Friday, January 8, 2016

Melissa Stewart: My Most Critical Writing Tool

I began my first nature notebook in 1989, while taking an ecology class in college. Initially, I used it to record observations I made during field trips we took as part of the class. I still have that notebook, and I sometimes refer back to it for information as well as inspiration.

My professor recommended that we purchase a specific brand of notebook and waterproof pen. He told us to keep the notebook in a plastic bag, so it wouldn’t get wet, and suggested that we keep a small ruler in an envelope secured to the inside front cover. Of course, I followed all his recommendations, but over time, I’ve developed my own persnickety notebook habits.

For many years, I only pulled out my notebooks when I went hiking or explored natural areas near my home. But in 1996, I began a special notebook, a travel log, when I went on safari in Africa. After that, I kept a special notebook for each major trip I took—the Galapagos Islands, the Costa Rican rainforest, the coral reefs off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Hawaii, the Florida Everglades. Those travel logs now reside in special folders inside a giant file cabinet in my office, and I pull material from one or more of them for almost every book I write.

When I became a fulltime freelance writer in 2000, an account advised me to keep records of how I spent my days to use as evidence if I was ever audited by the IRS.

At first, each entry was just a brief listing of projects I worked on each day.

But soon they evolved into much more. Today they are a hodgepodge of everything from lists of books I want to read to research notes to snippets of poetry.

They include sketches and observations, lists of title ideas, and thoughts about how to structure manuscripts in progress. 

My notebooks might seem like a cluttered mess to someone else, but not to me. By keeping all kinds of thoughts and ideas together in one place, I always seem to be able to go back and find what I need when I need it. 

I never go anywhere without my notebook, and I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s my most critical writing tool.

One thing I like to do in my notebook when I’m out exploring is make quick lists of observations. I write down anything that makes an impression on me, and then I try to use the observations to write a haiku. 

During a recent week-long residency at Wealthy School in East Grand Rapids, MI, I accompanied a group of students in grades 3-5 to a local wetland. I was intrigued by three female mallard ducks furiously feeding, probably because they wanted to fatten up before migrating. 

One student said, “It looks like their heads are vibrating.” What a great comment! That was all the inspiration I needed to start writing.

Here are the notes I took:

You can see I used pencil because I wanted to be able to erase. Based on those notes, here’s the first haiku I wrote:

Three female ducks
shaking, quaking, vibrating,
furiously feeding.

I wasn’t totally satisfied with that, so I left some blank space in my notebook. I thought I might give it another try later. 

Sure enough, while I was eating dinner, I had an idea. I realized that if I showed a photo I had taken of the ducks along with the haiku, I could use my words more wisely. 

Thanks to the photo, I didn’t need the first line of the haiku at all. Readers could see the three mallard ducks I was writing about. That allowed me to include some information about the setting.

Here is my revision:

Three vibrating heads
in a shallow wetland,
furiously feeding.

What do you think? Which version do you like better?

Melissa Stewart is the author of more than 150 science books for children, including FEATHERS: NOT JUST FOR FLYING (Charlesbridge, 2014, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen), an ALA Notable and winner of the Cybils Award for Nonfiction and the Nerdy Book Club Award for Nonfiction. She is the co-author (with Nancy Chelsey) of PERFECT PAIRS: USING FICTION AND NONFICTION PICTURE BOOKS TO TEACH LIFE SCIENCE, K-2 (Stenhouse, 2014). To learn more about Melissa and her work, please visit her website

I am very grateful to National Geographic, one of Melissa's publishers, for offering a giveaway of these three wonderful nonfiction books - SNAKES, DEADLIEST ANIMALS, and METEORS - to one lucky commenting winner! Please leave your comment by Sunday, January 31 to be entered into the drawing.  

As winners have sometimes not claimed their books, I would like to remind you that I will announce this month's winner in this space on January 31, and I will also make announcements at my Twitter page and at The Poem Farm Facebook page. Please consider following either of those pages if you would like to receive such updates.

