Wednesday, July 27, 2016

To Instill Love of Earth Sciences in Younger Minds

Hardarshan S. Valia
From my nascent days of schooling in the small town of Chindwara, India, I’ve marveled at the colorful canvas of rocks displaying flow of highly colored minerals. I was lucky enough to follow my passion of the Earth’s history through schooling into my work place at Inland Steel (now Arcelor Mittal) R&D Laboratories, East Chicago, Indiana. My professional life was dedicated to studying carbon usage in the steel industry. There, I studied with amazement the magical formation of colorful carbon forms during the coal-to-coke carbonization process. To an untrained eye, coal and coke are dirty-looking materials. But looking under an optical microscope, seeing how the organic entities in coal melt into nematic liquid crystals that come closer and seem to talk to each other as they coalesce into a beautiful entity called coke, one falls in love with nature’s wonder. It is this intoxicating interaction with science that I wanted to share with others.
No, no, I did not run like Archimedes shouting, “Eureka!” because the coal-to-coke carbonization phenomenon had been observed for years, but I started to go to nearby schools to help children see the beauty of earth materials that I saw and continue to see. My work travels had taken me to many parts of the world where I would take every opportunity to amass my collection of rocks, minerals, and fossils. Like a folk storyteller, armed with my earth wares and wealth of stories, I would sing the Song of Earth and tell stories of Earth’s Evolution to children who, in my biased opinion, loved it very much. After the end of class, they were allowed to handle the specimens and make their own observations. Those years of telling tales finally ended up in my taking on a project of writing a book where my protagonist describes the evolution of life through various geologic times.
There are four points I consider in writing for children to make Geology/Earth Science attractive to them.
1) Make it scientifically correct.
Stories/films are frequently endowed with creative licenses; the brain evolves and knowledge-hungry children are able to sort out facts from fiction. This means, yes, there is a role for Science Fiction for children in an effort to ignite the “What If” moment. However, misconception should not be created when writing science genre for children. Presentation of scientific facts must be based on what we currently understand as valid science. In my story, some characters are fantastical but the science of Earth’s history is accurate.
2) Show large scale geologic phenomenon in simple form.
To show that Mountains are formed when rocks are folded or uplifted, I show them an actual slab of Marble from China where a layer of Iron-rich brown/black mineral is folded into mini-mountains amidst the backdrop of white marble.
3) Connect the unknown to the known
To show that two organisms probably evolved from a common ancestor, I show them a large rock slab that contains two straight shelled Orthoceras and three coiled shelled Ammonite fossil types of Cephalopod fossils from the Atlas Mountain Range of Southern Morocco (See Figure 2).
The fossils are from the Devonian age (359-416 million years ago). I connect them to the current relatives of Cephalopod as follows:
4) Anthropomorphism and humor are effective techniques
To make it interesting in my story, I portray how my protagonist is drowning due to turbulence in the ocean and is rescued by a cephalopod who grabs the protagonist and provides shelter in its chamber. To give interest to my fossil character, I make them talk and exhibit all ranges of anthropomorphism.
Here is a scene in my story when the protagonist first meets a Mastodon before the start of the ice age.
 “Sunny, why do you carry that trunk?” I wanted to know.
“I was the Sheppard for the Pigsty family. I used my trunk as a rope to encircle smaller pigsty.” He spoke as a stand-up comedian with a serious look on his face.
“Come on, that’s not the real reason.” I knew that he was kidding around.
“I was a circus acrobat. I used my trunk to swing from the high rope,” he said seriously.
“Oh, really!” I wanted to tease him. “Show us your great swings on this tree!” I pointed to a large tree trunk before me.
“That tree won’t take my weight. I need a big tree.” He knew fully well there was no tree in sight that would support his weight.
“Come on! I need to know now. Why do you carry that trunk?” I was getting impatient.
“O.K., O.K., Small Doodle!” That is the name he used for me whenever he showed affection. Then he continued, “A big body needs big hands, a big mouth, and a big stomach so our noses and upper lips became elongated, resembling a hand-like feature, allowing us to pick up food from the ground or pluck leaves from the trees.” He said the entire thing in one breath.
“Very interesting!” I exclaimed. His explanation made perfect sense. I marveled at nature’s evolutionary processes.
This approach is how I disseminate the beauty and the science of Earth through story telling and writing to those well on their passageway from childhood to adulthood.
 Hardarshan S. Valia has published stories, essays, and poems in magazines such as: Huffington Post, NWI Times, Urthona, Hub, Bitterroot, Iron & Steel Technology, Sikhnet, Sikhchic, and Sikh Review. A story entitled “India…ana” will be published in a book entitled “Undeniably Indiana” by Indiana University Press in August 2016. During his tenure as Staff Scientist at Inland Steel (now Arcelor Mittal) R&D Laboratories, East Chicago, he contributed mostly to science journals and science books. He is married and has two children. He is a member of Indiana Writers’ Consortium, Magic Hour Writers Group, Write on Hoosiers and SCBWI.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Childish Writing

