Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dinosaurs in the Library

Where has the year gone. On Saturday I did my last author program of 2009 at Los Angeles Public Library's (Central Branch) KLOS Theater. After reading  Tyrannosaurus Math,

I had fun talking about dinosaur fossils (Boy, has T-Rex been in the news lately! My favorite article was about the tiny ancestor Raptorex) and math. I have kids draw objects/clues out of a bag. What would a ruler, a calendar, a map, and a $100 bill have to do with paleontology?

We made a leaf pictograph, just like T-Math did in the book, and also grouped members of the audience to show different number combinations that add up to ten. I love getting the kids involved.

Thanks, FOCAL,  for inviting me and my imaginary dinosaur into this classy venue. As always, it was a pleasure.

Happy Holidays to all from The Cat and The Fiddle! May 2010 bring you health, happiness, and delightful stories.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Math Stories

For Non-Fiction Monday, one last nod to William Steig (on the last day of his honorary month) in the form of a math lesson:

Read Amos and Boris. (Enjoy!)

Make a list of what Amos loaded on the ship: cheese, biscuits, acorns, honey, wheat germ, two barrels of fresh water, a compass, a sextant, a telescope, a saw, a hammer, nails, a needle and thread, bandages, iodine, a yoyo and playing cards.

How many items were food/drink? How many were tools (both for navigation and repair)? How many were for first aid? For play? How many total?

(One could do this lesson, for example, in conjunction with the Open Court Literacy Program’s Grade 1 story on Captain Bill Pinkney’s Journey. Fiction, math and social studies, in one coup.)

A fantasy story with math potential…makes me think of :

DIY Fantasy Word Problems

1.    Pick a fantasy character (princess, superhero, alien. I’ll pick the princess)

2.    Brainstorm people or things that would be in their setting.
(fancy ball, prince, knight, dragon, castle. I’ll pick the ball)

3.    Brainstorm activities that character might be involved in. What would be fun? What would be dangerous?
(Getting rescued, getting dressed up, picking a prince. I’ll pick “getting dressed up”)

4.    Brainstorm how math could be involved in that activity.
(Counting jewels. Going shopping. Measuring cloth for a gown. I’ll pick “going shopping”)

Here’s a simple word problem:

A king gave the princess $500 for her outfit to wear to the ball. She picked out a gown that cost $80, a ruby necklace that cost $100, a diamond ring that cost $300, and a pair of satin slippers that were $70. Will she have enough money to buy her outfit?

Draw a picture.  Customized high interest subject + word problems = fun!

Here we are having fun at the CSLA conference last weekend in Ontario. You can't see any copies of Tyrannosaurus Math because they were sold out! Librarians rock.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Your Book - On the Analyst's Couch

Have you ever put your manuscript or book under psychoanalysis?

I asked myself why I wrote Tyrannosaurus Math – which is a very different question than how I got the idea.  As I told Rex Green during our interview, I’ve always been a huge fan of Tyrannosaurus Rex. But why did he pop up as the main character in my book? He was a symbolic way of “attacking” math (my least favorite subject in school). He was a joyous way of channeling years of pent up frustration with boring word problems. For me, it was perfect casting.

What is the personal connection between you and your book(s) ? Are you reflected somehow in the main character? I posed these questions to my fellow authors in the Children’s Authors Network 

Alexis O' Neill on The Recess Queen

I have to tell you – bullies infuriate me!  I hate (yes, hate!) people who push others around either physically or verbally.  As an adult I worked for a doozy of a bully once (who knew that adults could be bullied by other adults?  I thought this was just playground stuff!)  So, I had the right emotion for a bully book – but how was I going to get the bully in my story to stop being a bully?  In life, things are messy and don’t tie up neatly in pretty bows.  (At least not always.)  So I thought I’d create a perfect world in my story.  In a perfect world, a bully can change.  And even in a messy world, there's always the hope that just the right gesture (like inviting someone to play) can make a difference.

