Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Carolyn DeCristofano is in the house!

At my celebratory book launch lunch. 
Double yikes.

 The talented author, Carolyn DeCristofano, is in the house today to talk about her amazing new nonfiction book for children, A Black Hole is NOT a Hole (illustrated by Michael Carroll) and her writing process.

This fascinating book has garnered oodles of rave reviews, including a starred review from Booklist:

"...this book will snatch readers from their orbits and fling them into a lasting fascination with nature's most attractive phenomena."

And a starred review from Kirkus:

"Stargazers will be entranced, and even those not especially attuned to matters celestial will come away feeling smarter, awestruck and with a sense of finally understanding this fascinating, other-worldly phenomenon. An excellent resource. Hole-y astronomy!"

So, let's get started!

Carolyn, you have a real gift for making science understandable to those of us who aren't science-oriented. But you also make reading science such a pleasure with your lovely language. Can you tell us a bit about that writing process?

Thank you, Barbara! It’s an honor to hear you use “lovely” to describe my writing!

I am still learning what my writing process is like; here’s what I know so far.

When I have extended periods for writing—which is rare—my process involves a lot of napping and fridge check-ins. You never know when the contents of the fridge are going to spontaneously move around on you. Gotta’ keep your eye on that hummus (or ice cream in the freezer).

An early draft. From this verse, only the first line made it to publication.
 Thank goodness!  
When I am actually writing, my process is like playing with a ball of clay. I pick it up, not necessarily having a well-defined object in mind. Then I smoosh and twist and generally play around with the ideas. I’m experimental. Even when I know exactly what a passage has to do, I’ll try several different approaches.

I know a few people who would need to have a lot of research under their belts before starting, but I often begin just writing. In this phase, I don’t let facts – or possible mistakes – get in my way. If I’m not sure I understand a concept, then I write what my best understanding is.

This approach feels like cheating. However, it is good for me. It has led me to some new insights about the ideas in my books. I think that this early writing also helps establish my voice in the work, and it focuses my research.

After I draft a section of text, I go back and rework it—many, many times. I crave feedback during this stage. At this point, I am completely disciplined. I can spend a whole day on a few sentences. This is when I get picky about facts.

When we weren’t modeling for glamor shots, these gals and I (front, age 8) embarked on a writing project together – a mystery story set in a boarding school. We never finished, but projects like these cemented my interest in reading and writing. 

Can you give an example of a time when writing about a concept before you were sure you understood it led you to new insights?

When I was writing A Black Hole is NOT a Hole and started to tackle Einstein’s theory of relativity, I realized for the first time that Einstein had fundamentally redefined what gravity is. Up until the time when I wrote that section, I thought of Einstein as the guy responsible for telling us about weird time and space effects, but I didn’t really get how all of this was connected to gravity. Having this “Aha” moment allowed me to connect some important dots for readers, hopefully helping them have their own “Aha” moments.

I love the analogies that you use to help young readers understand various scientific concepts. Will you share some examples of that from A Black Hole is Not a Hole?

“A black hole is like a whirlpool”—but not exactly one—is an analogy that appears early in the book. I began with the idea of a tornado, but I realized that tornadoes move around a lot, seem to strike more or less randomly, and do a lot of damage. That’s exactly the opposite of the point I needed to make. My goal for this book was to create an exciting read that avoided the scary imagery that is so often used to describe black holes.

Luckily, the tornado analogy led me to the whirlpool analogy. I like the whirlpool because I think just about every reader has seen water swirl down a drain. It’s immediate and non-threatening. Even Mr. Rogers let us know you can never go down the drain. (To help keep this a “safe” image, the analogy is developed from the perspective of water-loving fish—thanks to fellow writers’ group member Kimberly Marcus. Kim suggested this brilliant idea after I nearly drowned a duck in my first draft!)

One of my favorite analogies is not as extended. I like it because I wanted to be very specific in my description of what happens when a star goes supernova—which is important to understanding how some black holes form. I needed an image that people could really relate to: “The (star) material rebounds like an ocean wave slamming against a rock cliff.” At first I hesitated to use this, because many possible readers live far from the ocean. In the end, I decided that in our video-drenched world, chances are good that the image is at least somewhat familiar.

The target audience for A Black Hole… is readers aged 9-14. Here I am at 14 (left).

