Very Exciting News here! I have two new books coming out this October that will blow your socks off! (or at least make you take them off gently and roll them into a neat ball before shooting a three-pointer into the laundry basket…)
They are for a new series I created called …
Animal-ographies. Like biographies and autobiographies, but of animals. Get it?
This will be a series of informational fiction books about animals that have amazing stories to tell, and THE ANIMALS will be doing the telling.
Here’s a hint for the first two animals that feature in the books:
And there are more to come. Two more book are scheduled for next spring (and they may or may not be about an inspirational rat and a pair of heroic dogs. But you didn’t hear that from me.)
My final stop on the Listening to the Stars blog tour took me to Boston, to re-live some of the (glory?) days of my youth. I spoke with Marianne Knowles, former Mainer, teacher, current Museum of Science employee, and administrator at Writers’ Rumpus—a collective of New England #kidlit writers, illustrators, and book reviewers. You can read the actual interview here, but I have also reproduced it below.
What a joy these questions were to answer.
Marianne Knowles: Thanks for visiting Writers’ Rumpus, Jodie!
Jodie Parachini: Thanks for inviting me, Marianne! Can I mention how super-intimidated I am by being interviewed by someone who works at one of the greatest science museums in the world?! Gah! Please be gentle, I’m just a humanities major!
MK: But I’m interviewing someone who’s gotten TWO STARRED REVIEWS with a picture book biography of one of my HEROES! That’s pretty intimidating, too.
You’ve published several fun fiction picture books featuring talking animals. What inspired you to write a biography of a real-life human for your latest book?
JP: Even though I’ve been writing for more than 15 years, I still think I’m finding my way. One of the things I enjoy about being a nonfiction book editor for my day-job is that every book is different—today it could be about the life cycle of frogs and tomorrow a history of Italian art. I feel the same about writing. I follow where my interest leads me—today I may want to find a rhyme for hippopotamus and tomorrow I might have a desperate need to tell the world that kelp (the seaweed) is actually not a plant, or an animal, but something in between! How cool is that? But I digress.
Writing, for me, is about expression. And creativity can be expressed in many ways. So, when I heard about a young girl who made an incredible astronomical discovery only to be rebuffed by the scientific community, I knew I wanted to explore it further.
MK: How did you decide to write a picture book about Jocelyn Bell Burnell?
JP: Like many people, I hadn’t heard of Dame Jocelyn until relatively recently. I was reading an article about the similarities between science and poetry—how attempts to describe the indescribable, such as the vastness of the universe, link these two seemingly disparate fields—and Bell Burnell’s name was mentioned. It turns out, she’s interested in this connection too, and has edited an anthology called Dark Matter: Poems of Space .
But when I heard of her discovery of pulsars and being snubbed for the Nobel Prize I got upset that her name wasn’t more well known. So, being a writer, I started jotting ideas down….
MK: I didn’t know she’d written poetry! Science and poetry blend beautifully in the opening lines of LISTENING TO THE STARS:
Does the galaxy have a sound?
Is it loud and full of thunderous booms? Soft murmurings, whooshing whispers? Blips and bloops, like laughter and hiccups?
Poetic phrasing closes out the story too, while the storytelling in the middle takes a more narrative approach. How did you decide to structure the book this way?
JP: My first drafts weren’t written this way at all. Initially, I was totally focused on the indignation I felt for my subject when the other scientists laughed at her and suggested she had found Little Green Men (rather than proof of what Einstein had only ever theorized but never proven.) But the more I researched, the more I read about how Bell Burnell was so gracious and forgiving about not winning the Nobel, so that I changed tack.
The lyrical elements of the book are simply my way of coming full circle to what interested me in the first place, the fact that there is a vast cosmic expanse beyond our world that seems so unknowable and yet it draws scientists, philosophers, and poets together to examine it.
MK: The book has great details like Jocelyn deciding, as a teenager, to find a way to study the stars without having to stay up all night! Tell our readers a bit about your research process. How did you find these wonderful nuggets?
JP: I wish I had been able to interview Dame Jocelyn herself, but I did have the next-best thing, an interview she did at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and an oral history interview with the American Institute of Physics, among others.
