and the different aspects of the publishing business?

ER: At the end of each year, I make a list of projects in the works and project ideas and try to sketch out a game plan. Sometimes I break it up by months, such as: This month I’ll work on research for this project, while writing a draft of that one, while revising a third.

Even though I am a full time writer, I actually find it difficult to find time to write. So I have to block out clusters of days when I will try to do nothing but write. I do some of my best writing at writing retreats with my critique group members. It works best if there is no internet to distract me!

DP: More excellent advice, Liz! 

You have great resources for readers and educators on your website, and you publish an occasional newsletter, which I’m sure also takes a fair amount of time to keep up with. For those of us who might be pondering if it’s worthwhile to create these types of supplementary materials, what are the pluses and minuses of these types of reader outreach, from your perspective?

ER: It’s funny, I know my website is supposed to be for the wider world but it also acts as a resource to me. If I need a good description of one of my books, I pull it from my website. When I win an award, I immediately add it to my website so that may be the only place where I have a complete list of my accolades.

The newsletter does take time, but what I love about it are the replies that I get when I send it out. With a website, you have no idea who is looking at it and how they respond. With a newsletter, I have a dialog with my readers and peers so it helps me feel more connected.

DP: That's a great point, Liz. I had not thought about the feedback loop aspect of a newsletter. 

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

ER: A career in writing is a long-term proposition that requires an enormous amount of commitment and a willingness to roll with the punches.  There will be setbacks and it is healthier to expect them then to be caught by surprise.

DP: That is so true! 

Before we wrap up, is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for your latest books and/or one or more of your other books, that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet?

ER: I think one key to sticking with it and staying sane it to try to love the process itself. I try to find joy in the generation of ideas, the development of ideas, the research and what I get to read and where I get to go and who I get to talk to, and the creativity of putting words and stories on the page. You don’t have control over the publishing process. Publishing can bring some disappointment and grief, so focus on loving what you do and being grateful that you get to do this amazing work.

DP: That's such an uplifting, encouraging, inspiring perspective, Liz. Thanks for that. 

Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on?

ER: I’m developing some new projects related to climate change and I have a really cool collaboration with illustrator Liz Goss called All about Nothing, about the role of nothingness in art and in our lives. Wish me luck!

DP: Good luck, indeed! I look forward to seeing those projects come to fruition. 

Thanks for sharing your Birth Story for Books (X3!) with us, Liz. I've learned so much from you. 

Fun Fact, Readers: Alice Brereton, the amazing illustrator for Liz’s book, GLACIER ON THE MOVE, is in the process of illustrating one of my next books, LUCY’S BLOOMS (due out in 2021). Stay tuned for more exciting news about this project!

Photo Provided by Elizabeth Rusch
Elizabeth Rusch is the author of twenty books for young readers, as well as more than a hundred magazine articles. Liz’s works are frequently honored by the Junior Library Guild, have received multiple starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, The Horn Book, Booklist, School Library Journal, the BCCB, and have been named best book or notable book of the year by ALA, Bank Street, SLJ, Kirkus, the NSTA, CCBC, Nonfiction Detectives, and the New York Public Library, among others. New in March and April are: You Call THIS Democracy? How to fix our government and deliver power to the people; A Search for the Northern Lights; and Gidget the Surfing Pug. Learn more about Liz and her work at elizabethrusch.com and youcallthis.com. Connect with her on Facebook at authorelizabethrusch and on twitter at @elizabethrusch.

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.

May 7, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: Nita's Day, by Kathy MacMillan

I am so delighted to bring you today's interview with Kathy MacMillan. Kathy and I have several interests in common including kidlit, libraries and American Sign Language. I first interviewed Kathy in 2014, and she has featured my work on her information-rich blog a couple of times (my potty-humor books, here and my Story Time with Signs and Rhymes series, here). Today, we get the inside scoop on Kathy's Little Hands Signing series, just in time for the publication of a new board book in that series, NITA'S DAY (illustrated by Sara Brezzi, Familius Press, May, 2020).

