Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Humor AND Story

I am certain I've complained pointed out here before that I find that a lot of so-called humorous children's books just aren't. They are written as if kids are from another culture and this is their humor. Of course, it's not actually going to be anything adult culture would recognize as funny. The jokes are forced. They aren't integrated into the story. Sometimes there isn't much of a story to begin with.

In I'm An Alien and I Want to Go Home Jo Franklin does a much better job with both humor and humor that's integrated into story. This is one of those  child outsider stories, in this case taken to an extreme. And, yet, for an "alien" story, it is very grounded in reality. The resolution here is one that makes sense and is reached in a logical way.

The book has many illustrations by Marty Kelley. With both subject matter, humor, and packaging, this could be a fun read for younger children.

 I saw Marty Kelly at a NESCBWI event a number of years ago, about, I believe, author appearances at schools. He does a lot of those.

Interesting factoid. Kelley is an American writer located here in New England. Franklin is British. I had a British cover artist for the hardcover edition of one of my books, so I shouldn't be all "They're from different countries!" about that situation. Nonetheless, I am.

Children's publishing is probably a small world. 

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Time Management Tuesday: An Ultralearning Case Study, Principle 4 Drills

In this section of our Ultralearning read author Scott Young is talking about using drills to attack your weakest point. I didn't foresee this being useful for writers or for researching a concept like history, versus skills like language, coding, or woodworking. (Someone's doing that at our house.) However, he starts with another long case study, this one about Benjamin Franklin, how writing had a big impact on many things he did, and how he consciously worked to improve it as a young person.

The idea that "one component of a complex skill determines your overall level of performance" is the reasoning behind using drills. Don't spread your energy over all the skills needed for the task until you've got this one down. That will make the learning faster in the long run.

Our Case Study: My feeling is that I need to get the history issue down and that will make things fall into place for the plot of the project I'm working on. So you could say history is the skill I need to drill. However, it isn't a skill, it's a knowledge base, and I'm struggling with coming up with a way to drill history. Especially since Young says drills should "simplify a skill enough that you can focus your cognitive resources on a single aspect." (Did my high school math and French teachers know that?)

Young's strategy behind drills: Determine the weakest step in what you need to do, analyze it, and deliberately practice it. It should be something  that "governs the overall competence you have with that skill, by improving  it you will improve faster than if you try to practice every aspect of the skill at once."

Our Case Study: History is the weak step in my writing project, so I have been analyzing it and collecting material to learn about it. Maybe drill ideas will come up after I get to that.

Drills for ultralearners shouldn't be as mind-numbing as they are in traditional education because we have identified what we need to know, ourselves. "...carefully designed drills elicit creativity and imagination as you strive to solve a more complex learning challenge by breaking it into specific parts."

Our Case Study: That last part sounds wonderful. I'm just not seeing how I can come up with drills around learning methodologies for studying history.

I'm not even halfway through this book. Other projects and holidays have put this on a back burner. I'm also feeling that the time I'm using reading this thing could be better used reading the materials I've collected on my subject and looking for more. 

Saturday, November 30, 2019

This Is The Only Way You're Going To Spend Any Time At The Connecticut Childen's Book Fair This Year

I've been obsessing about the Connecticut Children's Book Fair this month, because there wasn't one. This is the second time in four years the Fair has been cancelled. It is also the second time this has happened since a new bookstore took over running it. Before that time the Fair was an annual event at the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs for twenty-four years. Hmm.

I've a reputation for being relentlessly optimistic. Annoyingly so, I've been told. I have to admit, this doesn't bode well to me.

Should the Fair disappear, it will be a big loss to the Connecticut children's literature community. This thing brought nationally recognized writers and illustrators into the state. Yes, Storrs is somewhat remote. Nonetheless, many years ago I was told the Fair attracted a couple of thousand people over its weekend. Plus, the eastern part of Connecticut where Storrs is located is the part where people like Meryl Streep don't live. Not many New York City folks have second homes there. This number of children's literature professionals don't show up in that part of the state in a forty-eight hour period, because there aren't towns large enough to support the kinds of bookstores that can bring them in. Actually, I'm not aware of them showing up in those numbers in any part of Connecticut.

