Using Mud to Teach Reading

When my picture book Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball came out, I never really imagined that teachers and literacy coaches might use the book and the famous mud to help teach reading and engage students. But that’s what’s happening! I recently did a series of Skype video author visits with a school outside Chicago that done a school read of Miracle Mud. I ended up talking with close to 600 students that had all read Miracle Mud!

Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball
Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball

But what I found interesting from the visit was that the school didn’t just have the kids read the book, the innovative teachers and literacy coaches actually ordered some of Lena Blackburne’s Rubbing Mud and had the students use it! I loved the idea of extending and expanding the learning opportunities associated with Miracle Mud, so I reached out to Amy McCoy, Westdale School’s Literacy Coach, to learn a little bit more about how they used the book and the mud to create a unique learning opportunity for their students.

Amy, can you tell me a little bit about your school?
Westdale School is located in a suburb of Chicago, IL. We are approximately 5 miles from O’Hare Airport, one of the nation’s busiest airports. One unique thing about our school is that we are soundproofed because the airport traffic can be quite noisy! Whoo Hoo! That means we are spoiled with air conditioning in the warm months!

Our school services approximately 600 children in grades K-5. About 50% percent of our students are English Learners. The most common languages spoken in our school are English and Spanish.

What’s your role at the school?
I am the literacy coach at Westdale School. I have the honor of providing support for all staff members who teach reading and writing. Some of my daily activities may include:

  • Modeling lessons in classrooms
  • Providing professional development
  • Using data to determine areas of success or needs of improvement
  • Meeting one-on-one with teachers or with a team of teachers to support their literacy needs
  • Working with district teams to develop curriculum

What’s your biggest challenge? / What’s the best part of your job?
We have an amazing staff at Westdale. They have a passion for learning that is passed along to the students. I get to work with every single one of them! I’m lucky! They make my job easier because they are very supportive. I taught at Westdale prior to becoming a coach, so I was “one of them.”

Teaching is a balancing act and so is my job. It’s difficult to split my time among all my commitments. I always want to do more with whatever I’m doing at a particular time.

What was it about Miracle Mud that caught your attention? / Why was it interesting to you?
I was interested in having all the students in our building read one book so they would develop a literacy connection. It’s not easy to find a book that can be loved by both a kindergarten student and a fifth grader. I read MANY books! Miracle Mud was displayed in our media center because it is part of the 2015 Monarch Award Master List. I read the book, and my search was over. It was perfect for an All School Read.  The subject matter could be easily understood by the various age groups. The story was interesting to almost all young readers because it involved a real-life dilemma with a little mystery added in. (Exactly where is this mud found? Why does it work?) I knew the adults would also find the book interesting. Also, the illustrations are captivating. Elementary school students are amazed by the detail in each picture. I also knew we would be reading the book in the spring so it coincided with baseball season. This was an added bonus!

Tell me about what you did with the Miracle Mud books.
I believe you also purchased some actual mud. Can you tell me how you thought of that, where you got it, what you did with it, and how it worked?

Once the book was chosen, I began to brainstorm ideas, activities, and ways to create curiosity and enthusiasm. The Internet was an amazing tool! I researched the book and the real Miracle Mud. I found a video from CNN that showed the Miracle Mud being harvested. I googled the man interviewed in the video and found the official Miracle Mud website. Having a large population of ELs, we try to use realia as much as possible. Our school purchased three small jars of the mud and one baseball for each class. Students were able to touch the mud and see the effects on a real baseball. Teachers reported that the baseballs felt different, less smooth.

One book was purchased for each classroom in the building. I also included our music, art, PE, and support staff in the purchase. After all, it was an ALL SCHOOL Read. Everyone needed to know about the book. Ten additional copies were bought to use as roving books for teachers who wanted to use multiple copies when completing various activities. (We raffled off these books when the project ended.)

Before teachers read the books to the students, I tried to build a sense of curiosity and excitement by placing signs around the school. The signs said things like:

  • What’s mud got to do with it?
  • Mud, really? Hmm…
  • A miracle is coming.
  • Got mud? (I got this idea from the Miracle Mud website.)

I created resources for the teachers. The resources included pre-reading activities, comprehension questions based on the CCSS, and post-reading activities. I also suggested some cross-grade level activities. Teachers completed these on a voluntary basis. All I asked was that they read the book to their students.

Our teachers try to connect learning among the various disciplines as much as possible. Luckily, our building specialists were happy to help out with this endeavor. Our PE teachers taught baseball vocabulary during PE classes. Our students now can sing “Taught Me Out to the Ballpark” thanks to our music teachers.