Dawn Prochovnic: What was the inspiration for the Little Hands Signing series?

Kathy MacMillan: I had previously published a book for parents about signing with children ages birth to six, titled Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together. In the fall of 2016, I was promoting that book at the Baltimore Book Festival, when David Miles, then the publishing director at Familius Press, approached me and invited me to pitch them other ideas of this topic. Familius specializes in books for families, so they were an ideal home for books about signing with children – which is all about communication and bonding! I pitched them several ideas, but the one that stood out was a board book series about a little girl named Nita who signs with her parents.

What excites me most about the series is that it features stories about a family. It shows how communicating through American Sign Language improves their everyday lives. Many of the board books about signing with young children focus only on vocabulary. But in this series, I really wanted to show the how as well as the what. I also really wanted to create a series that could be enjoyed equally by hearing, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing readers.

DP: I really love your vision for the series, Kathy. Can you share some backstory about the journey from “book idea” to “book publication?”

KM: Right from the beginning, David and I discussed having some interactive element to the book – flaps or moving parts. The series was always conceived as having the story on the main spreads, supplemented by sign instruction (through illustrations and text) on each page. It was David’s brilliant idea to use the slide-open format to have the sign illustration appear. Not only does it fit the theme perfectly (because effective communication underlies everything the family does!), but it makes the books far sturdier than the life-the-flap format would be. I have heard from many parents and librarians that their copies of Nita’s First Signs have stood up to months of readings by eager babies and toddlers.

DP: Yes, the format is brilliant, and the illustrations are gorgeous. As we both know, conveying a three-dimensional language via two-dimensional pictures can be very challenging. Can you share what went into the illustration process to “get it right” to your satisfaction?

KM: Normally, the author has very little say in the illustrations of a picture book. That often surprises readers. But it’s actually quite unusual for the author and illustrator to have any contact at all in a traditionally published picture book!

I knew from the beginning that approach would never work here. Because most of the people involved in the publishing process did not know American Sign Language, it was crucial that I be consulted at each stage. When Familius agreed to that up front, and even put it in the contract, I knew they were serious about creating a quality product. Because there has been so much misinformation spread about American Sign Language and Deaf Culture, it was vital that we get this right.

And then, when David told me that Sara Brezzi had been selected to do the illustrations, I knew we were on the same page. Sara’s bright, cheery style was perfect for the tone of the books.

I provided detailed instructions and video links for each of the signs, and Sara sent me her sketches of the illustrations as she went. I would give feedback at each stage to make sure we were conveying them accurately. Sometimes we went through two, three, or even ten rounds of back and forth before we worked out the kinks!

In addition, we also had an ASL/Deaf Culture Advisor review each book before going to press. This was a native ASL user who could advise about any problems or misleading information that had slipped through the cracks. I was honored to have renowned Deaf Culture researcher Dr. Barbara Kannapell serve in this role for Nita’s First Signs and Deaf filmmaker and educator Jevon Whetter serve in this role for Nita’s Day.

DP: It is clear that a great deal of care has gone into these books. It used to be there were only a handful of books that incorporated sign language. Now there are many. What would you love to hear a bookseller saying as they handsell Nita’s First Signs or Nita’s Day?

KM: I would love for them to emphasize that learning how to communicate is a young child’s most important job, as it is how they get their other needs met. I would love for them to talk about how these books show how a young child can initiate communication and how much easier it makes the whole family’s life as a result. And that signing with your child sends the crucial message that you are interested in knowing what they have to say!

DP. Yes! Yes! and Yes! 

What would be your dream book review for Nita’s First Signs or Nita’s Day? Who would this review be from? And where would this review be published or posted?

KM: While I love every single review from hearing parents who say how fascinated their babies and toddlers are with the books, and how much they themselves have learned from them, the ones that touch my heart most are from members of the Deaf community. As a librarian and a book reviewer, I have seen so many inaccurate, misleading, and sometimes downright harmful representations of ASL and Deaf Culture. So it was very important to me to get this right. And the reaction of the Deaf community to the first book has been overwhelmingly positive. Recently at a signing, a Deaf woman carefully scrutinized every word and picture in the book and then looked at me and signed, “Thank you for this. This is wonderful.” I swear my heart grew three sizes!

