chatting with author nicole groeneweg about one word pearl

I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to winning writing contests, author and educator Nicole Groeneweg definitely has the knack.

You may remember when I hooted about her team of first and second graders at Lane ES in Alexandria, Virginia, winning the Scholastic 2011 Kids Are Authors Grand Prize for Nonfiction for The Perfect Place for an Elf Owl.

Last year, Nicole’s charming story, One Word Pearl, won the NAESP’s Children’s Book of the Year Contest in the Picture Book category. The prize? A contract with Charlesbridge Publishing and an endorsement by the National Association of Elementary School Principals Foundation! WooHoo!

Art © 2013 Hazel Mitchell

This past summer, One Word Pearl finally hit the streets with uber cool mixed media illustrations by Maine-based artist Hazel Mitchell. Here’s the skinny:

Pearl loves words. All kinds of words. Words make up songs, stories, poems . . . and what does a lover of words do? She collects them, of course!

But one day, most of Pearl’s words are blown away, leaving her only a few which she keeps safely in her treasure chest. After that day, she uses each word carefully—one at a time, until she has no words left. When her teacher asks her questions at school, she doesn’t answer. When her friend wants to know what she has for lunch, she can’t respond. What will Pearl do without her precious words? Will she ever find them?

One Word Pearl explores the power of words to transform, inspire, and cultivate imagination.

I’m tickled pink that Nicole is here today to tell us about entering and winning the contest, working on revisions, and using One Word Pearl in the classroom. Big Congratulations to both Nicole and Hazel — thank you for creating this utterly delectable feast of words!

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Nicole with her classroom word chest.


Congratulations on winning the NAESP’s 2012 Picture Book Award! Please tell us more about the contest!

The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Foundation and Charlesbridge Publishing created the Children’s Book of the Year Contest in 2011 to promote good literature for young children and offer opportunities to authors who want to break into the publishing world. There are two winners each year, one in the picture book category and one chapter book.

My principal forwarded the contest to me saying, “this is right up your alley,” and I decided to give it a shot. I tried the first year and placed in the top 25. In 2012 One Word Pearl won!

Each manuscript is judged by a panel of experts from the editing, education, reviewing, bookselling and library fields and is judged on content, originality, and age appropriateness.

Tell us all about “the call.” Who was the first person you shared the good news with?

Well, I was hosting a baby shower for a colleague on a Friday evening and the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it, but something told me to pick it up and I did. I went outside to hear the caller, Brian Lewis from Mackinac Island Press (imprint of Charlesbridge Publishing). My heart soared when he told me that I’d won and the first thing I did was ask him to hold on. I went back to the party and told my friends the good news. The cheers were heard around the neighborhood and all the way in Michigan, where Brian was making the call. It was a great treat to share the news with my colleagues, most of whom had heard my various revisions of the story.

Rough sketch © 2013 Hazel Mitchell

Why did you think writing a story about a “word girl” would be a good bet for this particular contest? How was writing this story different from your other stories? What were your biggest challenges?

My biggest and only challenge was time. It was the beginning of February 2012 when I went to the website to find the submission date. At that time, the due date was stated as Feb. 15, 2012.  Although I had no ideas about what to write, I decided to go for it. That night I tossed and turned. Thoughts of what story would be good for my own class of 1st and 2nd graders and what principals might support floated through my mind.

Then a story about a girl who loves words (just like me) popped into my head. I jotted the words Pearl the Word Girl on a notepad (I keep one on my bedside table). The next morning, the writing began. The story was drafted and revised several times and three days later, it was ‘ready’ to send; perfect timing for hitting the Feb. 15 due date.

I mailed the submission. Later I returned to the website to find the notification date and what did I see?…a March 15, 2013 due date!  I decided there was nothing I could do and focused on other writing and teaching.

I usually write nonfiction articles and biographies, so One Word Pearl was a different genre for me. I enjoyed writing with rhythm and lightness for this book and will definitely do it again.

Character study © 2013 Hazel Mitchell

After the book won, how long did you work on revisions, and how did your original manuscript change during that time?

For many months after winning, I heard nothing.  I even thought maybe they’re not going to ask me to revise (mostly because the book was to be released the following summer—a very short time to be printed).  However in October I was asked to revise, basically changing the setting from the home to school. I had a week to rework the story and I was scared. Could I do it?

I worked hard to keep the original story thread going in the new setting. And, it ended up being a better story. Editors do know what they’re talking about!

I’m assuming since you teach first and second grade, you’ve already had ample opportunity to get feedback about this story from your target audience. What have you learned as a writer from their reactions? 

