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REVISING TEDIOUSLY, ONE TINY TWIG AT TIME

by Karen Deger McChesney

I’m still pinching myself! I recently witnessed a bird building its nest. A dream come true! I was enjoying my morning ritual of sipping coffee and bird watching…and, there he was! A brownish finch with a one-inch twig in its cone-shaped beak, standing outside a birdhouse. I watched my fine-feathered friend retrieve twigs from the tall course grass and turn them this way and that to get them through the birdhouse hole. Incredibly tedious. Impossible. But, he did it. Magical! The most amazing moment was when he hopped out of the birdhouse with a different twig in his bill, laid it on the railing, flew off and retrieved a new one.

Re-decorating? I pictured him inside re-arranging twigs, over and over again. Good heaven, it’s like revising! One tiny twig at a time. Ironically, I arrived late to my revising that morning, because I was so enamored with the finch. I have been revising my first YA for what feels like forever. It’s one huge over-and-over-again. I don’t know what revision I am on. I don’t count anymore. I only countdown to my next self-imposed deadline, psych myself up, and mark the calendar with my next deadline, again and again.

Oh, it’s a grind. Some days, it’s the thickest, darkest molasses and feels like I am merely mucking around. Currently, I am deep in re-arranging – moving entire chapters from end to beginning and all over. It’s a messy experiment! But, alas, I am cutting paragraphs and entire pages that no longer move the story forward – and probably never did. I discovered that I was just in love with the words. Geesh!

Occasionally, I long for the adrenalin rush of writing, especially my first draft. But then, I am caught off guard. Suddenly, something jumps out and looks completely different or new, as if someone else wrote it. Odd. Exciting! I dive into re-building an entire scene, layer by layer, and uncover pieces that need a good polish. It’s fun, but very different than writing; it’s hard to explain. Lately, I think it’s me that is different. I come to the page differently. Maybe, maybe, I am learning the patience of the finch and finally, letting my characters spread their wings and fly higher. I hope. But, of course, I want to be done, already. Fiddlesticks! Enough of this nesting!

I keep wondering why the finch removed twigs. I suppose they didn’t fit the shape of his nest anymore. Hmmm… all I know is, thank you, little bird, for inspiring me to keep on building and re-shaping my story. I want to revise like a finch – slowly, relentlessly, routinely – and be okay with all the unraveling.

It’s work. It’s my job. And, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in The Big Magic, “…90 percent of the work is quite tedious…”

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The Write Way to Retreat


Writing retreats are for writing up a storm, gazing out at lakes, snowy mountainsides, forests … free from the demands of dirty dishes, laundry, and family. Right? For me, the “retreat” part meant sleeping in and healthy snacking. And by “healthy,” I mean my appetite. I started writing first thing in the morning (ok, late morning) and stopped at bedtime, proud of what I’d accomplished.

Then one afternoon, over the crunch of pork rinds, I overheard a critique partner say, “I can write anywhere, but I can’t go to the beach anywhere.”

Lightbulb moment!

Slipping away from my computer and into my swimsuit felt like a writing crime. But exhilaration snuffed out guilt as I ugly-bodysurfed a wave back to shore where a cute lifeguard asked if I needed help. If only I’d been sixteen instead of … older. I imagined how my teen character would have felt: both thrilled and mortified, coughing up saltwater, knees stinging, another wave crashing over her head and destroying her ’do.

My writing senses kicked into high gear. Everything around had life-bringing story potential. The fishy, briny sea air. Gritty sand in my swimsuit. Seagulls squawking over a pork rind (Oops. My bad.).

So this was the retreat part of writing! Experiencing the environment. Time to tune the brain to Radio KIDS.