DP: That's beautiful, Kathy. I'm so glad to hear that! What resources and/or next steps would you suggest for readers who want more

KM: Check out the series website at LittleHandsSigning.com! I have compiled lots of videos, links, articles and more that will be of interest to parents, teachers, and librarians alike!

DP: Youza! That's a great collection of resources! And thanks for including my Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series on your list of Picture Books about ASL and Deaf Culture.

Speaking of resources, are there more Nita books in the works that we should be on the lookout for? 

KM: Yes! We plan to publish several more books in the series, each on a theme such as food signs, family signs, bedtime signs, or seasonal signs.

DP: I'm so glad to hear that. Now for one of my favorite questions: What have I not asked that you would love for people to know?

KM: I would love readers to know that, in addition to the Little Hands Signing books, I also write nonfiction for children and adults and young adult fantasy. My most recent book is She Spoke: 14 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World (Familius Press, 2019). This book, co-authored with Manuela Bernardi and illustrated by Kathrin Honesta, features built-in sound clips where you get to hear the voices of 14 amazing women at the touch of a button!

DP: What a timely and innovative book! 

What is the best way for readers to get in touch with you or get their hands on your books?

KM: You can contact me through my website at KathyMacMillan.com. You can also find purchase links for all my books there. They are all available through the usual online booksellers, but you can also purchase signed and personalized copies of all my books at the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore. Deaf Camps, Inc. is a an entirely volunteer-run nonprofit organization that provides communication-rich camps for Deaf and hard of hearing children and children learning American Sign Language, and I have been a proud volunteer and board member for the last 18 years. All proceeds from books purchased through the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore support Deaf Camps, Inc.’s scholarship program. So it’s a great way to purchase great gifts and support a great cause!

DP: I will also say they have one of the most magnificent logos I have ever seen (readers, you will need to pop on over to the links above to see it for yourself!)

Thank you so much for stopping by the blog, Kathy. Best wishes for a successful launch of Nita's Day!

KM: Thanks for having me on your site, Dawn!  And happy signing, everyone!

Purchase Nita’s First Signs at Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore (autographed copies that support a great cause!) | amazon.com | barnesandnoble.com | indiebound.org | Workman.com (use code BOOKS for 20% off)

Purchase Nita’s Day at amazon.com | barnesandnoble.com | indiebound.org | Deaf Camps, Inc. online bookstore (signed and personalized copies available starting May 12, 2020.) | Workman.com (use code BOOKS for 20% off)

Join Kathy MacMillan online on Tuesday, May 12 to celebrate the launch of Nita's Day!
11 AM Eastern/8AM Pacific: ASL Storytime on Facebook Live at https://www.facebook.com/kathysquill

2 PM Eastern/11 AM Pacific: Spoken English Storytime on Facebook Live at https://www.facebook.com/kathysquill

Kathy MacMillan (she/her) is a writer, American Sign Language interpreter, librarian, signing storyteller, and avowed Hufflepuff.  She writes picture books (the Little Hands Signing series, Familius Press), children’s nonfiction (She Spoke: 14 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World, Familius Press), and young adult fantasy (Sword and Verse and Dagger and Coin, both HarperTeen). She has also published many resource books for educators, librarians, and parents. Kathy serves as the co-Regional Advisor for the Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia Region of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives near Baltimore, MD. Find her online at: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram   

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.

April 24, 2020

Have Swag Will Travel: An Interview with Anna Monders About Her Booktalk Blog

Nikko Prochovnic, Class of 2020
Photo Credit Owls Eye Photography
Hi friends. My blog has been a bit quiet lately. Much of my personal attention has been focused on celebrating my son, who is a member of the high school graduating class of 2020, and much of my professional attention has been focused on sharing resources with parents, teachers, and librarians who are now teaching/ providing library programming from home.

