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Welcome! We are six children's book authors with a wide range (and many years) of experience teaching writing to children, teens, and adults. Here, we share our unique perspective as writing teachers who are also working writers. Our regular features include writing exercises (our "Writing Workouts"), teaching tips, author interviews, book reviews, and answers to your "Ask the Teaching Authors" questions.
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One of the great parts of being an author is speaking to audiences about my books. While I enjoy every group, some are extra special. Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Miami, Florida, to share my book In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry
. This book is about Varian Fry, an American journalist who volunteered to go to Nazi controlled France in 1940 to order to rescue (mostly) Jewish refugees whose lives were in danger. This true story of one man who believed he could make a difference is filled with intrigue and danger. Ultimately, Varian Fry rescued more than 2000 people. Yet few Americans have ever heard his name.
I was invited by the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach
to share the work of Varian Fry as part of Holocaust Education Week. They asked me to speak to three different audiences. The first night, I presented my program for the public at the Holocaust Memorial. It was an honor to speak about rescue during the Holocaust at a place dedicated to the memory of so many who were not rescued. Every Holocaust Memorial is different, and here the centerpiece is the massive statue of a hand reaching toward the sky with human figures huddled around the bottom. The sculpture is powerful and moving. It says so much-silently. In the audience that night, listening to my program were Holocaust survivors and the descendants of some who had been killed at Auschwitz.
The next morning I spoke to university students at Miami Dade College. Many in the audience – including one of the administrators – had come to American as refugees. As I shared about the refugees of 1940 leaving their homes, these young adults understood the concept in a much more personal way than my usual audience does.
In the afternoon, I presented my program to students at a private Jewish high school. These modern American students carrying their backpacks entered the room and chatted as they took their seats. While relating the work of Varian Fry, I told them about several people who helped him. One of them was a seventeen-year-old boy named Justus Rosenberg. He was their age and his life was in danger because he was Jewish. Rosenberg survived but countless other teens didn’t.
I shared the work of Varian Fry with three different audiences in Miami. Each one was very special.
Carla Killough McClafferty
We are currently running a giveaway for IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD that ends at midnight on April 1. (CORRECTION NOTE: There was a typo in an earlier post that said the end date was April 6. The correct end date is April 1.) For more details see Esther Hershenhorn’s post: http://www.teachingauthors.com/2015/03/a-two-for-price-of-one-interview-with.html
Jim Trelease, author of THE READ-ALOUD HANDBOOK, properly praised this essential book for teachers and librarians in his review: "Amidst the clanging noise of today's technology, Steven Layne offers here a clear clarion call on behalf of reading to children. It is insightful, reasoned, entertaining (rare in the field), and carefully researched for those who might doubt the urgent need for something that doesn't need a Wi-Fi hot spot. It should be on every teacher's must-read list."
Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway of an autographed copy of IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD. Instructions follow after the Wednesday Writing Workout. The deadline to enter is April 6.
Were I entering our TeachingAuthors Book Giveaway, I’d share my #1 read-aloud title - Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH (Random House). As I wrote in my post celebrating Leonard Marcus’ 50th anniversary annotated edition of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, reading aloud this beloved classic marked the first day of school for every fifth grade class I taught. Once grown and married, many of my students wrote me to share how they in turn shared Milo’s tale with their children.
So what about you? What is your favorite read-aloud title?
Once again, I thank Steven – this time for allowing me to share his Read-aloud Tips and Recommendations - as listed in IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD, in today’s Wednesday Writing Workout.
. . . . . . . . . .
Wednesday Writing Workout:
Dr. Steven L. Layne’s Read-aloud Tips and Recommendations
As Dr. Layne declares in his newest book, when it comes to read-aloud, practice makes perfect! Here are a few of his practical read-aloud guidelines as shared in his March 1-released IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD (Stenhouse).
Become familiar with the book before reading it.
Launch the book successfully.
· Provide a purpose for listening.
· Work out an advantageous seating arrangement. · Plan your stopping point. “Every stopping point is a secret reading-skill-reinforcement lesson just waiting to happen.” · Teach reading skills such as visualization, inferring, and sequencing. · Plan strategically for the end of the read-aloud. · Work out a positive solution for those students who get the book and read ahead. · Choose and balance the books and genres we read-aloud. Just in case you’re looking for a good book to read aloud, read through his list of “The Twelve Books Steven Loves to Read Aloud.” · COUNTERFEIT SON by Elaine Alphin (“My go-to- read-aloud for high school kids who need to be enticed back into the experience of being read to by an adult.”)
· Sue Stauffacher’S DONUTHEAD (“It has proven itself to me time and again when it comes to delighting students in the intermediate grades.”)
· Bill Grossman’s MY LITTLE SISTER ATE ONE HARE. (“How can you not fall in love with a picture book about a girl who eats all manner of disgusting things and then throws up – when it’s written by a guy whose last name is Grossman?” · Jerry Spinelli’s STARGIRL. (“Of all the books I have read aloud to students in my career, it is Jerry Spinelli’s STARGIRL that takes center stage.” And don’t forget to enter our TeachingAuthors Book Giveaway! The deadline is midnight, April 6.