Andy Kuck
Be kind to your parents, though they don’t deserve it. Remember they’re grown-ups, a difficult stage of life. – Pete Seeger, addressing children.
During the 1860s, Leo Tolstoy ran a school for peasant children. He sometimes published collections of his students’ writing. One particular year, after publishing the collection, he noticed that one story stood out from all the others. It seemed to Tolstoy that the story could not have been written by a child. When it was eventually discovered that the story had not been written by a child, but by an adult, Leo Tolstoy was greatly relieved. He was greatly relieved because he thought very highly of children and had been reluctant to accept that a child could write such a poor story.
As an elementary substitute teacher, I read many stories that are written by children – stories that are by definition childish. And I am frequently fascinated. Like Leo Tolstoy, I am convinced that some of the best ideas are childish, and that many of the best stories are childish.  I have seen children write stories about fantastical underwater battles, about blind aliens baffled by life on earth, about family trips where something goes wrong, about family crises where everything goes wrong. I have seen, in short, that children can write good stories. I have in turn become convinced that adult writers should never limit themselves to second-rate ideas and second-rate stories when writing for children. Because if they do, they will surely write worse stories than the children themselves.
Dr. Seuss once said, “I don’t write for children, I write for people.” The great writer-illustrator would in fact get angry when critics would refer to his work as “whimsical.” Whimsical, he thought, suggested frivolity. Dr. Seuss knew that his books were not frivolous. He knew that they were about stewardship and racism and loyalty and revolution. He knew that his books did not shy away from big ideas. He knew, in fact, that those ideas are the ideas children understand best.
Through my substitute teaching experience, I have learned not to shy away from big ideas. I have discovered that when I read stories to children, they may say a lot of silly things (“That ain’t no ugly duckling; I’ll draw you an ugly duckling.”), but they also say all the right things and ask all the right questions: “Did the little prince go to heaven?” “Can there be a God, because who would make God?” “Should good people help bad people?” “Why did the boy get older?” Children are willing and able to grapple with big questions, and I am enormously grateful to the children’s authors who were willing to pose them.
I do not think it is incidental that good children’s stories do such a great job of eliciting big questions. I think there is something uniquely important about the childish perspective. As Tolstoy put it: “Our ideal is behind and not in front.” I do not think great children’s books are books that contain adult themes that children can understand; I think great children’s books are books that contain childish themes that some adults are still wise enough to understand. For these adults, the best children’s books are simply great books. Philosopher and literary critic G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since.”      
When I was in first grade, I loved the Dr. Seuss story Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? The narrator describes a dozen or so unlucky, unfortunate circumstances, and by doing so builds to the conclusion that the reader is – all things considered – quite lucky. I remember being captivated especially by the second-to-last page with the unluckiest circumstance of all: to be a “rusty tin coat hanger hanging in space.” The illustration was as haunting as the words, and that page created the eeriest feeling within me. Today I would call that feeling the dread of nonexistence. I did not know those words back then, but it was the same feeling.
No important idea is too big for a child. Children have small vocabularies but not small minds. To write a story a child understands and enjoys – to write a fairy tale – is as difficult as anything in writing. But it is worthwhile. It is to understand life like a child, which is, in short, to understand life.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Thoughts about HOW

Mari L. Barnes
When it comes to writing for children, the WHAT we write about is only as good as HOW we write it. Almost everything is seed from which you can grow a story. The trick is in how you tell it. You don’t have to wait for that original idea that no one has ever thought of before. Think of how many fairy tales and fables have been spun into popular books, like the Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons or Tara Lazar’s Little Red Gliding Hood, in which Little Red Riding Hood is a figure skating enthusiast.
We’re always told to write what we know. If you have any experience with children you have probably observed enough to get a good story start. From potty training to losing teeth to being picked for the team (or NOT picked) to shopping for training bras—everything writes. What spin would you use to make it fresh and yours?
Dr. Seuss gave us permission to play with words and sounds, fun without the anchor of complex plotting. Before planning your children’s story, why not take some time to play? What could you do with a story of a kid who NEVER lost his baby teeth? Or a society in which “training bras” was something girls had to DO?
Difficult topics have long been addressed in children’s fiction. Old Yeller was written by Fred Gipson in 1956. Has there ever been a sadder story? But the genius was not in the universal themes of responsibility, loyalty, death and love. It was in the thoughtful handling of the subject, a rich accounting of life that included boredom, excitement, fear and humor to create a book that still touches the most cynical youth, 60 years later. Today, even subjects that used to be taboo are ripe for writing if done with care. Think of Heather Has Two Mommies about same-sex parents or Love You Forever, which has young people tackle such difficult topics as aging and death.
Author Tara Lazar sponsors PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) every November. During that time, writers are challenged to record at least one idea for a picture book each day. Daily blog posts by picture book authors, illustrators, editors and other kidlit professionals entertain and inspire. By the end of the month, writers have compiled a file of ideas to generate stories. The challenge offers freedom to have fun and encourages skewing your own perspectives—not only thinking outside of the box, but painting the box pink and making it out of jelly beans!
How we tell our stories can lead us in interesting directions, quite far afield from our original plans. My book, Ruby’s Red Squiggle, published this year by Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, was an idea I got while doing the challenge in 2014. My first thought was of a little girl sketching with her artist mom. It took some time to get to HOW the story could be told. I decided to tell it from the viewpoint of the child’s drawing. To get to my HOW, I employed the methods suggested by the PiBoIdMo challenge: don’t edit yourself; keep your eyes, ears and mind open to all possibilities; and enjoy yourself!
Staring at an empty screen? How would you write The Adventures of a Blank Page?
Mari L Barnes writes for children under the pen name of Mari Lumpkin and for adults as ML Barnes. Her company, Flying Turtle Publishing specializes in books that families can share. With a lifelong passion for helping young readers and writers, she spent many years working with experts in child development, creating and implementing children’s literacy programs for YMCA and Salvation Army after school programs. Mari’s newest books are Ruby’s Red Squiggle (Progressive Rising Phoenix Press) and Cracked Magic (Flying Turtle Publishing). She can be contacted at or

