Navigating Nonfiction: A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks

Navigatingclip_image002[2] (1) Nonfiction

A monthly column by Anthony D. Fredericks

Dear Colleagues:

Welcome to “Navigating Nonfiction!” In this new monthly column we’ll explore the strategies and techniques that can have a positive influence on your writing career. We’ll look at the elements of outstanding nonfiction literature, interview experts in the field, and respond to your questions and concerns. In fact, if you have a topic or query you’d like addressed in this column, let me know and I’ll be happy to address it in a future post.

clip_image004[2]So, what really makes up a good nonfiction book? It’s a question we’ll consider over the course of the next several columns. But, for now, let’s take a look at one critical element of nonfiction writing – fascinating facts – and how they can add substance and dimension to your writing.

As writers, we know it’s one thing to have a child pick up a book and begin to read it; quite another to have a child stick with the book all the way to the end. But, the inclusion of fascinating facts sprinkled throughout a nonfiction book piques children’s’ natural curiosity and provides them with insights that might not be available in more formal information sources. The liberal use of mesmerizing details help keep a reader glued to the pages – learning new stuff and continually searching for the next tidbit of data. Fascinating facts keep interest levels high and motivation constantly stimulated.

In writing the book Desert Night, Desert Day, I wanted my audience (kindergarten to second grade) to understand basic facts about nocturnal and diurnal animals in the Sonoran desert. By the same token, I wanted to offer readers some unusual bits of information not often found in science textbooks or on internet sites. So, along with each poetic stanza, I included some complementary details in the Field Notes in order to add some spice to each animal’s story. Here’s what I wrote about a typical nocturnal critter:
clip_image006[2]     Stingers lash,
     Whip, and dash.
     Scorpions grab
     In a flash! (p. 8-9)

Then, in the Field Notes, I supplemented that stanza with an unusual insight:

ScorpionScorpions rely on their sense of touch to locate prey. Often, a scorpion walks around with its claws spread apart until it bumps into a spider or insect. Then it grabs it! Sometimes it uses its stinger. A scorpion’s stinger is a hollow tube connected to a poison gland near the end of its tail. (p. 32)

As another example, J. Lynett Gillette’s Dinosaur Ghosts: the Mystery of Coelophysis (1997) focuses on a cache of hundreds of Coelophysis (SEEL-oh-FIE-sis) dinosaurs that perished together at a place now known as Ghost Ranch in New Mexico (just north of Santa Fe). The discovery of numerous necks, tails, arms, and legs of these Triassic creatures in 1947 baffled scientists. “Why were all these dinosaurs buried in one place?” was a question that perplexed and stumped the experts.

Gillette goes into several explanations proffered for the demise of these critters. She offers some scientific reasoning and then challenges that reasoning with basic facts from the site. But, she also offers several little-known facts in order to keep her readers “up to speed” on all the science involved in this unique paleontological mystery.

Scientists Walter and Luis Alvarez of the University of California have suggested a reason why dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago. The Alvarezes said that maybe a huge asteroid falling out of orbit from outer space struck the earth. The collision would have sent great clouds of dust into the air that blocked sunlight and cooled the earth. A cooler earth couldn’t support the same kinds of plants and animals. Many species that needed warm temperatures would die. (Gillette, 1997, p. 21)

clip_image008[2]These fascinating facts are like adding a dash of spice or a dollop of flavoring to a favorite recipe. The recipe is good, but it can be made just a little more interesting (and a little more tasty) with the addition of a unique zest or seasoning. Dig, Wait, Listen (2001), for example, describes the desert spadefoot toad’s unusual underground living conditions: “…the young and adult toads dig back underground to wait until the next heavy rain. It can be a long wait indeed – as long as eleven months – until they hear the rain again.” (Sayre, p. 30). Another example can be found in Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave where we are introduced to a slave in the mid-1800s who teaches himself how to make pottery: “With a flat wooden paddle large enough to row across the Atlantic, Dave mixed clay with water drawn from Big Horse Creek, until wet and stiff and heavy.” (Hill, 2010, p. 11).

Salt your manuscript with several fascinating and little-known facts and you can keep readers coming back for more. You can also highlight some of the interesting stories to be found in nonfiction books.
clip_image010[2]Anthony D. Fredericks ( is a former professor of education at York College (now retired) and an award-winning children’s author of more than 50 titles. His latest children’s book –Tall Tall Tree – received the 2018 Outstanding Science Trade Book Award from the National Science Teachers Association and the Children’s Book Council. Tall Tall Tree is currently a finalist for the 2018 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award in the Children’s Picture Book category.


