3 Things Black Panther Taught Me about Crafting a Hero

My husband is a long time comic book fan.  My son read graphic novels long before I was into the genre.  Between the pair of them, they got me into Marvel.  My favorite hero?  Black Panther.

Yeah, I had to deal with some fan girl grief. Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Marvel’s Black Panther, died on Friday.  Black Panther as portrayed by Boseman can teach us all a lot about creating a hero.

We Need Diversity

First things first, we need a wide variety of heroes for a variety of reasons.  As adults, we tend to think that Black Panther is essential because he appeals to black readers. Young black fans can see a hero that looks like themselves.  But his appeal is actually much broader than that. Kids who feel overlooked and unheard? The ones who feel like they don’t quite fit? Many of them are Black Panther fans as well.

Science Rules

I know, I know.  That’s something Bill Nye says.  But in Wakanda science rules.  Yes, Iron Man is into science but it is Iron Man doing the science.  In Wakanda, Shuri, one of the princesses, is also a scientist.  Female, brainy, and gorgeous in one amazing package.

A Support Network

Black Panther does amazing things but he’s also got a network of family and friends.  He’s even able to get aid from former rivals.  Some are brawny while others are brainy.  There are women and men.  Scientists and mystic healers.  All come together to support on amazing hero.

Like I said – I’m a bit of a fan girl even now.


3 Things to Remember When Creating a STEM Picture Book

Last night, I reviewed A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars By Seth Fishman, illustrated by Isabel Greenberg, published by Greenwillow.  You can see the video below or skip that and go right to the blog post.

If you are writing for young readers, I hope you know the drill.  Even if you are writing STEM, you have to find a topic that hasn’t already been done.  And one way to do that it to

Think Out of the Box

Especially if you want to do a counting book (numbers) or an alphabet book, it isn’t enough to say “I’ll make it STEM!” There are so many counting books that you have to work hard to come up with something different.  Part of the problem is, in my opinion, that these books are popular with adults (look!  a lesson!)  and less popular with kids (look.  a lesson.).  But Fishman goes beyond 1-10 to discuss a hundred billion trillion.  Don’t you wish you had thought of that?

Once you come up with a unique topic, you have to find a way to …

Connect with Young Readers

A hundred billion trillion is so abstract!  How do you bring this to a level that readers can understand?  Fishman did it by bringing the reader into the book.  “By the time you are done reading this . . .,” he begins a discussion of how often these numbers change.  But it comes back to the reader yet again by pointing out just how unique and meaningful they are.  But there one more thing to keep in mind when writing STEM.

Be Prepared to Discuss Your Research

A book like this is going to require scads of research.  Young readers may not care where your information came from but parents and teachers will want to know.  That wouldn’t have fit into the text itself but it makes great material for the author’s note.

STEM topics are in high demand right now.  Just be sure there is space for this book and you can create reader appeal.  Then get started on your research!


3 Ways Research Can Be Biased

Whether you are writing historic fiction or science, you need to be aware of the ways that the research materials you use can be biased.  This something I’ve discussed with my students because it was something my professors discussed with me.

It first came up in my anthropology classes as we were reading ethnographies of cultures in Africa and the South Pacific.  Several of the anthropologists who had done the research were also missionaries.  How, our professor asked, might that bias the material they gathered?

Bias in the Questions that You Ask

If you are a missionary and you believe that the people you are studying are acting based on their irrational beliefs and their superstitions, that is going to bias the questions you ask and the results you accept as valid.  “What belief leads the people to build homes that face the East?”  If you think your subjects are superstitious, you are more likely to look for folktales and legends.

“Why do the people build their homes facing East?” If you think that the people may have a reason to do this that may not be science based but is at least practical, you may realize that the rising sun pouring into their homes wakes them each morning.  This broader question allows for data that more easily shapes the answer vs a data collection method that shapes what data is considered valid.

Sample Bias

If you are researching a medical topic, beware sample bias.  A 1960s study conducted among military recruits will be heavily male.  A contemporary study led by a medical center in a specific city will reflect that population.  Think about how the subjects from a study based in Beijing would differ from a study set in Jefferson City, Missouri.  Could this alter the results?

Reporting and Publication Bias

I didn’t think of this until I read about it in this article.  But if the researcher wants to prove something specific (is X an effective treatment for…), they are more likely to report positive results and minimize negative results. This skews which results are submitted for publication.  Positive studies are more likely to be published than negative studies.  This skews the results even further.

This is why it is important to read as widely as possible and to look at how the data was gathered.  If you are interested in learning to research various topics, I am teaching Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next class starts Sept. 7, 2020.



3 Ways to Create a Nonlinear Timeline

Tuesday I was listening to a podcast interview with Jennifer Chiaverini, author of Resistance Women, a book set in Germany during World War II.  Several times, the interviewers pointed out how much they liked her chronological structure.

Of course it was chronological, I thought.  What else would it be?

What can I say?  Sometimes I’m more than a little dense.  I did some reading online about nonlinear story structures.  I read these stories all the time but I had never tried to write one until today.  I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing when I roughed this piece of flash fiction. But as I read “3 Reasons to Write a Non-Chronological Story,” I realized what I had done.  Now that I’ve read the article, I can rewrite it to create a much stronger piece.

