The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing?  This “next big thing” is not a new social networking site or a wearable computer that cooks dinner when you get hungry. It is an author blog tour.

A blog tour? A blog tour gives those on the tour a chance to meet different authors by way of their blogs. The Next Big Thing began in Australia. Each week a different author answers specific questions about his or her upcoming book. The answers are posted on the author’s blog. Then we get to tag another author (or two or three). On and on it goes.

The tour came to me from my friend, a former member of my critique group (before she abandoned us by moving from northern California to the Georgia coast) and the author of a wide range of charming and informative books, Nancy Raines Day. I am hereby tagging two outstanding authors and friends Matthew Gollub and Marissa Moss.

All of the authors on the blog tour have answered the same questions. Here they are, with my answers

What is the title of your next book?

pumpkin-coverIt’s my rottenest book yet. It’s called Rotten Pumpkin. This is a Halloween book for November, not October because it’s about what happens to the Jack O’Lantern after Halloween. The book has great, gory revolting pictures (and a lot of cute ones, too) by master nature photographer Dwight Kuhn.



Where did the idea come from for the book?

I have to give credit to Dwight, the photographer, who has been my collaborator on many books including the In the Wild? camouflage books (Where in the Wild?, Where Else in the Wild? and What In the Wild?). Dwight put a Jack O’Lantern out on his porch in Maine one Halloween eve and left it there. After it started to slump a little, and then a lot, and it got covered with fuzzy organisms, his granddaughter discovered at it and started to cry. “What happened to my pumpkin?” she demanded. “I want my pumpkin back?” Dwight realized he had not just a teachable moment but a book about decomposition in the making. So he took a lot of photos  — capturing not just the revolting stuff, but also the furry and feathery creatures and the mollusks and arthropods that visit the pumpkin and aid in its decay. And he asked if I wanted to write it. How could I decline such a rotten opportunity?

What genre does your book fall under?

Photographic science picture book. Not sure if that’s an official genre, but you get the idea.


What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Movie rendition? You’ve got to be kidding. Somebody is going to play a slime mold? And a sow bug? Well, if you insist I’ll pick one to play Jack. It’s another Jack. Jack Nicholson. His crusty personality would be perfect for the part. All the critters and molds will just have to play themselves. Jack will be right at home with them.


 Who is publishing your book?

This book is on the very first list of a new publisher, Creston Books, owned and managed by author/illustrator/now publisher extraordinaire, Marissa Moss. She started a new publishing company to produce new-fashioned picture books the old-fashioned way. Now, most major publishers are motivated not by the quality of a book but by the quantity of dollars it can earn, which rules out a wide range of wonderful work that would appeal to many eager eyes and minds. “The golden age of picture books, when fine books were edited and published despite not being blockbusters, does not have to be over,”proclaims the Creston Books website.


How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I don’t think of it as a first draft, a second draft, etc. I did it that way in the typewriter days, but now I revise constantly as my research uncovers new things I want to put in the book. However, this book did have two lives.  I spent about a year researching and writing it for Tricycle press, a division of Ten Speed Press, and it was almost ready to go to the printer when the new parent company, Random House, announced it was scuttling Tricycle. So the manuscript sat gathering mold for a couple of years while I sought a new publisher. When Marissa told me about Creston and signed me up for publication this year, I worked on the book for a few more months.


What other books would you compare this book to within its genre?

There are a few fine picture books on decomposition including Rotters! by John Townsend, Lots of Rot by Vicki Cobb and The MagicSchool Bus Meets the Rot Squad by Joanna Cole. Very few are illustrated with photographs and none are about pumpkins even though, as it turns out, pumpkins are great rotters! And of course tying the book to a kid-friendly holiday is an added plus.


Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I got the idea from Dwight, as I said above, and I loved the idea of getting into something that many people say, “Ewwww! Grosssss!” So I could say I was inspired by the fascination and beauty of decomposing organisms and the opportunity to produce a photography book about them. Scientists are usually articulate and passionate about their own area of study, and mycologists (who study fungi) are no exception. While most folks regard molds and other rotters with disgust, the many mycologists I spoke to while researching the book passed on their passion to me.


What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

I find the ecological lessons fascinating. Organisms of all size (including the weirdest living things I know, slime molds) visit pumpkins and contribute in one way or another to their demise, and their effects interact with each other. For example, Penicillium (yes, that one — the superstar mold responsible for the famous drug that has saved so many human lives) produces its antibiotic to keep competing bacteria away. You can actually see bare spots on the surface of the pumpkin where a growth of Penicillium’s exudates have dripped. I think that’s way cool! And then there’s the feel-good lesson about the next generation’s pumpkin plant coming up the next spring from a seed left behind inside the pumpkin, now fertilized by the nutrient-rich goo that last year’s Jack has become.

Googol On!