At first, I got bogged down in trying to stay true to scientific fact (for instance, a neutron star isn’t actually a star, it’s the remnants of a star; and a light year isn’t a year, it’s the equivalent of 5.88×1012 miles). But I had to try to find the right balance between what was astronomically correct, and what a kid would understand and enjoy. The fact that I’m not a scientist actually made writing the book easier, because I just picked out the information that I found fascinating and then tried to use analogies or simpler language to describe it.
MK: The illustrations are wonderful, showing both the era and the mind of a scientist at work. How many notes did you share with the illustrator?
JP: Alexandra Badiu did a fantastic job of translating what could be a difficult subject into mesmerizing images, didn’t she?!
I love writing picture books because although I’m not an artist, I think visually. But rather than give tons of art notes at the start, for nonfiction books I usually give a page of suggested websites to the art team so that the illustrator will have the basic details (sites that show what Ms. Bell Burnell looks like in real life, or to answer the “what the heck is a radio telescope and what does it look like?” questions). Then I stand back and let the illustrator impart her own vision on the book.
MK: Who do you imagine is the kind of reader you’d most like to reach with Jocelyn’s biography?
JP: This is such a tricky question, because although this is a children’s picture book, it also has an element of serious subject matter. I’d like for it to appeal to readers on multiple levels. For some, it is about the history of an interesting person. For others, it can encourage discussions of feminism, sexism, perseverance, and resilience. For still others, it may spark an interest in astronomy or physics.
It’s such a thrill to think that for whatever reason it’s picked up off the library shelf (even if it’s just to look at the pretty pictures) the reader will come away with a new, potentially inspiring, experience. That’s the beauty of reading a wide and diverse variety of stories. And, essentially, my reason for writing them.
MK: I think you’ve succeeded in appealing to readers on multiple levels with LISTENING TO THE STARS. Thanks again for visiting Writers’ Rumpus, Jodie!
JP: You’re very welcome! And thank YOU for allowing me to introduce this book to your readers!
Hello friends. Super excited to say that I had a call with a literary agent last week! I can’t reveal anything at the moment (I know, I know, I hate to be a tease, but you’ll get no spoilers from me…) so WATCH THIS SPACE for an exciting announcement soon!
Back to the point of this post…Stop Two on the BLOG TOUR!
I chatted with the ever personable and super nice Vivian Kirkfield on her blog. You can read the actual interview here. She asked questions that were more personal and less about Listening to the Stars, so I’ve copied my answers here:
Vivian: Welcome, Jodie! I’m so glad you stopped by for a visit. Congratulations on THREE books out this year! I know everyone is excited to learn more about you, so let’s get started.
Who were your favorite authors/illustrators when you were a child?
HI Vivian, Thanks for chatting with me! I had a zillion favorites as a kid, many of which were obscure books of the 70s. Sit back, relax, and take in what could have been a HUGE list (but I’ll spare you):
Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business written and illustrated by Esphyr Slobodkina. Still one of the most fun read-alouds that I know.
There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon by Jack Kent. Starring the absolute cutest pet of all time.
Corduroy / A Pocket for Corduroy by Dan Freeman. Talk about emotions, I had all the feels reading this.
Just for You by Mercer Mayer. This Little Creature (porcupine? hamster?) made my day with all his (her?) mistakes and mishaps.
But my mostest favoritest, read-under-the-covers-until-mom-yells-at-me-to-put-the-flashlight-away books of childhood were Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. I memorized his poems, copied them, made them into “performance art” to my parents’ chagrin, and when I was old enough (9 or 10, double digits!), wrote and illustrated my own and sent them to Shel (I felt I could be on a first name basis with him) for him to “include” in his next book. Sadly, he didn’t comply.