First experiment—waking up early: 5:15. Yuck. Still, time has an influence on story settings. Not just dark verses light. The sleepy resort town was creepy-quiet, the air fresh—no exhaust. Yesterday’s footprints had washed away, replaced by tiny, bubbling holes where sand crabs hid. Anticipation high, fingers crossed, I hoped the ocean sunrise would crest with a green flash. A blink before the big moment, a one-winged seagull distracted me and I missed it. But self-disgust turned to elation when I spotted a southbound pod of dolphins (porpoises?). All these usable emotions! And what is the difference between dolphins and porpoises anyway? How do those teeny sand crabs survive, unseen beneath tourists’ feet? How often does a green flash happen? This retreat business was adding fodder for picture book and magazine ideas as well!

Next experiment: eat like the locals. First food: scrapple. Forcing a bite into my mouth revived long-buried childhood dread when a chicken liver quivered at the end of my fork. My stomach knotted. My heart swirled with cold. Do I swallow it whole or dare to chew? (I chewed. It tastes a bit like pork rinds.) These reactions would work great in a story! Second food: crab. Holding my breath, I tried not to watch fellow diners pulling white flesh straight from crusty red legs as I popped a piece onto my tongue. I felt my facial muscles contracting into a disgusted grimace. Chugging a glass of water, I wanted nothing more than to wipe the taste away with a napkin. A kid character would do exactly that. A plethora of writing material!

Last experiment: taking it all in. People-watching on the boardwalk. Eagerly waiting in line for a haunted house, squealing when the doors banged just because it felt right. Enacting my writer’s mind. I eyeballed interesting details, sniffed and analyzed everything from waffle cones to B.O., listened to a crowd’s cacophony of voices versus the whooshing ocean below a wave, tasted the salty air, and ran my fingers over puffy plushies and sticky taffy.

And I still got a ton of writing done.

Never underestimate the benefits of a writing retreat. Kayak at sunset. Have a snowball fight. Climb a tree. Writing can be done anywhere. Retreats reignite your senses.

Experience them!

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Breaking Barriers; Inspiring Others: Author Julia Alvarez

In early November,  I had the opportunity to hear Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez (say Hoo-lia!) speak about her life and books. Julia was in Denver to celebrate her book In the Time of the Butterflies, which had been chosen as the “Big Read” for the Denver Community for 2019.

Since her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, was published in 1991, I have been an avid admirer of her writing. Her works are known for their vivid characters, multiple points of view, poetic language and her sharp insights into human nature.

Julia Alvarez signing her book, In the Time of the Butterflies.

Julia Alvarez is a powerful female voice in American and Hispanic literature. Her early novels became the first Latina works to find their way into the mainstream of American literature. Now, her books are regularly read as part of the American cannon in schools around the country. At 69-years old, she balances writing, teaching and public appearances with a calm grace.

Dwarfed by the Newman Center stage, Julia reminded me of Yoda: diminutive, humble and infinitely wise. She spoke about her life and her writing, while encouraging and inspiring the packed house of writers who filled the seats.

Here are some highlights from Julia’s wisdom about writing, reading and life. These were culled from a several sources, the presentation that I attended and others I searched out on the internet:

On Inspiration: Where do I get inspired? By the pebble in my shoe, by the thing that unsettles me, by the story that takes me out of myself and makes me see things differently. It’s the story that won’t let me go… the story that I feel I must tell. Curiosity is the place I begin.

On being a “Real Writer:” I used to think real writers started at the beginning and went through to the end, maybe making a change here or there. So I thought I wasn’t a real writer because what I did was so messy. But I know now that writing is messy, but that, when it is all said and done, being a writer is a great blessing. It’s such an honor to be able to do what I was put on this earth to do.

On History: History is the story we tell ourselves about what really happened. What we remember is always filtered through a point of view. A novel is a lens to see a story and is the truth according to character. Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history. Just the facts can’t begin to tell the full human story.

On the Power of Stories: Stories have the ability to transform, encourage empathy and spur the imagination. Stories have the ability to show us our full humanity. I believe stories have the power to change the world.