April Halprin Wayland on New Year At The Pier

Every Jewish New Year I join 200 singing  friends from my synagogue as we walk to the end of the pier in Manhattan Beach, CA.

There we take pieces of bread and toss them into the ocean to symbolically let go of any thing we wish we hadn't done in the past year.  To clean our slate for the new year.

The wind, the songs, the sea, the feels so wonderful.  If I couldn't bring readers to the pier myself, I wanted them to feel the poetry of this joyous ritual called tashlich.  What better way than a picture book?

Janet Wong on Homegrown House

The girl in HOMEGROWN HOUSE is me in two ways: I am both the girl in the book, who is tired of moving, and also the mom who wants to move to a “better” house. I lived in eight different homes by the age of fifteen. I realized only about ten years ago how much moving from house to house had formed me. I was living in a perfectly good house in Seattle, but rather than settle in and make it “homegrown,” I found myself itching to move to a “better” house—something with a water view. We ended up moving just ten blocks away! In hindsight the little girl in me was right, and we should not have moved to the house with the lake view. We have since moved once again, for my husband’s work, and will move again next year, to a house we are building.

Jeri Chase Ferris on Demanding Justice and other titles

I like to be treated fairly, and I’m pretty sure you do too. When people are not treated fairly I like to make it right, and I’m pretty sure you do too. I write books about people who lived dangerous and exciting lives, who worked hard and made our country a better place – Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Biddy Mason, Matthew Henson, Marian Anderson – but because of the color of their skin they were treated most unfairly. In telling their stories, I want to bring them back to life and let you (and everyone) see what they did for America. I want them to be given fairness and justice, recognition and thanks.  My most recent book is the biography of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a free black woman who lived during the time of slavery and spent her entire life fighting for justice. The title of her story is DEMANDING JUSTICE, and that is what I want to do with each book I write.

Joan Bransfield Graham on Splish Splash and Flicker Flash

 The characters in my books are water (SPLISH SPLASH) and light (FLICKER FLASH).  What better way to explore their varied shapes than with shape itself--

concrete poetry.  Growing up on a barrier island along the southern coast of New Jersey, I was always fascinated with the ocean and water in general.  From the Atlantic to the Pacific (I'm now in California.) with some sailing on the Chesapeake and a five-year stop near Lake Michigan, I am definitely a water person.  Studying photography for many years, developing my own black and white prints, and now having fun with my digital camera and Photoshop, I am always sensitive to the effects of light and shadow.  I think my characters picked me.

Off to the CSLA conference in Ontario,  where Alexis, April, George Pilling and I will be talking about "Serendipity: Happy Accidents in Writing."  More on that later!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Ten Things Picture Book Writers Can Learn From Shrek!

Last weekend, teacher extraordinaire Daniele Della Gala and I did a presentation called “Tyrannosaurus Math: Crunching the Numbers with Stories” at the California Math Council Conference in Palm Springs. After the talk, one of the attendees appreciated the sophisticated language in the book, at which point I expressed my debt to William Steig. Who has been on my mind lately because, by felicitous circumstance, November is William Steig Month.

Author/illustrator Barney Saltzberg and I have used Steig’s work in our picture books classes at UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program. “The reason I write and illustrate picture books is because I fell in love with The Amazing Bone,” Barney said. "As a writer, I marvel at the predicaments that Steig puts his characters in. I never in my wildest dreams figure out what the solution will be.”

In honor of William Steig, TC&TF offers thoughts about one of his most successful books:

10 Things Picture Book Writers Can Learn From Shrek!

1. Stay true to your roots. “Shrek” means “fear” is Yiddish. Steig was raised by Eastern European Jewish immigrants who settled in the Bronx.

2. Create an original, irresistible character. Shrek has a funny name, he’s funny looking, fearless, lovestruck and possesses superpowers! He also furnished material for three movies -and a fourth in production.

