February 16, 2022

The WRAD Part of the Writing Life

WRAD 2022 is officially a Wrap! World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) is a special literacy event that takes place around the globe on the first Wednesday in February each year. It's hosted by LitWorld, and originally founded by Pam Allyn. For the past several years, author Kate Messner creates a space on her website where teachers and librarians can connect with authors and illustrators who are willing to volunteer to offer free virtual book readings to children around the world. It's one of my favorite book-related events to participate in. 

This year I created a Sign-Up Genius to help me coordinate my virtual visits, and it worked great. I will definitely use a tool like this again in the future.  I visited nine schools, including one school in Japan (thanks to a friend from high school who teaches math at a school overseas reaching out to see if I'd be interested in meeting with her school community)!

Even with excellent coordination, it's not unusual that one or more of the schools that have signed up to meet with me needs to cancel at the last minute due to weather-related school closures. Also, some schools that hope to meet with me are unable to match their scheduling needs with my available times and/or my schedule is full by the time they reach out. 

For these schools (and now for you!) I compile some of my best resources as a stand-in for a real-time virtual author visit. These resources are of course not quite the same as real-time virtual visit, (or a full-length, personalized author visit), but they do allow young readers to connect with an author in honor of World Read Aloud Day, in some fashion. Here is the content of the email with resource links that I sent to schools this year. Please feel welcome to explore and share with your learning community: 


Hello friends! 

I’m so sorry that I was not able to read with your students as hoped during World Read Aloud Day. 

As promised, here is a link to a “Hello” slide deck that I shared with the schools/classrooms that I visited.

It’s not the same as a real virtual visit, but it will allow your students to connect with me for World Read Aloud Day in some fashion. (The “speaker notes” below each slide provide my general talking points and related resource links.) 

Speaking of resources, here is the link to the plethora of Resources tab on my website.

From this landing page, you can access things like: 

1. My YouTube channel with full readings of several of my books including Lucy’s BloomsWhere Does a Cowgirl Go Potty? and First Day Jitters from the collection of stories in Oregon Reads Aloud. This is where you will also find animated book trailers and companion songs for my three most recent books, as well as some ASL interpreted readings for Lucy’s Blooms and the companion song

2. Curriculum-Aligned Educators’ Guides for Lucy’s Blooms, Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, and Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? (All three of the guides include STEM tie-ins, and for my Pirate and Cowgirl books, these guides include Readers' Theatre scripts.)

3. Lesson Plans for Sign Language Story Times, themed enrichment activities, and fun extras such as Pirate and Cowgirl Name Generators. 

I also have a couple of different “virtual-virtual,” or “self-guided” author visits via Google Slides that you/your students can peruse (the “speaker notes” below each slide provides the talking points I would typically deliver during a school visit): 

Write On! Why Writing is (Possibly) the Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Do

From "Ahoy, Matey! to “Howdy, Pardner!” How to Create Vivid Characters by Giving Each a Unique Voice

Once a school or classroom has interacted with one of my books, (via the video story times, and/or virtual workshops on Google Slides on your own), I would be more than happy to respond to written questions from students. How this typically works is that the librarian or classroom teacher assigns a “post visit” writing lesson for the students where they each ask me a question (about my books, or my writing process, or my “office assistant, Pickle, etc.), and then you would deliver the full set of questions to me via postal mail or email (in one batched email from you vs. individual emails from students). After I receive the questions, I will reply to the students with a compilation response that I will deliver to you. Here is a link to some examples of my responses from my interactions with other schools. 

I hope these options are helpful resources. Please feel welcome and encouraged to share them with your families and your colleagues, and please let me know if I can be a resource to you in any other way.

Warm wishes,


Reach out via email, Twitter, or through my contact form (at the left of this post on the desktop version), if you'd like to schedule a time for me to meet with your students in the future! 