Oh, and this is a free event.

Additionally, in the past, the Fair was a fundraiser for UConn's Northeast Children's Literature Collection, the largest children's literature archive in the northeastern United States. I don't know if that's still the case. The Fair website is vague on that subject.

So as part of my obsession with this issue, I've spent the month tweeting links to all my Original Content posts about my visits to the Fair. Following is a round-up of them, so you can enjoy connecting with all these authors with me. If the Fair disappears without a whimper next year, we will have had one last hurrah.


Some Of Those Who Were There  With Susan Hood, Sandra Horning, and Brenna Burns Yu

Steve Light

Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson

Janet Lawler


Alan Katz

Brian Floca

Sandra Horning 

Jane Sutcliffe


My One Hour Tour with Tui T. Sutherland, Jonathan Bean, Aaron Becker, Ann M. Martin, David Johnson, Phoebe Stone


Good Times with Pegi Deitz Shea, P.W. Catanese, Leslea Newman, Mark Tyler Nobleman, Janet Lawler, and me. I ate dinner at a table next to Lois Lowry, by the way.


Suzanne Collins

1999 or so

My first time presenting at the Fair. I think it was 1999. At any rate, it was was pre-Original Content, so no posts about the experience. I know Jean Craighead George and Wendell Minor were there. I heard Minor speak and stood in line forever to have one of George's books signed for my niece.

Earlier Yet!

I attended the Fair even earlier with one of my sons. This was in the days when it was held in a different part of campus and you could walk to the Dairy Barn for ice cream. Which we did. We bought a signed book, too.

I also visited a year when James Howe was there. Whenever that was. Someone else has the signed book I bought then.

Friday, November 29, 2019

December Connecticut Children's Literature Calendar

We're expecting a calm childlit December in Connecticut.

Sun., Dec. 1, Jessica Bayliss, Barnes & Noble, Milford 9:00 AM

Sat., Dec. 7, Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo, River Bend Bookshop, Glastonbury 10:30 AM

Wed., Dec. 11, Todd Harrington, Barrett Bookstore, Darien 6:30 PM

Wed., Dec. 11, Jessica Bayliss, Barnes & Noble, Milford 3:00 PM

Sat., Dec. 14, Jessica Bayliss, Barnes & Noble, Milford 9:00 AM

Sat., Dec. 21, Greg Wolf, Storyteller's Cottage, Simsbury 1:00 PM

Sunday, November 24, 2019

An Illness Memoir For Kids

Guts, by Raina Telgemeier, is a graphic memoir that deals with the author's childhood experience with anxiety and what she describes in a back note as digestive problems. Yes, that second part is a subject that in kids' books could lead to a lot of distasteful humor. It doesn't here. Guts does what the best illness memoirs do. It has a mystery/thriller aspect. What is wrong with Raina? How much worse will things get for her? What is she going to do?

I can't say enough about how great It hink it is that memoirs are being written and published for middle grade readers. When my children were that age, all they read in school was novels. Which was fine, but that's not what they were learning to write. They were learning to write essays. They were often asked to write from their life experiences. But they never read examples of essays or anyone else writing of their life experience.

Guts would have been a great read for them, engaging and a mentorish text.

Friday, November 22, 2019

"Saving The Planet & Stuff" News

Gyldendal Undervisning, my favorite Norwegian publisher, and I have just renewed our agreement for it to use some material from Saving the Planet & Stuff in one of its textbooks for teaching English. For the second time since 2016. That's always a lovely surprise when that happens.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Time Management Tuesday: An Ultralearning Case Study, Principle 3 Direction

Today I continue with my study of Ultralearning by Scott Young, which I am trying to use to learn historical material for a character in a new fiction project. I have now reached Principle 3 of ultralearning, directness

What We Mean By Directness Here

          Young says:
  • "Directness is the idea of learning being tied closely to the situation or context you want to use it in."                  
  • "Directness is the hallmark of most ultralearning projects." 
  • "...the learning activities are always done with a connection to the context in which the skills learned will eventually be used."
Our Case Study: I've been focusing on collecting material to study (read) about Franco American history, my character's interest area. However, the aspect of what he knows that's going to impact the plot is his knowledge of metalearning--how to learn history. In terms of directness, I should be collected materials related to that.