If you want to try to write a nonlinear story, consider using one or more of the following:


Short, carefully chosen flashbacks are one way to develop your main character.  By sharing little bits of this character’s backstory, the reader can better understand the decisions this character is making in the story.

Multiple Points of View

Writing from more than one point of view, and rotating between them, allows you to develop multiple time lines.  This can help you worldbuild as your reader gets to see more of the setting and story world than would be available through one point-of-view.  It is also a way to create tension as the timelines merge.

In Media Res

In this literary style, you start with the big event such as an explosion.  Then you go back to the beginning of the story and write forward. Because the reader knows this disaster is coming, there is more tension than might otherwise be present.  Once the disaster occurs at the middle of the book, the story proceeds to the end.

My story contains a series of flashbacks.  One character’s story takes place in the present.  The narrator’s story takes place in the flashbacks.  Then the two merge.  Now that I understand that, I have a much better chance of making it work!


3 Tips on Creating 3-D Characters

I’m about 20,000 words short of a full draft on my cozy but I’ve been giving my antagonist suspicious glances.  Something isn’t right.  She just seems so flat.  This weekend, I had an epiphany.  I needed to base her on someone I know.  That may seem hazardous since this is my antagonist but a big part of the problem is that I don’t really know her which leads us to Tip #1.

Get to Know Your Characters

I know my protagonist.  I know the love interest.  I know one of her two sidekicks.  But I’ve come to realize that a lot of my characters are place holders.  What do I mean by that?  “This is the person who commits the murder.”  “This is suspect #1.”  But what I really need to do is get to know them all.  Even my antagonist.

Start with Someone You Know

I’m not saying that your antagonist should be based on your ex or that the mom in the book should be modeled after you.  But think about the character.  What is the most important trait for someone who finds themself in this position?  My antagonist has to be someone who is really good at making people see her as she wants to be seen.  I’ve known several people like that.  My grandmother had the most cherubic grin but it disguised a bit of mischief that not everyone knew was there. This idea leads me to tip #3.

Go Beyond Your Model

Don’t limit yourself to your model.  Start there and move on to create a character who is perfect for your story. Grandma would NOT work as my antagonist.  I know because my grandmother started out in poverty and had to find her own way out just as my antagonist had to do.  To work in this story, my antagonist has to make very different choices and that’s okay.  This is, after all, fiction.

Once you get to know your characters, you will be able to select likely models as starting points.  Soon your manuscript will be populated with the people you need to bring your story to life.



3 Tips about Creating a Book Video

This weekend, I read Kirsten W. Larson’s post about creating brief book videos.  I like that her videos were short and simple and decided to give it a try.  Here are three things I learned in my attempt.  But first, here is the video.

  1.  Notes.  You don’t need to write a script but at a minimum make a rough list of the things you want to say.  Mine included ~Richard Scarry, wagon warehouse>mercado, based on Juarez, and naturally bilingual.  And, yes, I really do use symbolic shortcuts in my notes to myself.    I actually found that the notes worked better than a script because I could glance at them without being tempted to read each and every word.
  2. Phone position.  I made the video using my phone.  Do not place your phone or camera on the table or desk so it is “looking up” at you.  I don’t think this is an especially flattering angle for anyone.   I placed mine on the buffet so that it was just below face level.  Next time, I may actually try putting it at face level which will require using a stack of books as a prop.
  3. Lighting.  Lighting was also a little tricky.  I was sitting next to a large window.  See the sunlight on my left shoulder?  I had to scoot and move until the window was to my side so that I didn’t have a bright glow behind me.  Where is Sue?  I can hear her but I can’t see her.

Kirsten said that she shoots several videos at the same time.  That was my plan but it took me several tries to get started and by the time I had a fairly good take, I really was not interest in making a second video.  I’ll have to find another acceptable top and take notes on a few more books and try again later in the week.


The Best Advice I’ve Heard for Writing During the Pandemic

Coronavirus, Corona, Quarantine, Isolation, ProtectionIf you are an SCBWI member who registered for the Summer Spectacular online conference, I hope you’ve found the time to watch the sesssion with Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple.  This mother-daughter team was the most inspirational session I’ve seen so far and that’s saying a lot.

Someone asked how to write during the pandemic.  I’ve heard a lot of variations on this theme since March and Jane gave the best advice that I’ve heard yet.  She reminded us that if the pandemic is overwhelming, we don’t have to write about it.  Instead, we can harness the emotions we are feeling and write a story steeped in these emotions.

This suggestion started me thinking about pandemic themes and stories that share these themes.

Write a story on loss.  This could be a story about a child who loses a treasured object.  Think Knuffle Bunny. Or it could be a book about divorce, the loss of a pet, or the death of a family member.  Each of these stories could have something to do with virus or nothing at all.  It depends on the story.  Write a story steeped in loss and it will ring true with readers who have suffered loss.

Write a story about uncertainty.  Your character’s family could be moving, because of a job loss.  But they could also be moving because someone got a new job.  Two of my friends have experienced moving during the pandemic. Your character could be starting a new school.  We’ve all seen stories about a character who moves and goes to a new school or moves up a grade and starts a new school.  But what about a character who changes schools because of redistricting or a school closure?

