27 Feb

Thank you (again!), Pennsylvania school librarians


Earlier this month, my nonfiction picture book Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion (Millbrook Press/Lerner Publishing), illustrated by Victo Ngai, was named to the Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Awards Program Master List for Grades 3-6 for 2019-2020.

All by itself, that was great news, and immediately I was tremendously thankful for the efforts of the PYCRA committee and for the award’s sponsor, the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

And then I thought, “PYCRA — that sounds familiar. Wasn’t Whoosh! on one of those lists?”

I did a little digging, and sure enough, it was. Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge), illustrated by Don Tate, was on the 2017-2018 PYCRA Master List for Grades 3-6.

But that’s not all I found when I searched my own website for references to the Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Award.

It had slipped my mind that both The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors (Charlesbridge), illustrated by Tony Persiani, and Shark vs. Train (Little, Brown), illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, were on PYCRA Master Lists (in two different categories) in 2011-2012. Shark vs. Train, in fact, had been the Kindergarten-Grade 3 winner that year.

I felt like a dope for those honors having slipped my mind, though I’d certainly appreciated them at the time. I’m going to chalk that memory lapse up to the fact that my knowledge and understanding of the children’s literature world have grown continually during the 18-plus years I’ve been pursuing this work, and that one aspect that it took me a while to grasp was the significance of state awards such as the PYRCA.

I fully appreciate now just how vital state award lists are for getting new books in front of young readers and their librarians. And that appreciation is multiplied by four for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.

20 Feb

Coming soon to Mobile, AL: the Lonnie G. Johnson Educational Complex

Don Tate’s depiction in Whoosh! of Lonnie and his Williamson High teammates at a 1968 science fair


Lonnie Johnson, the subject of my book Whoosh! (illustrated by Don Tate and published by Charlesbridge), went home to Mobile, Alabama, recently for quite a special occasion.

Lonnie’s alma mater, Williamson High School, is getting a $4 million addition that will include a science center. And it’s going to be called the Lonnie G. Johnson Educational Complex.

On hand for the groundbreaking was Lonnie’s high school science teacher Walter Ward. Of all the quotes in the article about the new learning center and Williamson’s new robotics team, this one from Lonnie stands out:

Having teachers who care is the most important thing you can have for a child. We think it’s just words, but it’s more than words. When you see greatness, they will live up to your expectations. If you have faith in children and believe in them, they will believe in themselves.

13 Nov

¡Fushhh!

A year ago this week, after some pondering on my part, I asked an editor of mine about the possibility of getting one of my picture books translated into Spanish.

It turned out to be more than possible: Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions is coming out next spring as ¡Fushhh! El chorro de inventos súper húmedos de Lonnie Johnson.

Even better, we’ve just found out that it’s a Junior Library Guild selection.

Next time I wonder to myself whether a Spanish version is worth bringing up to my editor, you can bet I’ll be keeping this in mind — and then asking aloud.

06 Jul

Thank you, readers in Utah and Washington!

I love getting mail. Getting mail was one of my very favorite things when I was a kid. Even today, when the ratio of Exciting Things in the Mail to Not-At-All-Exciting Things in the Mail is completely lopsided in a way that other adults can surely relate to, I remain hopeful each day that something good will arrive.

A few weeks ago (and three out-of-town trips ago, hence my delay in posting this), a package arrived from the Children’s Literature Association of Utah
that definitely fell under the Exciting Things in the Mail category:

The plaque contained in that package informed me that Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge), written by me and illustrated by Don Tate, is the 2018 winner of the Beehive Book Award for informational books.

The informational Beehive recognizes books appropriate for readers (and voters!) from grades 3 through 9. I think that speaks to how well picture book nonfiction can provide valuable information to readers commonly thought to have “outgrown” picture books.

But that wasn’t the only good news for Whoosh!

Washington State readers between grades 2 and 6 voted for Whoosh! as the winner of the 2018 Towner Award for informational books. The sponsoring Washington Library Association did a thorough, generous job creating curriculum tie-ins for each of the year’s ten nominees. You can see their work here. And educators in Washington also chose Whoosh! for, appropriately enough, their Educators’ Choice award.