Please know that Sharing Our Notebooks welcomes all kinds of notebook keepers - of any age and interest - to open up their pages and share process.  If you are interested in writing in this space, please contact me, Amy, directly.

Please share a comment below if you wish.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

We Have Two Winners of Tanny McGregor's Books!

Many New Year Congratulations to the winners Tanny McGregor's books! Jennifer has won a copy of COMPREHENSION CONNECTIONS, and Gretchen Egner has won a copy of GENRE CONNECTIONS.  Winners, please write to me at amy at amylv dot com with your snail mail addresses, and I will send them along to Tanny.

If you have not yet done so, please be sure to read Tanny's inspiring and beautiful post full of notebook joy.  You can find it HERE..  Thank you, Tanny, for this peek into your process and your sharing of your books.

Our first notebook poster of 2016 will be scientist and science writer Melissa Stewart.  I can't wait to share her words with you this week.

Please know that Sharing Our Notebooks welcomes writers, artists, notebook keepers of all ages, stripes, professions, and interests here on this notebook-celebration-blog. If you, or someone you know, is interested in sharing in this space, please simply drop me a line at amy at amylv dot com.

Please share a comment below if you wish.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tanny McGregor: Notebooks Make Life More Meaningful

When I was a little girl growing up in the 70’s, I loved to read. I borrowed books from the Bookmobile each week, anxiously awaited the arrival of my Scholastic Book Club selection in the mailbox each month, and cherished the books I was given for my birthday. These books became my friends, and I still own most of them today. 

Even as much as I loved books filled with beautiful, interesting words, there was something else I loved even more: books that were empty. Notebooks. Journals. Business ledgers. Appointment books. Planners. Calendars. Sketchbooks. My heart would literally race with anticipation when I’d get my hands on a new notebook. For me, a volume of blank pages defined possibility. It could be anything I wanted it to be! Just let me draw, doodle, paste, collect, write, jot and color. I found a brand of pens I loved and the rest was history. In this way I was an author, of page after page, of book after book.

Tanny keeps her notebooking pens in a tool roll.

Mostly I had teachers who understood. They knew I made sense of the world with a pen in my hand. I even had teachers who valued my sketchnotes enough to want copies for themselves and to share them with other students. These teachers boosted my confidence more than they knew; when they accepted my notebooks, they accepted me.

I need notebooks. They are not a luxury. If you see me at school, in my office, relaxing at home or traveling across the country, a notebook will always be nearby. They serve the usual purposes that notebooks serve, acting as a holding place for new ideas, lists and artifacts collected along the way. These are great reasons to use notebooks, but for me, there’s more.

Click to enlarge any image.

Notebooks make life more meaningful. If I’m bored, I find instant entertainment as I fill a blank page. When things seem out of control, notebooks give me a place to organize the world. When I feel lonely, notebooks listen and accept what I’m thinking without judging. Likewise, when everything is wonderful and life feels great, notebooks celebrate with me! With a notebook, I’m mindful. With a notebook, I’m metacognitive. With a notebook, I’m me.

What kinds of notebooks am I keeping right now? 

daily gratitude spiral
concert ticket notebook
professional learning journal
graphic notes collection for an upcoming book
travel log
various other little notebooks in random places in my house, office and car

If you want to explore your creativity, learn to sketchnote or just slow yourself down on a busy day, pick up a notebook. Even spending 5 or 10 minutes a day with pen in hand can get you started.  Write something. Draw something. Tape something in. Let me know how it goes!

Tanny McGregor is a teacher, reader & writer who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her favorite moments include working with kids and teachers to make school a better place.  Tanny has authored two books and coauthored a third:


You can connect with Tanny on Twitter @TannyMcG and by email at  Learn more about her work HERE at the Heinemann website.

Thank you so much to Tanny for generously donating copies of her two books, COMPREHENSION CONNECTIONS and GENRE CONNECTIONS to two commenters on this post.  Please comment by Thursday, December 31 to be entered into this drawing.

Happy Notebooking New Year to All!
Please share a comment below if you wish.

