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Five Key Takeaways from National Conference for Kids Book Creators

The most exciting thing I learned at the recent national conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is that the evidence continues to mount that young readers crave high quality nonfiction — especially of the expository kind, which is the style of my most recent two books. Melissa Stewart, a friend and mentor who writes nonfiction, too, has spent months compiling research from various academic studies. I got to hear her talk about this firsthand, but she has also generously laid it all out on her blog Celebrate Science. I’ve linked to a post with a big bunch of research citations, but many of her posts are relevant, so plan to spend some time digging into it.

Spending time listening to the best practitioners of one’s craft is inspiring. The mainstage panel on nonfiction included Deborah Heiligman, Barbara Kerley, Jason Chin, and Candace Fleming. All talked about how much research they did just to get to the point where they had identified the “vital idea.” Having chosen a focus often meant that much research had to be set aside and new research had to be done to fill in around the vital idea. I had so many moments where I felt like I knew exactly what they were talking about that I tweeted this:  Nonfiction nirvana. Inspiring workshops by Asked why primary sources: “I want to meet people in their own words.” asked why NF, “The world is so interesting, I just want to learn as much as I can and share it.” My peeps, y’all.

People expect an author/illustrator of expository books about math to be … well, not like me. Several people who stopped by my signing table expressed surprise at the woman behind Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature. Apparently, I’m a little more outgoing and gregarious than they expect. And, if they probe a little deeper than the surface they discover that I am only good at writing about math because I am NOT a natural mathlete. I come by my understandings by reading lots of explanations written by better mathematicians than me. And then I read a lot more explanations. Eventually, I get to where I can explain it to someone who started where I did. Rather than “write what you know,” my mantra is “write what you want to understand.”

Every industry professional — agent, editor, art director — is swamped with submissions. Every single one has more material coming in than they can possibly handle. This means we must rely on the wider community of writers and artists to help us get our work into its best possible shape — before we submit. There is no shortcut for putting in the work — even for the well-published among us. As Kevin Lewis, an agent with Erin Murphy Agency, and Alexandra Penfold, an agent with Upstart Crow Literary, put it: “Don’t jump precipitously. Wait a beat.”  “You only get fresh eyes once.”

Finally, I spent a lunch hour with #kidlitwomen organizers strategizing about ways to push for equal treatment for women and for all people from marginalized groups in children’s publishing. If you want to get involved in or follow this important conversation, please check out the kidlitwomen group on Facebook. A first step we identified is to gather data documenting disparities. These include unequal pay for the same work; fewer marketing dollars put behind work by or about women/girls/other underrepresented people, etc.

My trip to Los Angeles for the SCBWI Summer Conference was paid for in part by a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. The MAC is funded by the Mississippi Legislature and by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is in turn funded by Congress. I am grateful for this public support of the arts. My thanks go in particular to my state representative, Christopher Bell; my state senator, David Blount; my U.S. House Rep. Gregg Harper; and my two U.S. Senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith.

More Information on the Connaughton Family roots in Ireland

Today I’m trying something new on the blog. It may not be apparent to you at first, but instead of typing this blog post I’m dictating it using Dragon naturally speaking software. When I last wrote about the family history, I mentioned that we had a few remaining questions about the plot of land that the Connaughtons occupied in the 1870s when my great-great grandmother Honorah Connaughton left Ireland.

My mother, Patty, and my aunt, Mary, and I decided the best way to get our questions answered was to hire a genealogist in Ireland to visit some land record offices. We hired Eilish Feeley of Irish Clann Connections. Here’s what we learned:

The Connaughton family had ownership of the same plot of land either as tenants or full owners from the 1850s or before. The records also show that from 1911 the Connaughtons had begun to purchase the land and that they received assistance in purchasing the land from the land commission.

What began as a 3-acre plot with a house grew over the years to more than 10 acres with a house and a few out buildings. In 1978, the land was divided into two parcels with the house being separated from the larger chunk of land. This was one year after the death of Michael Connaughton, one of Honorah Connaughton’s nephews who had lived there with his sister Mary.

This is a page from a photo album belonging to my aunt, Mary Leonard. She and my uncle, Tim, (pictured at the bottom left) found the Connaughton family home during a trip to Ireland in the 1970s.

The portion of the land without the house is currently registered in the name of Michael and Mary Ryan of Williamstown, Castlerea. These may be descendants of Michael and Mary Connaughton’s mother, Katie Ryan. (I’m sure you’ve noticed the proliferation of Michaels and Marys.)

See the place on google maps here.

Eilish was able to get us a little closer to confirming another part of our family’s story, too. Honorah Connaughton’s father, Michael, married a woman named Mary “Bessie” Dillon. Several family members told the story that Bessie Dillon lived on the farm next-door to the one Michael Connaughton grew up on. Through the land records, Eilish was able to confirm that the Dillon family lived on plot 14 which was adjoining to the Connaughton’s plot 15. Since Michael Connaughton and Bessie Dillon’s marriage record does not list parents’ names for the two newlyweds, we cannot definitively confirm this. However, we may be able to do an autosomal DNA test on current Dillon-named relatives to do so. One further clue might be the fact that the father in the Dillon family who farmed plot 14 was named Thomas. Nora named her second son, Thomas Xaiver. Her first son, Richard Joseph, named his first son, Richard Thomas; he was my grandfather.