Today’s interview subject qualifies as a Student Success Story + a TeachingAuthor. He’s a national-award-winning former suburban Illinois across-the-grades classroom teacher and reading specialist who currently serves as Professor of Literacy Education at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, directing the university’s Master of Education in Literacy program and co-directing the university’s doctoral program in Literacy Education. He also authors picture books, including STAY WITH SISTER (Pelican), (which he wrote in my 2011 Newberry Library Picture Book Workshop), YA fiction, including THIS SIDE OF PARADISE(Pelican) and academic books for teachers, including LIFE’S LITERACY LESSONS, IGNITING A PASSION FOR READING and, as of March 1, IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD (all Stenhouse). Dr. Layne also recently served as an elected Board Member of the International Reading Association, now the International Literacy Association. I’m honored to call this amazing former student-dash-TeachingAuthor both “Steven” and “friend” and welcome this opportunity to share him with our readers. His earnest zeal for literacy is nothing short of contagious. Steven travels the world igniting his audiences of teachers and writers. His mission statement as expressed on his website says it all. Passionate about reading. “Building lifetime readers,” he writes, “is what it’s all about for reading teachers and librarians. If we aren’t doing that – what are we doing?” In IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD, Steven puts forth the research, the insights, the experience of teachers, librarians and authors to reinforce readers’ confidence to continue and sustain the practice of reading aloud in grades K through 12. Thank you, Steven, for all you do to keep literacy alive – and – for sharing your smarts and experience with our TeachingAuthors readers. Thank you, too, for offering one lucky reader a signed copy of IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD via our TeachingAuthor Book Giveaway. (Instructions appear following the Q and A.) So, let’s divide the standard First Question of our Student Success Story/ TeachingAuthor Interview into two parts. How did your teaching career begin? I wanted it to begin right after college—but I had no teaching degree. My parents assured me I would starve if I became a teacher, so I became a therapist—who married a teacher. It took only two months of listening to her talk about her students for me to return to college again—and to follow my destiny. Over the years I worked with the impoverished, the insanely wealthy, the middle class – you name them, I taught them – every race, religion, shape, and size. I like to think those experiences taught me a few things. How did your writing career begin? I loved writing in school. I often made up my own cast of characters for dramas and wrote short stories and plays. My poetry and prose were awarded honors throughout high school. Many years later, when I was in a doctoral course called “Writing for Publication” and had finished all of the required “academic” submissions, I asked about writing a picture book. The professor encouraged me to “go for it.” I did, and 27 rejection letters later – I sold it. My mother and my aunt Mary bought copies right away but beyond that the sales were less than inspiring. My second book, The Teachers’ Night Before Christmas, became a national bestseller—selling over 100,000 copies. Suddenly, people wanted to talk to me about writing.
How does each role (teacher/author) inform and impact the other? The role of “Teacher” informs EVERYTHING that I do from the way I parent, to where I sit in church, to the way I interact on an airplane. When I write for kids – I draw on my knowledge from 15 years of classroom experience. I typically write fast-paced, plot-driven YA because I am thinking of what I know will grab the kind of reluctant readers I taught. When I write picture books, I try to stay under 500 words and to write about an issue that will emotionally resonate with primary-grade readers, again, because I taught those grades. Those kids were my first loves, so to speak. When I write for teachers—how can I NOT write “as teacher?” I spend a lot of time in public and private K-12 classrooms even now. A colleague and I have been teaching in three fifth-grade classes on and off this past year and those experiences are definitely going to play into the writing of an article, book, or curriculum. The role of “Author” informs my teaching, primarily when I am talking to teachers about the craft and the process of writing. I try not to speak only from my own experience but from that of others. In fact, I am often gently criticized for not shining a light on my own work, and while it is true that I can speak to my process better than anyone else’s—I am loathe to have audiences feel that I am trying to showcase my own work. That being said, I often pull from my knowledge of how “real world writing works” and from my experience when I teach about writing but am able to do so without using my own texts as the examples. How and why did you come to write IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD? My experience with read-alouds spans a wide range of grade levels. I read aloud, even now, to both my masters and my doctoral classes. The benefits are far-reaching and the research is sound, and yet the experience is often placed under the pedagogical microscope—raising eyebrows and leading to the question: “Is this a good use of instructional time?” I wanted to write the book that would settle the questions once and for all which is why I enlisted an army of voices from throughout the literacy arena to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me on this issue. I know of no other book where an issue of instructional practice has received such a resolute stance from so many. My prayer is that this book will be every teacher’s and librarian’s defense if their practice in reading aloud to children or teens is questioned by someone who is ill-informed. Can you share one or two reader responses – to any of your books – that remain in your heart and keep you going…doing your important work? I wrote my first YA novel This Side of Paradise when a 7th grader in my classroom challenged me to write a book for kids who hate to read. That title has won more awards and recognition than all my other books combined. The other day I received a letter from a single mother from California. She was writing to tell me that her middle-school son, who had been having a tough time in school and HATED books – had discovered mine. He read it, then read the sequel, and then came to ask her if she could try to find out if and when another book in the series was coming. To see this book still working magic warms my heart. I receive a lot of mail about my professional book Igniting a Passion for Reading. I am frequently told by teachers that their reading of this title has completely altered their practice. Yesterday, I was contacted by a school district in Texas. They are opening three brand-new elementary schools and hiring all new faculty. Igniting and two other titles from my dear friends Regie Routman and Donalyn Miller are the three books around which they will anchor all instruction. They have asked me to come out and work with the teachers. What an honor – I am so blessed. What’s the next Steven Layne children’s book and/or Dr. Steven L. Layne academic title for which we should ready our bookshelves? Oh, I wish I could give you a definitive answer. I am due for a new picture book because I typically bounce between genres; however, I have four chapters of a YA novel started and an exciting new book for teachers also taking shape. You never know what I’m going to do next (and neither do I), and I actually kind of like it that way. Let’s just say, you can reserve a place on your shelf because something’s coming – we just don’t know what . . . or when. Here’s a way to instantly fill that saved space: enter our Rafflecopter Book Giveaway and win an autographed copy of Steven’s IN DEFENSE OF READ-ALOUD (Stenhouse)! If you choose the “comment” option, please share your Favorite Read Aloud title – as either listener or reader.