Congratulations to Winners of Books by Peter Catalanotto!

Congratulations to Cheri Hall and Kristi Veitenheimer, winners of books by author and illustrator Peter Catalanotto! Cheri has won MONKEY AND ROBOT and Kristi has won THE NEWBIES.  Winners, please write to me at amy at amylv dot com with your snail mail addresses and the names to which you would like your books inscribed, and I will send the information along to Peter.

If you have not yet done so, please be sure to read Peter's wonderful post about his notebooks and the messiness of creativity.  You can find it HERE.  Much much gratitude to Peter for his words, his art, and his generosity in donating, signing, and sending these books.

Our next poster will be author and educator Tanny McGregor.  I am so excited to share her notebooks with you later today.  Tanny will be our final poster for 2015.

Please know that I welcome writers, artists, notebook keepers of all ages, stripes, professions, and interests here on this notebook-celebration-blog. If you, or someone you know, is interested in sharing in this space, please simply drop me a line at amy at amylv dot com.

Please share a comment below if you wish.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Peter Catalanotto: Creativity is Messy

In my notebooks I write but I also sketch, because I think with pictures. Actually, half the people in our country think with pictures. If writing is frustrating for you, try drawing your ideas first--then when you write, you're simply describing your pictures!

When writing in my notebook it's important for me to write down imaginary thoughts as well as real ones because most of the ideas for my stories are a combination of my real life and my imagination. No matter how strange or silly a story is, it usually starts with something true from the writer's life. For instance, in my alphabet book, MATTHEW ABC, a teacher has 25 kids in her class and they're all named Matthew. The idea came from the fact that when I was in kindergarten there were two kids in my class named Peter. I was Peter C., the other boy was Peter S. I simply exaggerated real life to create a story!

Try this: the next time something happens in your life that disappoints you or makes you sad, write about it in your notebook--writing often helps us understand our feelings and things that happen to us. Then when you feel better, write what could have happened instead; what you wish happened!

Before I create a picture in a book, I sketch in my notebook how I want the picture to look. Here's a sketch from my book MORE OF MONKEY & ROBOT.

Click to Enlarge this Image

I never use my first ideas when I write and draw. First ideas are not very good. Writers and artists need to find their best ideas! Writing and drawing is exploring ideas. Even though your first draft or sketch isn't the best, don't throw it away! Look at it so you can see how to make it better!

Some ideas in my notebooks are for stories, like these notes for my book EMILY'S ART, and some things are just for fun because I love to sketch.

Click to Enlarge this Image

Remember, creativity is messy. A notebook is a great place to keep your mess! Have fun!

Peter Catalanotto grew up in East Northport, New York. He has illustrated 47 books for children, 17 of which he wrote. Peter has visited over 1600 schools in 40 states. In 2008, he was commissioned by the First Lady to paint the White House holiday brochure and currently teaches the first children’s book writing class offered at Columbia University and his alma mater; Pratt Institute. For more information go to:

Much gratitude to Peter himself for offering signed book giveaways to two commenters on this post.  One will win MONKEY AND ROBOT and the other will win Peter's newest book, THE NEWBIES.  Please leave your comment by Sunday, December 6 to be entered into this drawing.

Please share a comment below if you wish.

Congratulations to Linda Booth Sweeney!

Congratulations to Linda Booth Sweeney, winner of K.A. Holt's wonderful new book, HOUSE ARREST.  Linda, please send me a message with your snail mail address, and I will send it along to Chronicle.

Everyone - please don't miss K.A.'s great about her many kinds of notebooks and an idea to try too!  You can find it HERE.  Thank you so much, K.A. for giving us this peek.  And thank you to Chronicle Books for the generous donation of HOUSE ARREST.

Our next poster will be author and  illustrator Peter Catalanotto, and I am tickled to be able to showcase his notebooks here...later today!

Please know that I welcome writers, artists, notebook keepers of all ages, stripes, professions, and interests here on this notebook-celebration-blog.  If you, or someone you know, is interested in sharing in this space, please simply drop me a line at amy at amylv dot com.