You set up a Skype visit with me. Can you tell me about that? How many children participated and what value did they get from it?
Since we were building a literacy connection across the school, every child attended the Skype session. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a location that supported 600 students in one spot, so we divided the students into three groups. I think this turned out for the best because the sessions were more intimate and could be geared toward the various age levels.

Author David A. Kelly doing a Skype school visit.
Author David A. Kelly doing a Skype school visit.

I believe the students learned many important lessons from the Skype sessions. These lessons include the following.

  • Hard work, practice, and determination affect our lives in positive ways.
  • You may not be good at doing something, but you can find other ways to enjoy it.
  • Writing is a difficult process, but the rewards are worth it.
  • An author works hard. Authors get help from others to make their work stronger.
  • The revision process is difficult but necessary.
  • There is a real person who wrote the words on the pages of that book. (A lesson for our kindergarten students.)
  • Don’t give up even if you believe in something.

Funding can always be a challenge for schools and libraries. How did you get the funding for the Skype visit and/or the books and mud?
I am very fortunate to work in a school district that provides “mini-grants” for staff members who would like to complete some type of educational enrichment program.

Baseball Mud

While Mr. David A. Kelly has helped me and Kate write the Ballpark Mysteries books, he also does some books on his own, including a really cool picture book called Miracle Mud: The Secret Mud that Changed Baseball. The book tells the story of this mud, that comes from a secret place (in New Jersey!) that is used by ALL major league baseball teams. Who knew? It’s a really neat picture book, so consider checking it out if you want to get muddy. If you want more info, check out this review of Miracle Mud that I just came across.

Miracle Mud

Baseball arguments

Sometimes it’s not the hitting or fielding that matters in baseball–it’s the arguments. Here’s an hour and a half (yes, like long enough to be a movie) of baseball bickering, arguments, and ejections. You’ve got all winter, so grab some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the arguments.


It’s a Ballpark Mysteries World Series!

Both teams in this year’s World Series are teams that the Ballpark Mysteries have visited. In Ballpark Mysteries book #5, The All-Star Joker, Kate and Mike visit Kansas City to see the All-Star game and meet some Royals players. In Ballpark Mysteries book #7, The San Francisco Splash, they head to San Francisco for a game.

Both teams in the 2014 World Series are Ballpark Mysteries teams!
Both teams in the 2014 World Series are Ballpark Mysteries teams!

I’m not saying that the Ballpark Mysteries are the reason that the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants are in the World Series, but hey, it can’t hurt!

It’s a Ballpark Mysteries World Series!

Wow! I hope you’ve all been watching this year’s World Series! In case you haven’t noticed, BOTH teams in the series are teams that Kate and I visited! We went to Kansas City first, to see the Kansas City Royals, and later on, we went to San Francisco to the see the Giants.

2014 World Series teams
2014 World Series teams

We had such a good time in both places that we can’t really pick our favorite team–so Kate’s rooting for one team, and I’m rooting for the other! I can’t wait to see who wins!

Black and Blue Magic from Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Zilpha Keatley Snyder isn’t a name that rolls off your tongue when someone asks you to name a children’s book author, but she’s one of the authors that I loved as a kid, particularly a book of hers called Black and Blue Magic, which tells the story of a boy named Harry, stuck at home in San Francisco over a long, boring summer. It was a book about magic that sparked magic in me–fostering a love of reading, and eventually opening me up to the pleasures of writing children’s books.

Last week, Zilpha Keatley Snyder passed away at the age of 87, after having published many, many books, and garnering Newbery Honors for some of them. One of the most famous books, The Egypt Game, sits in my pile of to-be-read books.

To honor her memory, I’ve pulled out some passages from an essay (A Summer Full or Reading) that I wrote for the Nerdy Book Club last year about the books that influenced me and the Ballpark Mysteries books:

But Black and Blue Magic by Zilpha Keatley Snyder was one book I returned to again and again. I remember reading it for the first time in early summer, lying on the floor of my two-level tree house. The book tells the story of Harry Houdini Marco, stuck at home in San Francisco with his mother during a long, boring summer vacation when his friends are all going off to do something interesting. What starts out as a dull summer quickly turns into a series of nighttime adventures after the mysterious Mr. Mazeeck gives Harry some magic ointment that enables him to grow wings and fly. That summer, reading  Black and Blue Magic enabled me to fly over the hills and streets and bay of San Francisco, into Golden Gate Park and beyond.

