Saturday, February 29, 2020


By Pat Miller


Did you do it? Did you persevere through 28 days of reading, writing and taking action? Were you educated, inspired, and supported? It was not easy!

We sure hope you did. If you read the posts, commented on each and completed 28 activities, you may take the NF Fest Pledge:

         I did it! I completed 28 activities. I read and commented on every post.

Hooray for you! If you are a registered NF Festive, this makes you eligible for prizes.

Now you can add the winner badge to your social media!

IF YOU DIDN’T FINISH, no worries. Take your time. Award yourself the winner badge whenever you do manage to complete everything.

To sustain you until next year’s NF Fest, here are three suggestions:
Right click to download
  • Participate in the NF Fest Facebook group (NF Fest).
  • Join the NF Fest Twitter group by adding your handle to Meg Welch Dendler’s comment of February 7, 2020.
  • Write, write, write! 
  • Prize winners will be announced by the end of March.

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Power of Great School Visits

By Steve Swinburne

A school visit has the power to engage, enlighten, entertain and inspire young students. But how do you craft an author program that inspires readers, makes wonderful curriculum connections and leaves lasting memories? In presenting to school kids for over twenty years, I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. But I’d love to share with you some of the things that have worked and helped garner some rave reviews for my school visits from librarians. Below you will find a few cardinal rules that may guide you in designing a great school visit.

But, first things, first. If you’re super nervous about standing in front of 150 third-graders, just know that every visiting author has been there. Here’s how I handled the school visit jitters. I started small. I visited my daughter’s elementary school classroom. After a couple of visits, when I realized second graders were not going to eat me alive, I moved on to church socials and Rotary Club gatherings. Practice, practice, practice until you get comfortable in a room full of kids and adults.

Be proactive. 
Long before the BIG DAY arrives, make sure you and the school visit coordinator (librarian, teacher or PTO) are on the same page. Do you have a signed contract with school telephone number and the cell phone of the coordinator, in case of an emergency? Know how the day will roll out: number of presentations, length, location, book signing times. Will you or the librarian handle book sales? If you are providing books, do you have a book order form with prices? The best way teachers can prepare for an author visit is for the students to read the author’s books. Thoughtful questions and good conversations can result.

Be prepared.
There are some things you can’t control on school visit day – weather, traffic, etc. But you can control how prepared you are. Double-check your equipment. Do you have appropriate dongles to connect your MacBookPro to the library Smartboard? Do you have fresh batteries in your remote? Did you bring extra ones? Have you checked and double-checked your Keynote or PowerPoint program? You want your full attention on the kids, not worrying about the technology.

Be early.
Once, years ago, I had a school visit in New Jersey. I remember that my first session began at 9 a.m. But at 9 a.m., I’m in my car, stopped dead in traffic, in the center of the George Washington Bridge. Lesson learned: plan ahead. I like to arrive 30 – 45 minutes before the first presentation begins. If you’ve ever arrived as parents are dropping off their kids in the front of school, you know that’s a hectic scene. Arrive early, get comfortable, check sound, check lights, check that your program is loading. Make friends with the custodian. Locate the bathroom.

Be flexible.
Roll with the flow of the day. Every author loves to present in the heart of the school – the library. But if the library is too small for all the 4th and 5th graders, you may have to present in the cafeteria or gym. You are there for the kids. Bring your big boy/big girl pants and make it work. Remember, they’re paying you a lot of money on a tight school budget. No complaining allowed.

Be you.
Students don’t meet authors every day. You’re special. They want to know who you are and what makes you tick? Introduce your self. I always begin my presentations with a slide pinpointing where I live compared to where the school is located. It sets up the geography. I show one or two photos of my family, my house and most of all, my dogs. (kids are dying to know if you have a pet). I then show them photos of the river I live beside and talk about how the river inspires me. And that point we are off and running and moving into the meat of my program.

Be sure to adapt.
Librarians love when an author adapts their presentations to various age levels. With the youngest kids, Pre-K to 1st graders, you can be more playful and animated. With older students, engage and inspire them with substance, intrigue and story.