I had just given an evening program for families at a school in Berkeley when a parent named Steven Birenbaum came up to tell me something remarkable. During the presentation I had introduced my book G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book by projecting this inequality on the screen. (The slashed equal sign means “does not equal.”)


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The Problem with Word Problems

Greetings from Lima, Peru. I’m here for a tour of three international schools (in Caracas, Lima and Santa Cruz, Bolivia). I had an experience in Caracas that I’ve had many times before in the USA and it has me thinking… and now blogging.

twoOn a screen, I showed a group of 2nd graders a page from one of my “Look Once, Look Again” books. The idea of that series is that you see a close-up photo of part of an animal (or plant) and text that hints about its identity. Then you turn the page to see the whole organism, and learn a bit about it.

Here’s the text: “This looks feathery but it is not from a bird. It belongs to an animal that flutters around at night.”

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The Little Darlings

I was going to call this post “Kill the Little Darlings.” It sounded oh so ghastly that I decided to drop the first part, but killing them is what this is about. Don’t worry, I’m talking words, not people.

Years ago, someone told me that Somerset Maugham, the British novelist and playwright, had said, by way of advice to writers, “Murder the Little Darlings.” I’ve referred to this quote many times but always with the caveat that I have not able to confirm the source or the exact wording. Continue reading

Saguaro by the Numbers. Maybe

David SchwartzI’m going to install a little window in my mind so you can see how it works. At least how it is working at this moment. It may not work in quite the same way at any future time. Here’s my promise: other than having decided on the overall idea, I have not planned the specifics of what I’m about to write. Instead, I will record my thought processes (if there are any) as they occur, to see if something interesting, useful or otherwise worthwhile happens. And if not, you’ll get to see that, too. Ready?

Here’s the context. It happened earlier this month. I was in Phoenix for school visits, and I had a free afternoon so I went to the Desert Botanical Garden. Great place! Continue reading

New Hope for Old-Fashion Books

golden-gate-booksExactly one month ago I received an email from my friend and colleague (and fellow East Bay resident), Marissa Moss. It began almost apologetically:

“I know this probably comes out of thin air, but I’ve heard from so many talented writers and illustrators that they have problems getting contracts now from the major NY publishers who only want books with mass market appeal …”

Sounds like an understatement in these days of publishing uncertainty (aka “crisis”) but I was hooked. Marissa is a versatile writer and illustrator of both fiction and non-fiction, full of ambition and creativity, who has enjoyed considerable success. What was she up to?

“The golden age of picture books, when fine books were edited and published Continue reading

Got a Second

got-a-secondYou’d better use your extra second while you can, because it might just disappear.

I’m talking about the leap second. Leap seconds are a little like leap years but shorter. A lot shorter. (Actually, a “leap year” really should be called a “leap day,” IMHO.) And they are an endangered species.

It’ll take me just a few leap seconds to explain. Once upon a time, time itself was measured by the rotation of the earth. Continue reading

Numbers In the News

A few years ago I was greeted at a school by more than the usual “Welcome” banner. A bulletin board shouted, “Mr. Schwartz, We love BIG numbers, too!” Some of the numbers in articles from newspapers, magazines and websites had been highlighted, and children had written about the significance of the numbers in the context of the news items.

I appreciate it when a teacher guides students to the confluence of math and social studies where numbers and current events meet — which they do every day. Numbers are always in the news. Continue reading

Real World, Unreal School

When I walked into Masha Albrecht’s geometry class at Berkeley High School last week, her students were holding hands. It wasn’t budding romance. It was math. Before I explain, I have to tell you about Masha.

I met her when I was a senior at Cornell in the 1970s. I decided to do an independent study that involved working with students in an elementary school classroom and she was the most eager, bright-eyed fourth grader in the class. Masha’s brother Bobby was in an adjacent room and the two classes were team-taught. I hit it off with both siblings, and before the end of the semester I had been to their house several times, met their parents, and spent some enjoyable after-school hours together—doing math. The three of us had delved into Harold Jacobs’s masterful Mathematics: A Human Endeavor, then in its first edition, and we tackled the mind-stretching, often funny, problem sets with gusto. “This is how math should be taught in school,” exclaimed Mrs. Albrecht. Continue reading

Guest Blogger Marissa Moss: “Finding the Story in History”

This month I am taking a break from blogging. In my slot, I am proud to present my friend and collaborator (on G Is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book), an esteemed author and illustrator of both fiction and non-fiction, Marissa Moss. You may be familiar with Marissa’s popular Amelia’s Notebook series or her other fictional series including Max Disaster and Daphne’s Diary. She is also the author of several highly-praised (and highly-researched) journal-style historical fiction novels and a half-dozen non-fiction biographical picture books telling the remarkable stories of remarkable women. Here, Marissa shares the backstory of the history she writes.

I love stumbling Continue reading