If you haven't yet checked out the wonderful (and growing) compilation of educational resources available on the SCBWI website, I encourage you to do so. There are book readings, writing workshops, art demonstrations, enrichment activities, etc. for all ages, (for example, I've posted a self-guided workshop about creating character voice in the "workshops" section of the database, some detailed activity guides in the “activities” section of the database, and some sign language resources in the “bilingual” section). More resources will be added by authors and illustrators each week. Here is the link: https://www.scbwi.org/digital-directory-for-remote-learning-resources/  Please feel welcome and encouraged to share this collection of resources widely, particularly with anyone who is teaching / offering programming remotely and/or homeschooling their own kids.

Speaking of resources, prior to the pandemic, I interviewed Anna Monders about her booktalk blog, and I'm so happy to be able to share that interview with you today:

Dawn Prochovnic: Hi Anna. Thanks so much for stopping by. Last fall we were both presenters at the Oregon Association for School Libraries conference. One of your sessions was called “You Can Booktalk!” which prompted me to visit your excellent booktalk blog, and talk with you today about… yep, you guessed it, booktalks! 

So, for those readers who haven’t yet visited your blog, (what are you waiting for folks?!), can you tell us what makes a booktalk, a booktalk?

Anna Monders: Let me start by talking about what a booktalk isn’t. It’s not a summary of a book, or a review of one. I like to think of it more like a movie trailer with live-action theatre. It’s storytelling. And it’s performance art.

In my booktalk presentations at schools, each book gets 1-3 minutes in the spotlight. In that short amount of time, I want to make my audience DESPERATE to read the book. I tell them enough about the characters and story to get them caught up in it. I try to leave them with their curiosity burning.

DP: I’m hooked already! I've also heard you and others say that booktalking is a way to get kids excited about reading. Can you give an example or two of how a booktalk inspired a young reader that you’ve worked with?

AM: I have five years’ worth of examples! A couple years ago, I was booktalking Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder in fifth and sixth grade classes.

At one school, there was a class copy of this title visible on the shelf—but no one had read it. After I booktalked it, there was a crazy rush for the book (nearly ending in a seven-kid tackle heap).

Booktalks can open the doors for kids who don’t think they like to read, or who don’t think they like particular genres. I recently heard a sixth grade boy at an underprivileged school say after booktalks: “I’ve never been so inspired to read before.” Another time, a girl came up after the presentation to tell me she didn’t like mysteries, but that now she really wanted to read Nooks and Crannies [by Jessica Lawson].

I’ve had several boys tell me that they read the entire Michael Vey series after I booktalked the first one at their school.

DP: These are great examples, Anna. How wonderful to be able to reach kids in this way. And, I read in your bio that you present booktalks to over 5000 kids per year. Wow! That’s amazing. Can you share some of the basics of how you put a booktalk together and what it “looks like” or sounds like when it’s delivered?

AM: I present booktalks as part of Jackson County Library’s outreach to elementary and middle schools. Each spring and fall, I prepare 30-35 books, and I present the program to as many classes as I can fit in my schedule—generally 200+ classes per year. Because I’m going to be booktalking each title 50 or 100 times, I can take the time to prepare well.

I start with A LOT of reading. My program serves fourth through sixth grade students, so I’m primarily focused on middle-grade titles. I read reviews, keep an eye on award lists, ask around for recommendations, and look at most of the new titles for this age that come into our library. I like to get a stack of books ready, and then sit down and read the first few pages of each. Most I will discard at this stage. If it’s suddenly an hour later and I’ve missed my bus home, then I know I’ve got a winner!

As I build my list, I try to maintain a balance of genres and work to include enough variety so there will be at least one or two titles to appeal to each kid in the class. Most of my titles are fiction, but I include some nonfiction and graphic novels as well.

Once my selections are made, I write the booktalks. Each booktalk is 150-300 words long, and it takes me several drafts to get the script smooth. I find it helpful to read it aloud a bunch of times, cutting anything that doesn’t need to be there. Then I practice some more; I pace around my office, or up and down the bike path, talking to myself. Starting out, it can be useful to record and watch the practice sessions.