On Books: I found, at the table of literature, a place where all were welcome. Here, I entered worlds, between the covers of books, that I longed to know more about. Being a reader is the beginning of being a writer. Once you become a reader, you realize that there is one story you haven’t read… it’s the story only you can tell.

On Revising: I am an endless reviser. When you begin, you write the best book you can write at that moment. Revision is part of the process of growing and improving as a writer. Through revision you read your book as your reader would and change your book for them. You become the best advocate for your reader through revision.

On Reading and Writing: Whether we are reading or writing a book, when we see with clarity all the complexity of another person, it is an amazing connection to humanity. When we walk in another’s shoes, it is a radical, transforming experience.

On Process: I am a person of ritual and I like structure. I write every single day. Sometimes the muse comes and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing is a muscle and needs to be exercised everyday. A dancer doesn’t just dance when she feels like it, she dances and practices everyday. This is the same of a writer.

On Characters: Give thanks to your characters and the stories they came to tell you. Honor them and put them to rest. The truth your characters speak is multifaceted, and what I love about a story is that it can hold all of the complexity that exists in that situation.

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Hot Off the Shelf

My favorite part of walking into the children’s section of a bookstore is stopping to check out the displays. Books new and old invite fingers to flip through the pages and fall in love with a good book. Last month, I attended the RMC-SCBWI Fall Conference and checked in at one of the hot spots, the book store.

The great thing about conference bookstores is that they have a smaller selection and it’s easier to see all of the books exhibited. I love being exposed to oldies but goodies and recent releases from favorite and new authors. I’m exposed to books that I haven’t yet read but simply must add to my nightstand collection. It’s a great way to keep up on what styles and genres are selling in the current market.

The books being sold often include authors who are local and are attending or presenting at the conference. This is a great opportunity to support those writers that you rub elbows with in critique groups, at conferences, and whose stories you enjoy reading. One of the perks of buying at the conference, is walking over to their autograph table and getting your books signed. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you might even get a picture.

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Vacation Research and Golden Pens

By Susan Wroble

About a year ago, I opened up an email and fell in love.

The email was actually a link to articles from Live Science, and the story I fell in love with was Laura Geggel’s about a new dinosaur. The article quoted Cristiano dal Sasso of the Natural History Museum in Milan. “It is a miracle that it survived such a long chain of events: drifting away to the sea, then floating, sinking, being scavenged by marine animals, reworked by sea bottom currents, buried, uplifted within a mountain chain, and eventually blown up by human explosives.”

With a background in engineering, I love processes. I love mapping out the big picture, figuring out what comes next. And the process that transformed the dinosaur now known as Saltriovenator zanellaiinto a fossil was incredible. I couldn’t get enough.

I downloaded all the articles on Saltriovenator. I poured through the 78-page scientific paper, marking it up with different colored highlighters. I asked volunteers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Prehistoric Journey to help with the parts I didn’t understand. I started working on a draft of a nonfiction picture book about this miracle fossil. And I told my husband that if we could swing a vacation this year, because what I wanted most of all was to find out more about this dinosaur.

And last month that dream came true! From the guidebooks, I hear that Milan is full of amazing art, incredible fashion and is the gateway to the stunning Italian lake district. I am sure that is correct — but we missed those parts.

Instead, paleontologist del Sasso led me to his office and slid open a drawer — and I was able to hold one of Saltriovenator’s 200-million-year-old bones. The next day, he escorted us to a talk in the town of Guissano, north of Milan. There, we met with Angelo Zanelli, the amateur fossil hunter who, back in 1996, discovered that same dinosaur bone while searching for ammonites, then notified just the right people of his find.

I know that my manuscript has many more rounds of revision in front of it, but I was surprised and honored this weekend. At the annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (RMC-SCBWI), I was nominated for their Golden Pen award for my story “How to become a Miracle Fossil.”

And I have a new goal — I’m planning research vacations more often!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Caution: Writer behind the wheel!

“Caution: Student driver driving.”

