Posts Tagged “writing for children”

STEM Tuesday– Deserts –Writing Tips & Resources

Hello from my desert home, Utah, and welcome to STEM Tuesday. I’m Stephanie. I took this photo several years ago at Snow Canyon State Park in Saint George and it really encapsulates what I love about life sciences. Nature gives us these unexpected—but beautiful—moments. This is the desert!

A tree growing in a crevice at Snow Canyon in Saint George, Utah. Photo credit: Stephanie Jackson

A tree growing in a crevice at Snow Canyon in Saint George, Utah. Photo credit: Stephanie Jackson

Before I get into writing tips and resources, I wanted to highlight some recent and forthcoming nonfiction desert books:

  1. First up, Weird, Wild, Amazing! Desert by Tim Flannery, published in 2022. Written by an Australian scientist in his unique blend of strange factoids and clear explanations, this book is a must-read for desert explorers ages 7-10.
  2. Second, for children 8-10, Deserts in Danger (A True Book: The Earth at Risk) by Cody Crane, publishing September 3, 2024 with Children’s Press / Scholastic Trade Publishing. This title highlights the impacts of climate change.
  3. Next, you may enjoy A Day in the Life of the Desert by Roxie Munro, publishing on September 17, 2024 with Holiday House. Although it’s being marketed as a picture book, it’s nonfiction, and the text is accordingly verbose. It’s packed full of desert facts, and as the subtitle says, “6 Desert Habitats, 108 Species, and How to Save Them.”
  4. Fourth is Desert Tree Finder (2nd Edition) by botanist May Theilgaard Watts, publishing on October 8, 2024 with AdventureKEEN. As field guides go, this is as practical and as beginner-friendly as they come, covering the American southwest.
  5. And lastly, a visual smorgasboard in the form of this 320-page coffee table book, Deserts: The world’s most fascinating places by photographer Philippe Bourseiller, publishing on November 26, 2024 with teNeues. Truly exquisite images.

Writing Tips and Resources

Okay, so writing and deserts. Immediately I think of ecopoetry which, simply defined, is poetry about nature. (If you’re interested in exploring the genre further, check out The Ecopoetry Anthology.)

For beginning writers, there are multiple entry points. By no means are these the only ways to write ecopoetry; however, I’ll discuss three possible approaches, chosen specifically for upper elementary kids.

  1. The form method. Because the blank page can be so intimidating, choosing a template for a poem narrows the options considerably, and many writers find it frees the mind to write toward a specific “recipe” of syllables. For example, haiku. A simple 5-7-5 pattern helps produce work like this:from the pocks and cracks
    in vermilion rock: a
    tree flourishes, free
  2. The photograph method. Technically called ekphrasis, poems like this work to distill an ineffable image—intrinsically worth 1,000 words—into a linguistic dopplegänger of the original art. You may have noticed that my haiku was an ekphrastic poem based on my own photograph. Even if you’re not a photographer, you can find royalty-free images from websites like Pexels to work from. (And maybe check out that coffee table book!)
  3. The appreciation method. Writers begin with a topic and, through discovery writing, develop a message, or at least a vibe. An example would be an ode, which is like a toast, usually addressing a noun. (But then again, Ross Gay wrote an ode to sleeping in his clothes, so there are exceptions to everything in art.) Topics appropriate for desert-based poems might include desert animals like kangaroo rats or armadillos. I’d love to read a poem entitled “Ode to a Kangaroo Rat,” wouldn’t you? It’s so oddly specific, I’d have to see what it was about. Even the most poetry-averse writer could take facts and appreciate them, turning them into a poem with stylistic creativity.

And a note about poetry, especially… please teach it with joy. If there’s anything that I’ve learned about art, it’s that there’s no wrong way to do it, except with misery.

Whether you’re an educator, homeschooler, librarian, or writer, I wish you all the best with your desert unit studies. If you enjoyed today’s post, please jump on over to my blog to read about my favorite desert-themed picture books!


Stephanie Jackson

A nature-loving creative, Stephanie Jackson writes poemsarticles, picture books, and middle-grade novels. Her nonfiction has been published in Cricket magazine and her poems have been published in various literary journals including Touchstones, where she’s been a contributing poetry editor. Professional affiliations include the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)The Authors Guild, the American Night Writers Association (ANWA), and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA). She expects to graduate from Utah Valley University in Spring 2025 with her undergraduate English degree, emphasis in creative writing. She interacts with the kidlit community on Twitter as @canoesandcosmos, and you can read more at

STEM Tuesday– Deserts — In the Classroom

stem tuesday logo

Deserts may seem dry and desolate, but they are thriving ecosystems filled with wildlife and plants that have adapted to survive harsh conditions. And even though school is out, these activities can help kids learn about the amazing desert and the unique life that thrive there.

Weird, Wild, Amazing! Desert: Exploring the World’s Incredible Drylands

by Tim Flannery; illustrated by Sam Caldwell

Welcome to the weird wildlife you might find in a desert, from ants to lizards, rattlesnakes to scorpions. Each of the seventeen animal profiles is filled with in-depth and sometimes bizarre facts that highlight issues like climate change and conservation or explain more about evolution and habitats.




