What I’m Reading

Another month of riding public transportation: most days I ride the city bus with the boy to his school and then hop on the light rail to my studio. And another month during which I was able to tackle a number of books that have been collecting dust on my to-read pile.

  • Randoms by David Liss (Oct. Guy’s Read Book Club book)
  • Brooklyn Burning by Steve Brezenoff (a local St Paul author)
  • The Marvels by Brian Selsznick (since I read Wonder Struck last month)
  • The Night Gardener by Johnathan Auxier (this one was actually a Christmas gift two years ago)

Chocolate Chimpanzees

Here is a little bit of silliness, a sketch from my song Chocolate Chimpanzees. It is part of a series of tunes based on letter blends, and this one is chock full of chuckles. Two chimps join a chicken on a quest for a treasure chest. They meet a chili eating chinchilla, a checkers-playing chihuahua, and a charango-playing cheetah while chasing after Charlie the chipmunk.

RSL_ChChim_F16_Page_06 Of the handful of songs I’ve written so far, this is my fave. The melody popped into my head one day, and the words just flowed. Not often is something as easy to write as this song was. Or as fun. Now I just need to wait for it to be put to music.

Knock Knock Moo!

Ever since I wrote my first graphic novel, Matthew Henson, Arctic Explorer, I have been fascinated with the format. Sure, some of that has to do with me reading Spider-Man and Batman comics as a youngster. And part of it is that I wish I was better a better artist because I’ve always wanted to draw my own comics. But it’s also because of the added element, the pictures, in telling a story. Sometimes, illustrations can present things is a simpler, more straightforward way than just words, especially when targeting young readers.JJ_KKMoo_F16_Page_07

So recently, I was given the challenge to create graphic novel joke books within a picture book trim and page book. Oh, and they were also to be paired with music. I thought knock-knock jokes would be a perfect fit, and then to the great annoyance of my kids, I began telling and retelling some of the classic knock knock jokes to them.

The above sample is a sketch from Knock, Knock, Moo!, a play off of the interrupting cow joke. Though the farmer in this book has more than just an annoying cow.

What I’m Reading

This year, the boy is in middle school, and not just any middle school. He was accepted to this cool charter school where all the learning is project based. Students take on more responsibility and feel more invested in their education because they develop projects based on their interests in order to meet necessary curriculum goals. I would have loved a school like that.

However, the new school means no school bus. So it’s public transportation for us. The boy was hesitant at first, but is loving it now that’s he’s comfortable taking a city bus. He’s realized that it allows him a little extra gaming time (on his 3Ds) before school, and I like it because it provides with some time to catch up on my reading.

And it’s been great. Here are the books I’ve tackled in the first month of riding the bus.

  • Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff (a local, St Paul author)
  • Wonder Struck by Brian Selsznick
  • The Golden Specific by SE Grove (read the book 1 for our Guy’s Read Book Club, so wanted to read book 2 in the series)
  • The Last Wild by Piers Torday (Septs pick for our Guy’s Read Book Club)

Math Saves the Day!

Only once before, for the book War in Afghanistan, have I co-written with someone. That project was easy, as I worked with a long-time friend and we were able to divide up the writing by chapters. All went smoothly.FSS_MSDay_F16_tp_091415_Page_11

I was a little more worried, though, about a recent batch of songs I had pitched. They were to be illustrated in picture books and paired with music, and they were based on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teachings. See, I had the bright idea that my wife could help me with them. She is a STEM specialist, and I know this publisher was looking for science songs. So I hoped that pairing our skills would get them to bite.

And they did! The pitch was accepted, and thankfully, we devised a system for getting the books written. My wife provided me with the ideas (her expertise as a STEM specialist) while I wordsmithed the text (my expertise). Sure, there was a little back and forth, and a few disagreements. We both have our musical talents (she sings while I play guitar) and preferences (she likes more classical music while I’m into American and blues). But in the end, I think we may have some hits on our hands.

The above sample is from Math Saves the Day!, a song about how we use math every day, even when we aren’t thinking about it.

National Geographic Kids—Everything Predators

Okay, now in the process of wrapping up my Everything Predators book. It’s been grueling, as for every hour of writing I need to put in a few hours of research to back me up. At home, the family is getting annoyed that I’m continually watching documentaries on animals. Secret Lives of Predators, by National Geographic Channel, has been one of my faves. And there is a wall of research books preventing anyone but a mountain climber from getting to my desk.

