Monday, August 26, 2013

An Interview with Editor Donna German, Sylvan Dell Publishing

With August quickly drawing to a close, teachers, students, and parents are preparing for back to school. Like most teachers, I’m cleaning, reorganizing, and gathering new resources for lessons, projects, and new ways of presenting material in the classroom.

A publisher I have had the privilege of working with, Sylvan Dell Publishing, publishes picture books that also provide resources for expanded learning opportunities in science, math, geography, character, and Spanish. Donna German, Editor-in-Chief and co-publisher at Sylvan Dell was gracious enough to answer a few questions about this unique publisher of picture books and the added teaching resources they offer with each title.

1. What was the motivation behind taking on the huge task of starting a new publishing company from the ground up?
Do you mean other than stupidity in starting a business right before one of the biggest economic downturns in recent history? Lee (my husband and co-owner in the business) had retired from the US Navy and wanted to buy a small manufacturing business. My passion was always with children’s books so we decided to manufacture children’s books.

2. What did you hope to bring to the picture book market that was not already available from other publishers?
Our books are, in fact, very unique. We had taken our three then-young girls on a cross-country camping trip to see as many National Parks as we could. While exploring the parks, the girls did the Junior Ranger programs at each park. Those Junior Ranger programs were the seed that grew into the “For Creative Minds” (FCM) section in the back of each book. These sections are usually 4 pages but may be as low as 2 or as many as 6. That is what makes our books truly unique.

Our mission is to get young children excited about science, math, and now geography through reading at a very early age. Our goal is to provide fun-to-read fictional (some non-fiction) picture book stories that parents will read to young children (cuddle factor) but that have non-fiction facts woven throughout the story. While some publishers add a page of “Fun Facts” to the back of some books, our FCM section in each book is designed to engage children through activities. These activities are the non-fiction component of each book that builds on the underlying science or math in the picture book story. Our hope is that when a child asks “why,” that the parent can work through the FCM with the child to answer the question—even if the parent didn’t know the answer. Older children can work through the activities on their own, but the reading level of the FCM sections is usually higher than the picture book reading level.

Either way, we believe that the more a young child is exposed to science and math in a fun way at a very young age, the more they will become interested and remember as they get older. Even if they don’t remember the specifics, they’ve been exposed to the concepts and that provides early building blocks for better understanding and retention later in life. And, I need to add that because our mission is to get young children excited about science and math through reading, we take that mission seriously. We are not experts in the subjects so we turn to the experts to review each title before going to print. We have worked with educators and scientists from NASA and JPL, NOAA, USGS, US National Parks, Nature Centers, Zoos, Aquariums, etc. to verify the information in the books. In many cases, the experts are aware of the areas that are most confusing to children (and even adults) and help us to present the information in an easily understood fashion.

What makes our books especially useful in the classroom is that it allows teachers to “kill two birds with one stone.” They can use the books during language arts to introduce or supplement a science or math lesson. We even know about high school teachers using some of our picture books in their classes!

3. Your books offer so much for the teacher to incorporate into classroom instruction-the "For Creative Minds" (FCM) section for each book, the additional content for each book on the website, the site license that is available to use on smart boards-can you tell us a little about those extras and how teachers can take advantage of them?

You mention the site license so let me describe that a little because eBooks are really confusing! Like most publishers, we make our books available in a wide variety of formats including ePubs and downloadable PDFS. But those are very different eBooks than what we offer in our “site license” or “personal eLibrary.” The interactive eBooks that we offer (through our website and some distributors but not all) stream on the web or can stream or be downloaded on an iPad (Fun eReader free app). 

The interactive eBooks feature: 1)  Dual language: readers can go back and forth on any page between English and Spanish 2)  Auto or manual: readers can turn the pages themselves or put the book in “play” so they can just read and watch 3)  Audio or no audio: readers can listen to the book being read to them (in either language) or not. 4)  Different Languages: This is available on the web but not on the iPad app. When in manual mode, a reader can read the text in one language but listen to the audio in the other. This is great for learning either English or Spanish!

In addition to the FCM section, we provide all kinds of support for each title, all of which can be found FREE on our website   from either the book’s homepage or from the Teacher and Librarian page:
For Creative Minds: The FCM sections of each book are available on the website in English or Spanish for download.

      Teaching Activities: Each book has 25 to 80 (depending on the book) pages of cross-curricular teaching activities that can be taken up or down in interest level and can be done at home or in the classroom. For example, if teaching the parts of speech, why not do it with science-based sentences?

Quizzes: We provide three on-line interactive quizzes for each title. Again, these can be done at home for parents to ensure comprehension (or just for fun), as individuals in the classroom, or on a white board as a group: 1) on the story itself  2) on the FCM section 3) a math-related quiz

 Related Websites: for more online learning on each subject

Alignment to Standards: While this is more for teachers than parents, each of our titles is aligned to Core Math and Language arts as well as each state’s Science and Social Studies standards. If a state does not participate in the Core standards, we align to that state’s math standards. We align each of our books to the upcoming Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that will be adopted by 27 states in the next few years.

Reading Levels: Again, mostly for teachers, we provide the information AR, Lexile, Reading Counts, and Fountas and Pinnell.

Trailers: depending on the author or illustrator, some titles have trailers to peak children’s interest

4. With eight books published each season, you certainly have a lot on your plate. What's next on the horizon for Sylvan Dell?
Our English books are already available in hardcover, paperback and a wide variety of eBook formats. At the specific request of the Department of Education in Puerto Rico, we started printing some of our titles in Spanish as well.

We are building to ten titles a season (twenty for the year). As part of that expansion, we are expanding into folklore and myth retellings (preferably from North America) that were used to explain scientific occurrences. That seems to be a good blending of language arts, science, and social studies (culture and geography). Our first release of that grouping will be next spring (2014) with Nancy Kelly Allen’s First Fire: A Cherokee Folktale.

We released our Fun eReader iPad app a little over a year ago. While the interactive eBooks work on all other tablets through the web, we are currently developing apps for droid tablets.

As funding permits, we would like to add other languages to our interactive eBooks. We have received specific requests for French, Mandarin, and Arabic.

From a teacher support perspective, we plan to develop teaching activities using multiple books to teach science concepts (life cycles, habitat interaction, solar system, natural disasters, etc.). And now that the NGSS standards are about to be implemented along with the Core standards, we can develop teaching activities for different grade levels.

Many thanks to Donna for taking time out of her extremely busy schedule to tell us more about Sylvan Dell books and their mission. If you haven’t had the chance to read one of their titles yet, I think you will be pleasantly surprised how much each book can enhance classroom learning.

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