Reading and Writer’s Block

Recently our local Arizona indie bookstore, Changing Hands, held a stellar event for those interested in children’s books. Changing Hands does a wonderful job attracting dynamic and popular kidlit authors and illustrators, as well as others industry insiders, to give an annual panel discussion (in the past they have featured local author Stephenie Meyer).

The discussion this time was lively and entertaining, an informative exchange between the experts and the audience. At one point an audience member brought up the topic of writer’s block. Two of the participants stated something that surprised me. They admitted that reading their way out of writer’s block did not work for them.

One author said that he had read a lot as a kid and before he became a writer. Now that he writes, however, he doesn’t want to read anything. First of all, when he has his editor mind working, he finds himself being critical of others. Also, he admits that he is afraid he will pick up other writer’s voices, something that certainly does happen.

Another panel member chimed in that he doesn’t read either. He is concerned he will read something really fantastic (he mentioned Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), and it would be too discouraging. He thought it would make him want to quit because he would compare himself to that standard and not be able to reach it.

These remarks make a lot of sense. I had always thought that writer’s block occurred when “your well is empty” and you need to read to refurbish yourself. Maybe reading doesn’t make you a better writer after all, at least not when you are actively writing.

Another panel member suggested that blocks are often the result of problems you don’t know the solution to yet, and that walking away or free writing might help the process along. Going to a movie or taking a walk might give that part of your brain that is chugging away on the problem a chance to finish processing.

I have to admit that when I have “my editor’s hat on,” I find it extremely difficult to be creative. Recently I had a copy editing job that continued on for several weeks. Every time I set down the job and tried to do my own writing I would stumble around looking for the perfect words for each sentence I wrote. Now the job is over, the words flow.

What do you do when you are struggling with writing? What do you think of the idea that reading might not be helpful?

Dinotrux Makes Prehistoric Impact in Preschooler World

Dinotrux is a new picture book by Tucson author/illustrator Chris Gall that has made a truck-sized impact on the children’s lit world.

You may have heard the buzz or seen the blog posts: “What a great idea!” “Why didn’t I think of that?” “He’s got a deal with DreamWorks already!” “A book preschool boys will love.”

To get an idea of what the clamor is all about, take a look at the book trailer.

The trailer is funny, clever and well, animated. When I picked up the book I wanted Cementosaurus make facial expressions. (Note to self: don’t make your book trailer so fantastic people want your illustrations to move.) As you can see, the book is wonderful. The names of each dinotrux is based on real dinosaur names like “Dumplodocus,” the dump truck version of Diplodocus. Who wouldn’t find Dozeratops, the Craneosaurus, the Semisaur appealing?. The story isn’t complex; this is a field guide to dinosaur/trucks.

Chris Gall admits he changed his illustration style for this book. The illustrations are darker hues than his previous books with heavy lines giving it a more retro look, probably to reflect the dim past. Gall says he wanted to represent how fiery and dangerous it was in the time of Dinotrux (the shading reminds me of the illustrations in Chris Van Allsburg’s Two Bad Ants). Gall says he creates his illustrations both by hand and on the computer and often goes back and forth between the two.

Dinotrux is incredibly imaginative and humorous. It will definitely be a smash with preschoolers interested in trucks and/or dinosaurs.

Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers (June 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0316027774
ISBN-13: 978-0316027779
Product Dimensions: 11.9 x 9.2 x 0.6 inches

Wonderful Windmills

Wind and windmills were “hot” topics at our house last week, and therefore I was pleased to find The Wind at Work: An Activity Guide to Windmills by Gretchen Woelfle. Even though it is an older book (1997), it virtually stands alone on the topic of wind power and windmills for children.

Wind at Work covers the history and social aspects of using wind as a power source in great detail. From the early Persian windmills, through the use of windmills to pump water in the American West, Gretchen Woefle has done her homework. She provides many fascinating historical tidbits, such as how the saying “rule of thumb” came about. Who knew that the official seal of New York City has a windmill on it because windmills were so critical to early New Yorkers? In the final chapter, titled “Fulfilling the Promise,” Woefle explores the future potential of wind turbines as a renewable energy source. Even if you had some inkling of about wind power, Woelfe really brings home how important windmills and wind turbines were to our past and are to our future.