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Volunteer Spotlight—Berrie Torgan-Randall, by Virginia Law Manning

berrieLast November after Fall Philly, EPA member Berrie Torgan-Randall approached me and RA Kim Briggs about the possibility of offering Mike Malbrough’s “Portfolio Development Workshop” in Eastern PA. I knew the NJ chapter had successfully run the program in the fall and so I was excited to offer it here. With Berrie’s help, we picked a date and started planning. On Saturday January 27th, twenty illustrators met at the Free Library of Philadelphia to hear author-illustrator Mike Malbrough share his insight on how to make our portfolios stand out from the competition and fully engage art directors, agents and editors. Thank you, Berrie, for suggesting this fantastic workshop!

Tell me, Berrie, how long have you been an SCBWI member?

I attended my first SCBWI event in 2010 and became a member in 2013.


What have been your favorite SCBWI programs?

I find a get a lot out of the events organized by the regional chapters. Compared to the large national events in LA and NY, the Pocono Retreat provides more opportunities to meet an agent and a more personalized and longer review of first look assignments.  I also feel like I grow every time I attend an SCBWI event and love learning how I can improve my portfolio.


Are there any workshops you’d like our chapter to offer in the future?

It would be great to have an expert talk about marketing, social media and website development.  I heard a lecture through the Corzo Center featuring Susan Raab from Raab associates about marketing for artists.  I think she’d be a great speaker for an upcoming event.


Will you volunteer again?

Yes! As we speak, I’m helping to organize the sketch crawl at the Academy of Natural Sciences on March 16th.   I hope to meet new members there!

lllustrators, if you’d like to volunteer or suggest a workshop for our chapter, please contact Virginia Law Manning, EPA Illustrator Coordinator, at 

pnut color clean postcardEPA member Berrie Torgan-Randall is an author-illustrator and librarian, living in Media, PA. She illustrated FOR BREAKFAST I ATE A PEANUT CHEW written by Elizabeth Pearson Welsh, which was a featured title in EPA’s “Love Made Visible.” Similar to OTTO: THE BOY WHO LOVED CARS by Kara LaReau, FOR BREAKFAST I ATE A PEANUT CHEW explores what happens when a child’s love for cars/candy becomes obsessive. As the mother of a boy who lived and breathed trains for four years, I can definitely relate!!! To learn more about Berrie Torgan-Randall, please visit her illustrator website at


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Bilingual Reading, by Aline S. Iniestra

book fiesta“Hurray! Today is our day.
El día de los niños.
Let’s have fun today
reading our favorite books.
Toon! Toon!

Children’s day, book day!

¡Viva! Hoy es nuestro día.
El día de los niños.
Nos vamos a divertir
con nuestros libros favoritos.
¡Tun tun!

El día de los niños. El día de los libros.”

From Book Fiesta by Pat Mora. Illustrated by Rafael López.

As parents, we want to make sure our children read all kinds of texts that will enrich their lives in a lot of ways; something that will feed their imagination, emotions, learning.

They need those texts that will help them grow, be inspired and have fun. But what happens when we have a bilingual child?

Language is our means of communication, and being able to do so in two languages makes things even better. It is fun and it is useful. It helps our children see differently, perceive other ideas, other cultures, other minds, expand their knowledge and express themselves in more ways than we could imagine.

Children learn a lot from reading. The need for more bilingual books is growing along with the multicultural population we have. The need is for all children, American and foreign.

A child that reads the same book or story in two languages will learn new vocabulary, new ways of talking, new everything.

My son speaks English but I am teaching him Spanish. He has a couple of bilingual
books that have helped him acquire vocabulary and the tickle to travel to Mexico (my birthplace), as well as other countries. His curiosity for learning other languages is growing, and so far he has managed to learn numbers from 1-10 in 11 different languages. It helps that he finds this really fun. So that’s where it all comes to, having fun while learning! And probably without even knowing it is some kind of “studying”.

The book Mañana Iguana by Ann Whitford is very simple, has a funny story with a moral, is bilingual and has great illustrations by Ethan Long. The book is short and the repetition of words is what makes the child learn faster and easier in Spanish. Besides, it has a glossary with the words in Spanish, their translation into English and an almost accurate way to pronounce the words.

As a translator, I have been thinking on how to make more of these kinds of books available for more children. And I will do that, in time. For now, I keep providing my son with materials that he finds entertaining and funny…and educational of course.

About Aline: I’m a freelance translator with the goal of becoming a literary translator. I love reading but most of all I love to be able to transmit what authors write into another language so others can enjoy a good book, cultures, minds.


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The WHYs of Critique Groups, by Heather Pierce Stigall

When I decided to take children’s writing seriously, I heard two pieces of advice: (1) Join SCBWI and (2) Join a critique group. I put both off for a while, but I figured there had to be a reason I heard this over and over again. Eventually, I did both, and I am SO glad I did!