I kept re-reading these four words as I waited in a long line at a stop sign. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this sign in the rear window of a car. I was fixated. I grinned. Then, suddenly, I bust out laughing. For gosh sakes, if anyone needs a sign in their rear window, its writers! Driving is prime thinking time; it’s when ideas hit.

For the record, I don’t imagine and drive! Well, it’s hard to explain. I guess I do. Ideas hit when I am: stuck in traffic and barely moving; in a long line at a stop sign or light; backing out of my driveway; or, have just parked. And, occasionally, I take a spontaneous detour, like when I recently saw a cathedral. I parked up close, jotted notes and drew pictures. What an excuse for arriving late! “Sorry, but, I drove 10 miles out of my way, because I needed to fine-tune a description of a building in my novel…”

So, does driving really shift something in our brains and fire up our creative engine? Researchers have found that any bodily movement builds brains, according to Kimerer LaMothe, PhD, author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. Yes, even driving! Every movement a human makes matters, and repetitive motions deepen and strengthen future attention and energy flow. Hmmm…sure sounds like typing, writing longhand, plus, all the routine movements of a writer – turning on a laptop, standing up and walking to a printer, shuffling through papers. And, don’t forget, every little movement involved in brewing coffee, tea, and tearing the wrapper off of chocolate.

After seeing that student driver sign, I came home and drafted a list (instead of revising my works in progress). Here’s my final list of signs for writer’s cars:

Caution: Writer driving.

Be patient. Writer driver decided to get rid of a character.

This vehicle makes frequent stops and turns frequently. Writer driver pulls over to scribble ideas.

How’s my driving? Call your librarian.

Imaginary load.

Warning: Stay close. Writer driver studying you in her rearview mirror. Wants her main character to have your hairdo.

Caution: Slow moving vehicle. Writer driver sighted a landmark that she wants to feature in her book.

This vehicle stops at all railroad crossings. Writer driver studying crossings for accurate portrayal in her book.

Our adult writer driver is on a Revising Roll.

Perhaps, I should relocate my office to the inside of my car – and sit in my driveway and type away! I’ll wait till fall, when the temperature drops.

 

 

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Revisiting Misty of Chincoteague

This summer I went to a writing retreat (at the beach home of my friend and critique partner, Susan) on the pleasant shores of Delaware. The house was just north of Chincoteague and Assateague, the setting of my all-time favorite book from my elementary years, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. I hadn’t thought about the book in decades, but when I looked at a map and saw how close I would be, I knew I had to reread the book and to try to catch a glimpse of the famous wild ponies for myself.

A Newbery Honor book in 1947, Misty of Chincoteague was already considered a classic when I discovered the book. The book tells the story of wild ponies, who washed ashore from a the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon in the 1600s,* and lived on the island of Assateague “alone and forever part of the rocks and streams and wind and sky.”

Set in the 1940s, the nearby town conducts a yearly round-up of the wild ponies, swimming them across the narrow part of bay and selling the foals. Paul and his sister Maureen buy the sweetest little filly, who is named Misty, along with her mother, Phanotm, the most elusive, wild mare in the herd. Through heartwarming trials and tribulations, Phantom returns to the wild and Misty remains with Paul and Maureen.

It’s always interesting to reread books we loved as children as adults. Rereading Misty of Chincoteague, I was able to reflect on what was so delightful about the book to the 10-year-old me. But, rereading the book through the lens of adulthood, there were also some disappointments.

As an animal and nature loving girl growing up in suburban Denver, the wild ponies, the windblown island, and the adventures of the Paul and Maureen, siblings who live with their grandparents on a pony farm, captured my imagination.

As I reread the book, I could remember imagining myself as Paul or Maureen, galloping my horse through the ocean surf, riding a pony into town to do chores for the neighbors, and laboring on the pony farm where I mucked the stalls and gentled the mares. In my imagination, I raked clams and gathered oysters, halter-broke colts, rode in and won a big race, and hurled myself into the sea to save a colt from drowning.

