Thursday, December 21, 2017

Enginerds, Robots, and Farts!

Have you ever met an author online and had an instant connection because he is hilarious, brilliant, and extremely generous with his praise for other authors? I have and his name is Jarrett Lerner. This amazing guy recently released his book, ENGINERDS. Mysterious boxes, creative kids, and farting robots will make you laugh hard enough to snort, as you turn page after quick-paced page. We were thrilled when Jarrett agreed to answer some questions for our blog. Read on to find out more about his process. You may even snatch up some free writing advice!
AMS/ER: People say authors write what they know. Why robots?

JL: It’s true that some people say, “Write what you know,” but there are other people who say, “Rules are meant to be broken.” For certain writers, writing what you don’t know is often more fruitful – not to mention more fun! I had no idea what might happen if one day a mysterious box with a robot inside of it showed up on a kid’s doorstep. By writing that story, I found out.

AMS/ER: How do you think of great ideas?

JL: I don’t know where ideas come from – if I did, I’d be there right now, scooping up as many of them as I could! What I do know, however, is that my best ideas always come to me when I’m doing three things:

The first is reading. The best way to get your brain looking for ideas of its own is to expose it to the ideas of others.

The second thing is exploring. I don’t mean you have to go on a trip to a faraway land or have some dangerous adventure. You can explore every second of every day, even if you’re just going to school and eating dinner with your family, simply by being present and observant, keeping aware, and using all of your senses.

The third thing is dreaming, and that’s when you let your ideas and your experiences dance to the unique tune of your own imagination. It’s when you sit around and just let your mind wander and wonder.

Do these three things – read, explore, and dream – and soon enough you’ll have more ideas than you know what to do with.

AMS/ER: Where did the idea for ENGINERDS come from?

JL: Like I said, I don’t know exactly where my ideas come from. But when it comes to EngiNerds, I’ve got a guess.

Here are two facts about me: I like to read about robots and I’m always getting packages in the mail. Usually the boxes are full of books or pet food or art supplies. One day, perhaps after reading about robots, I was picking up a box off my porch when I thought, “Hey. What if it wasn’t pet food in here. What if it was a robot?”

Once I’d asked myself that, about a billion more what if? questions popped into my head. I was so curious to find out the answers to them all that I wrote a whole book to do so.

AMS/ER: Were you or are you still an EngiNerd?

JL: An EngiNerd is someone who is curious about the world around them, who is interested in how things work, and who every now and again likes to get their hands dirty and make something. So yes – I’m definitely an EngiNerd!

AMS/ER: Where do you like to write?

JL: I write anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes it’s on my couch with my cat on my lap. Sometimes it’s in my bed with my wife snoring beside me. Sometimes it’s in my study, surrounded by all my favorite books. Sometimes it’s on a train or a plane or in a hotel or a cafĂ©.

I don’t like to limit myself to one spot, because then if I can’t actually be in that spot I can still “get in the zone” and write. I also find that some places are better for some kinds of writing, while other places are better for other kinds of writing.

AMS/ER: Did you want a robot as a kid?

JL: Of course I did! Who wouldn’t want a robot?! I still want one – as long as it doesn’t eat all the food in my house and fart speeding food cubes at me, that is…

AMS/ER: Why not radishes?

JL: Because whether we try to or not, we always leave an imprint of ourselves on what we create. Also, I just thought it was funny – which is the reason I write a lot of the things I write!

AMS/ER: What is your dream food cube?

JL: My dream food cube would contain a couple dozen banoffee pies and a carton or two of cold milk.

AMS/ER: How long did it take you to write ENGINERDS?

JL: I wrote the first draft of EngiNerds very quickly – but then wrote another draft, and then another draft, and then another draft. Then my agent read it and made me write another draft. Then my editor read it and made me write another, and another, and another. Then my copy-editor read it and had me do it all over again…

Writing a book is long and hard, and most of that time is spent revisiting and revising what you’ve already revisited and revised what feels like a million times. A first draft is just you telling yourself the story you have knocking around in your head. Every draft after that is you getting closer and closer to the perfect way to tell everyone else that story.

AMS/ER: What is your next book?