I could write a whole post on the benefits of SCBWI membership, but today I want to focus on piece of advice #2 (Besides, guess what I kept hearing after I joined SCBWI? Yup, “Join a critique group”). Maybe you’ve heard the same advice. Maybe you’re not sure why it’s a good idea to join a critique group. Maybe you even took the advice, but you’re still not quite sure what this whole critique group thing is all about. So, I present to you:

10 Reasons Why Joining a Critique Group is a Good Idea

  1. Your very own posse: Writing (and illustrating) is often a solitary activity. Navigating the publishing world by yourself can get lonely and downright depressing at times. Belonging to a group of like-minded people means you have shoulders to cry on, cheerleaders to encourage you, and friends who understand what you’re going through along your kid lit journey. And, having a strong support system will help you become a better writer/illustrator.
  2. Receive feedback on your manuscripts/art. Your critique partners will be able to look at your work with a fresh set of (relatively objective) eyes and point out the strengths and weaknesses of your stories/art in a supportive way. Yes, critiques have a subjective quality to them, but critique partners aren’t as “close” to your stories as you are and will be able to give you a little more feedback than, “This is great, honey!” (from your significant other) or “Boring!” (from your disgruntled tween). You’ll be able to use the feedback you receive to revise your manuscripts, which will help you become a better writer/illustrator.
  3. Learn how to receive critiques. You’ll learn from your mistakes and then learn to avoid repeating them; you’ll gain self-confidence and develop a thicker skin; and you’ll even learn how to discern what advice to take and what to decline. This will help you become a better writer/illustrator.
  4. Learn how to give critiques. The more critiques you give, the better you will become at seeing the weaknesses in your own work and how to fix them. Learning how to be a better editor of others’ and your own work will help you become a better writer/illustrator.
  5. Information. Besides critiquing each other’s work, you can share books you’ve read (instructional, mentor texts, comp titles) and resources you’ve discovered (conferences, publishing/editor/agent news, on-line challenges, blogs, podcasts). Being better-informed will help you become a better writer/illustrator.
  6. Guidance/Inspiration. You can brainstorm new ideas to get opinions on what to work on next or how to strengthen an idea you have for a story. You can discuss ideas about how to approach an agent/editor/art director or how to develop a submission plan or write a query letter. Knowing the market and strategizing your kid lit career will help you become a better writer/illustrator.
  7. Sounding board. Having critique partners means you have a built-in audience when you are preparing for a pitch session, school visit, workshop presentation, book launch or reading. If you write picture books (since these are meant to be read out loud), you have access to someone who can read your manuscripts out loud so you can listen for any baubles in rhythm or rhyme. Rehearsing and listening will help you become a better writer/illustrator.
  8. Accountability Partners. Having others who are along the same journey can help you to set and achieve goals by motivating you and helping keep you accountable. Setting and striving for goals (you know what’s coming …) will help you become a better writer/illustrator.
  9. Promotion. When you have good news to share (You got a book deal! You having a book launch! You’re presenting at a conference! You won an award!), you have a group of people who will be more than happy to share your happy news. Promoting you and your work will lead to books sales and more opportunities, which will lead to more writing/art. And the more you write/create art, the better writer/illustrator you’ll become.
  10. If nothing else, just believe me when I say: You’ll become a better writer/illustrator.

checklist-2077020_1280Have I convinced you? Great! Your next step is to go to and click on the “Local Critique Group” link (on the right) to see if there’s a local or on-line critique group open to new members. If you don’t see a group that’s a fit for you, contact me (Heather Stigall, Critique Group Coordinator – my contact info is on the page). We can discuss other options, including starting your own group. Please also keep checking back, as new groups are added and information changes often.

If you plan to attend the upcoming Poconos Mountain Retreat May 4-6, 2018 (info at, you will have the option to participate in a FREE (with registration) Peer-to-Peer Critique-a-Thon (for manuscripts, PB to YA) or Peer-to-Peer Portfolio Critique session. Whether you are brand new to critiques and want an opportunity to give it a try, or are a seasoned critiquer who wants some “fresh eyes” to look at your work, this is a great opportunity!

If you’re still feeling tentative about joining or starting a critique group, stay tuned for my next few posts to address the “who, what where, when and how” questions you might have. In the meantime, feel free to ask questions or submit comments below.


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A Cafe Chat with A.S. King + Book Giveaway! by Lindsay Bandy


Today, the Eastern Penn Points Cafe is delighted to host award-winning author, Amy Sarig (A.S.) King! A.S. King has been called “One of the best Y.A. writers working today” by the New York Times Book Review. King is the author of many acclaimed novels and has won the Michael L. Printz Honor, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, The Amelia Walden Award, The Carolyn Field Award, and one time she won £50 on a scratch card.

And lucky us, she’s not only here to chat, she’s giving away a copy of her book, THE DUST OF 100 DOGS, too! Enter by commenting before March 14 – details below.

Ooooh, I hear a bike….Amy’s here!

