Behind the Scenes: “Collaborating with Kids in Writing a Nonfiction Picture Book”  by Christy Mihaly

We’ve got a really special post today on the collaboration between an author and students. Christy Mihaly shares how THE SUPREME COURT AND US sprang from this partnership. And to celebrate US History in the classroom, we’re teaming up for a special 2-BOOK GIVEAWAY for educators and librarians!

There are multiple ways to enter the EDUCATOR / LIBRARIAN 2-BOOK USHistory GIVEAWAY of THE SUPREME COURT & US + REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT. (Winner announced 3/11, US addresses)

Congratulations to Cathy Ballou Mealy, winner of JACK KNIGHT’S BRAVE FLIGHT from Jill Esbaum! 

 

Collaborating with Kids in Writing a Nonfiction Picture Book

by Christy Mihaly 

In the dedication of my new book, The Supreme Court and Us, I extend “special thanks to Mrs. Dunlap’s fourth grade class at Yealey Elementary for their smart questions and insights.”

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Here’s the story behind that dedication.

Christy MihalyIn the spring of 2020, I was trying to write a picture book about the U.S. Supreme Court. I wanted to cover the Court’s procedures and function and its importance to our history. I wanted to make it lively and fun and kid-friendly, never boring or confusing. (Piece of cake, right?) Yeesh. I wrote a few lame jokes, made a few false starts, and admitted: I was stuck.

I wasn’t sure what kids already knew about the Supreme Court, or any court, for that matter. What did they wonder about? What would they think was cool? I needed to find some fourth graders!

Luckily, I had a working relationship with Yealey Elementary School in Boone County, Kentucky. For several years, I had Zoomed in from Vermont to talk with Yealey students during the annual second grade “book commercials” project, when kids create video talks about their favorite books. I told the students how much it matters to me—and to all book creators—when readers share their opinions about books and recommend good ones to friends. The classes were enthusiastic and engaged, and I always came away inspired and energized.

So … I approached Craig Dunlap, the genius behind the annual book-commercial project, and told him about my Supreme Court problem. I asked if he knew any fourth-grade teachers at Yealey who might want to help a struggling author. It turned out he was married to one!

After getting the go-ahead, I emailed fourth-grade teacher Celeste Dunlap pitching my idea. Her students had already read my prior book, Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means. She was intrigued by my query and immediately started scheming about how her class (then schooling remotely) could collaborate with me on a Supreme Court book. We were off!

To start, Celeste and her class developed a KWL chart, listing what the kids knew [or thought they did], and what they wanted to know, about the Supreme Court. They shared it.

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Then I met with the class by Zoom. We discussed their questions. I asked them more questions.

Using the students’ initial input, I revised my manuscript. Then I emailed my Draft #5 to Celeste.

I wrote this book in a dialog form, like a comic book. In the story, two girls tour Washington, D.C., and learn about the workings of the Court from a cast of characters including former Justices, parties in famous Supreme Court cases, and the Constitution itself. So Celeste assigned students to read the parts aloud. Like a reader’s theater!

I Zoomed again with the class. This time, the students read the story aloud.

Supreme Court class

They read a section and we stopped to discuss.  I asked:

  • Where is it confusing?
  • Where is it boring?
  • What do you have questions about?
  • What else do you want to know?

The kids were honest and helpful. Here’s an example:

In the draft, the protagonists (Ada and Bea) discuss the branches of government, and how the Supreme Court sits at the top of the Judiciary. Some students found it boring and irrelevant. Celeste thought it was important for context. We all agreed it could be shorter. Here’s my “before” (the early draft) and “after” (from the book as illustrated and published):

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You can see how talking with fourth graders helped me improve my game! And of course illustrator Neely Daggett’s art brings the book to life.

After that Zoom, I revised for several more months. Once the text was in good shape, Neely started her important and painstaking work. As the art took shape, we tweaked the words a bit more, until finally it went to print. And this week, almost two years after our Zoom, the book launched.

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Mrs. Dunlap is now teaching second grade. I sent her an ARC of The Supreme Court and Us to read with her current class, and we scheduled a book chat for launch day, March 1.

When I signed onto the chat, they surprised me with a celebration—they had party hats, beautiful hand-drawn signs, and noisemakers. It thrilled my writer’s heart. (And, what a great way to get kids excited about books! And writing!) Wow!

After appreciating the festivities, I shared the story of how the book came to be, and how Mrs. Dunlap and her former fourth-grade students were such an important part of the process. Then we talked about the book, what the students learned from it, and what surprised them. (That tripod made an impression!) They asked questions, which I tried to answer.

And I told them this was the best book launch ever.

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Educators and Librarians – don’t forget to enter the 2-BOOK US History GIVEAWAY! (US addresses only, please)


5 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Collaborating with Kids in Writing a Nonfiction Picture Book”  by Christy Mihaly

  1. How wonderful to collaborate with a 4th grade class on your new book. I loved your questions, their responses and how they celebrated you and your book! Thank you so much for sharing!

    Like

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