It should be noted I have never done any of those things and I never will. But as a child I loved the idea  someone out there had. The book opened up my world and let me know there are many exciting and different ways that people live.

As an adult reader, I cringed at the underlying assumptions in the book. Paul, the brother, made all the decisions and experienced most of the excitement, while Maureen was stuck in the farmhouse doing chores. It was hard to read Paul’s constant belittling of his sister for being a girl. There were volatile social, economic, and environmental issues simmering beneath the text. The grandfather’s dialect was nearly impossible to read and his over-the-top adult moralizing set my teeth on edge. It wasn’t the exciting adventure story I remembered. In many ways it was just a flawed, old-fashioned children’s book.

But there I was… one hour away. Despite the summer traffic and tourist crowds we woke early and made the pilgrimage to Assateague Island National Seashore. We knew from our research the wild ponies are elusive and often visitors do not see them.

When we drove over the bridge onto the Assateague Island, there they were. The band of wild ponies grazed on the salt grass as the wind blew their manes and tails and the sunlit Atlantic sparkled behind them. The stallion imperiously watched his band, as a trio of juvenile males hung around looking wistful. A little foal with Misty’s coloring, gold and silver with a blaze down her forehead nuzzled and nursed as her mother, reminiscent of the wild mare Phantom, eyed me warily.

Just as my 10-year-old self knew, the wild ponies were special beyond belief. Seeing them was absolutely delightful. All my adult cynicism was suddenly gone and I was left with the magic of the moment. I was in a spectacular place, led by the power of a book, imagination and memory.

 

*This is a myth. Assateague National Seashore scientists have determined that the ponies are descendants of ponies grazed by colonial farmers on the island to avoid taxes.

 

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Bookstore Finds

I recently took a stroll through the children’s department at my local bookstore and picked up several good reads that I had to share. Two of the books are adaptations of other stories, and the last one was an original.

The Night Before the Fourth of July by Natasha Wing caught my eye. I realize I’m a little late for a pre Fourth of July read, but it’s a good summertime book. The family in the story start the day by putting on their festive red, white, and blue then take off for all the favorite Fourth of July activities including a parade, BBQ, and fireworks at the end. The story told is in rhyme and Amy Wummer has amazing art to accompany this spin off of the classic, The Night Before Christmas.

There Was An Old Astronaut Who Swallowed the Moon! by Lucille Colandro does a great job of  highlighting some of the sights you can see in space. From the moon, to stars, comets, and satellites, the astronaut devours everything in the universe. In the classic tale, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, the old lady swallows things that are progressively larger, until she dies, of course. This version deviates from that format but is entertaining and has facts about space included as back matter.

I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld is told in the light of seeing the glass half full through the prospective of a child. The repetitive phrase, I wish you more, is used to highlight overcoming some of childhood’s challenges like kite flying, tying shoes, and keeping your head above water in the deep end. And finding joy in the simple things. It’s told in a playful way that keeps the story moving all the way to the heartfelt end.

What are your favorite summertime stories?

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The Squibby Notebook

By Susan Wroble

Over the years, I’ve attended a lot of conferences and workshops, but after this year’s Spring RMC-SCBWI conference, I felt that what I needed most was some way to organize the information so that it would stay relevant and useful.

That’s when it hit. I already knew how to do this! About a dozen years ago, I had taken training in document organization. In addition to writing for children, I moderate a support group for parents whose kids are twice exceptional (2e). These are highly gifted students with a myriad of learning differences, and anyone who has a special needs kid knows that the paperwork mounts quickly. There are medical reports, 504s and IEPs, neuropsych evaluations… the list is endless. In my role as facilitator, I had attended a WrightsLaw Special Education Conference, where a major part of the conference was teaching parents to manage the papers.

And so, with a nod to both dyslexia, which is a frequent piece of the 2e puzzle, and my critique group, who affectionately refers to SCBWI as “Squibby,” I present to you THE SQUIBBY NOTEBOOK, also known as Children’s Writing Resources.