3. Write a great first line: “His mother was ugly and his father was ugly, but Shrek was uglier than the two of them put together.” And a killer first paragraph: “By the time he toddled, Shrek could spit flame a full ninety-nine yards and vent smoke from either ear. With just a look he cowed reptiles in the swamp. Any snake dumb enough to bite him instantly got convulsions and died.”

4. Honor the classics. The exaggeration of Shrek’s revolting qualities and his strengths borrow from the tall tale tradition, while the quest frame, the seven-incident plot, the animism, the witch (and her chant), dragon, knight, and princess belong to fairy tales.

5. Honor the classics, but make the story your own. Steig was raised by parents involved in the social justice movement. Sympathetic to the underdog, Steig made the hero of his tale an ugly monster (with a donkey instead of a handsome steed) who finds love in the end, warts and all.

6. Choose your nouns and verbs wisely. Shrek toddles, slogs, stalks, swaggers. His head is his noggin, topped by a knob. Steig deftly uses long or unfamiliar words and stylish language in a way that’s accessible to children.

7. Use humor, both verbal (one day his parents “hissed things over,” “they kicked him goodbye,” etc.) and visual/situational (Shrek has a nightmare of kids hugging and kissing him).

8. Incorporate poetic language. Several characters speak in rhyme, and the warning on the tree is in rhyme. Many of Steig’s sentences are patterned and/or rhythmic.

9. Make it dangerous, but don’t kill anyone. Despite Shrek’s superpowers, characters only faint, become unconscious, or get so hot they dive in the moat.

10. Write with joy. Steig’s musings about art can be applied to literature as well: “(The spectator) experiences again what the artist experienced in making the painting: movement, emotion, a glorying in man’s boundless creative power, and wonder - which is respect for life.” (From Pipers At the Gates of Dawn by Jonathan Cott.)

If you’re a Steig fan, treat yourself to the on-line feature from the Jewish Museum’s 2007 Exhibit “From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig.” It includes an adorable illustration called “Family Reunion” that brings together many of the characters from his books.

November 14 is the 102nd anniversary of Steig's birth. We love you, William!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Poetry Friday 2009: Halloween Word Problems

To celebrate the occasion, The Cat and The Fiddle recommends a Halloween word problem:

A mother spider told her twins
Beneath a dusky sky,
“I’ll take you out to trick or treat,
You’ll dress as octopi!”
She basted silk from spinnerets
Each stitch was close and small
And wove two teeny purple suits-
how many legs in all?

Holidays are naturals for word problems, and Halloween is probably the richest source for subject matter.

DIY (Do It Yourself) Halloween Word Problems.

1. Read some Halloween picture books with lots of characters.

2. Brainstorm subjects (ghosts, mummies and all the usual suspects) and/or items in their setting (coffins, tombstones etc.) for the word problems.

3. For mathematical action, creatures can go to, or leave, parties/cemeteries/haunted houses (addition and subtraction). They can scare, haunt, fly over things, etc. Groups can be used for multiplication or division. If a mummy needs 12 yards of bandages, how many yards do four mummies need? If three vampires share a bag that has 18 candy eyeballs, how many eyes will they each get? I could go on and on. It’s just too much fun.

4. Draw the picture and decorate your house with it!

Monday, October 26, 2009

SCBWI Writer's Day

Thanks to all the crew at Ventura/Santa Barbara SCBWI Writer's Day! Gracious hosts, great esprit de corps. On Saturday I gave a spotlight presentation called "How I Sold My Talking Dinosaur and Other Tales of a Picture Book Author," in which T-Math made his Powerpoint debut.

My favorite part of the conference was listening to the brisk, astute responses of the panel (Suzy Capozzi from Random House, Marilyn Mark from Marshall Cavendish, and Mark von Bargen from MacMillan) to the first pages. For picture books, the right equation was:
fresh characters + colorful writing + action propelling plot = a compelling Page One.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Today at The Cat and the Fiddle we reveal one of our secret recipes for creating (and showing kids how to create) fun word problems.

