07 Jun

An animated look at what’s inside a Super Soaker

Here’s a fascinating, captivating, three-minute stop-motion video composed of more than 4,000 individual photos of a vintage Super Soaker 100. It’s a must-see for anyone who loved Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (written by me, illustrated by Don Tate, and published by Charlesbridge):

The creator of the video says:

This thing is almost entirely plastic and most parts are permanently glued together. Those features make it very hard to actually restore, but slightly easier to repair. … I am “pumped” this works again…

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.

20 Aug

Don Tate and me, together again!

Well, in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman, anyway.

Don and I don’t have a third book together, but we do both have new books, and our home city’s daily newspaper featured them both, along with several other new titles.

And Don and I both have events coming up in Austin.

Next Sunday, August 27, Don will be launching Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man On Earth at 3 p.m. at the University of Texas’ Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports.

Then, at BookPeople at 6:30 p.m. on September 7, I’ll be reading from and signing Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion.

We’re both hoping for a strong showing, and we’ll each do our best to dazzle our audience. (Sorry.)

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.

28 Mar

“What happened to John Roy’s brother?”

I get that question a lot after talking with students about — and reading to them — The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch. And I guess I should have anticipated that question, considering that William figures prominently in the book’s first few pages, not only in my text but also in Don Tate’s art:

But the answer I’ve had for that question must be as unsatisfying as they come: “I don’t know.”

A slightly more elaborate answer would be, “I never did learn much, and it’s been long ago enough since I researched this book that I’ve had time to forget a lot of things I knew.” Which, let’s face it, isn’t any more satisfying to a kid with a burning — and, at least to them, obvious — question.

So, I’ve dug back into some of my research materials, and here’s what I can tell you about William Lynch.

John Roy Lynch’s autobiography, Reminiscences of an Active Life, mentions William by name only three times.

After his father’s death, John Roy Lynch recounts an initial conversation between his mother, Catherine, and the family’s new owner, Alfred Vidal Davis, at Tacony Plantation. In that conversation, Davis tells Catherine, “Upon my return I shall have you and your children live with me and my family — you to be one of our housemaids and your oldest boy, William, to be a dining-room servant, and the other boy, John, I shall take for my own valet.”

In Natchez after the family’s emancipation, John Roy writes, “My brother had secured employment at army headquarters, as an attendant upon General W. Q. Gresham, the general in command of the Union troops there at that time. … My mother was an excellent cook and in that capacity she frequently earned a good sum of money in the course of a month, but the employment was not continuous and permanent, hence the income from that source was uncertain and doubtful. It was absolutely necessary, therefore, that my brother and I should do something to assist in meeting the expense of the home.”

The other reference is in historian John Hope Franklin’s introduction to the book, when discussing John Roy Lynch’s real-estate transactions in the Natchez area between 1869 and 1905: “Lynch’s brother, William, was involved in some of the transactions and perhaps served as his attorney and business manager.” A footnote explains further, “In several of the transactions William Lynch is the grantor, the ‘agent and attorney’ for John R. Lynch, or the plantation lessor.”

I don’t see a US Census record for William Lynch after this one from 1880, in which he was listed as an unmarried, 36-year-old planter in Natchez.

But if I were going to research The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch all over again, knowing how curious many readers are about William Lynch, I would want to know how far his trail extends beyond 1880. My first step would be to spend some time with those property purchase and sale records. And for that, I would start with the office of the chancery clerk in Adams County, Mississippi.

If any student projects result from that tip, I’d love to hear what they find.