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.
He’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 www.anthonydfredericks.com.
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?
Tony: 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.
Upon 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
Whenever 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
A 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?
Tony: 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?
Tony: 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?
Tony: 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….
Book 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.
Favorite 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!
Vacation 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!
What a great interview! Thanks for asking such great questions, Lindsay. And thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Tony. You have given me a lot to think about.