Happy Amy

Lindsay: Hi Amy, and welcome to the Eastern Penn Points Cafe! As we settle into our comfy booth, can I get you something to drink?

Amy: It depends on what time we are dealing with. Daytime? Decaf tea, please. After 9pm? I’ll have vodka and ginger ale. Thanks!

Lindsay: Hmmm…Let’s call it after nine, and make that two vodkas and ginger ales. I’m really happy to introduce you to our members who might not know you are local to Eastern PA. What’s your favorite part of living in Lancaster County?

aaron'sAmy: I grew up in Berks County, in the middle of a large cornfield. So, one of the most comforting parts of Lancaster County to me are its fields of corn. I moved to the Lititz area because of Aaron’s Books, the independent bookstore there. I have been a champion of independent bookstores for decades and Aaron’s was the closest to me when I started to publish, and so began a long friendship with Sam and Todd, who own the store. I’ve only been in the area about 5 years and during that time I spent most of my days in my office on deadline, so I don’t get out much. But I’ll add that I love hearing passing Amish horses and buggies. I love that side of Lancaster County life.

still life.jpgLindsay: Your books have been described in so many ways – brilliantly bizarre, unapologetically strange, profoundly honest, funny, breathtaking, passionately experimental. It’s easy for readers (and other writers) to think you must have been born ready to win the Printz! Can you tell us about how you found your voice as a writer and developed your distinct style? 

Amy: You know, it’s hard to figure out exactly where it all came from. But I know that once I liked what I was writing, I wasn’t going to change that no matter how many rejections I got. (I got about 500 over 15 years of trying.) My voice came the more I was able to channel what I was really feeling and thinking into the day’s work. I took a year or so off of novels and wrote a lot of poetry, and I think to this day reading and writing poetry helps me find my way. But my style has a lot to do with my process—I’m a full-on pantser. This means that I have zero idea where the book will take me. I simply write what my characters want me to write. It’s a process that is based fully on trust and it’s scary some days. Deadlines can be tricky when I’m waiting on a character to steer me toward the next plot point. Or, you know, when the pagoda starts talking. I guess some might look at my published work and think that this is something that grew naturally in me, but really, I have an attic full of unpublished manuscripts. About eight or so are novels. And they were all pretty weird, too, but I kept trying too hard. Once I let a character lead me, I learned how to follow. The trust that this requires is kinda dumb, really. One day, my characters will have a real laugh riot after leading me to a giant personal red herring or something. Party it up, characters.

I’m trying to be helpful in this description, but I always come off sounding cosmic. So in a more practical way: I write poetry. Poetry is a lot of metaphor. I prefer metaphor. Surrealism eats metaphor for breakfast. This is how it worked for me.

literature-3201190_1920.jpgLindsay: I know you’re a big on creating relate-able literature for teens that can be used in English classrooms. As a teen, I thought I hated to read, because it was such a chore to slog through Shakespeare or Hawthorne, so I definitely support you! As you write for today’s teens and classrooms, how do you navigate the line between “edgy” and “banned,” so that you are reaching readers without alienating teachers or parents? 

 Amy: I have no idea. I have yet to be banned in the official sense, though I’ve experienced plenty of soft censorship and have been disinvited to schools after a principal went looking for negative reviews of my books. But here’s the thing: reaching readers is all I care about. I don’t care about parents or teachers or admins who want to clean up the library. Let them take the same amount of time and clean up the damn world. Seriously. The truth is something I’m very passionate about. I like to illuminate it. Teenagers can relate because they spend their lives talking about the truth and being eye-rolled. I am there to cheer them on—through my books and through speaking engagements—to keep telling the truth. So if that makes me edgy, then I’m edgy. But I’ll say this: if that makes me edgy, then there are a lot of edgy teachers and librarians out there, too, because without them, my books wouldn’t find their way into readers’ hands.

veraLindsay: Your books visit some very dark places, but often come out in a place of unexpected hope. I must confess to hiding in the bathroom for a good ugly-cry after finishing PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, but it uplifted me in a beautifully surprising way that helped me make peace with a painful relationship from my own teen years. Do the endings of your books surprise you, too? Are you a pantser, a plotter, or something in between?

Amy: I’m often surprised, yes. And I cry, too. Only after I do a victory lap after months or years of chasing an elusive ending. The ending of the book I’m working on right now eluded me for a long time. In fact, a super important character kept a huge secret from me until page 370. That’s super frustrating. But when she told me the secret, I knew what to do. (Which meant I had to go back to the beginning now knowing this secret and revise a lot of stuff.) Always worth it. Pantsing has always been worth it for me. But I’m a Pisces and we tend to trust the most untrustworthy things and still come away with a smile.