February 1, 2022


Hello readers! I have a very unique and inspiring path to publication story to share with you in today's edition of Birth Stories for Books. My guest today is the multi-talented Randel McGee, author/illustrator of  ZHANG HENG AND THE INCREDIBLE EARTHQUAKE DETECTOR (Familius, November, 2021). 

Book Cover by Randel McGee

Dawn Prochovnic: Welcome to the blog, Randel. I’m really excited to learn more about how your fascinating book, ZHANG HENG AND THE INCREDIBLE EARTHQUAKE DETECTOR came to be.

Randel McGee: Thank you, Dawn! I am excited to share this story,  and how it came to be, with you and your readers. 

DP: I understand from reading some of what you’ve shared on social media that this book took about five years (and thousands of shreds of paper bits) to create. I’d love to hear more about what inspired you to share ZHANG HENG’s story and what motivated you to make such a significant artistic commitment to move the idea forward to fruition.

RM: I had been commissioned to create a performance for California schools on the science of  earthquakes using stories that the students could relate to. I researched the back stories of scientists who had studied  the causes and effects of the geological forces that are involved with movements in the earth. I read legends and myths that tried to explain why the earth shakes at times. I read personal accounts of people who lived through devastating earthquakes and included some of my own memories of earthquakes. I distilled some of these stories into a school presentation.

I discovered the story of Zhang Heng and his incredible earthquake detector during that research. I learned that he was a true genius, a man of many talents, and yet humble. He was favored by the Emperor of China, but there was a great deal of jealousy and intrigue among the emperor’s court members. I thought that this would be a great story to share, a tale of succeeding despite opposition. I realized that the story was not well-known in the Western Hemisphere. As a puppeteer and artist with a lot of experience with shadow puppetry and paper-cut art, I thought that it would be interesting to present the story in the form of a traditional Chinese Shadow Theater show. 

DP: Wow, Randel. I love how one opportunity fueled another, and how your fascination with the topic paved the path for this project. 

You’ve shared some about your artistic process on social media, but I’d be delighted if you’d recap some of that here. In particular, I’d like to learn more about what transpired in the time between your initial idea for the book and the manuscript/proposal that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor. 

RM: I had the good fortune to live close to the offices of Familius Publishers in Central California. I was able to arrange a meeting with the art director at that time, David Miles.  I was pitching a craft book of puppet projects that a friend and I had co-written. I was introduced to the founder of Familius, Christopher Robbins. They were not interested in the puppetry book at that time. However, I took some of my other art work, including my paper-cuttings and showed them those. They were interested in the illustrations and asked me to submit some proposals. I had just finished the script  for the Earthquake presentation and had not been able to use the Zhang Heng story there, so I proposed this story a few weeks later with a few examples of shadow puppets, both my own and images from other sources. The Zhang Heng story was appealing to them because it had elements of history, science, positive character traits, and then of course the traditional art that is visually exciting, but rather unknown to Western audiences. 

Christopher and David suggested I write a draft of the story and a storyboard for the illustrations. They told me how many pages I would need to illustrate, including some 2-page spreads. So I set to work doing some rough sketches. I went a bit beyond the storyboard concept by adding color to the scenes. I would submit the sketches through emails and occasionally would meet with David and Christopher, and Christopher’s wife, to layout the pages and get their feedback.

I was soon working with some talented story editors on the written story itself. They would help with the flow of the story and make suggestions on how to make certain parts of the narrative more understandable. All of this was done through emails as the editors were spread out around the USA. 

An interesting side story: I was performing in Taiwan and was able to see a model of the earthquake detector in a museum and that helped to inspire me to share the story.  I took several photos of the device. One is included as a background below.

Image Source, Randel McGee

DP: This is such an inspiring backstory, Randel. I particularly love how you continued to build on your interests and expertise to land on a project that was a good fit. Your story really demonstrates the importance of flexibility, determination, and creative vision on the path to publication.  