Classroom activity: As students read through this fascinating title, tell them to create a comic book profile of one of the strangest animals described. They can use a notebook to record the animal’s name and basic information, and they can also record its “super powers”—its unique adaptations that help them survive in the desert. Students should give their creature a comic book character name, and then they share their desert superheroes with the other students.

Cactus Queen : Minerva Hoyt establishes Joshua Tree National Park

by Lori Alexander

What if you knew a place that was filled with thorny, spiny beauty and dainty wildflowers, but all other people saw was a wasteland? In the early 1900s that’s how people thought of the Mohave desert. But Minerva Hoyt saw the desert as a habitat worth saving, and she went all the way to Washington to let the Park Service know.



Classroom activity: Have you ever noticed the waxy coating on a cactus? What is it for? To help students understand, try this activity. Gather your materials: two sheets of paper towels, wax paper sheet a bit bigger than a paper towel sheet, and a cookie sheet. Wet the paper towels so they are slightly damp. Roll one paper towel and use a paper clip to hold it. Lay it on the cookie sheet. Lay the other paper towel on top of the wax paper, roll it, and secure it with a paper clip. Lay it on the cookie sheet. Leave the sheet in a dry place for a day and then check i. How damp are the towels now? Which one is wetter? The one wrapped in wax paper keeps the towel damp, trapping in the water just like the waxy layer on a cactus does.

A Walk in the Desert (Biomes of North America)

by Rebecca L. Johnson, illustrated by Phyllis V. Saroff

A lower middle grade text, this book uses photographs, notebook-like illustrated sidebars, and an engaging text to explore various North American deserts and the ways numerous plants and animals have developed strategies to exist in these challenging conditions. It also explores the interconnected food web and provides ideas for further research.



Classroom activity: Tell students to imagine one of the creatures in this book is the main character of a story. Have them write about its day in the desert from morning until nighttime. What other creatures does I meet? What problems does it face? Encourage students to use details from the book and do further research if they’d like. When they are done, ask them to add a few pictures—either drawings or printed images of the desert. And also ask them to create an interesting title for their book. When finished, students can host an author reading and display their book to the class.


Karen Latchana Kenney loves to write books about animals, and looks for them wherever she goes—from leafcutter ants trailing through the Amazon rain forest in Guyana, where she was born, to puffins in cliff-side burrows on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. She especially enjoys creating books about nature, biodiversity, conservation, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries—but also writes about civil rights, astronomy, historical moments, and many other topics. Visit her at

Meet Literary Agent Kelly Dyksterhouse

Headshot, agent Kelly Dyksterhouse

What a pleasure it has been to get to know Kelly Dyksterhouse, a literary agent with the Tobias
Literary Agency. Kelly has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and specializes in
building the careers of authors and illustrators who work on a broad range of projects from
picture books to young adult novels, graphic novels, and fascinating nonfiction for the youth
market. I know that all of our Mixed-Up Filers are eager to learn more about Kelly.


SK: Kelly, tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an agent.

KD: While I was pursuing my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I applied for a
position as a reader at The Bent Agency. At the time, I thought it would be a good
opportunity to learn more about how the business side of publishing worked. In that role,
I read slush and full manuscripts and wrote reader reports on the fulls. That led to an
assistant position for Susan Hawk at Upstart Crow, who was, and remains, a most
fabulous mentor. After working for several years as an assistant, I joined Jacqui Lipton
at her new agency, Raven Quill Literary Agency and began building my own list. In 2022, RQLA
merged with The Tobias Agency.

While every path to becoming an agent is a little unique, this business remains one that
is apprenticeship based, and frankly the relationship-driven part of the industry is a
major part of what I enjoy about it.

SK: What can you tell us about the Tobias Agency?

KD: I love my team at TLA! We work very cohesively and support one another well, and a
win for one of us/our clients is celebrated as a win for all.

The Tobias Literary Agency is a full-service literary representation firm established in
2016. We specialize in shepherding writers and artists from dream to reality. Our literary
agents are nimble and fierce with a collaborative spirit. We take a 360-degree view of
our clients’ intellectual property. Each project receives a targeted plan for execution of
sub rights (film/TV, foreign translations, first serial, graphic novel adaptations, and more).
Authors and artists we represent include debut authors, New York Times and USA
Today bestsellers, multiple Bram Stoker Award winners, distinguished scientists,
Emmy-nominated journalists, Coretta Scott King honored illustrators, LA Times Book
Award winners, and authors selected by Reese Witherspoon Book Club. Our literary
agents represent the gamut of genres, including the finest in horror, children’s,
nonfiction and illustration. Our literary agents and literary managers take pride in investing in
clients’ long-lasting careers.

SK: Here at MUF, we are all about middle grade. What do you love most about middle-grade novels?