Now that I have kids of my own, I find it fascinating to be raising them in Britain, where none of these books are known/loved. Happily, it has allowed me to learn about a whole host of British classics that I never knew, such as Zagazoo by Quentin Blake and The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Take your time. Like many wannabe writers, I rushed into sending out my work too early to agents/publishers on the hunt for that illusive acceptance. First drafts are never brilliant (very few of us are (evil) geniuses that way), so take a step back and recognize that writing is a process that evolves over time. Critique partners can really help you see your work more clearly (and point out your weaknesses, which sounds awful, but be open to it and the results may surprise you.)
Getting published isn’t always the validation that many people are seeking. Sure, there are some cheery moments, but mostly writers just “crack on” and get back to work. As Anne Lamott puts it in the wonderful Bird by Bird (still one of my favorite books on the craft):
Good advice, in my mind.
Where do you like to write – inside, outside, special room, laptop, pen and paper?
I don’t have a writing room or office but I feel most comfortable writing in bed, anyway (which annoys my husband to no end. But he’s also my muse, so he tolerates it for the sake of “Art.”
Like many writers, ideas strike everywhere, and I’ve had to learn to write in short bursts—fitting it in between the rest of life (including homeschooling during the extensive lockdowns we’ve had in England.)
This past year I wrote most of my nonfiction books sitting in the car during my daughter’s soccer practice (parents weren’t allowed to congregate near the field). I tend to have great ideas in the shower, too, so I often have soggy first drafts.
When do you write – early morning, late in the day, middle of the night, on schedule, as the muse strikes?
I envy those writers who have schedules (from the 5 am writers’ clubs to those who keep their butt in chairs until they have 1,000 words on the page). Maybe someday I’ll make a structure I can stick to, but that doesn’t fit my life right now. Even so, I continually remind myself that I AM a real writer, even if I’m just jotting ideas or scribbling notes. Every finished draft is a super-mega-WIN in my book, and one to be celebrated (even if it’s rubbish).
Why do you write for children?
Your question reminds me of a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke: “Go into yourself,” Rilke suggests in Letters to a Young Poet. “Find out the reason that commands you to write; [and] see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart.”
Formerly, I had a love/hate relationship with writing, having written everything from essays to plays to short stories to poetry. Taking Rilke’s suggestion, I think the “reason that commands” me to write is a primal need to express myself, but I always felt compelled to do so in an angst-ridden, soul-plumbing, adult-y way.
When I began writing for children I found that the love/hate dichotomy disappeared and it became pure joy. And who doesn’t want more pure joy in their life?
I’m also fascinated about the idea of being “in the zone.” Artists, athletes, musicians all aim for that moment when the dopamine or serotonin kicks in and the world around you disappears. In a sense, I’m always striving for that feeling of calm transcendence that for me comes from being creative, and I tend to get that feeling a lot when I’m writing for kids.
Having said all that, I also think writing for kids is like giving them the most wonderful gift in the world. Sharing a book with a child—and watching their eyes light up, their senses heightened, their focus concentrated, and their creative mind sparked—has to be one of my highlights of parenthood. So, by extension, I’m hoping that other families and teachers get to experience more of this through my writing.
That’s it! Now you hopefully know a bit more about me. Happy writing everyone!
(And of course don’t forget, Listening to the Stars is available NOW!)
First, I want to give a huge THANK YOU to Susanna Leonard Hill for inviting me onto her website to promote Listening to the Stars.
You can read the official interview here. But I have also repeated my answers to her lovely questions below.
What drew you to this subject?
The first question people ask when I tell them I wrote a book about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, is
When I explain that she’s an astrophysicist who discovered an astronomical marvel called pulsars, they ask,
“Why haven’t I heard of her?”
Exactly. Then when I mention thatshe wasn’t awarded a Nobel Prize for it (it went to her male colleagues), they stare in wonder and say,
“Haven’t I heard this story before?”
Yes, sadly. Women such as Rosalind Franklin (who worked on the structure of DNA with Watson and Crick), Chien-Shiung Wu (who worked on the Manhattan Project), and Lise Meitner (who helped discover nuclear fission), were rarely acknowledged for the incredible contributions they made to science. But one of the reasons I love writing picture books is to get these stories out there. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s story, like those of so many women who work in the STEM fields, should be read, discussed, treasured, and celebrated.
Which do you prefer writing, fiction or nonfiction?