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? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

RM: What stands out the most for me are the changes I made in the illustrations as the project progressed. As I looked at the storyboard sketches I realized that many looked rather static or still and did not give a sense of movement or drama that you would see in a puppet show. For example: There is a scene in the story where the jealous courtiers are spying on Zhang. I originally sketched a head peeking above a window frame as Zhang was working in the foreground. I ended with putting 3 men outside Zhang’s window, one comically trying to boost the other to peek inside and the third trying to steady the “booster”. In another scene I had a dramatic view of dragons surging up from the ocean causing tidal waves and shaking a village on shore. However, I thought I needed to show the dragons shaking the ground more directly, so I put fighting dragons in a cave beneath a village. 

Image Credit: Randel McGee / Familius

The picture I made of Zhang riding up to the imperial palace in an ornate, horse-drawn carriage was an early piece I made that was included in the final publication. The carriage was one of the first “puppets” I made. The palace was an early construction and includes Emperor An-Ti with his young heir Shun-Di welcoming Zhang.  A brief reference to An-Ti at the beginning of the story was removed since the focus was on his son Shun-Di. 

Image Credit: Randel McGee / Familius

DP: Thanks for sharing these details! 

When you compare the path to publication for this book to the paths to publication for one or more of your other books, (such as your many “how-to”  books on paper crafting), what are some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each?

RM: My craft books came to be after a publisher saw me at the ALA convention in 2005 , which celebrated the Bi-Centennial anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth.  I was performing my Andersen act where I tell stories and make elaborate paper cut designs to illustrate the stories just like  Andersen would do. The publisher was impressed with my paper crafting and approached me about doing a series of craft books. OF COURSE I ACCEPTED! I was then put in touch with their editors who sent a list of holidays that they wanted to feature. I sent back a list of 12 - 14 possible crafts for each holiday with sketches of how they would look and they selected 8 projects from that list. There was a lot of interaction with the editors on those books regarding the content of the historical backgrounds of the holidays, and a lot of work on describing the “how-to” instructions of the crafts themselves. 

Similarities are the process of working with an editor to make sure the text is grammatically sound, clear in its meaning, and flows easily for the reader. Differences would be that the craft books required a lot more work on the text to ensure that the instructions were understandable. I think we have all seen instructions that left us scratching our heads and asking Huh? 

DP: As a reader, I definitely appreciate when instructions are written with care!  

Back to paper cutting, I'm curious to learn how you developed an interest (and proficiency!) in paper cutting art? I’m especially intrigued about this because this art form seems like such a solitary endeavor, particularly when compared to the many different forms of performance art that you are known for, such as storytelling, puppetry, and ventriloquism.

RM: There are a lot of cross-over aspects in the arts! One art form leads to another. I was working a lot with small shadow puppets on an Over-Head Projector (remember those from school?) and a friend showed me a book of traditional paper-cut scenes and designs. I saw the correlation between the paper-cuttings and the shadow scenes I was making and started learning more about that art form. I soon combined my storytelling with cutting simple figures and scenes to illustrate my stories. My audiences found this very intriguing, so I added more stories and designs. I called my act “The Storycutter.” I discovered that H.C. Andersen was also a “storycutter,” so I developed an act using his stories.  

DP: This is really inspiring, Randel. I'm really taken by how you have built a creative career by following new interests and curiosities. I'll bet bet your spirit of curiosity is especially inspiring and impactful for the young audiences you regularly work with. 

Speaking of which, one of my favorite parts of being an author is connecting with young readers at school, library, and bookstore visits, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. Given your vast experience in performance art and entertainment, what professional advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful (in-person and/or remote) book events? 

