En Route to BookExpo

This morning I was talking to a colleague who said, “I’ll be at BookExpo the rest of the week so we can follow up on this after I–” At which point I cut her off with a semi-squealy “Me too!”

Because indeed, friends, I will be attending BookExpo America (BEA) in New York City this week. If you’re wondering, “Amy, how come you get to go to the largest annual trade book fair in the country?” the answer is this: I happened to have the privilege of editing Auma’s Long Run, a powerful forthcoming middle-grade novel that will be featured on the show’s Middle Grade Book Buzz editor and author panels. I’ll be riding the coattails of this scrappy little-book-that-could all the way to the Javits Center.

This is the story of 13-year-old Auma, a hardworking student and gifted runner  who can’t outrun the devastation
of a new disease–AIDS–that’s ravaging her small Kenyan village in the 1980s.

I have SO MANY things to say about Auma’s Long Run. (But I’m saving them for the panel, which will be at 11:00 a.m. in room Room 1E 12/13/14. Eucabeth will be at the author panel on the Uptown Stage at 2:00 p.m. She’ll also be signing free ARCs from 1:00-1:30 p.m. at table 6 in the author signing area.)

Meanwhile this is my to-do list:

  • Frantically eat large portions of salad that I foolishly made over the weekend and that will not survive until my return this Saturday.
  • Practice speech for Editors’ Buzz Panel (11 a.m. on Friday).
  • Print boarding pass because I am 200 years old and having my boarding pass on my phone stresses me out.
  • Get excited to finally meet author Eucabeth Odhiambo in person!
  • Review lists of galleys and catalogs I’m supposed to grab for colleagues.
  • Wonder why I put so many carrots in this salad. Dutifully consume them as fuel for the approaching adventure!

Elements of Excellent Science Books

The Case of Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle

By Carol Hinz, Editorial Director of Millbrook Press

I want to talk a little about what makes an excellent science book for children. I could probably say even more on the subject, but I’d like to at least put some ideas out there.

A key point of reference is Melissa Stewart’s December 2015 blog post about Diversity in Thinking. In it, Melissa looks at data from some key awards and delves into what kinds of nonfiction books are more likely to win awards. In short, books that focus on life stories (biography, autobiography, and memoir) and history win far more awards than do books that focus on science.

Why Focus on Science Books?

I would like to propose that one reason is that excellence in a science book might look a bit different than excellence in other types of books. Today I thought I’d share a list of key elements* I look for when I’m acquiring and editing books on science topics.

Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved An Ecosystem by Patricia Newman
Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved An Ecosystem by Patricia Newman

Structure

Again, I’m compelled to mention Melissa Stewart–she has written a lot on her blog (and elsewhere) about the variety of nonfiction text types. I enjoy working on books with different kinds of structures, and I always want to see a structure that works well with the topic of the book. A look at how a scientist made a new discovery, such as in the book Sea Otter Heroes, may be best served by a chronological narrative so that readers can follow along as the story unfolds. Meanwhile, a science book that explores what types of teeth mammals have, such as in the book Tooth by Tooth, could be most engaging when presented with a Q&A format.

Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers by Sara Levine, illustrated by Spookytooth
Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers by Sara Levine, illustrated by Spookytooth

CLARITY

Scientific ideas can be complex. Young readers (and even adult readers) need to clearly understand the scientific concepts related to the topic at hand. When a concept–whether introducing what atoms are or explaining how an ecosystem works–is explained well, a reader may hardly notice it. The reader simply takes in the information and continues. But this is anything but simple; it takes tremendous skill to present a complex topic clearly! Science writing may be a bit pared down when compared to the writing in novels, which may involve more description. But I would argue that this style perfectly serves the subject matter and is in no way inherently “lesser” writing.

The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery, a science book for grades 4-6
The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle

SIGNIFICANCE

As I read nonfiction submissions, I often ask myself “why does this matter?” Readers (or writers) well versed in science may know why a topic is significant or how it relates to other concepts or discoveries to help us build a body of knowledge about how the world works, but I also want to be sure readers who aren’t well versed in science know why a topic matters. I remember talking with Sandra Markle while she was working on the science book The Case of the Vanishing Little Brown Bats about why the deaths of bats from white-nose syndrome is significant and what it would mean for our world if there were fewer bats.

The Search for Olinguito: Discovering A New Species, a science book for grades 3-6
The Search for Olinguito: Discovering A New Species by Sandra Markle

SCIENTIFIC THINKING

What should a reader get out of a book on a scientific topic? Of course I want the reader to come away with an understanding of the topic. But I also hope the reader will absorb a sense of how science works or how scientists think. In the book The Search for Olinguito, readers learn facts about what an olinguito is and where it lives, but they can also get a sense of the importance of publishing one’s findings. (There’s a fascinating moment when the scientist working on establishing that the olinguito is a distinct species submits a paper for publication . . . and it’s rejected.)

When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses, a science book for grades 4-8
When Lunch Fights Back: Wickedly Clever Animal Defenses by Rebecca L. Johnson

SOURCES

All information is not equal. Are the author’s sources newspaper and magazine articles or do they also include scientific papers and interviews with relevant scientists? In working on Rebecca L. Johnson’s When Lunch Fights Back, I was delighted that Rebecca was able to connect with scientists studying each animal profiled in the book and give readers a sense of what scientists are currently trying to learn about the animals–as well as what they already know.