JL: My next book will be a sequel to EngiNerds. I can’t tell you too much about it, but I can say that in it: Kitty becomes obsessed with a very important sock, a rather curious cloud appears in the sky, and a female EngiNerd who might be even smarter than John Henry Knox himself joins the crew. 

Questions our first grade students think all authors should answer:

First Graders: How do you concentrate?

JL: I make sure my stomach is full and my bladder is empty, then I take some deep breaths and try to clear my head. If that doesn’t work, rather than beat myself up about it, I’ll read a little bit or go for a walk, then come back later to whatever it is I was trying to concentrate on before. 

First Graders: Why did you become an author?

JL: I became an author because I can’t get enough of stories. I’ve always loved listening to them and reading them and, soon after I learned to read, I discovered I enjoyed telling them, too. Stories can be exciting, entertaining, and enchanting. They can let you see through the eyes of someone whose life you otherwise might not get to know a single thing about. They allow you to experience things – distant lands, made-up lands, moments both painful and triumphant – by simply moving your eyes across a page and using your imagination.

Stories are magic, and I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time than by bringing a little magic into other people’s lives.

First GradersHow did you become an author?

JL: I read and read and read and wrote and wrote and wrote, then I read some more and wrote some more and then I did it all over again. Eventually I started sharing my stories with others, finding and befriending people who wrote the sorts of things I did, and reaching out to authors to learn what they did in order to get their stories made into books. If you want to become an author, you can do the same: read, write, share, and ask for help.

First Graders: How did you get famous?

JL: Me, famous?! I think not. How about “How did you get where you are today?” That I can answer. I did so by (1) exploring and playing around until I found the things I loved doing most, (2) doing those things as much as I could and as passionately as I could, (3) surrounding myself with other positive, creative, supportive people, and (4) never giving up.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Daddy Depot Author, Chana Stiefel, Dishes the Details on Her Latest Book and Other Writerly Questions

Meet Chana Stiefel, children’s book author. She’s funny and talented and kind enough to be a guest on our blog today. We love her latest book DADDY DEPOT and we are so excited to share her interview here.

AMS/ER: People say authors write what they know. What do you know about swapping daddies? 

CS: LOL! I know that I would never swap my Pop, or my husband. They are terrific dads & get a Lifetime Guarantee. But as DADDY DEPOT points out, no one is perfect. The best dad for you is probably the one you have. (Moms, on the other hands, are perfect in every way. Wink, wink.) 

AMS/ER: How did you get the idea for Daddy Depot?

CS: One night, at bedtime, my daughter (who was seven) was mad at her dad. We spun a story about a girl who returns her father to the Daddy Depot and goes shopping for a new one. After bedtime, I ran downstairs and started writing! Nine years later, it’s a book!

AMS/ER: Why do you think your readers relate to your book?

CS: At some point, every kid realizes that his or her parents aren’t perfect. Parents act goofy in public, they tell bad jokes, sometimes they’re glued to their phones. Despite their benign bad behavior, they give us just what we need & more. It’s a story about unconditional love.

AMS/ER: What’s your favorite joke?

CS: I’m not sure I have a favorite joke (or at least not one I can share here), but I can tell you the first joke I remember: “Why is the barn so noisy? Because the cows have horns!” When I was a kid, I thought that was the funniest thing ever. Don’t know why.

AMS/ER: Can you tell us about your own dad?

CS: I’m thinking about writing a memoir about my dad! He’s a retired plastic surgeon and also an artist--he paints, sculpts, and writes stories and songs. When I was about nine or ten years old, we climbed to the roof of my house (it was a single-story ranch) and poured paint onto a canvass just for fun. (Don’t try this at home, kids!) Right now, my dad is running a sculpture program for kids (he volunteers at a school down the road from his house). Throughout my childhood (and even today), he taught us to care for all human beings, stand up for our beliefs, love nature, and show kindness every day. Here's a picture of me picking olives with my dad in Israel last summer.

AMS/ER: What is your next book coming out? Tell us a little about it.

