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.

08 Jan

“How do you get the information for all your nonfiction books?”

At a recent school visit, a student asked about my research process for my nonfiction books such as Whoosh! and Dazzle Ships: Where do I get all that information from?

There’s a lot to say about that, but here’s how I often get started.

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.

04 Sep

When boxes of bookmarks arrive, it must be school-visit season again

Lo and behold, look what showed up on Friday:

Just in time for the start of this year’s school visits, it was our first shipment of our newest two-sided, hers-and-his bookmarks, and I think they’re beautiful.

Jennifer and I will leave these bookmarks for the audiences at each campus where we give presentations, though some lucky students will receive bookmarks from before the publication of Jennifer’s Revenge of the Teacher’s Pets (this past June) and my own What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? (coming three weeks from today).

But those aren’t leftovers — they’re vintage!

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.

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!

20 Feb

Whoosh!, race, and “ALL students”


One day last month (it happened to be Inauguration Day), my friend Alia Jones posted this on Facebook:

Something interesting happened today. A school visited our store on a field trip & the teacher read a story to her class (4th graders?). She picked Whoosh! from our shelves. In the story, Lonnie takes his robot to a 1968 Science Fair at Univ. of Alabama “where only five years earlier, African American students hadn’t even been allowed.” You can feel the tension in the illustrations…Anyway, this teacher, on the fly, edited the book to “where only five years earlier ALL students hadn’t even been allowed.” I turned my head real quick!! She made a decision not to mention race. As she discussed the book with her students, she said Lonnie overcame a lot, but did NOT mention racism/segregation. She was white and her class was mostly white students. I just thought this was fascinating…

A couple of weeks later (it happened to be Groundhog Day), I followed up with Alia:

I have been thinking about your anecdote about Whoosh! at the bookstore for two weeks now — a sure sign that my brain needs to write something about it. Would you allow me to share your original Facebook post on my blog, and/or would you be willing to have a conversation with me via email that I could publish?

Alia said yes to both. What follows is our ensuing email conversation (lightly edited for clarity).

Chris: Thanks for being willing to give some more time/thought to that strange episode with Whoosh! in your store. My mind is still reeling. And I’ve got questions!

First off, do teachers often bring their students on field trips to the store? And did Whoosh! just seem to be a random selection on the teacher’s part?

Alia: No problem at all!

Field trips aren’t a regular thing at our store but when they happen, classes get a special story time.

The teacher decided to read a book while her students took bathroom breaks. 4th/5th graders maybe? I saw her walk over to our Non-Fiction/History bookshelf. I always display select books on top of the shelf and she picked Whoosh!

I think it was a random selection; she didn’t seem familiar with the story as she read it aloud.

Chris: So she got to the page in Whoosh! where the text alludes to the infamous — and historically well documented — episode in 1963 when Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door to try to prevent two Black students from entering the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. And this teacher spontaneously reworked the text so that, what — the governor of Alabama had been trying to keep any students from attending the state university?

Alia: Exactly. I don’t think she expected your book to have a “racial element” and when she got to the line:

“where only five years earlier, African American students hadn’t even been allowed,”

she made a quick decision to change it even though it makes no sense. Maybe she wasn’t expecting her impromptu story time to be a lesson on “race issues.” I think she made the story into what she needed it to be, one that didn’t mention racism/discrimination explicitly.

Chris: This makes no sense to me. I mean, none. Am I missing something?

Alia: I don’t think you’re missing anything. At first glance, your book doesn’t “look” like it will be historical; it just looks like a fun story about inventions and a guy with a water gun. She didn’t see it coming…

Chris: Did any of the kids ask about her nonsensical edit?

Alia: No they didn’t. She keep moving on with the story.

Chris: Were you tempted to say anything, or is this the sort of thing they cover in “The Customer Is Always Right” training for booksellers?

Alia: Oh yeah, I considered asking her why she did it as she walked by the counter on her way outside. I didn’t though…and got busy with something else.

After almost three years of bookselling/customer service, as a woman of color, I’ve learned to pick my battles. People often walk up to me and ask “Do you know a lot about the books here?” I’m starting to be more vocal about obvious bias/gatekeepers shutting down diverse books. Respectful…but more honest.

Chris: “Respectful…but more honest.” I like that.

My discussion of race and racism with student audiences has been much more blunt with regard to The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, since race and racism are central to the story that book tells of his life, both before and during Reconstruction. And they’re central to the echoes of that era found in Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement on up through voter-restriction laws enacted in America in the past few years. I talk about all of that when I talk about John Roy Lynch.

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and Whoosh!, both illustrated by Don Tate

Alia: Yeah. In The Amazing Age, racism in the story is more “obvious,” so I doubt this teacher would’ve picked it up to begin with.

The cover of The Amazing Age tells the audience right away that “This is historical and therefore, IT MIGHT INVOLVE RACISM.” What people do with that visual information is their choice. Whoosh!‘s cover is deceptive when it comes race; a contemporary setting with rockets & water guns. It’s always interesting to see how people interact with covers…Will they pick up the book or walk away? If it has a brown person on the cover, it’s more likely they’ll walk away..BUT I’ve noticed that kids are more open-minded than adults.

Chris: In considering how the teacher in your store avoided the issues of race and racism, I see an opportunity to engage with them all the more — honestly, and with respect for my audience — when I share Whoosh! with students. I can pause at the science fair page, and take a moment to talk a little about George Wallace and that particular episode that occurred in Lonnie Johnson’s home state when he was around the same age as the students I’m talking to. [Note to Bartography readers: I did this for the first time last Wednesday, showing a few photographs from that June 1963 day that ended with Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled as students at the University of Alabama. The second- through fifth-grade students I was presenting to seemed to handle that additional historical context just fine.]

So, I’ve got to thank you, Alia, for bringing that episode in your store to my attention. And I guess I’ve got to thank that teacher, too — her avoidance of any talk of race or racism is going to have the unintended effect of putting it front and center for a lot of other readers.

Alia: Oh good! I’m glad to hear that! Touching on that more will stress just how much Lonnie had to overcome. Kids of color in the audience, especially, might understand how he felt not being welcome in a white space (even after desegregation). I wonder what his experience was like at NASA. Hidden Figures has me thinking about POC [people of color] experiences there! :)

Thanks for having this discussion with me. Rarely do I get to talk about my bookstore experiences in such a thoughtful and detailed way! :)

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.”