You’ll need a big three-ring binder (preferably the type with plastic outside that lets you slip a paper into the front and back covers and spine), a hole punch and a pencil. Slide something eye catching in the front plastic sleeve (I use a page from an SCBWI calendar) and make a label for the spine (my label says “The Squibby Notebook”).

The hardest — and most valuable — part of this system is the Table of Contents. Create a spreadsheet (landscape orientation) with the following five columns:

  • Date
  • Name
  • Title/Profession
  • Document Type
  • Notes

 

Make a header for the Table of Contents that reads “Children’s Writing Resources.” And then start filling in information on the spreadsheet. The “Notes” section is the most important. That’s where you connect the dots, linking this document to one or more of your works in progress. The notes section reminds you of why that document is important.

And then you file documents chronologically: oldest in front, newest at the back. With the pencil, date each document on the bottom right-hand corner. One of the beauties of this system is that each time you attend a webinar, workshop, or conference, you update that Table of Contents, and in the process review what the notebook holds. You’ll know which agents and editors you’ve seen and when you saw them. And with luck, by keeping the lessons at the top of your brain, and the documents corralled, you’ll shorten that journey from idea to publication. Happy filing!

 

 

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Hot Trend: Picture Book Biographies

Picture book biographies are one of the hottest trends in children’s book publishing. From mathematicians to ancient astronomers to obscure inventors, picture books are bringing inspiration and understanding about how real people impact the world in which they live.

My published works are early reader biographies, so I have experienced researching and writing about people with an inspiring story to tell. I admire the people I write about and enjoy the challenge of conveying their story, as well as their life and times, to young readers.

My next project is a picture book biography. To understand what publishers are looking for, I have read hundreds of picture book biographies, which has been an education in itself. I have been awed and inspired by the lives depicted in the books.

Over and over, I have learned about people whose stories are not well known, but who lived compelling lives. The new crop of picture book biographies contain stories of courageous people who overcame challenges, while others highlight someone who saw a problem in the world and dedicated their life to a solution. The books show how creativity and inventiveness led to inspired lives or how a person’s moral or intellectual strength gives a person direction and meaning. Such stories inspire readers to pursue their own passions with hope and determination.

A picture book biography is limited in scope- 32 or 40 pages, 1,000 or so words. It also must be written to appeal to a child’s understandings. A cradle to grave exploration of a person’s life is not possible given the format or the audience. These authors have winnowed down the stories to their essence in purposeful and imaginative ways.

As an author and not an illustrator, it has been interesting to me to study how the text and the pictures work together to tell the story in a picture book biography. The author does not need to expend words describing how their subject looks or the setting, because the pictures can surround the words with those details. The text is as carefully rendered as the pictures, with each of the words adding to the story.

After reading so many picture books biographies, I highly recommend them for children and adults. I’ve included the titles of twenty books that stood out for me… and left many more off this list.  I hope the intriguing titles will draw you in and make you want to read them or to share them with a child. Prepare to be inspired.

  • I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley
  • Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee
  • The Boo-Boo’s That Changed the World: A True Story About an Accidental Invention (Really!) by Barry Wittenstein and Chris Hsu
  • Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented by Tanya Lee Stone and Steven Salerno
  • Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood and Sally Wern Comport
  • Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid-Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World by Kim Tomsic and Brett Helquist
  • Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Melissa Iwai
  • The House That Jane Built: A Story About Jane Addams by Tanya Lee Stone and Kathryn Brown
  • The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanetter Winter
  • The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant
  • Away With Words” The Daring Story of Isabella Bird by Lori Mortensen and Kristy Caldwell
  • When Angels Sing: The Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana by Michael Mahin and Jose Ramirez
  • Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing by Dean Robbins and Lucy Knisley
  • Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark and Katy Wu
  • The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham
  • Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly and Laura Freeman
  • Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson
  • Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor and Laura Beingessner
  • Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh and Raul Colon

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