CS: My next non-fiction book is called ANIMAL ZOMBIES & OTHER MONSTERS IN NATURE (National Geographic Kids, September 2018). Each chapter is about different kinds of “animal monsters.” Animal zombies are parasites that take over the brains of other animals. Animal vampires are critters that suck blood. I’ve also included animal cannibals, monsters of the deep, creatures of the night, and many more. The photos will freak you out!
My next fictional picture book is called WAKAWAKALOCH. It’s a semi-autobiographical story about a cave girl who wants to change her unpronounceable name. That’s coming out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. I saw the cover by illustrator Mary Sullivan and it’s hilarious. Can’t wait to share it! I have a few other books coming up soon!

AMS/ER: What are you working on now?

CS: I’m very excited to be working on two picture book biographies and a very quiet picture book about dealing with loss. AMS: If you could have lunch with any children’s book author whom would you choose and why? CS: Oh wow. This is a tough one! I have so many favorites. Can I cheat and say KatediCamilloMoWillemsKwameAlexanderPatrickMcDonnellJKRowlingRitaWilliamsGarciaandthelateAmyKrouseRosenthal? That’s just my shortlist. They all have inspired me in so many different ways--to follow my heart, pursue my dreams, have fun, play with words, and keep writing!

Questions our first grade students think all authors should answer: 

First Graders: How do you concentrate?

CS: Squirrel! Wait! What was the question? It’s so tough these days to find quiet time to concentrate and write. Last year, I started working in a high school three days a week, so I have much less writing time than I used to. (Did I mention that I’m also the mom of four kids?) The key is to set aside strict times during the day or week, shut off any distractions, and focus. Set small goals and make deadlines: For example, “I need to finish two paragraphs by dinner time.” And then don’t get up from your chair until you’re done! (Unless nature is calling…)

First Graders: How do you think of great ideas?

CS: My ideas come from life! As I mentioned, DADDY DEPOT came from a bedtime story. WAKAWAKALOCH is based on my own hard-to-pronounce name. (It’s a throat-clearing CH like Chanukah +AH +NAH). I also find lots of fun story ideas in the news and in conversation with friends.

First Graders: Why did you become an author?

CS: My third grade teacher, Mrs. Wyman, encouraged me to write. I’ve been publishing ever since! There’s something thrilling about seeing your words transformed into a book. And writing for kids is the greatest gift. My advice is to do what you love and love what you do! (I have that saying on my favorite T-shirt.)

First Graders: How did you get famous?

CS: I’m not! At least I don’t think so. I’m not sure fame is something I want. I enjoy sharing my books with kids, stretching their imaginations, and making them think more deeply about the world around them. The last thing I would want is flashbulbs in my face distracting me from my goals.

Author Bio
Chana Stiefel is the author of more than 20 nonfiction books for kids about exploding volcanoes, stinky castles, and other fun stuff. DADDY DEPOT is her debut picture book. While she would never return her father—or her husband—to the daddy store (she likes their corny jokes too much), she worries that her kids will return her to the Mommy Market. Visit Chana at and her authors’ blog

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Finding Christmas with Lezlie Evans

We are so excited to bring you an interview from our friend and author, Lezlie Evans. She has written some amazing books for kids and we are here to share the scoop on her latest publication, FINDING CHRISTMAS. We asked and she answered. After reading, be sure to check out the Book Bite we created to use at home or in your classroom!

AMS/ER: People say authors write what they know. Did your idea for FINDING CHRISTMAS come from your own experiences?

LE: One Christmas Eve when my six children were still at home, I was swamped getting everything ready for the big day. A large pile of toys lay on our bedroom floor waiting to be wrapped. My husband offered to help and I gratefully took him up on it. He set about wrapping the gifts and finished the job in record time. But we soon realized he’d forgotten to put names on the gifts. I panicked! With no time left to buy new paper and rewrap the gifts, my husband suggested we put the presents under the tree without any names, let the children choose one at a time, open it, and then give it to the sibling they thought needed it/would love it the most. This turned out to be one of our most cherished family memories. Our children loved giving the gifts away to their delighted siblings, and my husband and I loved watching the sweet exchanges that took place. It was so much fun, our children insisted we leave the names off the Christmas presents the next year as well. That experience is very similar to when Hare, Squirrel, and Mouse give their gifts away. They find great joy, just like my children did on that memorable Christmas Eve. So I guess that experience did spark an idea! 