Which do you think is most critical in conveying information to young readers: the text, the illustrations, the sidebars, or all of the above?

It’s all important—but the text and illustrations are most critical. Every reader needs to find a point of connection, and depending on the day or the person’s learning style or the topic, different elements will serve that role. I didn’t always appreciate that.

Of course, each element, including captions, provides something unique. The sidebars allow for depth and sometimes some extra fun without interrupting the flow of the main storyline. Captions sometimes provide important information. Illustrations bring clarity, emotion, and tone to the ideas in the text. But without the text, the ideas in the illustrations would be incomplete or perhaps ambiguous when, as science illustrations, they should be targeted toward a specific meaning.

Something else I’ve come to appreciate: For the whole piece to work and provide accurate information that really resonates for the reader, all of the elements have to be tuned to the same key.

Can say more about what you mean?

Sure. In one illustration (in A Black Hole is NOT a Hole), a boy is on his way into a black hole. In the text, I’m encouraging readers to take this trip as a thought experiment, realizing that traveling to a black hole is not possible in the foreseeable future.

Mike (Michael Carroll, illustrator) could have chosen to depict an astronaut in full gear. However, for this book, that would not have worked very well. Astronauts in gear are faceless, cold…detached. The astronaut image lends too much realism.

Mike painted this boy as a kid would look on any given day. The reader can identify with the scene and yet see it as fantasy. Any kid can run a thought experiment, and doing so is part of the fun of science and black holes. The illustration conveys that message well.

The overall design is also perfect (--in my opinion; I had nothing to do with it). So often, space books are illustrated in dark colors. A Black Hole… is bright and energetic, thanks to Sue Sherman (the book’s designer) and Mike. There are many colors, beautiful images, generous white space, informal sketches, sassy speech bubbles, and fun sidebars set against a punch of yellow. They signal that the book is energetic, fun, and accessible.

You are also a science educator. How does that work with your writing?

There is a constant competition for time, but each effort benefits from the other. Three years ago, I co-founded Blue Heron STEM Education, an educational consulting company, thinking that this would give me more flexibility than a regular job, thereby supporting my writing life. I was wrong and right. I am busier than ever, but on the other hand, I have flexibility. I enjoy teaching STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—and it helps me stay in touch with learners and readers of all ages. Also, two different education jobs led to the opportunities to write my first two books. So, in the balance, I guess it works!

Black hole earrings that I designed and made for author visits. 
(The shiny metal circles represent X-ray rings around black holes.)

 In your bio on the book flap, it says that you first wrote about science in eighth grade in a note to a classmate: “P.S. Science is S-O-O-O-O-O boring.” What’s the scoop on that?

Oh, that year I really did not enjoy science at all. It was Earth Science. I had to do a science fair project and procrastinated so long that all I could come up with was growing mold, and I even had to borrow some from another classmate! Thank you, Cindy Smith! Anyway, if I remember correctly, someone told the teacher that I was the author of that note, which my teacher had seen when he peered over my friend’s shoulder while she was reading it. He was so great about the situation. He caught me at a quiet moment and complimented me in general. Then he said that science would eventually click for me. He was right. Ironically, the first really big click was about geology, when I learned about how the rocks where I lived showed evidence of two different continents having been crammed together millions of years ago.

What bad writing habit annoys your copy editor the most?

I get hung up on tenses-- especially with if/then language, which is common in science. Sometimes the situation gets pretty convoluted. I might need to convey the past thoughts of a scientist, who was thinking hypothetically while making a prediction. At other times, the reasoning might be happening in the present, as I take readers through a thought process that reflects current ideas. The subjunctive tense comes in sometimes, but not always. I just cannot seem to figure out how to construct these phrases and sentences.

Are there any other bad writing habits that you struggle with?

Yup! As anyone in my writers’ group or Alyssa (Alyssa Mito Pusey, my editor) will tell you, I tend to write the same idea in a lot of different ways, putting a slight twist on each version. Usually, I do this to “explain”—or, as it turns out, over-explain—an idea. I appear not to trust the reader when I write like that, but really, the problem is that I don’t always trust myself to get it right the first (or fourth) time.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Carolyn!

Bye, Barbara. Thanks so much for letting me visit!