If your name isn’t part of your comment “identity,” please include it in your comment for verification purposes. Comments may also be submitted via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.
If the widget doesn’t appear for some reason (or you’re an email subscriber), use the link at the end of this post to take you to the entry form.
The Book Giveaway ends midnight, April 1.
Today, I continue our Teaching Authors series on libraries: how we use them, why we love them, and what we love about them.
Whenever I hear about a book I want to read—on a listserv, on the radio, in a conversation—I search the library catalog online. I can reserve books from anywhere in our county library system and pick them up from my local branch. For research, it’s priceless. I've even emailed articles to myself. Wonderful resources! And free!
Our library offers an amazing array of services from read-aloud programs for little ones to candidate forums for voters to book deliveries for shut-ins. Miss Heide, the children’s librarian, raises monarch butterflies every summer for visitors to watch.
I stopped in yesterday to drop off books I had read, pick up books I had requested, browse a bit, and take a few pictures for this post. Alas, although I can see the photos on the camera, my laptop will not read the disk.
Don’t we love technology?
Only when it works. I’ll leave you instead with some lovely spring flowers, photographed with my phone.
You’ll have to imagine the community bulletin board, the student art on display, the helpful staff. Imagine Miss Heide herding a flock of chirpy kids through the picture book area. Imagine two rambunctious boys rifling through a pile of books on a little black cart. They inspired this poem.
Little Black Cart
Are you done with your books?
Please don’t put them back.
Shelving is tricky,
and we have the knack.
Whatever you’ve finished—
The Farm Almanac,
Training Your Yak,
Baking a Snack,
Ducklings that Quack,
How to Kayak,
Programming a Mac—
belongs in this stack.
If you’re not checking out
that collection of art,
the novella with heart,
don’t need the recipe
for strawberry tart,
leave your books here
on the little black cart.
Not sure what your library has to offer? Check out the web site. Better yet, stop in and visit!
Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Reading to the Core
JoAnn Early Macken
Every writer – fiction and nonfiction -- understands that the library is an essential tool to her craft. It’s more than a repository of information, or a quiet place to gather one's thoughts. A library is a place where ideas are born, and where the impossible becomes possible.
Recently, I read Yvonne Ventresca’s wonderful book, Pandemic.
After surviving a horrific act of betrayal, teenager Lilianna suffers from post-traumatic stress. As Lil struggles to find her way “back to life,” imminent danger presses upon her home and neighborhood. An outbreak of a strange new flu is spreading quickly with deadly results. Her parents out of town on business, she finds herself alone as tragedy strikes. The plot is fast-paced and thoroughly engrossing as Lil struggles to find hope and trust amidst a terrifying life and death ordeal. It so happens that the Ebola outbreak was striking its own terror as I was reading this book. The realism depicted in this dystopian tale hit strikingly close to home. I had to ask Yvonne how she achieved this:
“Reading nonfiction books. Conducting interviews. Checking government websites. These might sound like typical tasks for a nonfiction writer, but they were actually all part of the research I conducted for my young adult book, Pandemic, which is a work of fiction.” – Yvonne Ventresca
Yvonne read books about contemporary and historical diseases: “For several months I had a rotating pile of disease-related books on my nightstand. Since Pandemic is about a contemporary illness (fictionalized bird flu), I read a lot about emerging infectious diseases, and I learned that because of airplane travel, germs can be transmitted almost anywhere in the world within 48 hours. I also researched the Spanish Influenza of 1918, which served as a model illness for my story. I discovered that the sanitation measures almost a century ago included blow-torching water fountains, hosing down streets, and locking public phone booths. Despite these measures, the Spanish flu killed more Americans than all of World War I.”