AMS/ER: Is Christmas your favorite holiday?

LE: I’m a holiday lover, that’s for sure. Probably because holidays provide opportunities to make memories and instill family traditions. There are so many things to love about the Christmas season – beautiful decorations, yummy treats, and buying gifts for others! Much like Hare, Squirrel, and Mouse, I love it when my little burrow fills up with family and friends and we sing one carol after another (sometimes at the top of our lungs, just like Hare)! So, yes, I’d have to say Christmas is my favorite!

AMS/ER: What advice do you have for kids who would like to give or do something for someone else?

LE: It doesn’t need to be big or complicated. Small and simple things are often the best gifts! A hug, a picture, a kind word such as saying, “come, sit by me,” to someone who needs a friend – those things can make a real difference. Giving someone your place in line, asking your teacher what you can do to help, or being the first to listen and follow directions. Those things will make your teacher’s day! Can you think of some small and simple things you can do for your family members to show kindness?

I’m super excited about the Gifts of Kindness Advent Calendar that Albert Whitman has created! It goes along with the theme of Finding Christmas. Follow the pictures and simple instructions (below) to make this fun, easy craft/advent calendar. With this advent calendar, you can fill the 24 days leading up to Christmas with all kinds of simple acts of kindness. Before you know it, your classroom or your home will be filled with the spirit of Christmas.

AMS/ER: Who do you think is the most important character in FINDING CHRISTMAS?

LE: Great question! I’m fond of all the characters, but if I have to pick one I would say Swallow is the most important. Without Swallow, there would be no story. Swallow enables the three friends to see the holiday in a whole new way. As Mouse, Squirrel, and Hare give up their gifts to help Swallow get better, they find the Christmas spirit. While authors do not usually dictate what the illustrator draws, I wanted the message to come through in a very subtle, yet powerful way. So I asked Yee Von if she would draw Swallow with her wings wrapped around the three friends in the final illustration. Yee Von’s depiction of this moment is even sweeter than I imagined!

AMS/ER: Rumor has it you have a cat as a writing partner. Tell us about that.

LE: Well, let me start off by saying that my dearest writing friend (the co-author of this blog) despises my kitty cohorts. Even though on several occasions my kitties have tried to cuddle up to her and extend a paw of friendship, she merely cringes when they come around. Ha! In all seriousness, writing is a solitary endeavor for many authors, but not for me. My two cats see to that! As soon as I sit down at the computer, Max is at my feet and Callie jumps up and sits in between the keyboard and my computer screen. They are the purrrrrfect companions! In fact, Callie loves me to read aloud to her when I am working on a story. In this video clip below, she is doing just that! She is a rather spoiled kitty, don’t you think?

AMS/ER: What is your next book coming out? Tell us a little about it.

LE: DADDIES DO is a rhythmic, rhyming shout-out to daddies everywhere. From a daddy bird who teaches his little bird to fly, to a anteater who makes his little ones a sticky stack of pancakes dripping with ants, these animal pairings prove that though daddies come in all shapes and sizes, they all have one thing in common… their love for their little ones! DADDIES DO will be out in time for Father’s Day next spring. Look for it on May 1st.

Questions our first grade students think all authors should answer: 

First Graders: How do you concentrate?

LE: My children are grown and gone now so my house is very quiet. This helps me concentrate because I don’t have a lot of distractions. If I really want to get something done though, I turn off my phone. Sometimes, if I am really struggling coming up with an idea or revising a certain passage, I have to get up and walk around the house for a bit. This clears my head. Sometimes it helps me get in the mood to write if I turn on music. For the pioneer novel I am working on I have a whole soundtrack of songs I have compiled that inspire me and put me in that time period.

First Graders: How do you think of great ideas?

LE: Great ideas are all around us! And the beautiful thing is my ideas are different than your ideas. I firmly believe that everybody has their own unique stories to tell. Many of my best ideas come because I make an effort to notice things. I like watching people. I like to eavesdrop! That may sound funny, but so many ideas have come to me from overhearing something somebody says that strikes me as funny. And I spend a lot of “quiet” time thinking about things too. Especially before I go to sleep at night. Then I’ll wake up in the morning and POW! I have a new idea. Early in the morning is when I seem to get my best ideas.