Learn more about Carolyn in this interview with Kirkus.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It's a Book! (Almost)

Just received first pass galleys for On the Road to Mr. Mineo's.

 One step closer!

Coming October 2012 from Macmillan/FSG/Foster

Vote for the Undead!

Now's your chance to vote for which book will come back from the dead in School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids' Books.

Here's how it works: the book with the highest number of votes gets a second chance in the final judging. (Like going to Redemption Island, if you watch Survivor, which probably nobody does but me.)

Book stairs!

These are cool!

Thanks to this site for the pic.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Black Hole is Not a Hole

Look what I got!

A Black Hole is Not a Hole

A brilliant new nonfiction book by my pal, Carolyn DeCristofano.
You've never read such lovely science.

 Getting lots of buzz and sparkly starred reviews.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How cool is this

Finally Finally Finally


I've been about to bust a gut keeping this secret.

I have a feeling the Battle Commanders heard me bouncing around the back room with my hands clamped over my mouth and figured they'd better spill the beans before I do.

I love, love, love this battle.

But NOW I have to STILL keep a secret.

I can't tell you which books I judged.


Can't do it.

Not even for money (well, you can always make me an offer).....or Spicy Thai Potato Chips....or cases of Cafe Francais Instant Coffee.

Things I Love Thursday

This little needlepoint sign made by my husband's grandmother.
It's used to indicate when the fireplace flue is open or shut.


Monday, February 20, 2012

On the Road to Mr. Mineo's

My Fall 2012 novel, On the Road to Mr. Mineo's in Publishers Weekly Sneak Preview (Macmillan/FSG/Foster)

I love kids

From a fan, in a school report:

In my opinion, Barbara O'Connor is an imaginative author with a style a lot of people love. If you want to know more, go research her, and millions of things will pop up all about her.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Things I Love Thursday

I love garden ornaments.

 But my favorite is this one given to me by my BFF, Leslie Davis Guccione.

It's the only one that I leave in my garden all year long......

I do so in memory of my dear friend, Joe Guccione.

Here's to you, Joe.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Where have I been.....

....that I never knew about this awesome site!!!!

I sent one of my books out into the wild today for somebody's Valentine's gift.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Augusta Scattergood is in the house!

Today I'm delighted that Augusta Scattergood stopped by to answer some questions about her terrific new middle grade novel, Glory Be.

AND she didn't come empty-handed. She's got a signed copy of Glory Be to give away to one lucky winner.

Leave your name and email in the comments for a chance to win. (Or email it to me, if you prefer,  barbaraoconnor at mac dot com) Names will be chosen in a drawing.

Being a Southerner myself, I love reading "Southern books." What do you think makes a book "Southern" besides setting?

I believe a lot of Southerness comes from a sense of timelessness—some might say old-timey-ness— in our writing. That plus a whole lot of tarnations, dangs, and the use of the helping verb was: I was walking, I was listening, etc.
My fabulous editor cautioned me not to go overboard with the hokey expressions (of course, she said it nicely, and obviously didn’t use that expression but I got the message): too much pimento cheese, the languorous descriptions of mimosa trees, clouds, hot dusty roads. So I worried I might edit all of the “Southern” out of it. But the book takes place in about two weeks, and I also understood the need to speed up the action while conveying the feeling of summer in the South. 
I think the setting is primary, especially in making a kids’ book “Southern.” But it’s also the language, obviously. And even the characters’ names! I mean, would Brother Joe, Old Lady Simpson, J.T., and even Hanging Moss fit into a book set anywhere other than the South?

I know that like most authors, you've put bits and pieces of your real life into your story. Can you give us an example of how you've tweaked one of those real life bits to fictionalize it?

I’ll share the story of my Junk Poker box. That Buster Brown shoebox is a prevailing image in GLORY BE. The two sisters’ boxes contain treasures —if you call skate keys, Crackerjack prizes, and Elvis’s wallpaper treasures — that help young readers know them better. And then Jesslyn up and dumps out all her junk, which says a lot about their changing relationship.
When we were little, my sister and I sneaked around during our forced afternoon naps and created a game that was basically Black Jack, played with saved pieces of junk. We called it Junk Poker. I remember a lot about that game, even if my sister does not. I’m older. I get to embellish that story.
The Junk Poker Buster Brown box

Food is important to Southerners. What sorts of food did you use in Glory Be? Any reason for those particular foods?