What’s more, Whoosh! has been named to:

Putting together state lists such as these — and encouraging the reading of the books on such lists — is one of the most crucial ways that librarians and literacy professionals get new books onto the minds and into the hands of young readers. A lot of hard, thoughtful work is involved, and I appreciate every bit of it. Thank you all.

24 Jan

Q&A and giveaway for Write to Me


The Q&A for the January edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Cynthia Grady and illustrator Amiko Hirao, creators of the new nonfiction picture book Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind (Charlesbridge).

Write to Me is a true — and all-too-relevant — account of the correspondence between California librarian Clara Breed and the young patrons who were displaced when their families were imprisoned during World War II. The book immediately brought to my mind the recent rise in the United States of openly expressed xenophobia and the dubious constitutionality of government actions that have been taken in that spirit.

A starred review from Booklist notes that, “The personal story … is full of warmth emanating from Hirao’s radiant, softly shaded color-pencil artwork, from Miss Breed’s relationship with the children, and from the actual quotes from their notes, appearing on small postcards superimposed on the illustrations. A beautiful picture book for sharing and discussing with older children as well as the primary audience.”

I’m giving away one copy of Write to Me. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Cynthia Grady and Amiko Hirao.

Chris: Write to Me feels especially timely, but I know that this book has been in the works for a long while. What can you each tell me about your interest in and history with this story — and about your dedication to getting it told and getting it right?

Cynthia: I first learned of Clara Breed — and the children she served in her San Diego library — in 2002. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles had created a video documentary about her, and I had read an intriguing review of it.

There is a long and rich history of librarians as advocates for intellectual freedom and social justice, and as effective agents of change. I strongly believe in literature’s ability to dissolve the socially constructed barriers [that some people] are so intent on creating. I wanted to learn more about this Clara Breed.

I was a new middle school librarian in Washington, DC, at the time. I scoured the local public library catalogs, the university libraries, and finally California libraries. I couldn’t find any books written about this amazing woman at all, though I did find a book she had written and a few magazine and newspaper articles by her.

So, I took the advice to heart that many established writers and editors give at conferences: “Write the book that you want to read.”

I had lived most of my life in California and was very familiar with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, but I had never heard of Clara Breed. I spent the next three years researching the war and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and I finally spent a week in Los Angeles, reading the letters that the children and teens from San Diego had written to their librarian during the three and half years they were imprisoned.

As I finished my first draft of the manuscript in 2005, I emailed a former library professor to tell her what I was working on, and she said, “You have to read this book!” She had in her hands an advanced copy of a book called Dear Miss Breed, written by Joanne Oppenheim. A detailed, fascinating book for older readers about Clara Breed, the children she knew, and the propaganda of World War II.

I was devastated.

But I thought there was still a place for the same story to be told for a younger audience. I sent my manuscript out to many, many publishers over the years and finally sold it in 2015 to Charlesbridge. It took ten years. Then another year of revisions with my editor, which was most rewarding. During those ten years I kept writing. I published numerous poems and essays, and two books before Write to Me made its entrance.

I’m so pleased with the work Amiko has done to bring the story to visual life, and I’m glad Write to Me is finally here. But yes, it is indeed, timely.

Amiko: Thank you so much for the interest in this book. And to Cynthia, I really enjoyed reading your story and it was a great honor to have taken part in this project.

I was struck by the simplicity of Cynthia’s manuscript when I first read it. The story is a great way to communicate what happened in that particular time and place, and to tell the story of this outstanding lady, Ms. Clara Breed.

It is very interesting to read about the librarians in America. I have personal memories of growing up in [Japan and the United States] and going to elementary school in both nations — and the very cozy libraries in the American schools really struck me.

The very enthusiastic librarians had every trick to get us interested in this book or that. In the Japanese school there was no librarian. Just books (and some attendee to sign books in and out).

I do have an interest in World War II history, but as the narrative of war is so vast and complex I do not think it is possible to hope for history to be told in the “right” way.

The postcards seem to show the right way to approach that issue — to observe, and to live the time through real voices.

Cynthia’s restrained prose does great justice to the story of Ms. Clara Breed and to telling the story of World War II.