Happy almost Thanksgiving!  I am thankful to be part of this community.

Please share a comment below if you wish.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

K.A. Holt: The Satisfaction of Jotting


They are the genesis of any book I write (and the format of my two most recent books). At least one notebook is in my bag wherever I go. I have them on my desk. I have them in the kitchen. They are in the living room on the little table by the lamp. There is one for poetry I write when I travel,

one for poetry I write at home, and one suction-cupped to the wall in my shower (for real). Every manuscript I work on has at least one notebook dedicated to it.

And, lo! When it is school supply buying season, my cart is so filled with spiral notebooks it is almost (almost) embarrassing.

I use notebooks to brainstorm, to organize, and often to actually write parts of my first drafts. Then, once my draft is finished and I’m on to revisions, I use a notebook to keep track of plot threads.

I have pages that serve as repositories for sticky notes so that I can really see my progress towards the finish line.

It probably wouldn’t be possible for me to write a book without notebooks. They are an extension of my brain and they offer freedom that I can’t seem to find in a blank computer screen. This is a discovery Timothy makes in my newest book HOUSE ARREST.

In HOUSE ARREST, Timothy is court ordered to keep a journal and he thinks it’s a terrible idea. But as he gets used to writing little notes and ideas he begins to discover his voice. Soon, Timothy can’t imagine not having his notebook. It gives him an outlet, and he realizes that sometimes it’s much easier to write your feelings than it is to say them out loud.

In my book RHYME SCHEMER, Kevin’s notebook is a little different.

He uses it to write ideas and thoughts, too, but he also uses it to write poems. And not just typical poems. Kevin takes pages from books that have already been written, and he uses those words to make little poems of his own. At first he doesn’t even realize it’s poetry. It’s just a way for him to use his notebook to express himself. He knows that the things he writes don’t have to be perfect, they’re just interesting ideas that tickle his brain.

In a notebook you have the satisfaction of jotting down an idea and then slashing through it when it’s terrible. BUT, even with that slash it’s not gone. So maybe when you get to your third draft, your fourth, your fifth, when you finally know your main character and what he or she is after, you can flip through your notes, see the slashed through idea and think, “Wait a second now… maybe if I just do this [another note is added with an arrow pointing to the first one] then everything will work just right!” There is something glorious in the permanence of notes in a notebook, even the slashed through ones.

Several months ago, I was alerted to a crowd-funding site where someone is creating a notebook that will send your notes into the cloud. But wait… there’s more! You can also microwave it once it’s filled with notes, so that you can start all over again after you upload everything. Of course I ordered one just to test it out, but I will admit I’m skeptical. Even if the microwaving works, and I could just use one notebook forever, I don’t know if notes in the cloud are going to cut it. I need to see my scribbles. I need to feel the pages. I need the visceral experience of words on a page.

Plus, how could I ever microwave away the little messages I find? With so many notebooks around the house, my kids know exactly where to find me.

Want to try something fun with your notebook? Find a magazine or newspaper, some scissors, glue, and a black marker. Rip or cut a page from the magazine or newspaper and glue it into your notebook. Then, take your black marker and circle the coolest words on the page. You can try to make a sentence with the cool words, but you don’t have to. Once they’re circled, use the black marker to color over all the other words. Bam! Look at the awesome poem you just made!

K.A. Holt is the author of several books for young people, including the new middle grade verse novel HOUSE ARREST, and RHYME SCHEMER, a Bank Street Best Book of 2014 and an Amazon Best Book for Kids and Teens. She lives in Austin, TX and eats a lot of tacos.  You can find her online HERE.  If you'd like to see inside of K.A. Holt's studio, you can do so HERE at All the Wonders.

Thank you to Chronicle Books for donating a copy of  K.A.' new book, HOUSE ARREST, to a commenter on this post.  Please leave your comment by Tuesday, November 17 to be entered to win.

Please share a comment below if you wish.