KD: I love that they appeal to readers who are on the cusp of independence. Kids who are actively figuring out who they are and where they fit in their world. I think what I love best about middle grade novels is that they really respect this time of life and take it seriously, reflecting all of the beauty and struggle and confusion and joy that are wrapped up in adolescence. Books for younger readers tend to be fairly straight forward, but the middle grade novel wrestles with questions, allowing the reader to ask
questions of themselves. It’s a time in life where readers are forming opinions and can choose their own books to read. We tend to idealize childhood and forget how hard and heavy and very, very immediate and important everything feels at this stage of life. The middle grade novel carries a huge responsibility in this respect—it can open new worlds or offer solace from the real one readers inhabit, creating space to process their own feelings through those of a character, space to dream and ask questions and not be
judged for doing so.

SK: Which middle-grade book(s) influenced you most as a child?

KD: Ah, so many! But the books I return to every couple of years to reread I found in 5th
grade: Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown and Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight,
Mr. Tom. As a younger reader, I plowed through C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia,
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time books, all of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion
books, and of course Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague.

SK: What are some of your favorite current middle-grade novels?

KD: Aside from those of my own clients, of course, I’ve really enjoyed Alyssa Wishingrad’s
The Verdigris Pawn and Between Monsters and Marvels. I love how she uses fantasy to
probe readers to ask questions about their own world, which I think is the genre’s

I also really loved Dan Gemeinhart’s The Midnight Children—It was brilliantly structured,
written with so much respect for the reader, and it was a surprise to read. (I love books
that surprise.) I never would have suspected that a book that wrestled such heavy
subject matter would have me laughing out loud on an airplane at the climax. (I also
love books that make me laugh!)

Finally, I recently read Erin Entrada Kelly’s We Dream of Space and was really blown
away. Perhaps because it recalled so much of my own childhood—I was the same age
as the protagonist when the Challenger exploded and vividly remember watching it live
in our school auditorium, so the book hit home in that regard. But the character work in
that book is spectacular, and it’s a wonderful study for anyone who is seeking to deepen
their craft in terms of writing character.

SK: You seem to enjoy your work, but we know it has its tough parts. What would you say are the best and worst parts of being an agent?

KD: There are so many best parts! Every day, depending on what I am doing that day, my
answer will be different. I love the excitement of finding a new project that I can’t wait to
gush about. I love that no day is the same. I can start a day working on a picture book,
break to meet with clients and editors, and then end the day working on a novel, or a
nonfiction proposal. I love, love, love getting to call a client and tell them we have an
offer! And it is just amazing to hold a book in my hands that I helped shepherd into

So in a nutshell the best part of the job is working with creative people to bring fantastic
stories into the hands of children.

The worst part is easy—waiting and rejection. It’s part of the business, but that doesn’t
mean that it ever gets easy.

SK: What do you look for in a query?

KD: A strong query tells me what the book is about (who the character is, what they want,
and what the stakes are if they can’t get it, so the major dramatic question), with strong
comps to tell me where it will sit in the market, and does so clearly and succinctly in an
engaging tone or voice.

A query is a first impression, which I liken to an initial handshake in a job interview. It
needs to be professional, confident and show the writer’s competence and
understanding of their work and craft. The primary job of the query is to make me want
to read the book!

SK: What are the top reasons you pass on a submission?

KD: The number one reason I pass is that the writing is not ready. The concept and story
may be great, but it is clear that the writer sent it off before revising deeply or taking the
time to really refine their writing craft.

Another common reason I pass on projects is that the concept feels overly familiar—not
a fresh enough take to be able to stand out in the market.

SK: What is your best guess on where the middle-grade market is headed?

KD: I am seeing a lot of calls for books that could fill the audience “gaps”—younger middle
grade and older middle grade. Shorter, illustrated books that appeal to the 8-9 year old
reader, and then books whose subject matter appeals to the older middle grade reader
who is not quite ready for YA. (Some would call those books young YA, but I’ve been
seeing them announced as middle grade—books with characters as old as 15, yet
whose story might feel younger.) And there is still a great need for books that reflect a
diversity of experience and representation.

SK: Before you go, let’s have some fun with a lightning round. Please name your favorites!

Dessert: bread pudding with vanilla ice cream

Type of weather: a crisp, clear spring or fall day

Genre of music: depends on what I’m doing. Editing, I listen to classical instrumentals,
when writing I listen to movie soundtracks (instrumental), and when running I listen to
classic 80’s rock.

Season: Spring or Fall.

Game: I am enjoying a board game called Azul right now—it’s a fun strategy game with
tiles, and it’s really pretty. I also enjoy playing Hearts and Spades and Rummikub.

SK: I know that our MUF readers are going to want to learn more about you. Where can we do that?

● @kellydhouse is my SM handle for Instagram, Threads and Twitter.
● Website:
● MSWL: Kelly Dyksterhouse

Thanks so much for sharing your time and wisdom with us, Kelly. We wish you great success in
your career as an agent. I’m sure a lot of new queries are about to head your way!