RM: I have worked as a performing artist, mostly in schools and libraries, for over 40 years. Anytime you are in front of an audience you are “performing.” You need to establish a character or persona onstage. I have seen many other authors do presentations. Some were very successful and others not so. Authors who did illustrations brought Powerpoint shows or even large sketch pads to show how they made the art. Kids, and adults, love to see how a drawing comes together! An author who wrote, but did not illustrate, brought photos of her home and family and talked about how she worked at writing with all the other things that went on in her life. They were aware of their audiences level of attention and “played” to that.  My advice is to keep the program moving along at a brisk pace, have visuals to show, give pointers of how to make  art or write a good story, have some interaction with the audience with Q&A or other participative activity, know your audience’s age level and work to that with respect.  

DP: Fantastic advice! Thank you!

Your online bio indicates that you incorporate original songs into your educational programs. One of my favorite creative experiences has been collaborating with music professionals to create original songs and videos for my picture books (you can view a recent collaboration here.) I’d love to hear more about your work as a singer/songwriter, including where folks can go to hear your music, and/or any plans you have for bringing together these two forms of creative expression. 

RM: Dawn, your video is lovely! The music sets such a beautiful mood for the story and the pictures are so endearing! Thank you for sharing that! 

DP: Thank you for your kind words! (That beautiful music comes from the wildly talented Maiah Wynne, and those gorgeous pictures are the handiwork of illustrator extraordinaire, Alice Brereton.)  

RM: I am a self-taught musician and feel that I have limited skills as such. I have some of my songs on Youtube. However, I have not been as diligent at getting them out there as I should have been. I do hope to animate some of my songs with shadow puppets during this next year and share them on Youtube. 

DP: 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?

RM: Just send stuff out in the world. Keep working on it. Keep sharing what you do in as many good places (there are some places that are not worth your efforts) as you can and something will open up.

I have held myself back by thinking I was not good enough to make it past the cold submission stage. I was fortunate enough to be in good places at the right time. As we say in show business: “Timing is EVERYTHING!” 

DP: More fantastic advice. Thank you!

Is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for ZHANG HENG AND THE INCREDIBLE EARTHQUAKE DETECTOR that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

RM: “Did you actually cut all those little spaces by hand?” - Yes! I went through dozens of razor-sharp, pointy blades to cut all those tiny shapes out of the shadow puppets to make them look like Chinese style puppets. I wear magnifying glasses when I cut because some of the cuts are very small, but the end result is worth the trouble.

DP: Readers, if you want to see some amazing photos of Randel's artistic process, you can find a photo journal here.

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

RM: I am always working on something, whether it is for a friend or just an experiment on some new style. 

DP: Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for ZHANG HENG AND THE INCREDIBLE EARTHQUAKE DETECTOR with us, Randel!

RM: Thank YOU, Dawn.

Friends, the best way to thank an author whose insights and experiences have been helpful and/or inspiring to you is to support their work. Buy their books. Request them from your library. Read and share them with others. You can find Randel's work in all the usual places, including Bookshop (and ZHANG HENG AND THE INCREDIBLE EARTHQUAKE DETECTOR can also be purchased directly from Familius.)


Image Source: Randel McGee
Randel McGee is a versatile writer and entertainer with over 40 years of professional experience. His book series Paper Craft Fun for Holidays and Fun and Festive Crafts for the Seasons, are in schools and libraries throughout the world. He recently wrote and illustrated Zhang Heng and the Incredible Earthquake Detector with Familius Publishers. 

As a professional storyteller and ventriloquist, Randel has performed all around the USA and Asia at schools, libraries, conferences, and special events. His ventriloquist act of Randel McGee and Groark (the dragon) has two award-winning DVD series on character education for elementary school children. His storytelling performances as the world-famous author Hans Christian Andersen has taken him to storytelling festivals and cultural events around the globe.

He is also a popular workshop director on a wide range of subjects from storytelling techniques to effectively integrating performing arts into public education. He has worked with students (from kindergarten through college), teachers, and librarians, from all over the USA and Asia. 

For more information about Randel McGee’s shows, workshops, and writings please visit www.mcgeeproductions.com or contact Randel at randel at mcgeeproductions dot com.


Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including, Lucy's Blooms, 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.