At least things are to the point where I’m wrapping up and putting the final touches on the last chapter, chapter four, which includes fun stuff related to pop culture. And since I’m a big monster movie fan and reader of mythology, I’ve got a lot to work with.

Some movies/books/shows with larger than life predators (based on real life predators) that I mention

  • Jaws—there are more deaths in one Jaws movie than there are shark-related deaths in a year.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest—the Kraken has been a popular monster in Greek and Scandinavian myths, most likely the results of people seeing giant squids, which are too shy to attack people.
  • Rikki-Tikki-Tavi—As a child, I loved the cartoon adaptation of this Rudyard Kipling story about mongoose who saves a family from a cobra.
  • Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner—another favorite from my childhood, but know that in real life, a road runner is never going to outrun a hungry coyote.

National Geographic Kids—Everything Predators

So while working on my Everything Predators book, I’ve come across some bizarre creatures that I wanted to share.

Goblin Sharks—these beasts live in the dark, depths of the ocean, so are rarely seen. They have jaws full of needle-like teeth that shoot forward (reminding me of the monsters in the Alien movies) to snatch prey.

Amazonian Giant Centipede—okay, anything with more than four legs can be kind of creepy. But when it has almost 100 legs and can be the size of your forearm, that is scary-creepy. And these centipedes can catch bats!

Mantis Shrimp—these little guys (most are only a few inches long) pack a punch powerful enough punch to crack the shells of snails and crabs.

Archerfish—an apt name, as they shoot water at bugs, hoping to knock them into the water, where they become fish food.

And those are just a few of the cool predators that I’m including in this book.

National Geographic Kids—Everything Predators

One of my big projects this month is book about predators. It’ll be my 6th book in National Geographic Kids Everything series, and I continue to be excited to write for them, especially since I was so enthralled with National Geographic Magazine growing up.

And while I’ve done a lot of book research about animals over my years, and written many books about different critters, it’s always fun when a project helps you learn new things, or at least look at the world differently.

That is very true of this project. It has stretched my understanding of what predators are. Mostly we think of animals like sharks and lions and wolves as predators. But when looking at what truly defines them: animals that get energy from eating other animals, the definition of a predator expands to goldfish, songbirds, hornets, toads, whales, moles, etc . . . There are thousands of animals, that eat other animals, that we don’t normally think of as predators because of our fascination with the apex predators.

What makes a predator?

  1. Predators kill and eat the animals they hunt.
  2. Typically, predators are larger than their prey, with exceptions for animals that hunt in groups, like a pack of wolves or an army of ants.
  3. Predators have heighten senses, like a hawk’s keen sight, or special features, like a chameleon’s long and sticky tongue, to help them catch prey.

TRIVIA: Blue whales are the world’s largest predator, eating tons of krill a day.

The Science of Hockey

9781491460863Back when I was in grad school, at Minnesota State University, Mankato, students got in free to all sporting events, which was great for a poor college student like me. That meant hitting home hockey games was one our favorite (as in inexpensive) forms of entertainment. The Mavericks weren’t always the best team, but they played against the Badgers and Gophers, so we got to see some exciting games.

Like with all fun writing projects, you mix things you enjoy, and for The Science of Hockey, that’s exactly what I was able to do. Hockey + graphic novel format = my newest release into the world. It’s also my first book in the Max Axiom, Super Scientist series. He’s a character created by a couple friends of mine, Chris Harbo and Donnie Lemke. So it was doubly fun adding to Max’s legacy.

Review — Everything Soccer

Colorful, fascinating, and timely, this book on soccer is true to National Geographic’s reputation for excellent coverage. Non-soccer fans, whose numbers are diminishing, will enjoy this addition to the “Everything Series” for National Geographic Kids. It is an educational romp. With more than 100 pictures, interesting history about the game’s origins, and information about the worldwide coverage of superstar players, coaches, and their territories, this book will ensure that readers’ eyes do not wander. The picture book size is bold, illustrations are numerous, and the information is massive. Definitions, maps, addresses for soccer websites, and a photographic diagram of “The Pitch” (i.e., the playing area for international games) are provided. Altogether, this keeps the pressure on to keep on… reading. In 2015 the Women’s World Cup will be played in Canada, and the world again will be watching. To be in the know about soccer language and rules, place this book in your school library and your backpack.
—Children’s Literatures