The thing I’ve found most rewarding in this job is the varying ages of readers who write to me. Dark places? We’ve all been there—only we often don’t take those places seriously. So whether a reader is 15 or 50 or 75, if my book affected them the way you describe above, then I feel I’ve done my job. VERA DIETZ, for me, was my way of making peace with a close friend’s death. And so, I pass on that thinking—in the here and now, never diving back to “what it was like to be a teen”—in my books. Honestly, I don’t think my thought process has changed at all since I was a teen. I think that’s the one fallacy we invent when we exit teen years. We want to leave the pain behind and believe that we will now think and feel differently. But we don’t. Or at least I don’t. But I was a pretty serious teen under all my joking…again, much like my books.

 Lindsay: You had a middle grade novel come out in 2017, too. What inspired you to write for a younger audience this time?

me and marvin gardensAmy: I still can’t tell, now that I’ve written two middle grade books, if I’m good at it. I have a 5th grader in my house (she’s mine—don’t worry) and something made me want to see the world from her point of view. And then once I got started, I realized that the book was a story I’d been meaning to write for a long long time—the story of what happened to my family’s land. So that was the inspiration that made me actually finish writing that book. But to see the world through my youngest daughter’s eyes reminded me of what it was like to be eleven. With an older sister, like she has and I had. With autonomy and space and also a big bummer surrounding the whole thing—the loss of my childhood, really. So yeah, a lot of things inspired that book.

Lindsay: As a writer and a mom, what is one thing you hope your own kids will take away from reading their mom’s books?

Amy: What do I hope they will get out of the books? The same as any other reader: what they need.

This mom question is always a weird question for me. I’ve always been super quiet about what I do. I don’t tell ANYONE that I’m a writer. I learned early on that people make massive assumptions about money (I do not make a lot of money—not at all) and about station (I do not see myself as better/smarter than anyone else) and I don’t want to have anything to do with either conversation. I write because I can’t NOT write. I do not have fame or fortune and I couldn’t feed myself if all I did was write. (This fact also confounds people who think they understand what I do—they think that this fact means I must be a really crappy writer.) I usually tell people I’m a teacher or a speaker—and rarely does anyone poke around those answers. I think my kids have learned this caginess-about-my-job from me.

So, onto the real question here: what do my kids think? Well, my eldest—a HS sophomore—doesn’t really tell people I’m a writer at all. Her friends figure it out eventually and if they’re fans, they freak out a bit and my kid stays cool and nods. She’s read some of my YA books and will not talk to me about them. My younger daughter has read my middle grade and she was really excited about it. She doesn’t hesitate to tell her teachers and peers that her mother is an author and her father is an English teacher. She has not yet realized that this will not magically make her a great speller, though.

Joking aside, I’m sure they are both proud of me—they say so—but I think they probably also quietly wish that I had a simpler job that requires less time in my office and on the road and more time with them. Maybe I’m projecting.

Lindsay: All right, Amy, it’s time for Flash Favorites. Take a deep breath and tell us your favorite….


-Irish pub fare Full Irish breakfast, please.

-Netflix binge I don’t do this. I can’t even work a TV. Drives my kids nuts.

-Place to read In everyone’s way. On the couch.

LooneyTunes-Type of shoe Barefoot or Boots.

-Cartoon as a kid Looney Tunes on Saturday mornings.

-Cookie Homemade chocolate chip with walnuts.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Amy!

Giveaway Details!!

A-S-King-The-Dust-of-100-DogsAmy is generously giving away a copy of THE DUST OF 100 DOGS to one lucky commenter! Comment before March 14, and be sure to visit Amy’s web site, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook!

About the book: From LA Times Book Prize and Printz Honor winner A.S. King–a witty, snarky tale of love and family, revenge and reincarnation, and pirates.
In the late seventeenth century, famed teenage pirate Emer Morrisey was on the cusp of escaping the pirate life with her one true love and unfathomable riches when she was slain and cursed with “the dust of one hundred dogs,” dooming her to one hundred lives as a dog before returning to a human body-with her memories intact.

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A Cafe Chat with Nonfiction Author Anthony D. Fredericks, by Lindsay Bandy

We have an exciting new monthly feature for you here at Eastern Penn Points! Award-winning author and educator Anthony Fredericks will be sharing wisdom and insights with us in a new monthly column called Navigating Nonfiction, so I invited him to the Cafe for a chat!


Anthony D. Fredericks grew up in southern California.  After college in Arizona and four years of service in the U.S. Coast Guard, he and his family moved to Pennsylvania where he obtained his M.Ed. and Ed.D. in reading education.  He then worked as a classroom teacher and reading specialist for many years.  In 1987, he became professor of education at York College of Pennsylvania.  For 30 years (he’s now retired), he taught undergraduate classes in reading education, elementary science education, children’s literature, elementary social studies; as well as several writing courses.  A popular and energetic visiting author at elementary schools throughout North America, he is also a dynamic keynote speaker at numerous writing conferences and conventions.