Big Chill Retreat 2018

Registration opens tomorrow for the Big Chill Retreat, an annual event offered by the Louisiana/Mississippi region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Big chill is a retreat for creators of children’s books — both writers and illustrators. Write, draw, revise and brainstorm your work with supportive colleagues in a relaxing setting. Distance critiques for writers and illustrators will go fast. Read all about it here.

Manuscripts and portfolios for critique will need to be ready by August 28th so get busy on those works-in-progress.

Thank you, Mississippi Arts Commission!



For years, I have received various types of support from the Mississippi Arts Commission. This week I learned I had received a mini-grant to defray some costs associated with attending the  2018 Summer Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Held in Los Angeles each summer, the conference offers terrific sessions on all aspects of creating books for young people.

This year I am going into the conference with a manuscript in revision at Boyds Mills Press. Soon enough, I will be turning my attention to marketing the new book. I know I will learn new strategies from my colleagues. I will also be soaking up everything I can by way of inspiration from the best nonfiction writers in the field. The Mississippi Arts Commission is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mississippi Legislature. I am grateful for the public resources that help me produce engaging texts for children — all from the nature I find around me in Mississippi.

Prime Time Family Time at Children’s Hospital


Today I told stories, read books, taught a lesson on magnifying natural objects, and made Instant Books with patients at the University of Mississippi’s Children’s Hospital. Here I am being introduced by Ms. Michelle Chambers of UMMC.

Teaching the use of Private Eye Loupes. Using a gumball from a gum tree and a tiny pinecone.

Wolfsnail is my storytelling standby. Works in any crowd.

 

Sharing prey snails for observation with Private Eye Loupes.


Dr. Jean Farish, second from left, created the Prime Time Family Time program, with generous funding from the Mississippi Arts Commission. I appreciated the invitation and the opportunity to get to know Dr. Farish. You can learn about her work here. The two women pictured on the right are part of the children’s care team at UMMC. I had great help today from Elena Voisin. She took all the photographs.

 

Casey Students Make Fractal Pop-Ups

I recently spent two days with Casey’s fourth and fifth grade students, making fractal pop-ups. We used the fractals to practice calculating the area and volume of various-sized rectangular prisms. I want to thank Ms. McCormick and Ms. Dean for co-teaching these workshops. And, Mr. John Howell, the Casey arts coordinator, for taking the photographs.
The instructions for making the fractal pop-up can be found on my website here.


Visit to Highland Bluff Elementary


Today I spent the morning with 2nd and 3rd graders at Highland Bluff Elementary School in Brandon, Miss. The students had read my books in the library and had completed several activities related to them. Led by librarian Lindsey Cauthen, the students made Fibonacci spirals and wrote and illustrated what they had learned about wolfsnails.
highland bluff visit
The students had great questions. Because they asked about what I am working on now, I read a few pages from my Infinity draft. I’m happy to say they liked it.

I appreciate Ms. Cauthen for inviting me and for taking the photos in this post.

Teaching Artist Residency at Casey Elementary

Sarah Stage Presentation
My work with students at Casey Elementary School in Jackson began with a presentation called “Mysterious Patterns,” in the library for all 4th graders. I was back later in the day to do the same presentation for all 5th graders. Based on my book of the same name, the talk centers on fractals in nature. And, on geometric fractals.
Sierpinski Triangle
Fractal shapes are shapes in which the whole shape is made up of different sized copies of the same shape. Here I am talking with students about how to find a pattern in the number of triangles that show up in each size in a geometric fractal called the Sierpinski Triangle.
Menger Sponge and Square
I showed students this other geometric fractal, a Menger sponge, and we discussed how to find the number of squares at each level. I set it aside and said we would continue to talk about it when I returned for my work in their classrooms.
ideas for infinity
One of the questions I got as I wrapped up my presentation was “what’s next?” We discussed my work-in-progress (on infinity). Students stopped as they left the room to give me ideas about what photographs I might take to illustrate a book on infinity.
more ideas
more ideas
As she left, one student whispered into my ear the number 512. I didn’t understand. I thought she was making a suggestion about the infinity book. It turns out she had done the calculation in her head about how many squares would be in the next level of my quilted Menger Sponge. She asked if she was right. I had to admit that I hadn’t done the calculation myself. I went home and did the calculation — using pencil and paper — and discovered she was right.
open doors
I marched myself back there the next day with a book for her and for her class. I can’t wait to get back to Casey for my full days of work in the math classes for 4th and 5th grades. We will be making fractal pop-ups and using them to demonstrate facility with formulas for calculating perimeter, area, and volume. I love my work!

Thank you to John Howell, Casey’s Arts Integration Specialist, for taking the photographs in this post.

Learning the New Camera


I’m learning a new camera again. My longtime camera began to malfunction and it took me a while to acknowledge the problem, get it diagnosed, and find out that the manufacturer no longer makes the part to fix it (errrrrggghhh!) I am learning to use a camera that is made by a different company so the controls for every function are slightly different.
These are some images I made recently while visiting my friend, Julie.


Author Visit with Murrah Students

Today I was the featured author for the Murrah High School library’s Snack and Chat Program. I told them about my journey to becoming an author. Part of the fun was showing pictures of my sons when they were young — these students knew the boys as older high schoolers.

Snack and Chat

Ms. Courtney Holmes, pictured far right, will guide these young writers as they write and publish their own stories, using the Storybird website.
The students had great questions. Several were familiar with my work already from previous visits to their schools. (Shout out to Davis Magnet IB School!)