(I can only hope I was able to match that even halfway…)

Chris: Were either of you letter-writers when you were the age of the children in Write to Me — and if so, is there a particular correspondent or recipient of your childhood letters that comes to mind?

Amiko: I was not much of a letter writer but I did make drawings to correspond with friends in Japan and US every time I moved to each country.

That was actually what surprised me about the letters — that they had only handwriting — and I thought perhaps people were more formal then.

So in a way working on the drawings to go with these letters did feel like a natural thing for me to be working on. I wondered about if the kids wanted to draw on these cards, too.

But in retrospect I probably still wrote many more physical letters than if I was in the same situation as a child today, with email available.

Cynthia: I remember writing letters to my grandmother when I was quite young. This is my earliest memory of writing at all. I have a few of those letters that she had kept and that my mother had given to me some years later. They are hilarious! In one, I thought I was writing to her in cursive, and it is just row after row of loops! Why she kept that one is a mystery. :)

Sometimes my grandmother put a dollar bill in her letters to me, which seemed like a tremendous amount of money then. And she often gave me stationery for my birthday, which made letter writing even more fun. My mom followed in that tradition — in a way — not with stationery, but with postage stamps. Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, we found stamps in our stockings.

I still love to write letters, but don’t do it as much as I wish, and I love to receive them, too. Such a novelty anymore, as Amiko mentioned, with email and everything else.

09 Aug

A video playlist, an educator’s guide, and a new honor for Whoosh!

Last week I received the news that Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions was a finalist for the 2016 Writers’ League of Texas Book Awards.

The WLT announced winners and finalists for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, middle grade/young adult, and picture book, with that latter category won by my friend Donna Janell Bowman’s terrific Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness.

I’m honored to be in such good company, and I appreciate all the effort that went into coming up with those short lists, considering all the writing talent that my home state has to offer.

There’s more good news for Whoosh! enthusiasts. The book’s publisher, Charlesbridge, has put together this downloadable discussion and activity guide, which I hope will come in handy in many libraries and classrooms this school year.

And here’s a little something more for fans of the Super Soaker as well as of the scientist who invented it: a Lonnie Johnson video playlist.

15 Mar

WHOOSH! keeps on going

From Whoosh!, illustrated by Don Tate

Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions has been treated kindly by list-makers lately, and I’m beyond grateful. Thank you to all who have shown and shared your appreciation for this book.

It’s high time I mirrored that appreciation by rounding up some of that good news in one place — especially since the first two of the lists I’m about to share are up for a public vote.

Bank Street College of Education
The Cook Prize (Best Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM] picture book) – 2017 Finalist

Every Child a Reader
2017 Children’s Choice Book Awards, 3rd-4th Grade Book of the Year – Finalist

A school or library can register here to vote for the Cook Prize, and kids can vote here for the Children’s Choice Book Awards.

Association for Library Service to Children
Notable Children’s Books 2017 (Non-Fiction) – Nominee

The Children’s Book Council and the National Council for the Social Studies
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2017

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center
CCBC Choices 2017

Maine Association of School Libraries
The Chickadee Award, The Maine Children’s Choice Picture Book Award – 2017-2018 Nominee

Maryland Association of School Librarians
2017-2018 Black-Eyed Susan Book Award (Picture Book, Grades 4-6) – Nominee

Maryland Library Association, Children’s Services Division
2017 Maryland Blue Crab Young Reader Award, Transitional Non-Fiction – Winner

Pennsylvania School Librarians Association
2017 – 2018 Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Awards Program Master List, Grades 3-6

Texas Institute of Letters
Denton Record Chronicle Award for Best Children’s Picture Book – 2017 Finalist

Vermont Center for the Book/Mother Goose Programs and the Vermont Department of Libraries
2017-2018 Red Clover Award (Vermont’s Picture Book Award For Children in Grades K-4) – Nominee

I guess I should specify that when I say “lately,” I mean in the past three months. So, if you’re still getting caught up on “Best of the Year” lists from the end of 2016, you’ve come to the right place. Or at least an understanding one.