Great question! But I can’t answer it—it’s like choosing which child is my favorite.
I’m drawn to telling stories and I tend to pounce on whatever idea strikes me at the moment. Which means I usually have a few picture book ideas in progress at once. Sometimes I can’t get a rhyme out of my head and other times I hear a story on the news and think I MUST research it further. I let my haphazard brain lead the way!
The nonfiction appeals to my inquisitive and curious nature, the fiction to my creative side. I’m sure there’s a right brain/left brain comment that could be made about this! Hmmm, Righty wants to go to the Library while Lefty wants to pick daisies… I sense a new picture book idea percolating!
I have four more nonfiction and three fiction books coming out in the next two years, so luckily I don’t have to choose between Righty and Lefty!
Do you have any advice for other writers on getting published?
I do not have a traditional publishing story. Like many writers, I spent years getting rejections (I still do). I’ve never had an agent (ahem, see what I mean about rejections?) but I’ve been persistent about following up every opportunity possible when it comes to my manuscripts. Sometimes that means:
Pursuing every lead with editors or publishers you meet (for example, I met an art director at a conference. He didn’t think the first story I pitched was right for his publishing house, but I followed up with another in an email, and that one will be published in 2022. I could have just licked my wounds and retreated after the first rejection but sometimes perseverance is key.)
Believe in your work, but be flexible enough to alter it. Editors often know the market better than writers. Sometimes it takes (what feels like) hundreds of rewrites to get to the final product. Why start out with a fixed, single-minded vision when collaboration (with awesome editors and amazing illustrators!) is so much fun!?
Most writers jump into querying agents/publishers too quickly. The dream of being published is powerful, but I have found that taking classes or joining writing groups and listening to the advice of teachers and peers when it comes to how to improve my work is invaluable. Learn to tell the difference between a first draft and a polished draft by getting the manuscript in front of readers. Their opinions or critiques can open up a whole world of ideas, and, eventually, make you a better writer.
Thanks for listening, kidlit folks, and I wish all of you success of your own writing journeys!
WELCOME TO THE WORLD my little darling. May you grow and succeed. May you touch the lives of others. May people respect you and cherish you. And perhaps, when you’re a little older, may you go forth and multiply.
My wish for you, little one, is that someone, somewhere, will open your covers; turn your pages; learn from your words; marvel at your images; and be inspired by your story.
And your little story will grow, and inform, and shape their imagination; spark their curiosity; ignite their passions; and encourage their own journey.
Thank you to everyone–editors, illustrators, publishers, and family who made this labor of love possible.
Listening to the Stars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovers Pulsars is available now.
Ok, so it’s not an actual book tour and I’m about 30 years too late to be a roadie for The Grateful Dead. Instead I’m doing the twenty-first century covid crisis type of tour:
A BLOG TOUR.
(Honestly, I’m not really sure what that means. You too? Oh, good, we’ll experience it together.)
Essentially it entails visiting some lovely writers’ blogs, answering a few Q&A’s, humble-bragging just a wee bit about a certain book I have coming out soon, and then thanking them copiously for getting the word out and supporting other writers.
Writers’ Rumpus (what a fun name!) is comprised of a group of writer/bloggers in the Boston area. I’ll be interviewed by Marianne Knowles (who works at the Museum of Science) about my lifelong fascination with/fear of Van De Graaff generators. (That’s a MoS joke. No, I’ll be talking about the life of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell of course!)
Please visit these wonderful sites and support children’s book writers by buying and reviewing their books! I’m hoping to hear back from some other website owners about additional dates, so keep your eyes peeled for more info.
I’m really excited to announce that I won a contest! (I NEVER win contests, except that time in Florida in 1982 when, as an 8-year-old, I won a bottle of wine at the senior citizen BINGO night…My Nana thought it was hilarious. I wasn’t allowed to drink the wine. I’m still upset about it. )
Luckily, this wasn’t that kind of contest.
#PBParty is a contest that I’ve entered for a few years now. It was hosted this year by Mindy Alyse Weiss on her blog. Over a thousand writers entered their manuscripts and 50 were chosen to be shown to editors and agents.