They’re easy to whip up, once you’ve chosen an appealing subject in his/her typical setting.

Word Problem Lesson with Dinosaurs

1. Read Tyrannosaurus Math.

2. Make a list of the animals and objects that were used in the math problems (other dinosaurs, teeth, bugs, footprints, leaves, rocks, a tree, etc.).

3. Look at the pictures in the book and come up with other things T-Math could have counted (horns, bony plates, petals on flowers, etc.).

4. Pick one of these things and make your own word problem, using the math operation of your choice.

5. Draw a picture to illustrate the problem.

Any good non-fiction book that has lots of detailed illustrations can be a rich source for word problems. In the following example, I’ll use pirates.

Word Problem Lesson with a Fun Main Character: Pirates

1. Pick a math skill, (I’ll choose triple digit addition.)

2. Read or browse: Jan Adkin’s What If You Met A Pirate.

3. You’re going to write a word problem about a pirate. Brainstorm a list of items or people that might be in his setting - ships, sails, parrots, gold coins, etc. (My character will be Captain Jack, and the items will be treasure chests.)

4. Think of an action that could involve math, using that item. (A pirate needs to travel a certain number of miles to chase the galleon with the treasure chests. Or it will take him a certain number of days. Or he will count up the money in the chest. I’ll pick the money.)

5. Write the problem. (Captain Jack and his crew captured a galleon. There were two treasure chests on board. One had 715 gold pieces, and the other had 826. How many gold pieces were there all together? )

6. Optional: Add details and description to your problem to make it more fun:

Captain Jack and his crew chased a galleon. After a heated battle that lasted six hours they captured the ship. The men could hardly wait to open the treasure chests. There might be diamonds, rubies, and lots of gold. Actually there was 715 gold pieces in one chest, and 826 in the other. How many gold pieces were there all together?

7. Illustrate the problem.

And that, me hearties, is just one way to combine non-fiction, writing, math, and art. If you're a parent and/or a teacher, what non-fiction books might you use? If you're a non-fiction writer, what cool word problems could arise from your book(s)? AARGH!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Word Problems With Bite

I wrote Tyrannosaurus Math (reviewed this week at Miss Rhumpius) before discovering Susan Gerofsky’s A Man Left Albuquerque Heading East, (mentioned in an earlier post). But it confirmed what I already knew: kids crave word problems with appealing imagery.

As part of her research Gerofsky asked a group of 5th and 6th graders to discuss three similar story problems in which Mike, Susanne or Sandra put some tomatoes, plums and apples into a number of bags or cartons.

“It would be better if it was about rocket blasters,” one child said.
“You’d have a better question, like if it’s candy,” said another. Sometimes you think of that when you solve a problem. Then when you go home you want to have candy. So your mouth just makes you do the question.”

Publishers of math books for the young get it. A search for “counting books” on Amazon turns up books with chocolate, icky bugs, crocodiles, fairy tale characters and more. Why shouldn’t older children get equal treatment? Why not serve them word problems with high interest topics?

In honor of Poetry Friday:

Max came upon five wild beasts,
They had fur, and scales and feathers,
Two terrible eyes shone from each,
How many eyes all together?

In my next post, a lesson on getting children to write their own jazzy word problems. Let the rumpus begin!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Word Problems- A Bit of History

Now that the kids are back in school, The Cat and the Fiddle would like to dish out some thoughts about word problems.

When doing research for a historical project some time ago I stumbled across this one, dating from 1581:

“A drunkard drinketh a barrel of beer in the space of 14 days, and when his wife drinks with him then they drink it out within ten days. In what space will his wife drink that barrel alone?”