 Black and Blue Magic is the book I had in mind when I started writing book 7 of my Ballpark Mysteries chapter book series. The San Francisco Splash (obviously set in San Francisco) covers much of the same geographic ground, including San Francisco’s famous hills and its beautiful bay. Initially I hoped to pay homage to Black and Blue Magic by having a magic ointment be part of the mystery or by naming one of my main characters Harry. But as the plot developed, it was clear the story was going in a different direction.

 In the end, while I wasn’t able to work in a reference to Ms. Keatley Snyder’s work, I was able to pick her book back up when I finished with mine. This time, I didn’t lie out in my tree house to read it, but I did sit back and let her book transport me once more to a summer full of mystery, adventure, and surprise.





Stolen Turtles?

Okay, this is too weird. This spring Random House Children’s Books released Ballpark Mysteries book #8 – The Missing Marlin.

Book #8 in the Ballpark Mysteries series.
Book #8 in the Ballpark Mysteries series.

The book is set in Miami, and features the really cool fish tanks in the Miami Marlin’s baseball stadium. An important part of the plot relates to a character who is stealing and trafficking in stolen fish and turtles. But my character is no match for this guy in Detroit, who tried to cross the border with 50 (yes, 50!) turtles strapped to his body….

Stolen Turtles?

Why would anyone want to steal turtles? Kate and I never thought about stolen turtles until we took a trip to the Miami Marlin’s neat baseball stadium with huge fish tanks. You can read about it in our book The Missing Marlin.

Book #8 in the Ballpark Mysteries series is set in Miami, Florida.
Book #8 in the Ballpark Mysteries series is set in Miami, Florida.

But we couldn’t believe it when we read a news story recently about a guy who tried to cross the boarder into Canada with more than 50 stolen turtles strapped to his body! Hopefully, they weren’t SNAPPING turtles!

Author Interviews: Brian Lies Bats in Band Book Tour

These days, authors don’t just sit home (or in a coffee shop) and write. If you’re a children’s book author (or any type of author, for that matter), you not only have to write (or write and illustrate) your book, but you have to go out and promote it. For example, last spring I did a series of Skype school visits to share the latest editions of my Ballpark Mysteries series with children. And although Skype visits ended up taking a moderate amount of time to arrange and deliver, they were really successful in connecting my Ballpark Mysteries books with children all over the U.S.

But marketing your books isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s an on-going task that authors should continue to focus on and learn more about. That’s why I’m always interested to see how other children’s book authors do everything from Skype visits to school visits, and why I kept tabs (via Facebook) on what bestselling author and illustrator Brian Lies recently did to promote the launch of his latest “Bats” book, Bats in the Band (which is, of course, about bats that get together in a deserted theater to make music).

Bats in the Band by Brian Lies
Bats in the Band by Brian Lies

To get out and share his book with potential readers, Brian created a completely unique marketing vehicle. And I mean a vehicle–Brian not only customized his car with a colorful “Bats in the Band”  wrap, but he also built a Blue Man Group-like set of plastic tubes that fans could play using flip flops.

Bats in the Band car
Bats in the Band car

He even created bat musician figures that perched on top of the vehicle (when it was stopped…). Here’s a post from his blog explaining how he created the fiberglass bats, in case you ever want to try–but as you’ll find out from the post, it’s not a small job.

Brian Lies Bats for the top of the car.
Brian Lies Bats for the top of the car.

Brian clearly spent a lot of time putting together a unique book tour and creating new ways to engage with his audience, so I thought it would be interesting to learn more about his book tour process. Luckily, Brian was willing to share his experiences and he generously responded to some of my questions. (For more information on Brian and his books, check out his blog or the Bats in the Band Facebook page.)

When did the book come out and when did you do the tour?  
BATS AT THE BAND had an August 5th pub date, and we planned our events so they kicked off on that day.

How many bookstores/libraries/places have you visited as part of the tour?
So far, we’ve worked with Eight Cousins Books (Falmouth, MA), Where the Sidewalk Ends (Chatham, MA), Brewster Books (Brewster, MA) and Titcomb’s Books (Sandwich, MA) on Cape Cod.  Next was a sprint down the Maine coast— Sherman’s Books and Stationery in Bar Harbor, Boothbay Harbor, Camden, and Portland, and Maine Coast Books in Damariscotta.  We also did an event at Barnes & Noble in Augusta, and signed store stock whenever we stumbled on a Barnes & Noble.  I’ve got several more book events coming up in New England, and a Fearsome Foursome in the Midwest:  Red Balloon in Minneapolis, Anderson’s outside of Chicago, the Riverside (IL) Public Library (which is the setting for BATS AT THE LIBRARY), and Reading Reptile in Kansas City, Missouri.