I try to have a strong booktalk ready before I take it into the schools, but I often do a few more revisions once I see what is and isn’t working for my middle grade audience. Usually the script settles within a couple of weeks, and I’ll have it memorized without really trying. (I do keep a “cheat sheet” script taped to the back of the book for emergencies, but the presentation is way more fun once it feels like storytelling rather than a rehearsed script.)

When I’m in front of my audience, it’s all about being “on”—providing a dynamic, live performance. I want the kids to get completely caught up in the stories, so I put myself in that space too.

DP: Your level of preparation is such a gift to young readers. I love the idea of a booktalk being a dynamic, live performance. Do you have a template or “formula” that you use to put your booktalks together?  Are there any particular do’s and don’ts you would offer?

AM: I don’t have a particular formula that I use—different books need different approaches—but being a writer myself helps me shape my booktalks. I look at:

1) Who is the main character? This is the person (animal, entity) the reader is going to connect with, so getting to know this character is an important part of the booktalk. I often include a couple of quirky details about the character or their situation.

2) What important change happens at the beginning of the story? This inciting (and hopefully exciting) incident can often be used as the primary hook for the booktalk. It sets the story in motion. Many of my booktalks will have a paragraph about the character and their situation when the story opens, then the second paragraph introduces the change, opening with some form of, “Then one day…”

3) What does the main character want more than anything? What is getting in their way? This combination of desire and obstacles shapes the course of the story and gives the audience a glimpse of the central question the story will answer. 

A few years ago I had a full day of classes at a middle school. At lunch time, a sixth grade girl from the first period class came back into the media center where I was set up. “I have a question about one of the books,” she said. “A couple of them actually.” And then she proceeded to go down the line of books and ask the central question I’d alluded to, but hadn’t stated directly: “Did he pull it off?” (Great Greene Heist.) “Do they survive?” (Michael Vey.) “What happened to the cousin?” (London Eye Mystery.) “What’s wrong with the kids? Are they robots?” (Under Their Skin.) “Do they get in a big fight?” (Hidden.) “Did she make it?” (The War That Saved My Life.) “Who was the girl?” (Listen to the Moon.) She wanted her curiosity satisfied.

DP: This is absolutely awesome!

AM: As for do’s and don’ts. I’d say the most important thing is not to give too much away. Except on rare occasion, I only include story elements revealed in the first quarter of the book, and often less.

Other guidelines I follow are:

Treat the booktalk as a performance. Bring energy, enthusiasm, funny voices, dramatic pauses, props…

Use what the author has given you in the book. Make use of direct quotes or specific phrases the author uses, to give a flavor of the story. Exploit an appropriate chapter cliffhanger in the early part of the book to use as a cliffhanger end to your booktalk.

Choose books with a good hook. Mysteries and thrillers are an easy place to start. But that being said…

Be honest in the booktalk. Do not make a quiet friendship story sound like a spine-chilling adventure just so more kids will pick it up. You may deter the true audience for the book, and you’ll disappoint the adventure-obsessed reader who does try it.

DP: This is such great info, Anna. I want to listen in on your booktalks (more on that later!) Also, I want to point out that the three things you look at when shaping a booktalk are also good things for authors to look at when shaping the books we're writing! 

I'm curious if there are particular approaches/formats that you’ve learned that kids really enjoy the most? Does your approach vary for different age groups of young readers?

AM: I love including some interactive aspects in my presentations. It helps kids get engaged in the talk. One of my favorites was handing out superpowers after booktalking The Mighty Odds by Amy Ignatow.

In the story, the main characters each gain an unusual superpower. Nick can suddenly teleport, but only four inches to the left. Cookie can read people’s minds, but only if they’re thinking about directions. Farshad gains super strength, but only in his thumbs… When I was working on my booktalk for this title, I came up with similarly bizarre superpowers and wrote them on popsicle sticks. (i.e. You have super hearing, but only for insect noises. You can breathe under water, but only within sight of a shark. You can communicate by telepathy, but only while singing 1980s songs…)

After booktalking this title, I would let a handful of kids draw out a popsicle stick and learn their new superpower. The kids loved it. LOVED IT. It was totally fun. And I kept the superpowers in a handy duct tape pouch that I then used as a lead-in to booktalking a duct tape craft book and introducing the library’s teen duct tape club.