You have to be careful to keep the directness issue in mind, because it's easy to fall into easier learning strategies, like watching videos of lectures instead of doing problems or, in my case, reading about Franco American experiences instead of the nitty gritty research skills that my character will actually need. Today I'm wondering if the Franco American business is necessary at all.



This was pretty interesting. Transference occurs when learning something in one situation, like high school, can be transferred to another, say, college or real life.  Young says a lot of research indicates that not much of this happens with traditional education, and that that has been known for over a century. (Google "transfer of learning." It's a thing.)

Transfer happens all the time but not in organized, instructional ways. Young argues that transfer doesn't occur through traditional educational situations because formal learning is so indirect.

Our Case Study (and for all writers): Determine what I actually need and focus directly on that. Research can become a real rabbit hole for writers, in which we burn off a lot of time studying up on a subject and very little of what we've learned gets transferred to the page. It happens to me a lot.

Tactics For Direct Learning

Young describes four, but I'm only including the two that I think are best for our purposes. By which I mean, of course, my purposes.

1. Project-based learning. If you build your project around learning how to produce something, you ought to learn how to produce that thing, at least. Studying in general can give you a lot of background information that may not transfer to that one thing you want to produce.

A project for an intellectual topic might be a thesis paper. This does apply the general learning to the topic of the thesis, but sounds a lot like traditional learning to me.

Our Case Study: Planning to use my research in some kind of article/essay, rather than a thesis paper, in addition to the fiction I'm doing the research for, might be a way to make my learning project-based. Using the same research for more than one form of writing is not an unusual writing plan.

2.  Immersive Learning. Surround yourself with a "target environment" in which the skill is practiced. This exposes you to situations in which the skill applies. Joining communities of people who are engaged in the same learning can have a similar impact. It encourages constant exposure.

Our Case Study: I started following #history and #historicalresearch on Twitter, with two Tweetdeck columns dedicated to these hashtags so I can find new info tweeted quickly. Not so helpful yet. I also am following historians who I think might tweet about the kinds of historical research that could be useful to me. I tried to join a couple of historical Facebook groups, one of which appears to have rejected me. (I'm in with the other one.) The rejecting group was academic and you had to give some information about yourself to convince them you were one of them. My undergraduate minor in history did not do the trick, nor were they moved by my interest in historical research for fiction. But, ha-ha on them, because this is still info for this blog post!

I also didn't take down the group's name and now can't find it on Facebook, which either illustrates an issue I have with doing research or indicates they are hiding from me. And may have been correct to pass on my request to join them.

What Has Reading This Book Done For You, Gail?

  1. Well, so far I've learned about metalearning, (Principle 1), and how it applies to what I'm doing. I've actually used the term in the first chapter of the project I'm working on. 
  2. Then I've focused on what I actually need to learn, (Principle 2) and collected material for my study. In fact, I've done that a couple of times, because I changed my mind about what I should be focusing on. This is the kind of thing I would have done anyway. Though I've also been known to do mini-researches as I'm going along in a project and questions come up. My hope is that more organized research will mean I don't do that.
  3. This week I've been working on tying my research/learning to my project. I have to say, I find this kind of iffy. Directness seems as if it could have been tied in with focus. One mega principle instead of 2. But I probably wouldn't have joined that history Facebook group (the one that would have me) and following historians on Twitter (which is like putting a positive spin on stalking) without the reading I did in Ultralearning.

Yes, this does seem to be moving along slowly. I am working on a big submission issue this month as well as short-form work. I am not being focused and direct with this particular project.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Old Lady Whispering, "Hush."

I had a get-together last weekend with a couple of littlies and, as we tend to do when we have a get-together, we did some reading.

Stretch by Doreen Cronin and Scott Menchin is a good book for listeners who like to be involved in a story, since they can do some acting out.

Where's the Elephant ? by Barroux is another involvement book. In fact, it's all involvement and no text. "Listeners" look for an elephant, parrot, and snake in two-page spreads, each one including a jungle that becomes smaller and smaller as human development around it becomes greater and
greater. I  brought this book for a two-year-old, but it was a bigger hit with her seven-year-old brother who has always liked picture searches. He did notice the shrinking greenery, but we didn't get an opportunity to discuss it's significance. Maybe noticing it once is a beginning to an understanding of that situation.

