Saturday, July 27, 2013

Artist Valentin Acosta's (MWVA) Art School - Training up Kids in Art and Life

In the Dominican Republic something wonderful is happening -- it's bringing the world of kids together with the world of art -- and it's something we can all be a part of!

Today we share this story in honor of all our artist/illustrator friends who make such beautiful art and art-covers for children's and YA books today. In particular we want to high-light an artist and art teacher from the Dominican Republic named Valentin Acosta.

This is one of Valentin's Great Paintings! Click the link to see more.

I met Valentin accidentally a few weeks ago when I stumbled across an art show that he and a group of young people were setting up in the yard and driveway of a building labelled "art school" in a little town called Jarabacoa way out in the countryside of the Dominican Republic.

Valentin is a member of a group of world-class visual artists who live, paint, and sell their works  around the world, and also in a little Gallery in the tiny town of Jarabacoa.  They have congregated there for red wine and coffee, and artistic camaraderie.  And in that little town in the middle of no-where art that is catching attention of art collectors all over the world is being made. 

But these artists, and Valentin in particular, are not simply thinking about themselves -- about how they can use their talents in art to make a living, or a statement, or even to make the Fine Art that they are making that is worthy of Galleries and Museums and Fine Art Magazines around the world.  Of course they are doing all of those things, like all other great artists do. 

But in addition to that they've started an art school for impoverished children in the Dominican Republic -- low-income Dominican kids who need mentors, who need opportunities, and who now because of being part of Valentin's school, after school, are finding safe outlets, self-respect, and a future 
-- in life and in Art.  

 Like many Children's Book Illustrators who we personally know and love, these world-class painters are spending their own time, and their own money, to run this school, to raise up these young people with lessons in art and lessons of Life.  One of their students has already grown up and gone on to art college in the big city.  Others are still kids, learning about art, and self-esteem, and friendship, and enjoying having a place of learning, and color, and beauty and creativity to call their own.  

But art supplies are expensive and the school is a non-profit.  
VALENTIN and the other artists WOULD LOVE YOUR HELP to keep it going!

Here are photos of some of their students (below) who need sponsoring for the cost of supplies in order to keep attending the classes. 

The school also is always willing to accept donations of general funds -- big or small donations -- to help cover the costs of paints, easels, and other art supplies to keep the school running as the artists donate their time. 

So if you're interested in ways that art is making a difference in the lives of kids around the world today check out Valentin's work with the kids at The non-profit MWVA Art School (AKA MWVA Centro de Arte) 

You can email Valentin Acosta and the leaders of MWVA in Spanish or English if you'd like to donate funds or supplies, to sponsor a student, or to help this effort in some other way. (Their website says Email:

Thanks Valentin and MWVA for letting us share your story, as well as the photos of your art, and the art and faces of your students today on Writermorphosis! (All photos on this post are the property of MWVA).

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Non-Fiction Author Steve Sheinkin -- on Writing 'Interesting" Non-fiction for Teens

YA Non-fiction author Steve Sheinkin has won a Newberry Honor Award, two Yalsa Awards, and he's been a National Book Award Finalist -- all for his great non-fiction books that bring U.S. history full of spies, complicated crimials, and notirious politicians to life for young readers today.  Some of his recent, award-winning books include Bomb - the race to build - and steal- the worlds most dangerous weapon, Lincoln's Grave-Robbers, and The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery.   

If you haven't had a chance to read Steve's fascinating true accounts of the making (and attempt to steal) the atomic bomb, or of the money-launderers turned grave-robbers who tried to dig up and steal Abraham Lincoln's body, click the links to hear the audio versions of the beginning of each book on last writermorphosis post!  They're brilliant!

Steve used to write textbooks but he now writes "interesting" non-fiction because he says "textbooks don't work."  it's "interesting non-fiction" that makes young people want to read and learn.  

So thanks, Steve, for being here with us today to share your thoughts and tips on how other authors can write "interesting nonfiction" for young people too!

Let's jump right in with our first question:

Steve, you talk about the need for "Interesting Non-fiction" for kids and teens.  Why do you believe it's important for young people to have interesting non-fiction books to read that are not simply text books? 

First of all, textbooks simply don't work. They're so boring that they're not effective teaching tools. I think engaging, exciting nonfiction is not just fun to read, but a great way to impart information and get conversations going.

That definitely makes sense, Steve!

So, what, in your opinion, makes a non-fiction book interesting to middle graders or teens. (In other words, in your experience with the children's market, what differentiates an "interesting" and successful middle grade or teen non-fiction book from a "boring" or less successful one? Does it relate to theme or topic, book format - sidebars and visuals, other things?) Can you give specific tips?

To me, it's all about telling a great story in language that is clear and direct. Sidebars can work in nonfiction, but I don't like to use them. I try to weave all the information into the story. Basically, I try to set up an interesting story, and then keep the action moving, just as you'd want to do if you were writing a novel or a screenplay.

So, just like all those non-fiction books for adults (Eat, Pray, Love/Stories about War Heroes/etc) that hold our attention and get made into block-buster movies later, your books Steve are bringing true stories from history to life in an action-packednovel format that teen readers seem to love. 
One great excellent example of this is the intro to your book "BOMB."  So readers, If you haven't done so yet, check the audio version of it out on last week's post!
It's worth the read!
I also love what Kirkus had to say about Steve's Benedict Arnold book below:
"A brilliant, fast-paced biography that reads like an adventure novel... one of the most exciting biographies young readers will find."  - Kirkus, starred review

So Steve, what do you recommend for writers who want to write an interesting non-fiction book for children or teens but who are not sure how to come up with interesting topics, themes, or people to write about?  How did you come up with the Characters/topics for your recent books like The Notorious Benedict Arnold, The Bomb, and your newest book Lincoln's Grave Robbers? (I find there's often a story behind how authors come up with topics for their books.)

