June 17, 2011

Writing Kids' Activity Books: Getting Started -- Solar Oven

Welcome! Brandon, Mary Kay and I hope you’ll find Hands-On Books both interesting and useful. In fact, Mary Kay and Brandon first got me into writing books with hands-on activities.
About six years ago I started writing nonfiction for kids. (Long before I’d majored in history in college. In grad school for journalism at Northwestern, I took science writing, which intrigues me.)

For my first effort, I researched and wrote a middle grade biography about Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, the African-American plant chemist who synthesized cortisone from soybeans in the 1930s, when cortisone came only from animal sources and was so expensive it arrived at hospitals in armored cars. Why Dr. Julian? He was my neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois, when I was a little girl -- though I never met him. All his life, he overcame racism -- when he tried to study chemistry in Alabama and when he bought a house in Oak Park. Just before I was born (in 1951), his house was firebombed. As a black family, the Julians weren’t welcome to some who lived in this lovely Chicago suburb.
So…there I was with a manuscript….and no way of knowing how to get it published. I joined the local group of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and started going to meetings in Cincinnati, where I live. We talked about queries….and proposals….and submissions…and editors….and rejection….
When I arrived at an SCBWI meeting with an armful of books on Isaac Newton, Mary Kay and Brandon suggested I get in touch with their editor at Chicago Review Press to see if he'd like a book on Newton. That I did, and I wrote a proposal, brainstormed fifteen activities (at least 21 go into each CRP title), and low and behold, I got a contract!
I still haven’t found a home for my biography about Percy Julian, but two years ago, my first book, Isaac Newton & Physics for Kids: His Life and Times, was published by Chicago Review Press. Since then, I’ve written three more books.
With summer’s light and heat upon us, I’d like to share one of my favorite activities from my Newton book. “Power to the Parabola” explains a concept about the hand-sized reflecting telescope that Newton designed and built. Inside is a small concave mirror that captures light.
To illustrate the concept of how this mirror works, kids can build a small solar oven -- and roast a marshmallow. Sunny days rule!


  1. The blog looks awesome, ladies. I've added you to my Bookmark Bar.

    Katy Duffield

  2. Looks like you ladies are off to a great start with your blog!