TonyHe’s a prolific author having published over 450 articles and 160 books.  His books include an eclectic array of adult nonfiction titles (e.g. The Secret Life of Clams) and more than 50 children’s books.  His children’s titles have won numerous awards, citations, and commendations.  When he’s not working at his computer, visiting schools, or leading writing workshops he can be found paddling his kayak on quiet lakes, camping in wild and wonderful places, or visiting his children (and grandchildren) in England and Colorado.  He lives with his wife Phyllis and a (slightly) rotund cat named “Tubby” in south-central Pennsylvania.  Please check out his web site at


Lindsay: Hi there, Tony, and welcome to the Eastern Penn Points Cafe! As we settle into our comfy booth, can we get you something to drink?

coffee-cup-2317201_1920Tony: I’m a registered writer!  That means I have to take my coffee via IV.  Let me just hook up my line to this giant coffee pot here and we’ll be ready to go.

Lindsay: Our custom coffee pot won’t let you down! You look hungry, too. Munchie?

Tony: Peanut butter.  Do you have anything with peanut butter?

Lindsay: Oh, we have a fabulous chocolate-peanut butter cheesecake coming your way! So, I noticed your shoes are a bit muddy. Have you been on an adventure lately? 

Tony: Actually, Lindsay, that’s sand you see clinging to my shoes.  I’ve been trekking across various beaches and shorelines to gather some on-site information for a new children’s book I’m working on.  The tentative title is “The Waves Washed Up All Around.”  It’s a story – a rendition of the well-known children’s song “And the Green Grass Grew All Around” – about the critters and creatures a child could find on a beach.  To do the necessary research I’ve had to trek up and down shorelines in Florida, Hawaii, California, and other beachy places (Oh, the trials and tribulations we writers must endure to craft a book!).  Hold on a second, and I’ll brush all this sand off the table.

Lindsay: Beach research? You must be exhausted. Next time, you should let me go to Hawaii for you–I promise, I take GREAT notes! I’ll endure it for the children…

Your writing really gets you around, as you’re quite the prolific writer, with over 150 titles published! As a former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and education professor, how do you choose your subject matter? 

Tony: Most often, my subject matter chooses me.  As an example, in June of 2015, my wife and I took a long-anticipated journey to Redwoods State and National Park in northern California.   We had planned a week-long sojourn in and amongst these towering and majestic arboreal behemoths.   We set out each morning for a new area of this expansive series of parks to walk the trails, take hundreds of photographs, and admire the vistas.   We were amazed by these titans – botanical kings soaring skyward in splendid groves tucked into verdant valleys and along sinuous trails.   It soon became evident to me that there was a children’s book waiting to be written about these magnificent organisms.

clip_image002[2].jpgUpon my return home, I began some serious research about redwoods.   In my travels through my local library and across the internet, I discovered a most amazing fact:   Until the late 1980s, redwoods were thought to be so tall that no animals could possibly live in their high branches.   It wasn’t until a small group of brave adventurers ascended these towering giants that a previously unexplored world of creatures was discovered.   There, more than 200 feet above the ground, were unique habitats for many animals typically found on the forest floor.  I was awed!

Thus was born the idea for Tall Tall Tree (2017).

Lindsay: That’s amazing! When my husband and I visited the redwood forest in 2008, we were amazed by how very quiet it was. I guess everything was pretty far above our heads! If only we’d gone for a climb…

How can writers without a teaching background be sure they’re creating materials that can be used in the classroom? 

Tony: Here are four strategies I often recommend:

Talking with your local librarian

shelf-159852_1280Whenever I do school visits, I always make a point to talk with the school librarian.  I ask her or him about the topics kids are interested in reading or the subjects for which there may be few books available.  I have discovered that school librarians have their fingers on the pulse of what kids read and what they are asking for.  Their knowledge of what kids like in concert with their knowledge of what is available is an incredible resource.  I have created two separate series of children’s books, both of which emanated from conversations I had with school librarians.  Contact the librarian at your child’s school and develop an ongoing conversation with her/him and you may find yourself with a plethora of potential story lines – any of which could develop into a popular and successful book.’

Talking with your child’s teacher

If you have children in school, one of your greatest resources will be your child’s classroom teacher.  Not only will that teacher be up to date on the books and literature kids gravitate towards, but she or he will also be aware of the different authors kids admire the most.  In your regular conversations with the teacher, make it a point to inquire about the reading materials and/or authors kids enjoy most.  What are kids talking about in class, what book characters do they admire most, what kinds of stories (mysteries, humor, nonfiction, etc.) stimulates their interests and consumes their time?

