Monday, December 2, 2013

An Interview with an Editor!

'Tis the season! The holidays are upon us, which means it's time to start thinking of great books to give to those bookworms you know. We'd like to highlight a 2012 favorite, A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole. This book is an ideal holiday gift for any astronomy lover--young or old! Children and adults alike will learn a ton of spacey facts in this far-out book that’s sure to excite even the youngest of astrophiles. 

To learn more about the book, we thought we'd share an interview with Charlesbridge editor Alyssa Mito Pusey about what it was like to work on the book with author Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. Carolyn's friend and business partner Deb Dempsey--a former fifth-grade teacher--conducted the interview. Enjoy!

Alyssa, one thing I’m wondering about is why you chose this book, this story, to publish. What was it about A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole that made you want to work on it? 

There are rare and wonderful moments when, as an editor, you hear about a book and think, This is IT. I have to work on this story. You get goose bumps—thrills and chills—and are filled with a deep-down certainty that’s at once exhilarating and a little terrifying. You hold your breath. Can the book possibly be as good as it sounds?

It was sort of like that for A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole. Carolyn and I were chatting about misconceptions one day, when she said, “You know, Alyssa, so many kids think a black hole is a hole.” My head reeled. My understanding of the universe shifted. I got those goose bumps. “It’s not?!” I yelped. I had never thought much about black holes, but suddenly I had to know more. I had to read that book. And luckily, Carolyn was the perfect person to write it. Yes, the book could be as good as it sounded. 

As the book evolved, what specifics did you see in the book that you believed would pull in kids? 

What I love—and I think kids love—about Carolyn’s writing is her conversational voice. She writes like she talks and talks like she writes. She is there on the page, inviting you to explore this marvelous, incredible science with her. But she’s not just a fellow explorer; she’s also an expert guide. She points out amazing sights and leads you to new heights of understanding—without leaving anyone behind. As a science educator, she knows exactly what support kids might need. She provides that scaffolding through some of the clearest, most engaging science writing I’ve ever read.

Can you talk a bit about your vision for how readers will encounter Black Hole? I’m wondering how you envision children at home reading this book . . . and how the book might be used in schools. 

I imagine that kids who are already interested in astronomy will snap Black Hole up. Our expert reviewer, a professor of astronomy, says that she would have loved this book as a child. I’m hoping that those kids who aren’t necessarily interested in science will see the cover—with its cool topic, gorgeous image, intriguing title, and sassy speech bubble—and be intrigued enough to open the book. Once hooked, they’ll learn not just about black holes, but also about gravity, atoms, and the way light moves. The book is about cutting-edge science, certainly, but it’s also about fundamental principles of physics. 

And that’s what makes Black Hole so useful in the classroom. The Common Core calls for nonfiction reading across the curriculum. I envision science teachers turning to Black Hole for its top-notch content as well as its exemplary science writing. I see language arts teachers using it as a model for expository writing, as well as a treasure trove for teaching about metaphor, voice, structure, and the author’s purpose and perspective. Black Hole is exactly the kind of rich, complex informational text that teachers are looking for as they strive to meet the Common Core.

As you know, I’ve worked with Carolyn for years now – just about the time when she started writing books, actually. I know her work as an educator, but I’m curious: What do you think is unique about Carolyn’s writing?
Well, I’ve mentioned Carolyn’s inimitable voice. That’s certainly unique; there’s no one else in the world who could have written this particular book. But Carolyn also has the gift of being able to explain big, complicated, abstract ideas in clear, concrete, kid-friendly ways. She can take something like nuclear fusion within the heart of a star and make it understandable. And interesting! She is both scientist and storyteller and that, in my opinion, is the secret to her unique power as a writer. 

I know that Carolyn feels she learned a lot about writing, publishing, and science while writing this book. What have you learned as an editor while editing this book? 