How did you arrange the visits?
Some of the events are ones we set up ourselves, calling the booksellers we’ve worked with before and asking to get on their schedules.  Some, such as the Midwest tour, were set up by the marketing department at my publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  It really depended on whether we had connections with the booksellers or not.

Did you do them back-to-back or spread out over different weeks or weekends?
We clustered dates in areas where we needed to travel and stay overnight, but we now have dates around New England that are just several hours’ drive so those can be one-day trips.

You used a giant/blown-up version of your picture book—how did you create that?
We actually launched BATS IN THE BAND two weeks before the pub date, with a concert for Family Day during the Duxbury (MA) Music Festival.  You can see images of the concert—and all of our other tour dates—on our Facebook page, “Bats in the Band.”  We knew that the Family Day concert typically brings in 300 participants, and so we knew that we needed something big to read from, something that 300 attendees would actually be able to see.

Extra-large picture book!
Extra-large picture book!

So we asked Dan Easter at the company that did our vehicle wrap (Kingston Sign-a-Rama in Kingston, MA) if he had any thoughts on building an enormous book.  He took on the challenge and engineered the whole thing—printing the enlarged images on styrene sheets, then creating a heavy-duty tape and bolt spine for the book.  It’s amazing.

I love what you did to your car for the tour. How much work did that take, and what’s the “payoff” (for both you, the author, and the fans).
I built a PVC pipe organ (like the ones that Blue Man Group play), which attaches to the car so people can actually play the car, and I built two three-foot-tall fiberglass bats to attach to a box on the top of the car.  Everything was built by hand, and took me more than two months.  The payoff is really just something that’s whimsical and fun to park in front of a bookstore, and also something interactive, so that kids and families can go up and play the car.

Playing music on Brian Lies Bats in the Band car.
Playing music on Brian Lies Bats in the Band car.

Lots of book signings are just boring things, with a card table and a pile of books.  We try to break that mold and give kids and parents something fun to do while they’re waiting to get a book signed.

Author events can attract people of different ages. How do you approach an author event with children (or fans) of different ages and attention spans?
We don’t really think of the ages of the attendees when we’re putting things together.  My books are picture books, so the attendees are likely to be anywhere from 0-10 years old, plus parents and grandparents.  If we can find crafts or activities that will amuse both those kids and their grownups, that’s best.  But keeping kids happy for twenty minutes almost automatically keeps their parents happy!

What worked well?
The PVC pipe organ seems to have (pardon the pun) really struck a note with people who come to our book events.  It’s something you play with no rules—just grab up a flip-flop and bang away at it as you want!  And the big book has been a hit—it’s so large that it makes you feel small next to it, like one of those over-sized chairs you see in some roadside attractions.

Anything you’d do differently next time?
Every book promotion is different, and it’s impossible to see what difficulties you’ll run into in advance.  The Batwagon this time around was pretty complicated, with two sections of PVC pipe organ and the rooftop bats, all of which detach and get stowed for driving.  I originally hoped to be able to engineer a rooftop device that I could basically unfold from a compact box into the final, elaborate car—and I think that’s possible, but I didn’t have enough time . . . or a machine shop, to be able to fabricate parts I would have needed.   If I had to build the whole thing over again, I’d be able to do it in half the time, because most of my time was spent on feasibility tests (“will THIS work?”) and building as I went along.  Now I know how to do one of these, and what won’t work, and the process would be streamlined.  But I won’t ever build another!

Do you have any recommendations for other authors planning a book tour?
I think the most important thing is to be creative about it—look at the theme or setting of your book, and think of how you can elaborate on some of the things in the book.  Does the book feature some kind of food? Maybe you can serve that food at events, or get attendees to make that food.  What crafts can you build on the theme of the book?  Where’s the natural place to hold your book event?  If it’s a book about basketball, see about doing something at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA.  If it takes place on a beach, think about getting booksellers to agree to selling books at a sandcastle contest on a beach.  If it’s music, as in BATS IN THE BAND, get people playing music.  You were creative enough to write the book in the first place—you’re creative enough to come up with fun things to keep people busy while they’re waiting for you to autograph your book for them!

(images courtesy of Brian Lies)