Like Yvonne, I write fiction but I depend upon research to bring it depth. My favorite library is the U.S. Library of Congress.
It is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. While it serves the U.S. Congress, it is also the national library, and the world’s largest library. James Madison proposed the idea of a Library in 1783. But it wasn’t until April 24, 1800, that the library was established. This library brings to life the American story. And it proved unequivocally fundamental in bringing my story, Girls of Gettysburg, to life.
As I was researching another book, I came across a small newspaper article dated from 1863. It told of a Union soldier on burial duty, following the Battle at Gettysburg, coming upon a shocking find: the body of a female Confederate soldier. It was shocking because she was disguised as a boy. At the time, everyone believed that girls were not strong enough to do any soldiering; they were too weak, too pure, too pious to be around roughhousing boys. It was against the law for girls to enlist. This girl carried no papers, so he could not identify her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. A Union general noted her presence at the bottom of his report, stating “one female (private) in rebel uniform.” The note became her epitaph. I decided I was going to write her story.
The Library of Congress archives original photographs and newspaper artwork taken of the battle of Gettysburg. Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words!
|Library of Congress|
This includes a photograph of the Unidentified Soldier wearing a confederate uniform. Doesn’t this look like Annie?
|Library of Congress|
The home of the real Abraham Bryan, where my protagonist Grace Bryan lived.
|Library of Congress|
“A library is … a place where history comes to life!” – Norman Cousins
Yvonne is happy to send free bookmarks to public and school libraries in the US. Librarians can email her at Yvonne @ YvonneVentresca.com (remove spaces) with the librarian’s name, library, and address where the bookmarks should be sent.
For more information on the fascinating history of the Library of Congress, see Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress.
Happy Poetry Friday! The link to today's PF host is below.
This round, we at TeachingAuthors have decided to trot out the topic, Ways I Use the Library, and I'm the first to saddle up. My horse is a little rebellious today, so I'm going to change the topic slightly to: Reasons I Love My Library.
How do I love libraries? Let me conjure up memories:
The word library
sends me back to Franklin Elementary School and its smoky-voiced librarian, Mrs. Orbach. I will always be grateful to her for breaking the rules and letting me check out The Complete Sherlock Holmes
The word library
stands me next to my mother, choosing Wind, Sand and Stars
for me as if she were sharing an important secret from her childhood. This sacred act in the Yuba City, California library is tied to that cool oasis from Yuba City’s heat—the downstairs rooms, dark walls painted during the WPA…and that good book-composty smell.
I love my library for a raft of reasons, but I especially love libraries (1) as a quiet place to write without holing up in my house, and (2) because they hold a treasure trove of audiobooks. Joy, joy, joy--audiobooks!
I love being read to. I'm probably an audio learner.
I remember Mom cracking up as she read to us from Kids Say the Darndest Things
, Archie & Mehitabel, The Joys of Yiddish, Catcher in the Rye
, and any stories by Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain and Molly Ivins. My teacher and mentor, poet Myra Cohn Livingston, always set aside time in class to read poetry. Nothing was required of us. Listen. Absorb. Enjoy.
These days, the word library means a place I go to write. I like being surrounded by books and by quiet bookpeople working and reading. A true Southern California commuter, when I walk back to my car, my arms are full of audiobooks, to sustain me on my long drives to my writing group and to UCLA. ( In one just-before-summer post
, I recommend three audiobooks...and today I'd add Deborah Wiles' Each Little Bird That Sings
to that trio--all from my lovely local library.)
Here's a library poem from my 2011 Poetry Month blog
The story behind the poem: I was in the library, and as the librarian waved her wand over an audiobook, I heard it click…I began wondering how many sounds there were in a library…including the sounds a book’s story makes in one’s head.IT’S NOT QUIET IN THE LIBRARYby April Halprin Wayland
The electric door is opening, it sucks in outside air.A carpet rubs as a patron sits down on his chosen chair.
The blonde librarian waves her wand—I can hear it whisper-clicksix times as it moves back and forth o’er six non-fiction picks.
There are sounds that bounce around the rows of all the Y.A. booksif you listen closely you can hear folks’ irritated looks
at that oops-he-forgot-to-turn-off-his-cell’s rock ‘n rolling ringwhile on this page I hear the voice of Martin Luther King:
and as I read, “I have a dream” reverberates in my headnear Charlotte, who is loudly spinning words into her web.
There are sounds around this building, there are sounds in books like these.It’s not quiet in the library and that’s okay by me.
(c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved
It’s your turn. Take your notebook to a park or a restaurant or a school or the beach and write down the sounds. It may help to close your eyes to hear them. Select the most interesting; write a poem.
posted quietly by April Halprin Wayland and Eli, immersed in his favorite novel.
The host of Poetry Friday is our beloved Author Amok, Laura Shovan
~ thank you, Laura!