DP: You are brilliant! I LOVE this SO MUCH!

AM: Other times, I’ve included a bit of reader’s theatre. Last year I booktalked Mac Undercover, the first book in Mac Barnett’s series, Mac B., Kid Spy. I took a key scene – where the Queen of England calls up Mac out of the blue and asks him to find the stolen Crown Jewels – and I wrote out a very short dialog. Kids loved to volunteer to be the Queen or Mac. There were some great Queens of England! I now have a virtual booktalk for Mac Undercover (it's totally fun -- the 89-year-old mother of a British friend of mine recorded the Queen's part of the dialog for me -- remotely from her care home in England!).

DP: What fun! I incorporate reader's theatre into my picture book-related activities (examples for Pirate and Cowgirl here and here), but I've not considered that as an activity option for older readers. Great idea!

What inspired you to start giving booktalks?

AM: Jackson County Library Services, in Southern Oregon, offers a free booktalk presentation to any fourth, fifth, or sixth grade class in the county. When I found out about the program, I thought it would be an awesome job to have. A few years later, I was hired as their new booktalker.

I was already involved in the kidlit writing community, so I was thrilled to have a position that required reading kids’ books and one that got me out sharing books with my target audience. It’s heartening to see students get so enthusiastic about stories!

DP: It sounds like a perfect job match, indeed! I'm wondering if you have a favorite booktalk experience you’d like to share?

AM: One of my favorite experiences is when kids call me “evil.” It means I’ve done a good job getting them totally caught up in the story, and then—slam—I leave them with an unforgivable cliffhanger. One time a sixth grade boy told me, “If I hear one more cliffhanger, my head is going to explode!”

DP: That is so marvelous. 

Any mishaps or cautionary tales that others might benefit from knowing about (or simply get a kick out of)?

AM: Flexibility is key for a successful school visit—whether it’s a booktalk visit or author visit. At some point, there’s going to be a fire drill, intruder drill, earthquake drill. Or a last-minute assembly. Or a substitute teacher who didn’t know to send the class to the library.

I always carry an extra set of handouts because sometimes I have one teacher signed up for a presentation, but they don’t tell me their teaching partner is bringing a class in as well. Being easy-going about the whole thing makes the experience better for everyone.

At the same time, I have learned to set certain boundaries: yes, adding an unexpected fourth grade class to a fourth grade presentation is great. Adding a seventh grade class to a fourth grade presentation…not so much.

DP: Excellent advice, Anna. 

As you likely know, I have two new potty-humor picture books that came out last October. One is cowgirl-themed and the other is pirate-themed, geared for kids ages 3-8, for whom potty humor is at the height of its glory. If you have any great ideas for book talking either of these titles to young audiences, I’m all ears!

AM: I wish I had a great suggestion for you! The techniques I use with the middle graders transfer easily to teens and adults, but I haven’t tried it with picture books. Picture books have a different sort of magic – and the great advantage of actually being able to read aloud the entire book in a short amount of time. I am currently considering adapting my program for third graders, so maybe soon I will have more thoughts on working with a younger audience!

DP: I actually think many of the tips you've provided will transfer to younger audiences, but I suspect you will gain even more insights if you decide to bring your programs to third graders. 

Before we wrap up, let’s shift gears a bit. I suspect that the same elements that go into a successful booktalk, could be applied to a successful agent/editor pitch. Based on your experience developing and delivering booktalks, what tips would you suggest to authors as they develop and deliver pitches for their books?

AM: When I first pitched my middle-grade novel to agents at the Willamette Writers Conference, I was intimidated by how limited the time was. Years of sweat went into that manuscript. Tens of thousands of words. Plot twists. Character development. How could I share everything I needed to in only seven minutes?!