(from Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London by Liza Picard)

Hopefully the scholars were sober whilst they tried to figure it out. Eager to know more math history, I read Susan Gerofsky’s fascinating A Man Left Albuquerque Heading East: Word Problems as Genre in Mathematics and learned that word problems are as old as the earliest human records (they show up on 4000 year old Babylonian cuneiform tablets) and have been employed continuously ever since. Some of the old chestnuts are even included, with alterations, in textbooks today. An Italian Renaissance math textbook contains an early version of the “two trains crossing” problem, using couriers dispatched from both the Holy Father in Rome and a certain Signora of Venice.

In her book Gerofsky analyzes and critiques word problems and makes recommendations for how to improve them. Hallelujah! Gary Larson spoke for most of us with his legendary cartoon that depicts a library in hell stocked with books like "Story Problems Galore.” Why did we dread them when we were in school? For their often preposterous scenarios. For their two dimensional characters. Who really cared about the number of fabric squares Jane needed for her quilt, or the length of the shadows cast by those flagpoles? Nobody did. Everyone knew word problems were cheap instructional set-ups, math not even thinly disguised as story.

Why is this my business? Because I’ve worked, as a substitute teacher, with hundreds of students in elementary classrooms. I’ve felt their pain. And I say, along with Gerofsky, that word problems don’t have to be lifeless. We can do better. Together, we can build exciting story problems for tomorrow’s children. Or at least we can have fun with them on this blog.

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats.
Each cat had seven kits.
Kits, cats, sacks and wives,
how many were there going to St. Ives?

Elsewhere, in Tyrannosaurus related news: "Fossil Identified as mini-T-rex" What a story! Anastasia Suen featured Tyrannosaurus Math as a Picture Book of the Day, and it's now part of the 2010 California Collection by California Readers. Roar!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Booksigning at Chevalier's

Sending out a group hug to supporters who came out yesterday to encourage Tyrannosaurus Math as he took his first lurching steps out into the public! It was great fun dedicating books for you in the sunlit window of Chevalier's.

I'm 4tunate 2 have fan who are gr8 writers, 1derful teachers, steadfast friends-

and thank you from the bottom of my prehistoric heart.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

We're planning to serve freshly baked dinosaur cookies at the inaugural book signing for TYRANNOSAURUS MATH

Saturday, September 12
11 am - 1 pm

Chevalier's Books
126 N. Larchmont Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90004
(323) 465-1334.

A big thanks to gracious blog hostess Tina Nichols Coury for posting our Q and A on her site.

In other news, I taped an exclusive TV interview with dino host Rex Green! I nearly got my fingers nibbled off, but I'm hoping it's a good career move.

Monday, August 31, 2009

So here at The Cat and The Fiddle thoughts drift to the end of summer, of summer fruit, and fresh fruit pies. Which brings back memories of EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Viking), a perfect confection of a children’s book.

My daughters and I loved the sweet and humorous illustrations, the little poems, the hunt for the hidden nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, and the comforting ending where the whole gang eats their wedge of plum pie together on a checkered tablecloth under the fruit trees. (What a classic last scene, characters communing over food...)

I’m a fan of fairy tale retellings, (including fresh POVs), but this book revealed how characters behave in their down time, when they’re not busy resolving conflict in their narratives. It was a surprise, for me, that Robin Hood, Cinderella, The Three Bears, Mother Hubbard, Tom Thumb, Jack and Jill, Baby Bunting and even the Wicked Witch were all part of the same social network. I suspect I’m not alone in wanting to know more about the secret lives of these beloved characters. Who’s eating tarts with whom. “Behind the Nursery Rhymes” if you will.

And while we’re on the subject, why don’t we hire these kid lit celebrities to liven up some “story problems” in the classroom. If Cinderella arrives at the ball at 10:15, how much time will she have before her coach turns back into a pumpkin?

More on story and math, later. I’m going out for one last piece of peach pie, before summer's over.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

So you've pointed your mouse to The Cat and The Fiddle, where I'll be serving assorted thoughts on children's books, writing, and teaching.