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Children's Stories, Simple Ideas

Donna S. Eckelbarger
Can you imagine running out of ideas to write about? With every child I encounter daily, just watching them play and work are stories waiting to be told. What can a fifty-something-year-old learn from her very young students?
Let’s begin with play. What do kids like to do? Play with animals, dolls, and trains. Not only are toys used as their props, but there is a real sense of order, continuity sprinkled with ad lib. I once watched three children play with ponies, and their dialogue went something like this:
            “You can be the mommy pony and I will be the sister pony,” Grace pointing to Lilly.
            “I will put the house over here and Clara can feed the ponies,” Lilly putting the ponies inside the house.
            “But I want to be the sister pony. You always get to be the sister pony!” Clara whines.
All the while, ponies were tossed in the air and the playhouse was knocked over as the children continued arguing. The end result took an unexplained turn and the three children laughed, set their roles in place, and worked through their scene. The entire drama took place over two minutes, and playtime lasted about twenty minutes.
How could this be? And why is it important? I’ve worked with very young children most of my life and play is really serious business, much like choosing a topic to write about. As I choose a topic of interest, I watch and wonder to myself, “Hmm, if only the children turned into ponies, then they would have the best time ever.”
Then begins the bare bones of my next story. Children interact as they play, but to create the story involves characters. What if the children turned into ponies that had wings and their house turned into a tree house in the middle of the city? A story forms, and that is the muse for my story “Ponies Live in My Tree House.”
Now wait, is this all? No. What if I told you that most children’s books give me bursts of ideas? “I could have done a better job writing about bees on a farm,” I’d say to myself after reading to a few children in my classroom. And another idea began forming in my head: “There is a Bee in My Hair.” Bees are a scary bunch, so why not write about a friendship between a bee and a five-year-old smiling little girl? By living in a  hive beneath an apple tree, Lilly engages in a sweet adventure with her bee friend, Beatrice.
How about children waiting in line at a children’s theme park? I worked as a storyteller at County Line Apple Orchard one fall day and thought, “What if there was this precocious, impatient seven-year-old who loved trains and had to ride one now or scream at the top of her lungs?” This actually happened at the children’s Moo train, and the other parents were very happy to accommodate this sweet little monster, Matilda. She became an amusing character in my story “Moo Train Adventure.”
One day I was browsing in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble bookstore when I noticed a new line of cardboard books based on Shakespeare, Kipling, and Baum classics. With many interesting stories written at the turn of the last century, why not begin with very young children and introduce them to the classics in a scaled-back version of the original? As I scanned these books by Jennifer Adams, she took a complex drama and narrowed the story to fit the children’s age and their development. If you like the classics, folklore, or legends, ideas are plenty.
As I engage with children daily, I recall my younger years as a naughty kid who was an active, fortunate tomboy; I played kickball and tetherball, rode skates, and rode my bike, too, and I have the scars to prove it. For example, in my story “Brave Little Girl,” my character Penny terrorizes her neighborhood every morning with her loud big wheel. One morning she went to get her yellow big wheel and found little notes taped to her handlebars. What Penny did next will amaze you as she confronts the battle of the wills and her angry neighbors.
Now that I have given you plenty of ideas for the next children’s book, why not get your spiral notepad and begin writing an outline. I can hardly wait to write my next children’s book! Let’s begin now. Once upon a time, there was a teeny, tiny house in the middle of . . .
So what will be your next line on your way to the next bestseller?