The chapters in this book are well-researched and clearly written. The accompanying activities, however, are a bit of a disappointment. Rather than emphasizing and/or clarifying concepts from the text of the chapter where they are included, the activities often seem to fit awkwardly. For example, for the chapter on ancient wind machines, the activity is to make a weather vane and wind sock. I think those would have fit better with the chapter on “A Windmiller’s Life” where the author says that the windmillers were the village weathermen. The “A Windmiller’s Life” chapter contains an activity to draw a landscape. The examples shown are landscapes with windmills, but the activity doesn’t suggest to draw windmills or even try to incorporate the idea of wind, simply draw a landscape. Surprisingly, the book does not contain a single activity for making a pinwheel, model windmill or even a kite that moves by wind.

Weaknesses with the activities aside, Wind at Work brings deserved attention to an often-overlooked topic. For those interested in wind as a power source, in history and/or in some of the modern environmental issues concerning wind power, this book stands out from the rest like a proud windmill at the top of a hill.

Reading level: Ages 9-12
Paperback: 156 pages
Publisher: Chicago Review Press; 1st edition (June 28, 1997)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1556523084
ISBN-13: 978-1556523083

From the same author, based on a true story:
Katje, the Windmill Cat (Paperback)
by Gretchen Woelfle (Author), Nicola Bayley (Illustrator)

If you are interested in some hands-on projects related to wind, visit Wind Power at my Growing With Science blog.


Nonfiction Monday is a blogging celebration of nonfiction books for kids. For more information, stop by Picture Book of the Day.

Who Buys Books for Boys?

I have read that tween/teen boys don’t buy books for themselves, so this weekend I decided to do a bit of market research. I went to a large chain bookstore at a mall and observed the children’s and teen’s sections.

The first group I encountered was a young teen with his grandparents. The boy actually had picked out a book he wanted to buy. It was about aliens. Grandma was not happy about his choice and said the book was too expensive. The boy then assured her that he had his own money and would pay for it himself (the book was $15). Grandpa wanted to know what the book was about. The boy read a short section about a town preparing for an alien invasion. Grandpa immediately decided it wasn’t a fit book for his grandson. “You can’t buy that book,” he said. Even though the boy assured them he would read it if he bought it, they left the store without the book.

A few minutes later I overheard a mom with her teenage daughter asking a clerk what to buy a 13-year-old boy. The middle-aged saleswoman immediately sprung into action, telling the mom about three books that she had read and really enjoyed. The clerk listed reasons why a boy would like each one and the mom pounced. She bought all three books, all fiction. Her daughter also picked out a book and bought it.

I almost missed the third boy, a quiet tween. I found him in the adult nonfiction, his nose in a book about the civil war. He read eagerly until his dad called him. He shoved the book back on the shelf.

What did I learn from this investigation? First of all, that books for teens have to pass through an adult filter. Will this book please grandpa, the middle-aged saleswoman and mom as well as a teen boy? Seems like a difficult challenge to make a book that pleases everyone. You have to wonder how well the teen boy is being served, especially when a busy bookstore saleswoman or librarian who reads a lot of books is the first in line making the choices. Her taste will be pretty sophisticated, whether she realizes it or not. Now that the economy is tight, the choices she makes are even more critical. Will boy favorites like graphics books, comics and nonfiction be pushed aside?

As for the boy in adult nonfiction, I think his story is the most important of all. I checked the teen nonfiction section. It was virtually empty, unless you were interested in a popstar biography or the lastest movie tie-in. Boys need young adult nonfiction, but there isn’t much available. The choice is to read adult nonfiction, sometimes with clearly inappropriate adult content.

I think I raised more questions than I answered in this trip. What do you think? Do you buy books for boys?

If you want to learn more about teenage boys and books, see
Teacher Librarian Volume 30, Number 3, February 2003
Overcoming the obstacle course: Teenage boys and reading
Patrick Jones & Dawn Cartwright Fiorelli