Today the specialty of the house is:

ROARRR! My new book Tyrannosaurus Math, illustrated by Doug Cushman (Tricycle Press/Random House.)

We've got five fresh copies of T-Math to offer in a book giveaway, courtesy of my publisher.

To enter the contest, blog about this post and send me the link, OR
post a comment to this thread, recommending your top five trade math books for kids published within the last five years. Use only a valid email address! Winners will be selected at random in two weeks.

To get you up to speed about the book, here's most of the review from SLJ:

From the moment Tyrannosaurus Math (T-Math for short) is hatched, he views the world in mathematical terms. He begins with simple addition (how many siblings have also hatched) and proceeds through such skills as grouping (counting a herd of triceratops, though he’s not yet old enough to consume them), ordering and comparing (who ate the most dragonflies), and geometric shapes (is that meteor a sphere or a cube?). In all, 15 concepts are demonstrated with clear, logical, and amusing examples...

Markel never misses an opportunity to weave math into the lively text: “At his full size, nothing was scarier than the sight of T-Math thundering through the forest, chewing on a problem in his head.” Cushman’s acrylic cartoons, with their clean lines and vibrant colors, add considerably to readers’ enjoyment....This is a clever addition to the growing number of books that make a sometimes daunting subject both more understandable and just plain fun.

The book is riddled with puns, and I love how other reviewers have gotten into the spirit:

"T-Math's enthusiasm for numbers and solutions to real-world problems makes this a title that math teachers can sink their teeth into." -Kirkus

"Roaring, rampaging, and arithmetic. Markel uses a perennial favorite—dinosaurs—to introduce basic mathematical concepts through word problems featuring a young T. rex with a head for numbers." -Booklist

I'm delighted to share this interview with Doug Cushman, my wonderful illustrator.

What kind of research did you do for Tyrannosaurus Math?

When I was working on the sketches for this book, I had already planned a trip to London so I took the opportunity to go to the Natural Science Museum there and go through their extensive research library. I was mainly concerned about foliage, plant life, different kinds of insects, etc during the late Cretaceous era (where you set your story & I know how particular you were about all of that, rightly so). I always like to add special detail and asides in the pictures. And of course I took photos of the T-Rex automaton they have on display there.

What was the most challenging aspect of illustrating the text? The most fun?

Just drawing and painting all those wonderful dinos was a kick. I confess I especially enjoyed the spread during the hurricane. The painting style I used was fairly new for me, I’d only used it twice before. But the bright colors and shapes seemed appropriate for your text. It was fun painting again in a different way. I’m no math scholar so trying to figure out a good way to illustrate simple math concepts was a real challenge. The hardest was designing those groups of triceratops. T-Math was a little kid so how to show the four groups of five but keep the size relationships real? It took weeks before I finally hit upon the idea of standing T-Math on a cliff overlooking the herds. Duh!

How do you decide what chunks of a manuscript to illustrate? Which ones will be 2-page spreads?

Pacing a picture book is the most important part of the process in my opinion. You want to make each page flow naturally into the next one but be true to the pace of the text as well. Your text was fairly easy as each page illustrated a single math idea. It was actually an easy manuscript to pace out. The challenge was to clearly present the math.

What was the role of the art director?

I worked mainly with the editor on this book. The AD is responsible for the whole look and feel of the book, choosing the font for the text, etc. She let me hand-letter the display type and the speech bubbles which was more work for me but I wanted to do it; it made the look of the book more fun (at least I hope it did). She also sent me the final layouts so I could design my illustrations with a better idea where she was going to place the text. A book is really a team effort!

If T-Math was your guest in Paris, what spot would you take him to?

Paris is a carnivore's paradise, lots of meat-eaters. I have a great little restaurant I go to every Thursday that serves an entrecote pour deux, a rib steak for two (though we'd probably have to order a couple extra). T math would be able to figure out the bill and the tip...he'd be the perfect dining partner!

More later!