I teach a multiage class of 1st and 2nd graders and I model good writing strategies during our daily ‘writing workshops.’ I did read One Word Pearl to them before I sent it and they loved it. I always take that with a grain of salt though, because I know they love me.

Sometimes I have other teachers read to their classes and get their feedback. When I do read my work to my class, I ask them to practice our critique techniques and often they do question and ask for clarifications.  I listen to these questions and make necessary adjustments.

What do you like best about how Hazel Mitchell interpreted your story? Do you have a favorite spread?

I think Hazel captured the spirit of the book perfectly. When I handed the text over after the last revision, I knew I was at the mercy of the illustrator, but when I saw the book for the first time, I was thrilled. I don’t think Charlesbridge could have made a better match.  It’s difficult to choose a favorite spread, but I’m particularly drawn to the spread where Pearl returns to her room and words are everywhere! I also like the ‘pink journal spread’.

Would you share a few suggestions for using your book in the classroom (do you plan to create a teacher’s guide)?

I do plan to create a teacher’s guide. It is my goal to have a website up and running in January 2014. My busy life seems to distract me from this goal!

I have a ‘word chest’ in our classroom. The kids add new vocabulary words to it. When we have a few extra minutes, we choose a word to define. Children need to see and use new vocabulary at least 24 times before they internalize the meaning.

I think One Word Pearl is a great way of introducing a writer’s notebook. I encourage my students to write and sketch their ideas in their own notebooks. I do not dictate what they enter and it always amazes me what they can create.

What else do you like to write besides picture books? Why and when did you start writing for children?

I am the author of three teacher resource books: Unwrapping a Book and Interactive Projects and Displays (Creative Teaching Press) and Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts (Scholastic). I’ve also written nonfiction articles for several children’s magazines including Appleseeds, Faces, and Odyssey.

What are you working on now?

At the moment I am revising a picture book biography about Ansel Adams.  Scenes from a new ‘Pearl’ book dance in my head and they may lead to Pearl, Nature Girl.


What was your very first word? caballo (I lived in Panama when I was a baby)

What did you eat for breakfast today? eggs

Word you use a lot in the classroom: Read!

Always makes you laugh: pickle

Usually misspell: weird

Fun to pronounce: razzamatazz

Favorite: love

Least favorite: mucus

Name something you often order in a restaurant: chicken korma (Indian food)

A poem in itself: gift

Who or what inspires you? kids

Food that inspires your best writing: spinach

Three words to describe yourself: teacher, nature-lover, writer

Most surprising word a kid ever said to you: plastron

Advice for Congress: cooperate

Your fondest wish: peace

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You heard it here first, folks — Spinach inspires Nicole’s best writing! In 6+ years of blogging, this is the first time a writer didn’t say ‘chocolate’ when asked that question. Oho! Spinach must be the secret to winning writing contests :).

The background of this spread is a combination of rice paper and crumpled brown paper manipulated in Photoshop.

I’d like to thank the effervescent and eminently talented Hazel Mitchell for sending over the spreads for this post. As Nicole said, she did an amazing job with the illustrations. Love her textured paper backgrounds, wordy collages, and how she played with typography.

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but if I had to choose it would be the spread showing Pearl’s long lunch sentence, which includes a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich and a chocolate chip cookie with white chocolate chunks. 🙂

You can learn more about how Hazel made the pictures for One Word Pearl at Cynsations, Inky Girl, and Writing and Illustrating.

Check out the adorable trailer:

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written by Nicole Groeneweg
illustrated by Hazel Mitchell
published by Mackinac Island Press/Charlesbridge, 2013
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
Cool themes: vocabulary, school, communication, self confidence, writingOn shelves now!

** Keep up with the latest news at the One Word Pearl Facebook Page.



*Spreads from One Word Pearl posted by permission of the illustrator, text copyright © 2013 Nicole Groeneweg, illustrations © 2013 Hazel Mitchell, published by Mackinac Island Press/Charlesbridge. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.



17 thoughts on “chatting with author nicole groeneweg about one word pearl

    1. The text is very spunky — with examples of rhyme, onomatopoeia and alliteration, etc. Also love that Hazel cut out words from magazines and newspaper for the collages, and she filled the book with her favorite words in the illustrations. 🙂


  1. Oh, this book has been on my “to get” list all fall. Maybe a Christmas present for myself! ;0) Thank you for another amazingly insightful interview, Jama, and to Nicole and Hazel for sharing their terrific work. (One word for this post today? Inspring!)


  2. I just finished this book! Wonderful words and illustrations tied together in a fun package. Really nice to learn more about Nicole and her work as a writer and teacher!


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