Oh, don’t even get me started. Of course, Glory’s maid/ cook/ caregiver Emma cooks when she’s mad, when the family entertains, when she’s asked to provide a delicacy for an event. She made chicken spaghetti (one of the few things my mother knew how to cook) and Red Velvet cake when the Yankee Laura came to supper. Glory thought the spaghetti might appeal to a non-Southerner. Emma fixed a picnic basket for the big July 4th celebration and a peach pie while worrying about Glory and Jesslyn getting in trouble. Bacon and hot biscuits for breakfast, sweet tea— all foods I love and remember from my childhood.

Any Southern expressions that you had to explain to your editor or copy editor?

Pure D. They had no clue what that meant.
And I wrote/say bald-faced lie, which they thought should be bold-faced. I won that battle.
We went back and forth about “couldn’t hardly spit.” To my ear, it just didn’t sound right any other way. Certainly not “could hardly spit.”
And then there’s the whole ice/iced tea and screen/ screened door thing.

What's one thing you fought to keep in your story (a character, plot line, theme, etc)?
Elvis almost left the building!
I had to fight a little to save a scene about Jesslyn and her boyfriend sneaking off to Tupelo with Glory hiding in the back of the station wagon. On our first editorial pass, my editor wondered if it contributed to the forward push of the story (that whole action-taking-place-in-a-short-time thing). But since she was just wondering and we were brainstorming together, I knew I had an opportunity to cling to Elvis on this one. When I told her my own personal story of actually visiting his little house in Tupelo, owning a plaster-of-Paris statue when I was Glory’s age, and a few other embarrassing Elvis moments, we agreed he needed to stay.
I think a serious story for kids is best told with an element of humor infused. Plus, Elvis provided one more thing that helped Glory realize she was growing away from her older sister. That whole Beatles vs. Elvis thing.  So Elvis made the final cut.
Elvis has NOT left the building!

It's always fun to hear where other writers do their work. Tell us about your workspace.

I do my best work at a local community college that shares space with a public library. Big windows, mostly quiet, and very sketchy internet. I get there early and try to grab a study room. I reward myself with a walk on the trail afterwards where I think about what I just wrote/ revised/ messed up and put back together. Working at home has way too many distractions.
On the way to the library
Bougainvillea:  Just one of the many things I see on the trail around the campus when I walk. Or when I amble and think...
Note how neat the desk at the library is.
That stickie on my computer says "What's the page turn????"!!!!

Thanks so much, Augusta for stopping by!

And don't forget, y'all....leave your name and email in the comments (or email it to me, if you prefer) to be entered into a drawing for a signed copy of Glory Be.

Winner to be announced on Monday 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Win a signed copy of Glory Be

Tomorrow's the day!

Augusta Scattergood will be here talking about her new book, Glory Be.

Come visit Augusta and enter the drawing to win a signed copy.

Things I Love Thursday

This little heart pin given to me by my husband a million trillion years ago (before he was even my husband):

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Can you write like a fifth grader?

A fifth grader's opening paragraph from a biography of his father:

His hands felt numb as he strummed the strings harder and harder until he got the right tune, a soft hum to match the best of the music that flowed from the shiny black stereo next to him. 

He looked at the notes on the fading piece of paper and began the song, his friend Kevin stomping to the beat and clapping for him.

Ever since Tom O. was born, on November 9, 1967, he had loved to play guitar.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Three more days...

....until the interview with Augusta Scattergood and a chance to win a signed copy of Glory Be.

Stop by this Friday.

My little book....How to Steal a Dog...

....sometimes makes a difference. 

Received this from a 4th grade teacher:

This story touches the true lives of many of our migrant students who live the life of being transient and impoverished. 

What a wonderful story to teach them about their moral compass and challenges they face every day.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Well, Glory Be....'s free!

On Friday!

Augusta Scattergood, author of Glory Be, will be in the house here at Greetings from Nowhere this Friday with a fun and informative interview.

Come on by and visit us. Then leave your name and email in a comment for a chance to win a signed copy of Glory Be.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Things I Love Thursday

This old key rack that made the journey from my old life in California to my new life in New England.

But, um, what do all those keys GO to anyway?