I’m super excited and looking forward to the selection round. Keep your fingers crossed that my latest manuscript (Dig It, Digby!) will get some lovin’
I’ll share the results when I know more. And maybe I’ll be allowed to drink the wine this time. I’M GOING TO DRINK ALL THE WINE!
PS, thank you to all the judges for choosing Dig It, Digby! I’ll share the wine with you, I promise.
Raise your hand if you’re holding on by a fingernail.
Yup, my sanity was always pretty precarious but I think it’s finally left the building. It must be enjoying a mighty fine cocktail with Elvis and a Dodo bird right about now.
I figured what the hey, let’s pack up and move an entire house worth of possessions, plus get a brand new puppy, all while homeschooling and avoiding the plague. Smart move.
Sooooo, moving on… Some very exciting news for Listening to the Stars, which is coming out IN ONE MONTH!! The kind people at Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal have both given the book their highest honour, a starred review! I want to say a huge
to both organisations for their incredible comments about my book.
Here are some snippets of those reviews:
“An Irishwoman and a radio telescope change astronomy forever. …
“‘Does the galaxy have a sound?’ asks the first line of this elegant biography. …
“Well-chosen similes illuminate fundamental concepts, backed by Badiu’s rich, celestial blues and purples. Frank discussion of the sexism Burnell faced leads into a hopeful note about her efforts to support young women in astronomy. …
“As gorgeous as it is informative.”
–Kirkus Review March 1, 2021STARRED REVIEW
“Parachini’s historical picture book spotlights the Irish astrophysicist Dame Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell (b. 1943), who discovered the first radio pulsars…
“The lively art complements the text, creating a sense of openness and balance in its use of stars as a driving thematic motif. This book could be read in a science unit that emphasizes the empowering message that everyone can study STEM fields. …
“An inspiring picture book biography of an inquisitive girl who became a world-renowned scientist, told in accessible language.”
–School Library Journal March 2021 STARRED REVIEW
Well, that’s me blushing!
Thanks all! ⭐️😁😆⭐️
(Next week I’ll tell you all about my exciting BLOG TOUR coming soon!)
Hello writers. I know it’s actually autumn because I’m wearing fuzzy slippers, I’ve been craving soup, and I’ve made my first batch of pumpkin chocolate chip bread yesterday. Oh, and I looked at a calendar. Holy heck how did it get to be mid October?
Which brings me to two complete non sequiturs for today’s post. First, how absti-tutely simple it is to write picture books. (Ironic eye-roll.) And second, how other websites like PBSpotlight help writers connect with super nicety-nice critiquer-folk.
This week I have been asked multiple times how to get published.
Friends, or friends of friends, or barely friendly acquaintances have been coming out of the woodwork saying that they’ve “written a story” and their mother ( or “kid,” or “sister,” or “husband’s boss,” insert as appropriate) LOVES it and thinks it should be published. Like, now. In time for Christmas. So they can give a copy to all their grandkids. And want to know how to make that happen.
I wish I had an answer that they would like to hear.
But like all creative professions, writing and publishing takes three things: time, effort, and skill. And the third one only comes long (long) after the first two.
But who am I to crush dreams, right?
So I tend to give the same advice that I have mentioned on this blog, and will mention again here in case anyone else is thinking that they can whip up a kids book in the time it takes to make pumpkin pie (ohh, pie.)
(Have I mentioned that not enough people in the UK understand the incredible-edibleness that is a good pumpkin pie? But I digress.)
Here’s what I suggest to all those who have written something and want it to magically become a booky:
Read, read, read other books in the genre you are hoping to write in to see what styles are marketable and what storylines have been done before. (Agents and publishers may be inundated with “pet” books, for instance, and are often searching for a more intriguing subject matter, or a very new stance on a tried and true subject.)
There are some amazing online sites (many free) that cater to new children’s writers. Here are a few that will help get your juices flowing and will teach you a thing or two about the field, before you jump in with both feet: Mr. Schu’s Watch. Read. Connect; Tara Lazar’s Writing for Kids while raising them; Writer’s Rumpus; Kidlit 411; MG Book Village; Teachers Who Read; and PBSpotlight (more on this one below).