Write a story about confinement.  Your character’s family could be in hiding, in an internment camp, or in quarantine during a plague.  Your character could be recooperating from an injury, snowed in, or stowing away.

Take a truth from our current reality and use it to build a story.  I’ve got fairly well developed ideas for two stories and nuggets that may yield several more.


Book Habit Bingo

When my friend shared this with me, I told her it should be book-lover bingo. If it was, would you have a winning card?

I have to admit that as a young reader, I often reread my favorite books. As an adult? Not so much because there are so many great books out there.

And I’m always super cautious about the smell of books. Nope. It isn’t the fact that I’m worried about encountering moldy old books. I hate the smell of some of the petroleum based inks. My husband says my sense of smell is ridiculous and I have to agree.

But delaying finishing a book? That’s me.

And I’m almost always reading at least two books.  One is my bed time print book.  The other is the audio book that I listen to while doing dishes, folding laundry and rowing.  I need to do more rowing.

But I have my own unique quirks too.

  • I often wait to decide if I like a book until I’m done.
  • If I find mistakes in a book?  Thank you, I’m done.  Last week I was about 1/3 of the way through a book when the character scaled a cat fish.  It wasn’t the only mistake but it was the last straw.
  • When I shelve books, the should go from short to tall to short.  Or short to tall.  I don’t worry about the colors.
  • I will read adult nonfiction but I prefer to listen to it.
  • If I read adult nonfiction, I prefer to read it on the treadmill.
  • On the treadmill, I read ebooks because I can click to turn the page.
  • Otherwise I prefer print books to ebooks. Yes, it is old fashioned and they take up more room but I’m a historian with approximately 60 feet of shelf space in my office.

What about you? Can you make book bingo? Or perhaps you have a book quirk the artist didn’t include.


Describing Size so Your Reader Will Understand

Whether you are trying to describe the size of something to an adult writer or a young reader, you need to put it in terms that they understand. Loved this Facebook post by James Patterson.

Sizes are always tricky, even if an object is photographed.  This is why photos of artifacts and fossils often include a ruler or a familiar coin. This is called familiar size – figuring out the size of something by comparing it to something you know.

In a sidebar for Young Equestrian magazine, I gave middle graders “The Scoop on Manure” (May/June 1997). I could tell them that a 1200 pound horse creates 5.88 cubic feet of manure a week, but they wouldn’t be able to see what this meant. The measurement was too abstract and essentially meaningless.

So I got out my backpack. Taking measurements, I could tell my readers that this same horse would create enough manure to fill the pack eight times per week. My readers might not have experience with cubic measurements, but they all had hands-on knowledge of backpacks.

What does this mean in terms of social distancing?  Stay 47 James Patterson’s away. For those of you who may not be James Patterson readers, I did a bit more research to add to the list. Here are other things that are about 6 feet in size.

A hockey stick. My husband said no to this one but it is something a sports enthusiast would understand.

Or two golden retrievers for your dog loving friend.

Or a moose’s antlers for your Canadian friends?  Or Alaskans.

The average height of a white rhino for the thrill seeker in your life.

A yoga mat for your more limber friends.

A guitar cord for the musically minded.

The length of a buffalo. I’m thinking they meant a bison.  I love bison.  They are delicious.

Since I can’t have a hockey stick, where am I going to get a bison?


3 Ways to Invite Readers into Your Picture Book

Early in the year, I set a reading goal for myself.  I planned to read 200 or more books in 2020.  Pfft.  No big deal.  I’m not just reading novels. I’m also reading graphic novels and picture books.  In fact, for the past month, I’ve had a stack of picture books sitting on my coffee table. One of the books that I just read is Gator, Gator, Gator! by Daniel Bernstrom.  His book is a great example of how to invite the reader into the story.

Read aloud text

One of the best ways to do this with a picture book is by creating a text that is fun to read aloud.  Don’t just read your text silently to yourself.  Read it aloud.  Have someone else read it aloud.  This last part is important because you won’t be the one reading to every reader.  The line Gator, Gator, Gator! doesn’t appear often, but when it does it is a fun chant.  There is also onomatopoeia.  Fun, fun, fun!

Break the Fourth Wall

Speak directly to the reader.  Not every book can get away with this but the reader literally climbs into the boat and heads into the bayou.  Seriously, you aren’t going to get me into a boat like that without either a really fantastic chocolate cake or knock out drops. But it was still fun to go along on a story ride.  The narrator even goes over the rules for a swamp visit.  Hands and feet stay in the boat.  Don’t climb on any logs.  As if.

Visual Clues

Bernstorm also pulled the reader in by having the narrator spot various shadowy figures.  Is that a gator?  The reader has a chance to ID the profile before the narrator does.  Is it a gator or a fox?  A gator or a snake?  Time and time again the reader has an opportunity to shine and that’s going to give the book appeal for repeated readings because the 2nd and 3rd time?  The reader is sure not to be fooled by the narrator.

And who doesn’t like to be in-the-know?