By: Carmela Martino and 5 other authors
Blog: Teaching Authors
(Login to Add to MyJacketFlap
, Eric Kimmel
, Marianna Mayer
, Rafe Martin
, Traditional tales
, Vicki Palmquist
, Add a tag
These last few days, fellow Teaching Authors Mary Ann
and wonderful new TA Carla
have discussed the blending of fiction and nonfiction. In the end, as I noted in my post
, I offered that we are story animals,
as Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007
) suggests. We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.
Stories are so old, so intimately connected with language, some researchers suggest that language was created to express stories. Researchers have found that telling stories at an early age helps develop math abilities and language literacy. And teachers know that understanding the story process helps young readers understand the organization of language.
A simple definition of a folktale would be that it is a traditional story, usually dressed in metaphor and symbol, told by a people—of a particular community, group, or nation—to help explain how and why things happen, how one meets the challenges of life, or how one might become a better, or wiser, person. But such a simple definition negates a bigger truth embedded in these tales. Traditional tales are like icebergs
; we see only the tip. Jung would call this tip the “personal unconscious,” the aspect of story derived from personal experience and acquisition. But the greater meaning of the tale lies beneath this surface of consciousness. Carl Jung calls this deeper layer the collective unconscious, an inherited “psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is defined in all individuals.” (Man and His Symbols, 1968
).As Rafe Martin tells us, traditional tales belong to the world of the imagined, to the portals of dreams. “They are the eternal literature of humanity.”
Remember the child’s game, “Telephone
”? Everyone sits in a circle, and then the teacher whispers a joke or a story to the student next to her. That student whispers the same story to the one sitting next to her. That student whispers the same story to the one next to her until the story makes its way around the circle. The last student recites the story to the group. Of course, with each retelling, the child puts her own spin on the tale, sometimes reordering the events, recasting it in personal symbols, and reinventing characters as she understands them. That’s the folklore process in action. Someone tells a story. That story is told and retold, and with every telling, the story changes as the teller makes it her own. Despite the many changes the story underwent, there remains intact certain kernels of emotional truth. An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, “all stories are true.” Not necessarily factual, but certainly true to what it means to be human.
Europeans left behind their own ancient histories to seek a new life in an unknown land. Upon arrival, they found that they needed to redefine themselves as a people. If the new land was a sanctuary in which they could pursue “life, liberty, and prosperity,” it also proved an overwhelmingly strange and alien place. These new immigrants dealt with their insecurities when faced with forces greater than themselves by overwhelming these forces through the “magnification” of the self, epitomized in the unrestrained exploits of Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and many others.
From the beginnings of the westward movement
, the near incomprehensible vastness of the landscape, the extraordinary fertility of the land, and the variety of natural “peculiarities” inspired a humor of extravagance and exaggeration. The immigrant’s need to affirm the value of a culture independent of European refinements, constraints, and mores created a humor that became exclusive. The immigrants purged their terror of the overwhelming trials of life by minimizing it, and the storyteller as narrator became superior to circumstance with wit and humor.In true rough-and-tumble fashion
, the hero and heroine of the tall tale mocks and defies convention. The tall-talk of the tall tale, like the hero who inhabits these tales, is as wild and unabashed as the frontier that created it. The language defies the tidy and restrictive, even uptight, structure of formal grammar. It mocks it, in fact, using pseudo-Latinate prefixes and suffixes to expand on the root. The result is a teetotaliciously
reflection of a frontier too expansive for mere words to capture. By creating such a grand language, the frontier storyteller found a means to make an unknown frontier less scary. The grander language captured the bigger ideas of frontier life.
In reading such tales, a young reader develops an appreciation for language itself, for language is more than mere words: the rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed.
As Mary and Herbert Knapp suggest, the traditional tale plays a vital role in holding together “the frayed, factory-made fabric of our lives.” Such tales connect us to the past and to each other, exist when people share an identity, “and since all of us once belonged to that group of human beings we call children, the folklore of childhood brings together all of us.” (One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children, 1976).What are your favorite traditional tales?
Thank you! A version of this article was published by Children’s Literature Network (2012). Thank you to Vicki Palmquist and everyone at Winding Oaks Children’s Literature for all their support for the children’s education and literature field. Bobbi Miller
People understand that it takes creativity to write fiction. But many don’t understand that it also takes creativity to write nonfiction. As a nonfiction author I write true stories-but they are still stories. When teaching students or teachers how to write nonfiction, I explain it like this:
I don’t create the facts,
I use the facts creatively.
Nonfiction is based on facts found in primary source documents. How an author uses those facts is what makes the difference between text that reads like a novel or a textbook. The creative part of writing nonfiction is finding a way to keep the reader turning pages to see what happens next-and at the same time telling the story accurately. To accomplish this goal, I use fiction techniques such as dialogue, sensory details, foreshadowing, pacing and all the rest.
Let’s look at just one fiction technique I use in nonfiction books: dialogue. In my books, the dialogue comes from direct quotes from documented primary sources. Teachers, students and readers can go to source notes in the back matter to see exactly where the quote was found.
I’m often asked, how do I know
when to use a direct quote,
and when not to?
I use a direct quote to accomplish one of three things:1. To show characterization
2. To increase tension
3. To have greater impact
Below are a few examples from my books that demonstration how I used quotes as dialogue.