We didn't get a chance to all read This is My Fort by Drew Daywalt with illustrations by Olivier Tallec. I liked it, though. It's a clever spin on exclusionary kid clubs.

Then it was naptime, and someone directed me to the rocking chair in her room with the three books next to it. One of them was a Good Night Moon board book. You know the score on this one. Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. We read it twice. I may have mentioned here before that I've never really understood this book or its significance. I'm aware that Brown was part of some educational program that was expressed in her writing, but I don't know what it was.

I have to say, though, that after having read this book aloud for so many years, I enjoy the sound of it. I fall into a tone, a rhythm. A whisper. A hush.

I read an essay or short story a day, and somewhere I read an essay that mentioned the old lady whispering hush. It wasn't very much. I wonder about her.

Goodnight Moon is the book I'm sure I'll remember of the four we read on Sunday. That moment, reading it with that little girl. Whispering, "Hush."

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Time Management Tuesday: An Ultralearning Case Study, Principle 2, Focus

At the beginning of his discussion of Principle 2, Focus in Ultralearning, Scott Young begins with another case study. This one is about Mary Somerville, an eighteenth century wunderkind in math and languages who did a lot of self-teaching because she lived in the eighteenth century and who wanted anything to do with educating a woman back then? I'm not that fond of other people's case studies, especially when they involve people who make me feel like a slacker.

But here is the important point in Young's material on Somerville: Putting aside the whole eighteenth century issues, she was dealing with a life that many writers deal with today...childcare, maintaining a home, and living within a network of friends and family. Young says of her and her situation: "I'm more interested in the kind of focus that Somerville seemed to possess. How can one in an environment such as hers, with constant distractions, little social support, and continuous obligations, manage to focus long enough not only to learn an impressive breadth of subjects, but to suchdepths that the French mathematician Simeon Poisson once remarked that 'there were not twenty men in France who could read [her] book'?"

Well, Young says that people face three "struggles with focus": starting, sustaining, and optimizing quality of focus.


Failing to Start Focusing (Procrastination)

Oh, wow. If there's one thing we know about here at Original Content, it's procrastination. So I'm just going to jump to what Young says we can do about it.
  • A lot of procrastination is unconscious. Try to recognize that you're actually procrastinating and not doing marketing for writing that hasn't been produced yet or networking again and again and again. Make recognizing procrastination a priority.
  • Give yourself a short period of time in which you have to work on a new task. Most of what we don't want to do with a task won't take all that long. Forcing ourselves to work for five, ten, fifteen minutes could be enough time to actually get us into the project and over the worst of the part we were putting off. The Swiss Cheese Method of time management!
  • You can then progress to the unit system or segmented time program. Break your worktime into units during which you have to work. You get a break between units. This is a classic time management technique.
  • Use a calendar to plan when you have units of time you can use to get started. I recalled recently that when I restarted writing after having children, I worked forty-five minutes, four evenings a week. That's how I wrote my second published short story. 
  • If you find that you're procrastinating on using the units of time you've charted out on your calendar, go back to the beginning and work for five minutes, then give yourself a break. Begin again. That's kind of a zenny thing, I believe.
Our Case Study: My particular learning project involves coming up with the historical, or historical process, knowledge a character in a book I'm working on must have in order to be able to have an impact on the not completed plot I'm working on. Need was a big part of getting me started. I felt I couldn't proceed with the overall writing project until I'd acquired this knowledge. Also, knowing that I want to continue with the overall project because I want to bring material to my writers' group each month is a motivator in getting started on the learning project. Accountability.