Nerdy Book Club
The 2016 Nerdies: Nonfiction Picture Book Winners

The Nonfiction Detectives
The Best Nonfiction Books of 2016

Denver Public Library
Best & Brightest Biographies of 2016

Betsy Bird was especially prolific with the list-making over at A Fuse #8 Production, where she spotlighted her favorite books of 2016 in different categories each day in December, including Science and Nature Books for Kids and Nonfiction Picture Books before capping it all off with:

A Fuse #8 Production
100 Magnificent Children’s Books 2016

Whoosh! was also included in Booklist Online’s Classroom Connections: Overlooked Inventors and Their Notable Inventions, Pernille Ripp’s My Favorite Picture Books of 2016, Colours of Us’ 40 Best Multicultural Picture Books of 2016, Here Wee Read’s 55 of the Best Diverse Picture and Board Books of 2016, Daydream Reader’s My Top 16 Books in 2016, and Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook’s Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday – My 2016 Favorites

If you or a young reader you know is still craving more information about the inventor of the Super Soaker, this new Q&A with Lonnie Johnson conducted by Forbes is one of the best I’ve seen.

And if you still want more, might I recommend these brief videos in which Don Tate and I discuss how we made Whoosh! and answer other questions posed to us by the Texas Bluebonnet Award committee. We hope you enjoy ’em!

15 Dec

A year-end blast of happy Whoosh! news

How Don Tate and I feel when people say nice things about Whoosh!

How Don Tate and I feel when people say nice things about Whoosh!

The end of the year is list-making time — a fact driven home to me each time I come across yet another Top 10 of 2016’s best music that has heretofore eluded my ears. (I’m trying to get caught up, but would certainly welcome your music suggestions in the comments.)

The past few weeks have brought lots of children’s-book lists of various sorts, and it’s been a happy reminder of how much top-quality work is being done by people in this field. It’s been especially nice to see Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (written by me, illustrated by Don Tate, and published by Charlesbridge) mentioned here and there.

Below, I’ve rounded up a few instances that have come to my attention. Thank you to all who have taken the time to evaluate and spread the word about the year’s offerings in children’s literature. The rest of you, please follow those links and find some books you think someone would love to receive from you, OK?

The New York Public Library’s list 2016 picks for the Best Books for Kids includes Whoosh!

The Chicago Public Library has included Whoosh! in its list of the Best Informational Books for Younger Readers of 2016.

Kirkus ReviewsBest Informational Picture Books of 2016 lists Whoosh! among its picks.

The Horn Book leads off its list of Recommended Picture Books: Picture Book Biographies — a companion to its recent article “What Makes a Good Picture Book?” — with Whoosh!

Kid Lit Frenzy and Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook have included Whoosh! among the 2016 informational titles under consideration for their Mock Sibert units.

The National Science Teachers Association and a few other organizations (the American Society for Engineering Education, the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, the Society of Elementary Presidential Awardees, and the Children’s Book Council) have created an inaugural list of the year’s Best STEM Books, and Whoosh! is among them.

Whoosh! is also among the titles included in Booklist’s Core Collection: Picture-Book Biographies of Scientists.

Finally, Whoosh! is included in the Publishers Weekly ShelfTalker blog’s Joyful Diversity Collection, “an initial list of wonderful nonfiction picture books to introduce children to … accomplished, but often less well known, individuals.”

02 Nov

Parents magazine calls Whoosh! the year’s best nonfiction picture book

Whoosh!Big news this week from a magazine read by millions of parents: Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge) has been named the best Nonfiction Picture Book of 2016 by Parents magazine.

I’m so glad that my second collaboration with Don Tate has been honored in this way, especially considering the wealth of top-notch nonfiction picture books published this year. (For instance, check out the nonfiction titles named by Publishers Weekly as being among the best picture books of 2016.) My understanding is that Parents asked librarians and other experts in the literary field to nominate children’s books published this year, and the magazine then ran those books past actual kids, and it was those child readers who came up with Whoosh! and the winners in other categories.

Maybe the newsstand edition of the magazine will have more details about the process, because I’m curious about how pretty much everything in this business works, but regardless I’m pleased and proud and grateful. Thank you, Parents — and thanks, kids.