To show characterization:
“Kevin Turner, a former NFL player, still remembers the excitement of his high school football days. He recalls, “When I woke up on game day. I couldn’t wait until it was time for the kickoff. Wearing my jersey to school on game day was a big part of the experience. At game time, when I ran out on the field and heard the announcer call my name in the starting lineup, it was a rush, like nothing else. It was like having Christmas sixteen times a year. My parents were proud of me. Nearly everyone in our small town was cheering in the stands and spontaneously reacting to what happened on the fields. It was magical.”
To increase tension:
In this scene from Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium
(FSG), I am showing this famous scientist at a difficult moment in her life. At the same time Curie was planning to build the Radium Institute, the shed where she and her late husband, Pierre, discovered radium was going to be torn down. I quoted Marie Curie’s own words about how she felt about visiting the shed for the last time.
“I made my last pilgrimage there, alas, alone. On the blackboard there was still the writing of him who had been the soul of the place; the humble refuge for his research was all impregnated with his memory. The cruel reality seemed some bad dream; I almost expected to see the tall figure appear, and to hear the sound of the familiar voice.”
To have greater impact:
Varian Fry, an American journalist, volunteered to go to Marseilles, France, in 1940 to rescue refugees from the Nazis. This scene from In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry
(FSG), is about the moment he arrives in the city. Fry wrote about this moment, so I chose to quote the entire segment exactly as he wrote it because his own words had greater impact than if I had paraphrased what happened.
“’Aha, an American,’ he said in a gravel-rough voice.
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm.
“Marseilles is like your New York City at rush hour, eh?” he said, smiling.
I smiled back. “Quite a mob,” I said.
“Refugees. Pouring down from the north,” he said. “We would like to pour them back. But the Boches [Germans] have occupied Paris. So the refugees all run to Marseille to hide, or maybe sneak across the border. But they won’t escape. Sooner of later we arrest all the illegal ones.” He smiled again.
“Too bad for them,” I said.
“Too bad for them; too bad for us!” He gave me my passport. Enjoy your stay in our country,” he said. “But why you visit us at this unsettled time, I don’t know.”
His eyes narrowed, and I thought he looked at me suspiciously. But as I went out through the gate, I decided it was my imagination. He knew nothing of the lists in my pockets, nor did he know I had come to smuggle out of France the people whose names were on those lists.”
All three at once:
Many times, one quote like the example below accomplishes all three goals of characterization, tension and greater impact at the same time. The following section from The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon
(Carolrhoda) shows Washington in the days leading up to the historic crossing of the Delaware.
“The Continental Army was in real trouble. At the beginning of the war, most soldiers had enlisted for short periods of time. Now that things were going badly, they left as soon as their enlistment commitment expired. At the beginning of December 1776, about half of Washington’s men went home. He knew that the enlistment for many more would expire at the end of the month. General Washington had to do something fast to raise the moral of his men, or he would soon have no army to lead. David Ackerson, one of his commanders, recalled seeing General Washington at this time saying, “he was standing near a small camp-fire, evidently lost in thought and making no effort to keep warm . . . His mouth was his strong feature, the lips being always tightly compressed. That day they were compressed so tightly as to be painful to look at.”
When writing nonfiction, when you use quotes and how you use them makes all the difference.
Carla Killough McClafferty
Today, more than a million people in at least 80 countries around the world celebrate World Read Aloud Day. This annual event “calls global attention to the importance of reading aloud and sharing stories.” How will you take part?
My cousin Mary Jo and her sweet dog Molly volunteer in the Paws for Tales program at the Weyers-Hilliard library
in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Kids who are looking for good listeners can come in and read a book to Molly or one of the other “friendly, trained four-legged friends.” What fun—and what good practice!
Reading aloud is good practice for writers, too. Before you consider a poem or story complete, give it the read-aloud test. Read it yourself. Read it to a child or a pet. Ask someone to read it to you. Does it flow well? Does the rhythm fit the message? Listen to the sounds of the words. Do they match the tone of the manuscript? Be alert for any stumbles.
Note any issues on your manuscript as you listen. Focus on those spots in your next revision. Repeat as necessary. Have fun!
JoAnn Early Macken
P.S. I’m also celebrating March 4th (one of my favorite holidays) on my blog
. Stop in and see why!
I write this post enormously grateful for how smart each fellow blogger has made me these past two weeks thanks to her posts that addressed the telling of our stories, whether true or not. As I read Mary Ann’s, April’s, Bobbi’s and JoAnn’s posts, all I could think about was the tiny blue Post-It Note I’d affixed long ago to my first desk-top computer: “It’s the STORY, stupid!” We are, as Kendall Haven wrote, story animals; we are, as Lisa Cron tells us, wired for story.
I’d originally titled this abecedarian book W IS FOR WRITING. Brainstorming with my CPS Alcott School fifth graders helped me choose writing-associated words to represent the letters A through Z. But even once I fine-tuned those choices to ensure they totally embraced the writing information I needed and wanted to share, I knew those twenty-six words in no way told a story.