What I’ve learned from booktalking is how much information can be conveyed – and how much desperate enthusiasm can be generated – in just 2-3 minutes. That’s all it takes. A couple of minutes is absolutely enough time to pull listeners into a unique story world and get their curiosity engaged.

When I returned to Willamette Writers to pitch again, after a couple years of doing booktalks, I wrote a “booktalk” for my manuscript. I asked myself the same questions I was using on my real booktalks: Who is the main character? What important change happens at the beginning of the story? What does the main character want more than anything? And why?

I used specific details and wording from my manuscript, as I often do in my regular booktalks, to give a flavor of the writing. I ignored a lot of the backstory that I had included in my original round of pitching—instead I went for visual details that would either convey the specificity of the world or the stakes for the character.

DP: This is really excellent advice, Anna, and I especially love the term "desperate enthusiasm." I will definitely try to create that the next time a prepare a pitch, or even a query letter. 

Is there something you wished I would have asked you that you haven’t had the opportunity to share?

AM: It’s hard to imagine I have anything more to say! Maybe just one last thought: A booktalk isn’t about convincing someone to read a particular book. It’s about opening up stories so kids can see which ones resonate with them. I reassure kids at the beginning of my presentation that I am not there to tell them they “should” read any of the books I’ve brought. Instead, I want them to see which books they are excited to read. Maybe they’ll like all of them. Or maybe only one—and that’s okay. It’s their choice that is important.

DP: That's such an empowering approach, Anna, and a perfect note to end on. 

I can't thank you enough for sharing your expertise with us. 

AM: Thank you, Dawn, for inviting me to share about booktalking! I hope this is a useful glimpse into the process.

DP: I've learned so much from you, Anna. It's VERY useful, indeed. Thanks again for taking the time to share with us. 

Readers: Between the time that I interviewed Anna and the time when I formatted the interview for publication, COVID-19 significantly changed the way that authors, librarians, teachers, and booksellers can interact with readers. Anna has recently created a virtual booktalk channel on YouTube, where she will post weekly booktalks for readers in grades 4-7. I encourage you to check it out and share it with others. You can search "JCLS booktalks" on YouTube, or follow this link

Anna Monders has been the booktalk specialist for Jackson County Library Services in Southern Oregon for the past five years. She presents booktalks to over 5000 kids a year, primarily in fourth to sixth grade. She’s thrilled when kids in her audience swarm the school library or go home and beg their parents to take them to the public library. Many of her booktalks are available on The Booktalk Blog.

Have Swag Will Travel is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.

March 11, 2020

The Marketing (and Making Friends) Part of the Writing Life

Photo Credit: Arianne Stork-Nevdahl
One of my favorite parts of authoring books is the opportunity to meet new people. Some folks I've met in person, and others I've only "met" online or through other remote communication channels. Some of the people I've met and become friends with are "potty people" (or "cowgirl people" or "pirate people") as evidenced by this darling photo.

Many of the folks I've met are "writing people." Tina Cho falls into that category. I first got to know Tina because I started following the blog she writes with a team of other members of the kidlit community. I've read and followed several writing-related blogs over the years, and the Grog Blog has consistently been amongst the most helpful and informative.

Last year, Tina contributed a guest post on my blog where she shared a story time lesson plan for one of her books, Rice from Heaven. Today, I've written a guest post for the Grog Blog entitled "10 Things I Learned About Book Marketing."

It is with great pleasure that today, I can give back to a writing community that I've learned so much from. I hope you will hop on over to the Grog Blog and read some of the great articles they have posted ... including mine, today!

(Pssst, I had so many tips to share, I couldn't fit them into one post. I'm aiming to post a follow-up article on the same topic next month. I'll add a link to it here when it's available.)

February 26, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: HELP WANTED, MUST LOVE BOOKS, by Janet Sumner Johnson

One of the things I love most about the work that I do, is meeting fellow creatives. Many of the people I "meet" are folks I get to know by interacting with them online. Similar to in-person friendships, it's not unusual that "remote friends" will introduce me to someone they know, and the creative network gets bigger... and bigger ... and bigger.