Talking with kids

read-316507_1280A very simple way of getting new ideas is to talk with kids.  Your kids, kids in the neighborhood, kids in your child’s class, or kids you see at the local playground are all potential sources of information for book topics.  If it’s a nice Saturday, I’ll take a book and visit a local park.  I’ll find a bench near a playground set and settle in to read for an hour or two.  But, I’ll listen carefully whenever any children swing on the swings, slide down the slides, or climb over the monkey bars.  What do they share with each other?  What do they say and how do they say it.  What vocabulary or colloquialisms do they use?  If I’m writing a lot of dialogue in my story, here is a good place to collect the terms, phrases, and sentences kids use most naturally.

Talking with other writers

What are some of the topics, issues, or challenges other writers are facing?  Staying in touch with your local writing community (via SCBWI) can offer you some unique insights and equally unique writing topics. I’ve discovered that a conversation with a fellow scribe can help me stay current on popular topics, but just as important, can also keep me in the loop on the subjects and themes that others are addressing in their writing and whether some of those ideas might be appropriate for my consideration as well.  Not only that, but regular conversations with other writers is both inspirational as well as incredibly supportive.

Lindsay: You do a lot of school visits, from elementary to college education classrooms, all with rave reviews! How do you effectively engage today’s kids with non-fiction texts during school visits?

thought-2123970_1920.jpgTony: One of the great pleasures of the writing life is the opportunity to travel around the country presenting writing workshops or visiting schools to share the joys of authorship.  I always enjoy responding to questions from the audience – whether they be young or old.  But, the query that got me thinking about the true craft of writing was the one posed by a woman in Portland, Oregon a few years ago.  She asked, “What is the one ingredient you try to include in all your books?”  After some thought I responded, “The most important feature for any book – fiction or nonfiction – is passion!”

Now, I’m not talking about our inherent passion for writing.  After all, if we didn’t have that we wouldn’t have a reason for sitting in front of a blank computer screen every morning (or even reading this blog).  The passion I’m talking about is the writing that engages the reader through personal connections, links with background knowledge, common experiences, and engaging emotional bonds.  Whether we write fiction or nonfiction, the factor that determines whether our writing will be embraced by readers is not necessarily the passion for the writing (focus on the writer), but rather the passion in the writing (focus on the reader).

While it’s certainly important for me to share my enthusiasm with readers, it’s even more important for my writing to engender enthusiasm within readers.  Whether I write a nonfiction book about trees or a fictional story about a devastating tsunami, the words must be chosen carefully and woven into a narrative that invites a connection between the reader and the material.  My excitement for the writing is immaterial if the reader isn’t given an opportunity to build a personal, reflective, and passionate bridge between what is read and what can be felt.

Too many authors define passion as a personal drive or incentive for writing.  That’s all well and good, but it’s a narrow definition.  Writing is not just about you.  It’s about respecting your readers, giving them an opportunity to become intimately connected with your characters or with your information.  It is a respect for their passion, for what drives them, for what “floats their boat.”  Just because you like to write, doesn’t mean that readers like to read what you scribe. If you can’t give them a passion for reading (a reader-centric approach to writing) your success may be quite limited.  To offer anything else is to deny your audience the joy of a personal connection and the opportunity of an impassioned response.

 Lindsay: What is the key to success as a children’s author?


Tony: Several years ago, I was conducting a Writer’s Workshop for a class of fourth graders in Pickerington, OH.  One of the students asked me the following question: “Have you ever wanted to revise any of your books after they have been published.”  It was a great question and I thought about it for a while.  I responded as follows: “Yes, all of them!”  He was both shocked and surprised, but I continued.  “You see, writing is always a process, never a product.  That is to say, every piece of writing can be improved – whether it is a first draft or a completely published book.  I would imagine that almost every writer with a book on the New York Times Best Seller List would agree that there are portions of their work that could be improved with some additional revisions – just like my books and what you are writing right now.” Here’s another way of thinking about it: Writing for children is never about creating a perfect book, but is always about creating a better piece of writing.

Lindsay: This makes me feel better! Every time I send something out, I’m always worried I could have changed just one more word – it’s good to know I’m in good company!

You’ve created a lot of literature for pre-service and first-year teachers, as well as materials for seasoned educators. What was it like for you, starting out as a classroom teacher, and how do you see the teaching environment changing over time?

teach-1968076_1920.jpgTony: As a new teacher in the early 70s I was scared!  I was terrified!  I was afraid that all the pedagogical stuff I had stuffed into my head in college was going to be worthless on that all-important first day of school.  And, I was almost right!

Since then, I have come to believe (and always tried to practice) that good teaching is not about how much you know, but rather by how much you care.  Good teachers don’t dispense lots of facts, figures, and data for students to memorize; rather, good teachers work hard to develop a partnership with students – a partnership that says, “We’re in this together; let’s work in tandem to ensure that what we can learn is based on a solid foundation of trust, confidence, sincerity, high expectations, and mutual respect.”  Good teaching is not telling students what they need to know, but rather it’s constructing and sustaining a shared learning experience.  In a word (actually two), good teaching is all about building relationships.