And they needed to, if I was to pull in readers and keep them turning the pages. My fifth-grader Alberto said it best. “You should change the title,” he boldly advised me. “W IS FOR WRITING sounds like a textbook. I’d never want to buy it. But if you call it “W IS FOR WRITER,” he added, “I’ll think you wrote a book about me.” Alberto wanted hard facts, inspiration and encouragement. But most of all, he wanted – and expected – a story about writers with which he could connect. So here’s what I did to tell that story: (1) First I thought about my take-away, what I wanted my reader thinking when he closed the book – i.e. writers are readers! (2) Next I thought about what I wanted my reader thinking while he was reading my descriptive and explanatory poems and sidebars – i.e. young writers and award-winning authors share the very same writing process! (3) I then made sure the true facts I chose to include - about children’s books, about children’s book authors, about the writing process– served as concrete details that supported my story's take-away’s. (4) Finally, I did my best to create a narrative arc, addressing the reader while moving him from the all-encompassing people, they and their in the beginning alphabet pages…. to the inclusive we,us and our in the middle pages…
to the focused you and your in the final pages.
Thanks to Alberto, my twenty-six letters told a story - of a writer's life and process, A through Z
By: Carmela Martino and 5 other authors
Blog: Teaching Authors
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April Pulley Sayre
, creative nonfiction
, Fiona Bayrock
, Flip Float Fly: Seeds on the Move
, JoAnn Early Macken
, Laura Purdie Salas
, Lola Schaefer
, Marcie Flinchum Atkins
, Poetry Friday
, Add a tag
In this series of Teaching Author posts, we’re discussing the areas of overlap between fiction and nonfiction. Today, I’m thinking about creative nonfiction.
What is Creative Nonfiction? According to Lee Gutkind (known as the “Father of Creative Nonfiction”), “The words ‘creative’ and ‘nonﬁction’ describe the form. The word ‘creative’ refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.”
One critical point about writing creative nonfiction is that creativity does not apply to the facts. Authors cannot invent dialog, combine characters, fiddle with time lines, or in any other way divert from the truth and still call it nonfiction. The creative part applies only to the way factual information is presented.
One way to present nonfiction in a compelling, vivid manner is to take advantage of the techniques of poetry. When I wrote the nonfiction picture book Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move
(gorgeously illustrated by Pam Paparone
), I made a conscious effort to use imagery, alliteration, repetition, and onomatopoeia while explaining how seeds get around. When she called with the good news, the editor called it a perfect blend of nonfiction and poetry. Yippee, right?
Fiona Bayrock’s “Eleven Tips for Writing Successful Nonfiction for Kids”
lists more helpful and age-appropriate methods for grabbing kids’ attention, starting with “Tap into your Ew!, Phew!, and Cool!”
Marcie Flinchum Atkins has compiled a helpful list of ten Nonfiction Poetic Picture Books
. She points out that these excellent books (including some by Teaching Authors
friends April Pulley Sayre
, Laura Purdie Salas
, and Lola Schaefer
) can be used in classrooms to teach good writing skills. We can all learn from such wonderful examples!
Heidi Mordhorst has this week’s Poetry Friday Roundup at My Juicy Little Universe
JoAnn Early Macken
In my previous post,
I offered that isn't it a wonder that using fictional techniques to relay the telling of facts and biography seems a natural fit?
Monica Kulling is the master of biography.
Monica’s poetic narrative – a hallmark of all her books – breathes life to her characters as she explores the thematic values of determination and persistence. Her Great Idea Series, published by Tundra Books
, is one of my favorite nonfiction series for young readers. Monica
excels at taking a moment in history, oftentimes a forgotten moment, and fashioning a story that is both compelling and informative. The books showcase inventors, some more known than others, and how they were inspired to create their inventions that, in many ways, changed the course of history. Monica’s fascination with the late 19th and early 20th centuries confined her research to that particular period. When choosing who to write about, says Monica, “I need enough material to make an interesting narrative
.” Monica researches extensively, using online and in print sources. Inventors are clever, says Monica, and they are ingenious in finding ways to realize their dreams. She focuses on that ‘a-ha’ moment, when a great idea clicks in your brain and has you racing off in pursuit.
The picture book format allows Monica to bring depth and breadth to each inventor’s story.
Her book, It’s a Snap: George Eastman’s First Photograph
(2009), illustrated by Bill Slavin, tells the story how Eastman invented the photograph, and thus ushered in the new age of documenting history as well as the advent of ‘selfies.
Another book in the series, Going Up: Elisha Otis’s Trip to the Top
(2012), illustrated by David Parkins, depicts the founding of the elevator, allowing skyscrapers to literally touch the sky. And one of my favorites, the award-winning In the Bag: Margaret Knight Wraps It Up
(2011), also illustrated by David Parkins, tells the story about the young inventor of the folded paper bag who eventually owned over twenty patents.