I’d welcome comments, feedback, and questions. How do you approach science books? What do you look for? What do you think makes a book excellent?

*I would call this list the 5 S’s were it not for the fact that one of them starts with C. Whoops!

Summer scares

Are you starting to plan your summer camping trips? You probably have your tent, your sleeping bags, your cooler, your water bottles…but wait!

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What about the campfire? Yes, yes, you have your wood and your matches and your marshmallows. That’s all well and good. But do you have your scary stories? You know, your dragons, your witches, your zombies? Oh, you haven’t packed those yet? Well, here, let me help you.

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Available in library bound or ebook. But watch out! Who knows what’s really making that noise in the woods?!

Solving the Middle-Grade Mystery

Greg Hunter, Associate Editorial Director
A couple of weeks ago, C.M. Surrisi, author of this spring’s hilarious, suspenseful middle-grade whodunit Vampires on the Run: A Quinnie Boyd Mystery, asked me what I thought made the middle-grade mystery novel unique. I probably responded with more verbiage than needed, but here’s a crack at the answer:
Much of what we think of as the mystery genre is scaffolding. And that’s no bad thing—where would we be without scaffolding? On the ground, many of us, after falling from some high place because there weren’t enough foot planks or supportive rails in our area.
In the case of a mystery, I’m talking about what readers want and expect from a mystery, the things that make a story recognizable as part of a larger tradition. The setup, the emergence of suspects, the red herring, the dramatic final reveal. Part of the pleasure in reading these stories is proceeding along a track we recognize.
Then, of course, there’s the other part. The characters, the color, and the details of a crime that make a story feel novel, new, even generous—and that speak to a particular audience. Roses and tomatoes both grow along a trellis, but only one says romance. And scaffolding matters, but it doesn’t determine what you grow.
The middle-grade mystery distinguishes itself here, in the other part. While a hard-boiled detective might be set in his or her whiskey-soaked ways after years of disillusion, the lead character in a middle-grade mystery comes to us in a transitional state—old enough to bristle at being dismissed as a kid, but not old enough to even drive, much less open an agency or be haunted by unsolved cases from years gone by. The mystery can be, among other things, a glimpse of (or an early entrée into) adulthood. And a middle-grade mystery puts meaningful limitations on its crime-solver. The Continental Op tends to go where he wants. Hercule Poirot even gets invited most of the time. But although the middle-grade sleuth may not like it, he or she often still has a curfew.
The careful writer of middle-grade mysteries observes these limitations and recognizes them for what they are: opportunities. Additional ways for a character to show his or her resourcefulness, and for a story to lend readers insight into a particular stage of life. In a way, the age of the middle-grade mystery’s characters and audience makes for scaffolding within scaffolding, a narrower-than-usual set of parameters for the storyteller, but again, that’s no bad thing. It all depends on how you want your garden to grow.
Any other thoughts on what makes middle-grade mysteries stand out? Share them with us in the comments! And be sure to check out Vampires on the Run for an example of the MG mystery at its finest.

A Shout-out to Strong Young Women

By Alix Reid, Editorial Director of Carolrhoda Lab

Recently I listened to a Fresh Air podcast in which Terry Gross interviewed Peggy Orenstein about her new book Girls and Sex. In one of the segments, Peggy quoted a teenager who said that girls were considered either “prudes” or “sluts.” This spring I had the great pleasure of publishing four very different books written by women which all featured strong female characters. All four books show girls who transcend these either/or labels and debunk other conventional and limiting stereotypes of femininity. Each book spoke to me individually when I acquired it and each also speaks to the others, and I feel like we’re all in conversation with each other about what it means to be strong and female.

Here are the books:

Pointe, Claw by Amber J. Keyser: Jessie is killing her body to become what the world thinks a professional ballerina should look like. Her best friend Dawn is having fugue states, is obsessed with a caged bear, and is close to being institutionalized by her mother, even though she is sure she is evolving into some kind of wild creature which defies definition. Together the two friends break all the boundaries of what it means to be feminine, and embrace the wildness in themselves.


Splinter by Sasha Dawn: Sami’s mother disappeared when she was six. Everyone thinks her father had something to do with it, but Sami’s sure he’s innocent. But now, ten years later, new evidence comes to light. The police want Sami to face up to the facts but Sami won’t listen. She’s determined to figure out what really happened to her mother…no matter what that truth might be.




Camp So-and-So by Mary McCoy: Twenty-five girls show up at a summer camp that promises to be everything a perfect camp should be. But from the first, things start to go disastrously wrong and the girls find they’re trapped in a story of someone else’s own devising. They have to set aside their many differences and band together to figure out what’s going on, and save themselves before it’s too late. In so doing, they discover truths about themselves they didn’t know, and learn the strength to be found in the bonds of friendship.


What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold: When Nina is fourteen, her mother tells her that there is no such thing as unconditional love. This warps Nina’s understanding of what girls are good for, and at seventeen, she’s willing to do anything emotionally and sexually to keep her boyfriend. He leaves her anyway, and it takes all of Nina’s will and determination, including facing up to some ugly truths about herself, to realize how wrong her mother’s advice was, and that what girls are made of is more than the sum of their sexual parts and abilities.