First Graders: Why did you become an author?

LE: Because I loved reading books with my six children and I wanted to write stories that allowed others to do the same. My kids and I used to check out dozens of books each week. At any given time, we had 50 library books in the house. One night when I was reading with my kids I thought, this is what I want to do when I grow up. I want to write for children. And so studied how to do it, I practiced writing stories, I worked at revising those stories, and, miracle of miracle, I became a published author!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Holiday Gift that Kept on Giving: writing a children’s book song parody

Check out our guest post from children’s book author Sue Fliess!

The Holiday Gift that Kept on Giving: writing a children’s book song parody

WE WISH FOR A MONSTER CHRISTMAS, my new holiday book illustrated by Claudia Ranucci and published by Sterling Children’s Books (available now!), was both fun and challenging. Heavy emphasis on challenging. It started when my agent sent an editor a story I’d written, which she promptly, though kindly, rejected. This editor, Meredith Mundy at Sterling, happened to visit my website and see that I had some of my song parody videos I’d created about writing, one being a Christmas carol. In her note to my agent, she mentioned that her house does well with children’s books that are parodies. Might I consider writing one? Sure! I said. Why not?! I said. How hard could that be? I said.


First, my list of Christmas carols was long. It was just a matter of choosing one, right? But we soon learned that it had to be a song in the public domain. My long list suddenly became very, very short. But that didn’t stop me. I thought about them for awhile, of how I could change the titles, hoping that process would spark a storyline. Thankfully, it did. We Wish You a Merry Christmas became We Wish for a Monster Christmas. Now I just had to write it. What I didn’t realize until I started digging in, was that each stanza of the song required 3 rhyming words each, plus an ending word that rhymes with ‘year.’ For example:

He’ll eat all our peas.
We’ll check him for fleas.
He’ll hang by his knees from the brass chandelier.

Then there were the longer, stickier, multi-syllabic, stanzas:

He ate every chair and table.
He chewed through the TV cable.
So Dad says we won’t be able to keep him in here.

I started making lists of words that may play a role in a story of children wanting a monster, then getting a monster, for Christmas. I pulled it off. It was done. There may have been some tears. Okay, there were tears! But I was happy with the final story –and even better, it actually made sense! And the rhymes worked. We sent it to Meredith.

She asked for a revision.

“Sure!” I said. But what I was thinking was, “That’s impossible! I can’t do it!” Fortunately, I needed to add a stanza or two to break up the repetition, but didn’t have to change any existing stanzas, save for a tweak here and there. So I went back to my process, and came up with more ways the monster could cause trouble.

I was so happy (read: relieved) when we finalized this text. It was by far one of my most challenging projects to date, but in the end, I was so glad I volunteered to try it. The best part is that you can sing the whole book! I even made a karaoke version for you to follow. What are you waiting for, warm up those vocal chords and give it a try!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Beginning the Year with Cy Makes a Friend

Can you believe it’s Back to School time already? Our summers flew by but don’t they always? Erin and I have been thinking about ideas to use in our classroom, especially for the first few weeks of school. We try to create activities based on books with universal themes like sharing, friendship, or kindness. Some of our favorites include Chrysanthemum, Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Friends, and First Grade Dropout. We incorporate ways for our students to interact with the book from as many angles as possible. My book, Cy Makes a Friend, came out in March. Our students really related to the whole friendship theme and the obstacles we sometimes face when trying to make a friend.
Since then, Erin and I have been working on an activity packet that allows our students to go a little deeper into the story while also having fun! My amazing illustrator, Tracy Subisak, added some color pages. We want to share it with you! Let us know what you end up using. We’d love to see your pictures! Here are some covers of books my students made after reading Cy Makes a Friend.

I love how grumpy Mama Cyclops and her purple baby look!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Ten Months

The students have left the school and only the teachers remain. We begin the tortuous task of disassembling our classrooms for the big summer cleaning. This is the time for reflection because it's quieter now though I keep thinking someone is calling my name: "Ms. Stephens! Ms. Stephens!" Turns out to be a side effect to having heard 24 students say my name at least a dozen times each, every day for ten months. Hey, math people, that's like 51,840 times a year. I won't miss that.