Be entertaining.
Kids love to laugh. Sneak in a joke. Tell a funny story. If you win over your audience with humor, they will be with you when you engage them with writing tips and curriculum connections. You don’t have to play ukulele or illustrate (but if you do, go for it!) Do you yodel? Can you hoot like an owl? Share a bit of yourself, your hobby, your interests – that way you become real to your audience. You will inspire them.

Be informative.
In every school visit, I emphasize things like, “Strong Verbs, Cool Details and Hooking the Reader” can make your writing sparkle and come alive; “Get your first draft down, then fix it up”; “Good readers make Good writers.” Teachers REALLY appreciate that their students hear this kind of powerful writing and reading advice from a “REAL, LIVE AUTHOR.”

Be a storyteller.
Tell the story of how you became an author, illustrator or photographer. Did you read as a kid? What books? I was a reluctant reader growing up, and I tell kids that.  Make connections. Kids love hearing how authors get their ideas. Share research anecdotes. In researching my upcoming book on giraffes, I visited a giraffe center in Africa where if you stuck a small biscuit between your lips, a giraffe would come along and slurp it out with their long 19-inch tongue. I then show a photo of that scene. Kids love behind the scenes research stories.

Be someone who follows up.  
For a hundred bucks or so, I get a bunch of Thank You Postcards from my local printer. After every school visit, I mail the librarian a postcard. It’s a nice follow up. And, as often happens, a week or two after your school visit, a package of “Letters to the Author” might show up in mail. You don’t have time to send a thank you note to every kid, but a note or postcard to the teacher does wonders.

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, New York, I never remembered authors and illustrators visiting our public school auditoriums or classrooms. I thought authors who wrote books were a mystery; artists lived somewhere far away from our Queens neighborhood. I’m very grateful we have moved on from that unenlightened era. We know now that when an author visits a school, readers are inspired. An author visit can foster active and curious minds. Minds hungry for exploration and growth.

Steve Swinburne has worked as a national park ranger and is the author of more than 30 children’s books. His extensive travels to faraway lands such as Africa, Borneo, Bangladesh and Dubai along with treks through Yellowstone and researching giraffes, have all influenced his book projects, including Sea Turtle Scientist, Run, Sea Turtle, Run and his upcoming title, Giraffe Math. Steve visits over 50 schools a year across the United States as well as many international schools. He lives in Vermont with his wife, Heather, two dogs named Scout and Jem, and a cat named Skittles. Learn more at

Steve will provide a 30-minute Skype visit with the winner or with a classroom of their choice.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

On-Site Research: The Value of Being Where It Happened

By Christy Mihaly

NF Fest author Mary Kay Carson has explained the role of field research in science writing. Well, on-site research is also important when writing about history. Of course, unless you keep a time-travel portal in your treehouse, you can't directly observe long-ago events. But you might be able to travel to where they happened.

I learned the value of on-site history research eight years ago, at the beginning of my writing career. I had pitched an article for "Cobblestone" magazine's issue on "The Age of Exploration." I got the assignment—my first assigned article. Then I panicked. How to start writing?
statue of two of the Pinzon brothers

I was living for a year in Spain with my family. My daughter attended a Spanish school, and I was intrigued with something her teacher said about Christopher Columbus: The Italian explorer's expedition would have failed without the courage, skill, and leadership of the Spanish sailors who sailed his ships—in particular, the Pinzón brothers. I pitched my article based on this tidbit.

I'd done some background research, but when the assignment came through, I wasn't ready to write. I knew that in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella directed the seagoing townspeople of Palos de la Frontera to provide Columbus with ships and crew. The people rebuffed Columbus until the Pinzón brothers—Martín, Vincente, and Francisco—stepped up. The Pinzón brothers agreed to finance Columbus and signed up to join the expedition: two as captains of the Pinta and Niña, the third as navigator. And they recruited capable sailors as crew.