Everything I know about black holes I learned from A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole. Okay, that’s not strictly true, but it’s close to the truth. Thanks to this book, I can now explain black holes to my five-year-old son! I’ll always be grateful to Carolyn for that—as well as for her gracious, enthusiastic, tireless collaboration. As an editor, I have learned so much from working on this book: 

  • How to deal with change, accepting and embracing the natural evolution of a project (Black Hole started off as a 32-page picture book!)
  • How to write about abstract concepts for kids (I recently ran a writers’ workshop on this topic, almost entirely based on what I learned from Carolyn. 
  • How to help prune, cut, and shape while respecting both the science (Don’t dumb it down!) and the author (It’s her book!)
  • How to keep it fun (In our hundreds of emails, we never got tired of making jokes—good ones and lots and lots of bad ones.)
  • How to work on a book for 8+ years without giving up or losing hope, knowing all along that it will be an amazing resource for kids everywhere. 

Thanks, Deb and Alyssa! To read another interview with Carolyn in Kirkus Reviews, click here.

Click here to learn more about A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, illustrated by Michael Carroll.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Writing Under the Freedom Tree: A Picture's Worth a Thousand (or So) Words

It started with this.

This striking photo in the back pages of a Virginia lifestyle magazine caught my eye; the caption describing it as the location of the South's first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation sent me on the research trail. I'd lived just a few miles from this gorgeous tree for many years, had unknowingly driven by it countless times. How had I never heard of it and its amazing history?

As I dug into archives and academic works, I was astonished to learn the full story. One May night in 1861, three slaves held by Confederate forces in what is now Norfolk, Virginia, slipped away under cover of darkness, stole a skiff, and rowed across the harbor of Hampton Roads to the Union-held Fortress Monroe. It was a daring and courageous act; the men risked grave punishment for the hope they saw on the other side.

Had they escaped days earlier, they would have been returned under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. But Virginia had just seceded and was therefore no longer a part of the United States. So the Union commander at Fortress Monroe declared the slaves enemy "contraband" and refused to return them to the Confederates.

As word spread, hundreds and, ultimately, thousands of runaway slaves made their way to the refuge of Fortress Monroe. While technically these individuals weren't free, “contraband” was surely preferable to “slave,” and a step closer to freedom. The contrabands worked for the Union forces and lived in camps they built themselves just outside the fort in Hampton, Virginia.

Contraband slaves assisted Union forces in and around Fortress Monroe. View a collection of rare and vintage images regarding the Civil War's contraband slaves at

There, under the shade of that enormous live oak tree, slave children learned to read and write, taught by a local free black woman working with the American Missionary Association. The open-air education defied longstanding laws against teaching slaves or free blacks to read or write. These classes are considered the first at what is now Hampton University.

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the contrabands learned of their eventual freedom when the document was read under the tree, likely on January 1, 1863. Though I wasn't able to confirm that it was the first reading of the proclamation in the South, it was certainly among the first.

I was stunned. I'd never been taught these documented aspects of the Civil War. We so often accept the "classic" version of emancipation, with the passive, helpless slaves liberated by the kindness of the white man, when, really, African Americans were bold, willing, and active participants in determining their own freedom.

I knew I had to write a book about it. I wanted to make sure my children and their friends learned this incredible history.

But what kind of children's book? Nonfiction, straight up? That would be a lot of dates, names, facts. Boring—and the history made under and around that tree, eventually called the Emancipation Oak, was anything but boring. I was stumped.

Around the same time, I was preparing to interview poet Arnold Adoff, husband of the late author Virginia Hamilton, for an online column, so I was reading a collection of Hamilton's speeches and essays. I was especially struck by her concept of "rememory," which she defined as "an exquisitely textured recollection, real or imagined."

As I learned more about the tree, I drove over to Hampton University to view it in person. It was a beautiful early summer day, the campus was quiet, and standing alone under those branches was a truly magical thing. I may have broken a rule, but I simply had to touch the tree. With my fingers on the bark, I could literally feel all that history, like I was absorbing those tears, that determination, the sacrifice, the hope and joy—all in that moment. It made me weep, and I'm very glad no one was around to see me.

So how best to express that? Poetry—rememory—seemed the way to go, with this spectacular tree as the axis around which the events would revolve. And so the words began to flow.

