Guest blog by Ellen Mayer
We are excited to introduce author and early literacy specialist, Ellen Mayer to our 24 Carrot Writing family.
Ellen is the author of the Small Talk Books collection published by Star Bright Books that includes Red Socks, A Fish to Feed, Cake Day, Rosa's Very Big Job, and Banana for Two. She is a member of the TERC Storytelling Math community, a former education researcher at Harvard Graduate School of Education studying how families engage in children's learning, and she worked as an early literacy specialist with diverse and immigrant young children and their parents.
We've invited Ellen to share her knowledge of writing math-related fiction picture books for children.
Interested in trying your hand at writing a math-related fiction picture book for preschoolers?
As many kidlitters may know, publisher Charlesbridge recently issued a call for submissions as part of the Storytelling Math project, (https://www.charlesbridge.com/pages/storytelling-math-guidelines) seeking manuscripts for fiction picture books that weave together engaging story lines, mathematical themes, and diversity. The Storytelling Math project is spearheaded by TERC, the non-profit STEM education center in Cambridge, MA (https://www.terc.edu/display/Projects/Storytelling+Math) and is funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
I was a participant in the pilot phase of the project that included publisher Star Bright Books, and I created two playful math-infused board books for under-threes with diverse characters. Banana for Two features a toddler learning about amounts of one and two with Mama while they shop for groceries and then share a snack together. Clean Up, Up, Up! features a toddler learning about spatial relations with Daddy as they clean up the toddler’s room together and then sit down to dinner with Mommy. Both have stunning art by the illustrator Ying-Hwa Hu.
Here are some of my own takeaways from that writing experience, focusing just on the issue of incorporating math in the story. Mind you, this is based on a sample size of one. But perhaps what I learned might inspire (or at least reassure) you as you consider tackling a story with inherent math.
#1 No math PhD required!
Like many, I have a complicated relationship with math and a certain amount of math trepidation. As I learned more about what early math entailed for preschoolers, though, I felt less anxious. Early math is not rocket-science level stuff. Little ones are doing math when they line up different food pieces in a pattern across their mat, find it amusing that they have a foot for each of the two socks in a balled up pair, or build a block structure that’s bigger than they are. I also reframed my fear and made it work for me: the project after all was trying to reach math-phobic parents, and I knew how they felt!
#2 Read parent digests on young children’s mathematical development from leading education organizations.
Check out the early math resources available from Erikson Early Math Collaborative, NAEYC, PBS and Zero to Three. These organizations distill the latest research and describe children’s mathematical development over the 3-6 years age span. Stick with parent resources as opposed to classroom ones for teachers that focus on the math as taught in the classroom: You’ll want to focus on the kid-centered math as learned in out-of-school settings. You’ll also want to be developmentally appropriate when you approach your story: How children engage with the topic of measurement, for example, is somewhat different at 3 than 6. Information from these sources can help you delve deeper and also stay on solid footing.
#3 How to begin writing?
I’m sure there are many ways to visualize this journey, but after creating my little books and drafting some other math-infused manuscripts, I think of three basic ways to start. With your new early math lens from #2, you could begin thinking about that story idea you’ve been kicking around. Or, you might realize that one of those manuscripts you stashed away in your drawer for another day might have some inherent math in it that can be teased out. Finally, you might start with a math prompt, whether it’s one of the math topics listed in the open call or some more detailed information available from your digest review.
#4 How will my story engage families in early math?
As a former early literacy home visitor with diverse and immigrant populations, I think a lot about how books can be written, illustrated, and designed to draw in families and stimulate conversation both during and after book sharing. One of the goals of Storytelling Math is to create books that will stimulate conversation full of math talk. This means thinking about the parent audience as a very important second audience for your story. Each of my books contains a parent note written by an early math expert that helps parents become aware of the math in the story, but note aside, I suggest that you approach your writing process here with this meta-charge in mind. Family engagement needs to be baked into the text. In my two books, I did this mainly by having the parent character in the story model for the parent reader some ways to engage in playful math talk with a toddler.
#5 What – a math art note?*!?
If you’re like me, you literally lose sleep over the art note. Include or no? If yes, how to make it succinct with only the absolutely necessary information? In my stories I actually enjoyed this added layer, of thinking intentionally about how the math in the story might drive the art. In the case of that story about one and two at the grocery store, it meant art with plenty of opportunities to count items of one and two (look in the grocery cart), but where no items were countable beyond two (see the blurry bunches of bananas)!
Much of the math art notation came later in the process though, when I had an accepted manuscript and had started working with the Storytelling Math project “math editor” (in addition to my Star Bright Books editor). We all know that picture book editors tend to look askance on the art note and certainly the lengthy one when they receive a submission. However, I found it valuable during my drafting of the stories to include math art notes just for myself. I think this helped me get into that math-infusion zone.
Ready now to try a new writing challenge this summer?
Submissions are due by September 1!
To learn more about Ellen and her various books for children, visit her website at www.ellenmayerbooks.com.
To learn more about publisher Star Bright Books’ Math Around Us work, book collection, and fun book-related math activity sheets, see: https://starbrightbooks.com/blog/category/math/ and
To order Banana for Two and Clean Up, Up, Up! please follow these links:
Ellen's books are also available on B&N, Amazon.
Photo credits: Mindaugas Sereiva
Illustration credits: Ying-Hwa Hu
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