Finding a group of writers to help critique your work is invaluable to any new writer. There will often be other writers in your location that are looking to create a group and finding them may take time but joining a society or writing program would help. Constructive criticism, like you learned in third grade, is constructive if it’s given well and RECEIVED with gratitude. Sometimes you need a thick skin in this business, and sometimes you need to buckle down and throw away everything you thought you loved about your manuscript. Them’s the breaks.
Perhaps look into SCBWI (the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) for a wealth of information and inspiration. If expense is an issue, there are many other online groups that help guide new writers. Julie Hedlund’s 12 x 12 for instance.
There are plenty of conferences and writing seminars that can be done online (or in person after covid) that will teach you the ins and outs of writing for children. Try the Writing Barn, Highlights, or even your local university, which may have non-MFA track courses. CityLit in London has incredible writing classes on kidlit.
Self-publishing is a thought too. Most writers don’t pair up with illustrators until after their story has been sold to a publisher, but if your book doesn’t need illustrations, check out the many self-publishing options. I’ve never done it so I’m not the best person to ask about this because picture books are always highly illustrated and the publishers have always chosen illustrators for me (writers often don’t get a say in who will illustrate their work).
I’m still struggling to find an agent (after 10 years of writing!) so keep at it and don’t give up, but know that it is a HARD and SLOW process. (My latest book will. be published 4+ years after I wrote it, and that’s typical.)
Now, on to the second point that I was going to make. This post is more than a plug for a competition called #PBCritiqueFest, sponsored by Brian Gehrlein at PBSpotlight . It’s actually a plug for getting other people to look at your work and tear it to shreds. Ok, harsh! What I mean is, the BEST thing you can do for your writing is to involve as many people as possible in the process. I know your first instinct is to crawl into the Cave of Introversion and hide your work from the world (while also craving publication), but critiques and critique partners are experiences (and people) to be cherished.
Getting a foot in the publishing door is the hardest thing that many writers will go through. It’s a path lined with rejection and failure, to be honest, but also filled with great new kidlit friends and mentors. The children’s book community is a supportive, friendly place and is mostly comprised of people who want to see books in the hands of mini readers.
Which is where sites like PBSpotlight come in. Competitions/twitter pitch parties/etc are great for social media recognition but in the end they are all about getting manuscripts in front of readers.
So if you’ve written that manuscript, and your mother thinks it’s great, GREAT. You’ve taken the first step. The first of many many steps. Now help yourself out by seeking out someone you trust who will alert you to its flaws. Because that way you can make it BETTER.
Please check them out, get involved, and support the other writers by visiting their sites too.
So without further ado, I give you…
SKULLY AND BONES
“Dear Skully,” said Bones
on one Halloween night,
“deep down in my toes
I feel something’s not right!
"The pumpkins sit grinning,
the black cats are meeting,
while fairies and ghosts
flit about trick-or-treating.
"Yet something inside of me’s
feeling quite airy
instead of hair-raising,
spine-chilling, and scary.
"My hip bones and knee bones
and fingers and spine
are right where they should be
and doing just fine.
"But where is the rest
of my innards and skin?
If I’m nothing but bones,
THEN WHAT’S HOLDING ME IN?"
“Oh Bones,” replied Skully
“there’s no need to worry.
Whoever has made us
was just in a hurry.
"These kids seem like whizzes
at costumes and crafts,
Let’s ask them to patch up
two bungled rough drafts.
“Try stuffing our nothing
with candy and treats,
or please let us borrow
you ghostly white sheets!”
But all of the children who
saw them just w a i l e d.
“It seems our request,
my dear Skully, has failed.”
So Skully and Bones
were both left without parts.
No noses to sniff with,
no quick-beating hearts.
And crept through the town
on that dull Halloween,
two lanky no-bodies
with air in between!
There you have it…a 200 word story about skeletons who are missing their insides. Maybe if I turn this into a proper picture book I’ll give them a happier ending!