To my surprise, by the time I'd finished researching and writing about how the contrabands themselves had triggered the start of slavery's end, I'd stumbled across a fascinating full circle. I learned that it was in the waters off Fortress Monroe that the first African slaves were brought to the English colonies in 1619.

Under the Freedom TreeThere's a satisfying congruency—closure—to both the beginning of slavery and the beginning of the end of slavery in America occurring at the same place, just two miles from the Emancipation Oak. Imagine, when those first Africans were brought to the colonies for the purpose of slavery, the Emancipation Oak might have been a newly sprouted acorn.  

Had it not been for that photograph in the magazine, I would have never embarked on the Freedom Tree journey, even though I'd routinely traveled past both the historic oak and Fortress Monroe and had even fished Hampton Roads harbor at the very point where those three brave slaves stepped into a rowboat and made their escape.

It's made me realize how incredibly fragile history is. History must be protected, promoted, cultivated, shared—or it can be so easily forgotten or overlooked.

Posted by Susan VanHecke, author of Under the Freedom Tree. On sale January 7, 2014. Susan is also the author of Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’: A History of American Musical Instrument Makers (ALA Notable Children’s Book), An Apple Pie for Dinner, as well as several books for adults. She lives in Norfolk, Virginia. Visit her online at, and check out the website for Under the Freedom Tree:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Melissa Stewart's "Aha Moment"

Melissa StewartIt was 1996. My first children’s book had just been accepted for publication, and I was headed to East Africa with a group of scientists to do research for a second book. Life was good—or so it seemed.

As friends and family heard about my success, I received a flood of phone calls. They congratulated me, of course. But they also asked some unexpected questions.

“So now are you going to write a real book? You know, one for adults.”

“It’s nonfiction? That’s great. But wouldn’t you rather write fiction?”

These questions confused me. They made me wonder and worry. Was I headed down the wrong path? Was writing for children a waste of time? Was nonfiction less important than fiction?

Luckily, my journey halfway around the world gave me the perspective—and the answers—I needed. 

One night around a campfire at the edge of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, Ann Prewitt, an anthropologist and educator from the American Museum of Natural History, said she was fascinated by "aha moments"—seemingly small experiences that change the course of a person’s life. She asked the circle of scientists if they could recall such events from their own lives.  

When my turn came, I described exploring a wooded area in western Massachusetts with my dad and brother when I was eight years old. As we hiked, my dad asked lots of questions: 

“Why do stone walls run through the middle of the woods?”

“Why do sassafras trees have three kinds of leaves?”

“Why don’t chipmunks build their nests in trees like squirrels?”

He wanted us to think about our surroundings, and he knew a guessing game would be more engaging than a lecture. 

As we reached the top of a hill, my dad stopped and scanned the landscape. Then he asked if we noticed anything unusual about that area of the woods.

My brother and I looked around.

We looked at each other.

We shook our heads.

But then, suddenly, the answer came to me. “All the trees seem kind of small,” I said.

My dad nodded. He explained that there had been a fire in the area about twenty-five years earlier. All the trees had burned and many animals had died, but over time, the forest had recovered.

Why was that an "aha moment" for me? Because I instantly understood the power of nature. I also realized that a field, a forest, any natural place has stories to tell, and I could discover those stories just by looking.

As the firelight flickered across the African savanna and I described my childhood insights, heads nodded all around me. I was among a new group of friends, kindred spirits who understood my fascination with the natural world.

They knew why I didn’t write fiction.

They knew why children were my primary audience.

No Monkeys, No ChocolateAnd suddenly, so did I. It was another "aha moment."

Now, 17 years later, I’ve written more than 150 children’s books about science and nature, including my newest title No Monkeys, No Chocolate (Charlesbridge, 2013). Some people still ask me why I’ve never written a book for adults. Others want to know if I’ll ever write a novel. But these questions no longer bother me.
I know that my personal mission, the purpose of my writing, is to give today’s children their own "aha moments" in the natural world—the same gift my dad gave me on that special walk through the Massachusetts woods.

Posted by Melissa Stewart, author of No Monkeys, No Chocolate. Visit her online at