Or will I?

For ten months I have been loved, hugged, and cherished by those same 24 kids. They have allowed me into their young, eager minds as well as their innocent hearts. They have let me become a small part of their journey ahead. They have cared about the little things, such as my new shoes or the fact that I love barbecue potato chips. They have bonded over the big things like our controversial election and their roles in a positive future for all.

Ok. I will miss all of this. A lot.

When people judge teachers because we only work ten months, know this: if we did not have those two months to recover and refuel there would be no teachers. We would be extinct. For ten months teachers teach, mentor, parent, nurse, counsel, befriend, shelter, guard over, and sometimes even feed their students. We are overworked, underpaid, often disrespected, and forever exhausted. Creating ambassadors who will change the world is some of the hardest work on earth.

Don’t shame teachers for our two months off. We have earned every minute. Instead pat a teacher on the back, shake their hand, volunteer in their classroom, or thank them for doing their part to help raise and educate everyone's kids. After all, those kids will become your doctors, judges, entertainers, caretakers, plumbers, builders, engineers, and even your president.

Please take a moment and allow your school-age self to share a memory about one of your favorite teachers. To all of my teacher friends, I shout from my much deserved vacation destination - YOU ROCK!

Enjoy your summer from two of the happiest teachers around!

Ann Marie & Erin

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Chicken in Space

We want to tell you about a must-buy book! It’s called CHICKEN IN SPACE and it’s written by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Shahar Kober.

It’s about a chicken named Zoey and her pig sidekick, Sam. Zoey uses her imagination to take a trip into space and she insists Sam joins her. They run into an asteroid, a comet, and even alien attack ships, but nothing deters Zoey from completing her mission. Our students belly-laughed at this charming story of determination, grit, and adventure. Head over to YouTube to watch an old-fashioned book trailer that will get your kids excited to read!

You can find out more about the author at

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Right Angles Made Easier

Right angles are HARD to teach, am I right?! Here are some strategies we use to try to make it a little easier. First, we like to show them the corners of a square and have them position their arms in the same directions. Then we show them how *not* to make a right angle. No “Yay!” arms (an acute angle with both hands up toward the ceiling) and no “Ta-da!” arms (an obtuse angle with arms out to the sides).

After some explicit teaching about shapes that do and don’t have right angles, we use Morgan Clark’s memory game.
We’ve also shrunk it down and added headers to use as a sort for students to glue the shapes onto. This gives you a good idea of who can remember and identify shapes that have right angles.

Then we created this worksheet for students to count how many right angles a shape has and draw shapes with a given number of right angles: tricky skills to master.

Finally, we have these handy-dandy right angles.
My fantastic inclusion teacher pointed out how hard it can be for some students to align a book/index card/paper accurately with an angle to determine whether or not it is a right angle. Not only do they put their tool on the outside of the shape but they also can’t see both sides of an acute angle. These right angles were traced onto scraps of lamination. I also traced an oversized right angle for me to use during for whole class instruction. These tools have only three rules. 1: You must put the vertex of the right angle on top of one of the vertices in the shape. 2: If the right angle closed it would eat part of the shape. 3: One line of the right angle must be on top of on of the sides of the shape. This year when my students completed the “Right Angle Identification” worksheet, the class average was 53%. Yikes. After I showed the class how to use their new lamination tools, the average went up to 92%. That’s without any re-teaching, just a new tool. Color me impressed.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Exploring Polar Bears: A Cross-Curricular Unit

It’s time to meet our polar bears!
We have created a unit for any classroom from kindergarten to second grade. We have graphic organizers, prompts, and paper to enrich your students’ writing. There are a variety of math activities including measurement, estimation, computation, and lots of skip counting! We offer map, menu, and research project ideas to foster creative science and social studies skills. Best of all, we end our unit with a game, a craft, and a snowy snack recipe. Polar bears are currently a threatened species. One of our best defenses against animal extinction is to bring awareness to the students we teach. Our unit can help facilitate productive conversations, as well as provide you with effective activities to build upon basic abilities. Check it out at Teachers Pay Teachers.