Failing To Sustain Focus (Distraction)

First off, a couple of things we've discussed here before:

  • Maybe you won't be studying in flow, according to Young:  Working in flow is a type of concentration that involves achieving a state of effortlessness, even enjoyment, with your work. It happens with writing, on occasion, anyway. You're not distracted. You're maybe not thinking a whole lot. Work is just sort of flowing because, particularly with writing, you know so much about what you're doing. Young says that may not happen with ultralearning. Learning, particularly if you're learning a skill like a new language or coding with specific goals, requires deliberate practice and feedback. Maybe too much thinking?
  • Studying in units of time: Young says researchers have found that people retain more new information if they're working in multiple periods of time rather than one long one. That is similar to the research that shows that efficiency in workers declines after a few hours. The really positive angle with this information is that with both studying and writing you can make progress using small chunks of time. You don't have to give up because you don't have days to commit to the program.
Okay, now, the three reasons we struggle to sustain focus while learning (or probably doing anything else):

Your Environment as Distraction: Phones. Internet. TV. Writers know these are issues, and even methods of fleeing from the stress of working. (We just did the stress book for Time Management Tuesday, remember?) Young says, though, that many people don't realize these things are distracting them, just as they don't realize they procrastinate. He suggests we be aware of our working environment and test what works best for us.

Your Environment Related To Our Case Study: Sadly, Young doesn't mention children and sick family members as environmental distractions. Personally, I have found that far more difficult to work with than phones, Internet, and TV, which are relatively easy fixes. Perhaps he covers that elsewhere in the book.

Your Task as Distraction: Certain activities, or learning tools, are more difficult to focus on than others. For instance, are you using videos, podcasts, or books as learning tools? Some are easier to focus upon than others.

An interesting point Young makes is that some tasks are less cognitively demanding than others. I would think that would mean they are easier to focus on, but Young says, no, they can be harder to stay focused upon, because the more difficult tasks are harder to do on autopilot. Autopilot is when you're more likely to become distracted by other things.

This probably explains why I gave up listening to podcasts years ago.

Your Task Related To Our Case Study: I still have to come up with my learning tools. Clearly I need to do some thinking/planning on this point.

Your Mind as Distraction: What Young is talking about here is unrelated worries and problems. Upcoming appointments...holidays...your day job...the meals you have to plan and then find time to cook every day for the rest of your life. Young's suggestion for dealing with this will sound familiar if you've ever tried meditation: Recognize these random thoughts and then bring your mind back to the task at hand. He quotes a meditation teacher from a mindfulness research center who says learning to let a thought come, recognize it, and let it go can instead of trying to suppress it can actually diminish it.

Your Mind Related To Our Case Study: I wasn't too impressed with this aspect of the book when I first read it yesterday. However, it does reinforce something Kelly McGonigal writes about in The Will Power Instinct, which is that having to bring a wandering mind back to the breath over and over again while meditating can develop the brain and impact impulse control. I just have to remember to do the catch-and-release thing while trying to focus.

Failing To Optimize Focus

I have to admit, I had problems with this section. Essentially, it sounds as if different tasks require different levels of focus, intense or more relaxed. It also sounds as if Young is talking about no focus breakout experiences for some creative tasks.

Our Case Study: I didn't come away with any new ideas from this.

My overall impression of the Focus section of Ultralearning: This section will be a lot more helpful if you know nothing about time management. If you do, there's not a lot of new information and what there is is subtle.

Friday, November 08, 2019

This Will Make You Think Twice About Going To The Mall. If You Aren't Already.

I've seen No Safety in Numbers by Dayna Lorentz described as The Hunger Games in a Mall, which I don't think is very accurate. No one is being entertained by what is going on. I've slaso seen it described as "apocalyptic." Nope. The best description I've come across is from the publisher. "A suspenseful survival story and modern day Lord of the Flies set in a mall that looks like yours."


A number of high school students, the same borderline cliche types you might see in a book with a high school setting, happen to go to the mall on the same day, at the same time. Unfortunately, it's a day and a time when a biological weapon is activated there. One of those kinds of biological weapons we hear about that causes people to get sick fast. The place is locked down. Use your imagination.

This is a good mash-up of traditional YA novel and adult thriller. There is no reason why this situation screams for YA characters. They could just as easily be adults. However, these teenagers really are teenagers, not adult characters passing as teenagers as I sometimes see in YA and adult thriller crossovers. Meaning this really is a YA book.

Though this is a first in a trilogy, I didn't feel I was being led on and teased with a nonending. The book was satisfying. Also, the book is from 2012. The rest of the series has been published, so you can binge.

A good example of why you should keep your eye out for older books you missed when they were shiny and new.