Case in point: Many years ago I came to know author Kathy MacMillan because of our mutual interests in American Sign Language, libraries, and books. Last year, Kathy introduced me to Janet Sumner Johnson, a friend of hers who also writes for kids. Fun fact: Janet first "met" me, by reading a post about my books that was featured on author and Storystorm founder, Tara Lazar's blog last year. And today, I have the pleasure of introducing YOU to Janet Sumner Johnson and her debut picture book that releases in March: HELP WANTED, MUST LOVE BOOKS (illustrated by Courtney Dawson, Capstone, March 2020).

by Janet Sumner Johnson and Courtney Dawson

Take it away, Janet!

Help Wanted, Must Love Books
by Janet Sumner Johnson

I have always loved picture books. I love how the pictures and words work together to create the story. I love how they say so much in so few words. And the stories can be so powerful!

But picture books are challenging to write (and if you write them, you know that "challenging" is an understatement). I took classes, joined picture book writing groups, and studied the great ones . . . still, I never felt confident enough in my own stories to take the next step.

One night, right before bedtime, my daughter came into our room. "It's story time, Daddy!"

(In our house, Daddy is bedtime storyteller supreme. I mean, yeah, I may write books and tell stories for a living, but whatever, our kids always wanted Dad.)

But that night my husband was busy. He was stressed. He had a presentation the next morning. "I'm sorry kiddo. I just can't tonight."

I piped right up. "I'll read you a story!" But she rejected me right away. (Good thing I've had so much practice being rejected.)

She stomped her foot. "I'll read my own story!" Then stormed back to her room.

I laughed at my husband. "Wow, Hon. I think you just got fired."

As soon as those words were out of my mouth, the lightbulb went off. "Pen! Paper! Quick!" Within an hour, I had my first draft. Yeah, I totally stayed up late for that, and boy was it worth it.

Of course, that draft needed work, but I knew I had something special. I went through several rounds of revision with my critique partners and made some key changes, but it wasn't long before I dared show the manuscript to my agent. . . . my agent who didn't represent picture books.

But she felt it, too. There was something special in it, and she agreed to represent it. We went through a few more rounds of revision, then six months on submission (and so many close calls!), until finally an offer arrived.

I still remember where I was: sitting in my kitchen, lamenting via text with my author friends that I had no good news to share (true story). My phone rang, and it was my agent. Now, I know for some people, that always means good things, but my agent will call for bad news, so I had no expectations.

"Are you sitting down?" she asked. "You have an offer."

I might have been rendered speechless.

There was still a lot of work to be done, but I've learned a lot from this experience:

First, kids are great for inspiration.
Second, you never know when THE idea will strike.
And last, but most importantly, the work you put in is never wasted.

I took classes for years. I read and read and read mentor texts. I learned to watch for story ideas in the world around me. I wrote several picture books (that will never see the light of day). I exchanged manuscripts with critique partners. All that work paid off. When the idea struck, I was prepared. I could write this book because I'd put in the time.

So, don't give up! Keep working. Because it will put you in the right place at the right time . . . whenever that is for you.

What a GREAT post, Janet. I love to hear about the moments when inspiration strikes... especially when those inspirations turn into stories... and those stories turn into books! 

Thank you so much for sharing your Birth Story for HELP WANTED, MUST LOVE BOOKS

Friends, the best way you can say thank you to Janet for spending some time with us today, is to support her work. Janet's books are available everywhere books are sold. 

Janet Sumner Johnson lives in Northern Utah with her husband and three children. She sings in the shower, attends dance parties in her kitchen, and ruthlessly beats her kids at card games. Her first picture book, Help Wanted, Must Love Books releases in March, 2020 (Capstone). She is also the author of The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society (Capstone, 2016), a middle grade novel. You can visit her website at janetsumnerjohnson.com.

Website: http://janetsumnerjohnson.com/
Twitter: @MsVerbose
Instagram: @janetsumnerjohnson
Facebook: @janetsumnerjohnson


Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.