Pretty much every day that I spend reading, I find amazing stories, not because I’m so good at finding them, but because there are so many incredible stories out there! Magazines are a great place to learn about little known stories - I've found great stuff in Smithsonian, for instance, including a story about a really obscure spy in the Manhattan Project. I didn't end up writing about the guy, but researching him led to the idea for Bomb. I'm also an obsessive reader of source notes. Find a good nonfiction book on a topic you find interesting, and the source notes will probably have dozens of leads on places to look for related stories/characters. I think of each source as a clue, and follow it to find more clues. I never know where the search will lead, but that's part of the fun.

Do you think it's important to keep national or state school curriculums in mind when writing non-fiction for youth -- or is that only when writing for the "school market"? 

No, I don't think about specific standards or curriculum issues anymore - that's all I did back when I was a textbook writer. Now I just try to tell important and exciting stories, and hope that students and teachers will find them useful and fun to read.

Steve, I'm tacking one more fun question on the end. One thing I've noticed is that you have creative ways of marketing your books (like taking a guy dressed up as Benedict Arnold with you to your book signing for that book!)  Can you share a brief example or two about how you creatively market your non-fiction books so that other writers can learn from you? 
Yes, doing the book signing with Benedict Arnold was a real treat. I can't always arrange anything that cool, but I've done other fun stuff, like comics in which I interview other writers, and, recently, an online interview with my six year old daughter:

Basically, I try to do fun stuff, and then throw in a bio mentioning my work. I'm not that good at using Twitter or other social media - but I'm trying to figure it out!

Thanks for a wonderful interview Steve!  These are some great and specific tips for those of us who want to consider writing non-fiction for teens!  

Readers, don't forget that the Writermorphosis "Comments Contest" is ongoing through-out this summer too!

See you all next week for more great writing and illustrating tips and opportunities on Writermorphosis!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Writing Non-fiction Books for Kids and Teens with Author Steve Sheinkin

Nonfiction. It's how we all learned about the world when we were children and teens. It's often how we still learn about the world now that we are adults.

While many writers focus on the art of fiction, there are others who take true stories and write them in such a way that they're equally and sometimes even more interesting than fiction.

Think of the stories you read as a child or teen,whether in school or just in your own personal reading. What did you learn from well-written interesting non-fiction stories for youth? How did they peak your interests in learning more about certain aspects of the world?

I personally read biographies that rocked my world as a child and taught me (sneakily) about the kind of person I wanted to grow up to be.  I read about Nellie Bly -- a journalist who went undercover in a mental hospital to bring to light abuses there and to promote change.  I read about Hans Christian Anderson who wrote stories for children, and about Martin Luther King Jr. who stood up for what was right.  I read about interesting people and places around the world and this spiked my interest in traveling.  I read books about head-hunters in the amazon, dog-sled races in Alaska, and Indians along the U.S. west coast who made their own cloth-dye out of berries.  I read about a kid named Louis Braille who became blind then went on to create the Braille Alphabet -- an alphabet that the Harry Potter books and other children's books are now printed in so that blind children can read the same stories as the rest of us!  As a child, after reading these non-fiction books, I decided to go learn Braille (which I did - somewhat successfully,) and to go out with my best friend and pick berries and make our own purple dye'd cloth - which we did and then made bags out of it; I decided I wanted to learn to fly an airplane so I could go see the head-hunters (I've taken a flying lesson but have not yet met the head-hunters,) and I decided I wanted to stand up for justice and what is right, and to sometimes use writing as a tool for that -- as did Nellie Bly and Martin Luther King Jr.  All of this from a couple of non-fiction stories I read as a child.

So, non-fiction books can grab hold of us. They open the world to us.  Many times the non-fiction books we read as children or teens help make us who we are both as young people, and later as adults.

I'd be interested to hear what specific non-fiction books or non-fiction book themes interested and impacted YOU as a child or teen!  Will you share your responses in the comments?

Next week we'll have an AWESOME AUTHOR INTERVIEW with Award-winning Nonfiction Author Steve Sheinkin who will share tips on how to write truly "interesting" non-fiction books for youth!

Steve started out as a text-book writer but soon found that it was the non-text-booky nonfiction stories that really peaked teen's interest!  Now he writes stories about grave-robbers, counter-fitters, spies and sceintists, and loose-cannon leaders who made history.

Between now and next week check out this audio first chapter of Steve's great new book "Lincoln's Grave Robbers" as a sample of high-interest non-fiction that makes teen readers keep turning page after page! It will be an example to begin our conversations of how to write our own non-fiction books for teens or kids.  (Click "LISTEN" below the audio book photo at this link:)

Also, if you like Spy novels, check out this great YA    
Non-fiction book that Steve got a Newberry Honor and a YALSA award for!  You know it's a great book when a 
main character's already in trouble and he's 
still in his pajamas! 

We'll see you next week for Steve's interview with tips on how 
we can write interesting non-fiction of our own!

Also, don't forget to enter the "comments contest" 
each week this summer!