Interesting stuff. But to bring my facts to life, I needed some onsite investigation. I traveled to Palos, Spain, for the town's annual Pinzón Day celebration. For several days, I toured the Pinzón homes (brimming with nautical gear), prowled around the docked replica of one of Columbus's vessels (cramped and tiny), and visited a historical fair and re-enactment. I gathered many more facts and photos than I'd ever use in a 250-word article. I also gained a more three-dimensional understanding of the Pinzón brothers, their family, and their times, and finally felt qualified to write their story.
I consider this kind of on-site research well worth the commitment and time it requires. Consider these three benefits:

Experience the sensations of being there
Not all historical sites are well-preserved.

Written sources teach you many facts, but they don't give you the physical sensation of rough wooden planks under your feet or handwoven wool garments scratching your skin. Inside Columbus's ship, I was struck by its small size: I couldn't stand upright belowdecks, and the stores of food and water were terrifyingly sparse. You'll write more authoritatively about a medieval dungeon if you've personally seen and felt the damp, cramped darkness, and heard the slam of heavy iron doors behind you. Sensory details like these will enliven your writing.

If the place that you're writing about is inaccessible or has drastically changed, look for other ways to "travel" to the time period. Many living history museums and re-enactments transport visitors to bygone days. The Boston Tea Party Museum, for example, re-creates a meeting of the Sons and Daughters of Liberty and re-enacts the colonists' rebellious vandalism in the harbor. You can find similar historical re-creations and re-enactments from St. Augustine, Florida to Dearborn, Michigan to Sutter's Fort, California, and beyond.

Even at home, you can investigate those sensory details with a little creative time-traveling. If you know that a person in your book loved eating her mother's home-cooked posset, locate a recipe and make your own. Learn to play an instrument from the time period you're writing about; try sewing or crafting something that people made back then; read the books that were popular at the time. "On-site" investigations like these let you experience the details that bring history to life.

Nail down geographical features

Geographical details can be critical. If you tour the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier, you'll be impressed with the Cedar Creek Room, which is dominated by Julian Scott's massive, mural-size oil painting. It depicts the Battle of Cedar Creek, a Civil War battle in which the arrival of the Vermont Infantry helped win a Union victory in the Shenandoah Valley. When Scott was commissioned to paint this, he searched out and interviewed veterans of the battle.

Then, he traveled to the site. According to survivors, he portrayed the battlefield accurately. That's our goal in writing history – to paint a faithful enough picture that those who lived through the events would agree you got it right.

Today's writers and artists can also conduct virtual geographical research. Google offers a stunning level of detail on satellite views, and you might find video footage of your site on YouTube or other websites. These tools can help you get the vital physical details of your historical site just right.

Find your story's heart

For compelling writing, you need to identify the essential truth, or heart, of your story. For history writing—nonfiction and historical fiction alike—on-site research can help you discover that nugget.

Author Andrea L. Rogers provides a powerful example in the endnote to her middle grade novel, Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Story (Capstone 2020). Rogers, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, recounts that growing up out west, she thought she understood the history of forced removal, and wasn't interested in writing about it. Then she visited New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Homeland in Georgia. There, she finally comprehended how much the Cherokee people lost when forced from their land. "As we walked around the site," she explains, "I realized how much I hadn't understood." Rogers knew then that she wanted to share the story of her people's great loss, "the loss of the places where our stories were born and our ancestors were buried." From this essential truth, Rogers built her moving novel.

So, history-writing friends, whether you travel by foot, ship, train, or Internet, go to the site of your story. There are sensory details waiting for you there.


Christy Mihaly writes nonfiction for all ages. Her forthcoming picture book, Free for You and Me: What our First Amendment Means, introduces young readers to the five First Amendment freedoms. Other books include Hey, Hey, Hay! A Tale of Bales and the Machines That Make Them (about haymaking); the YA nonfiction Diet for a Changing Climate: Food for Thought, co-written with Sue Heavenrich, and a couple dozen books for the educational market. Christy also writes articles, stories, and poetry. She lives in Vermont, and loves taking her dog for walks in the woods and playing the cello (though not simultaneously).


Christy will give away a signed copy of Free for You and Me.

Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below.