Although teachers today are faced with so many more challenges, distractions, technology, and social issues than I was when I began my teaching career almost 50 years ago, there is one constant that that always remains true.  It is a quote from noted educator William Purkey: “Effective teachers let students know that they are somebody, not some body.”  You know, in a way, that might also be a guiding statement for children’s authors (“Effective childrens’ authors let readers know that they are valued, not taken for granted.”).

Lindsay: When did you decide you wanted to write for children?

technology-3167297_1920.jpgTony: I was fortunate to attend schools where books and literature were prized.  Textbooks were frequently supplemented with required readings in the library, courses were enhanced with lists of supplemental books, and reading the “classics” during the summer months was strongly encouraged.  My elementary and high school years were filled with books and literature and opportunities to share them with classmates and teachers in a variety of ways.

When I became a reading specialist, I saw the value of surrounding my students (as I had been) with a plethora of reading materials.  Daily read-aloud sessions, bookshelves overflowing with paperback books, and frequent interactive experiences with quality literature had a profound effect on my remedial readers.  And so, I began to write teacher resource books to share with other educators the value and promise of a literature-rich elementary program.  Books such as Science Adventures with Children’s Literature, Nonfiction Readers Theatre for Beginning Readers, and Guided Reading in Grades K-2 extolled the virtues of a cornucopia of children’s literature woven throughout the entire curriculum.

Then, one day, one of my colleagues asked me a very simple question: “You write so many books about children’s literature [about 75 at that point], why don’t you actually write some children’s literature?”  (Well, “Duh!”, I said to myself).  Thus was born my passion!  And now, nearly 50 children’s books later (many, award-winning), the journey still continues!

Lindsay: Okay, Tony, it’s time to finish that last bite of cheesecake, take a deep breath, and prepare for Flash Favorites! Ready or not, here we go! Tell us your favorite….

hardy boysBook as a kid – I was an ardent fan of the Hardy Boys.  As a kid, my allowance was $1.00/week.  Every Saturday, I’d ride my bike down to the little bookstand at the Brentwood Country Mart (in west L.A.) and get a copy of the latest Hardy Boys mystery (yup, that’s when hardback books could be purchased for $1.00 each).  That night, I’d crawl under the covers with a flashlight and read the entire book.

alienFavorite childhood creature to tame as a pet – I loved the cheesy science fiction movies of the 50s – especially those featuring creatures from other worlds.  I was particularly fond of the alien monster in 20 Million Miles to Earth (whose inglorious death at the Coliseum in Rome was absolutely heartbreaking!).  I suppose those imaginary creatures (and their equally imaginary plots) were a creative backdrop to my future career as a children’s author.

Superhero as a child –Davy Crockett.  I even had the complete (and official) Davy Crockett outfit, including the coonskin cap (which, if I had kept it, would now be worthy about a gazillion dollars on Ebay).

Superhero as an adult – Kids!

luggage-1149289_1920.jpgVacation spot – Hawaii – not just for the tropical climate, long sandy beaches, or little umbrellas that always appear in my drinks; but, also for the unspoiled environment, amazing culture, diversity of geography, and natural warmth of the Hawaiian people.

Style of music –Classic rock and roll!  I’m a long-time fan of The Eagles, Credence Clearwater Revival, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, The Rolling Stones, & Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.


Midnight snack –Anything with peanut butter (Reese’s Peanut Butter cups, pretzels filled with peanut butter, peanut butter and bananas, peanut butter on a toasted English muffin, or just peanut butter straight out of the jar…Crunchy, of course!).


Thanks so much for joining us in the Cafe today, Tony! We’re looking forward to learning more about writing non-fiction for kids in your monthly column NAVIGATING NONFICTION here on Eastern Penn Points! We’ll stock up on the crunchy peanut butter – until then, Aye-Aye Captain!



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February Prize Winners!

What a great month it’s been! We had 872 unique visitors from 35 countries this February – and nearly 3,000 views. Congratulations to all or our contributors!

And congratulations to our winners! If you see your name below, you’ll be contacted with further instructions about claiming your prize! (Winners have been selected using a Random Number Generator.) Thank you all so much for participating by submitting, commenting, encouraging, and enjoying this month’s beautiful posts. We’ll do it again next year, but til then….

Drumroll please….


Laura Selinsky is the winner of FOR BREAKFAST I ATE A PEANUT CHEW!

Kristen Strocchia is the winner of a critique by Lindsay Bandy!

Nadine Poper is the winner of a print of DANCE AMONG PAINTED TREES by Charlie Eve Ryan!

MK Owen is the winner of a picture book critique by Charlie Eve Ryan!

Erik Ammon is the winner of Punny Valentines by Cynthia Oswald!


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