Says Monica, “I’ve always been more interested in the struggle than in the achievement. It’s the nail-biting will-they or won’t they, can-they or can’t-they, that engages a young reader most
Tundra Books chooses wonderful illustrators. Each of the four illustrators who have worked on the series has been able to depict the time period in all its glorious detail.
|Illustration by Richard Rudnicki. Used with permission.|
One of my favorites, Richard Rudnicki’s illustrations for Making Contact: Marconi Goes Wireless
(2013) are full of the same energy as Monica’s characters. His sweeping landscapes, done in acrylics on watercolor paper, are particularly striking, depicting the Newfoundland coastline, with its cold grey colors, whirling storm clouds, and the bright dot of a kite flying in the wind make me shiver with awe.
Monica’s newest edition to the series is Spic-And-Span: Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen
This book follows the amazing story of Lillian Gilbreth, the inspiration for the matriarch in the movie and book, Cheaper By The Dozen
. Her life is so much more amazing than a movie or a book, however. When her husband dies unexpectedly, Lillian forges ahead to raise her children alone. An efficiency expert, industrial engineer and psychologist, Lillian’s designs and inventions are still considered fundamental to contemporary kitchens eighty years later.Thank you, Monica, for this neat activity from the Learning Activities for Spic-and-Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen
:Talking about Clockwork:
“The kitchen is the heart of the home. It should run like clockwork.” What does it mean to say that the kitchen should “run like clockwork”? Why was Lillian’s kitchen not running like clockwork? What was her solution?
Can you think about anything in your classroom or your home that needs to “run like clockwork”? What steps must be taken in order for this to happen?
As a class, walk around the classroom and make a list of any “inefficiencies.” Is there anything about the classroom’s design that could be improved on in order to save time and space?Bobbi Miller
We are story animals
, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007
). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.
Stories are so old, so intimately connected with language, some researchers suggest that language was created to express stories. In fact, evolutionary biologists now believe we are hardwired to think in story forms. Cognitive scientists know that stories help us understand and remember information for longer periods. Researchers have found that telling stories at an early age helps develop math abilities and language literacy. And teachers know that understanding the story process helps young readers understand the organization of language.
Isn’t it a wonder that using fictional techniques to relay the telling of facts and biography seems a natural fit? After all, life is messy and fragmented. But stories provide a form for that experience. Stories shape random events into a coherent sequence. Stories help readers focus on the essentials, sifting through the distractions. As writer May Sarton once said, “Art is order, but it is made out of the chaos of life
One criticism of narrative nonfiction is the use of psychological action and dialogue. Stories freely engage in psychological action to help readers empathize with the protagonist. But, in narrative nonfiction, how would the author know just how George Washington – or any historical character – really feels and thinks about an event?
Easy. Writers report on their protagonist’s thoughts and feelings by using inferences, in which a character’s state of mind is revealed by reportable observations. As Jon Franklin, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, stated, “People don’t think in words. They think in the experience of the moment
One of my favorite authors, and one of my favorite books, that achieve this psychological action so magnificently is Russell Freedman’s Washington at Valley Forge
(Holiday House, 2008). With his first sentence, Freedman establishes the desperate conditions faced by Washington and his men: “Private Joseph Plumb Martin leaned into the icy wind, pushed one sore and aching foot ahead of the other, and kept on marching.”
Washington’s troops were beaten down and bedraggled. Martin was not only hungry; he was “perishing with thirst.” Freedman weaves primary sources into the narrative to demonstrate the psychological action.
Another favorite is Phillip Hoose, in his wondrous epic tale of The Race to Save the Lord God Bird
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004). The book begins with Alexander Wilson and his quest for the ivory-billed woodpecker: “Alexander Wilson clucked his horse slowly along the margin of a swamp in North Carolina. Bending forward in the saddle…Wilson’s heart must have been racing as he dismounted and crept toward the bird…”
Likewise, readers hold their breath as the scene unfolds. The story sweeps across two centuries, never loosing hold of the reader’s attention as it explores the tragedy of extinction, and the triumph of the human spirit.
As the great Virginia Hamilton once offered, every fiction has its own basic reality…
“…through which the life of the characters and their illusions are revealed, and from which past meaning often creeps into the setting. The task for any writer is to discover the ‘reality tone’ of each work – the basis of truth upon which all variations on the whole language system is set. For reality may be the greatest of all illusions.” (Virginia Hamilton, Illusions and Reality, 1980).Bobbi Miller
By: Carmela Martino and 5 other authors
Blog: Teaching Authors
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, Janet S.Wong
, Poetry Friday
, Poetry Friday Anthology
, science poems
, Sensory details
, Sylvia Vardell
, Turning Life into Fiction
, April Halprin Wayland
, Add a tag
Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! (the link to this week's PF host is below.)
First: welcome, welcome to our newest TeachingAuthor, Carla! I am in awe of your writer's journey, Carla, because when I learned that we would be discussing non-fiction, my legs trembled and my palms grew cold and damp. Unlike you and Mary Ann, in her wonderful first salvo on this topic, I am not, by nature, a researcher. I am NOT a "Just the facts, M'am."
|Jack Webb as Joe Friday in Dragnet, from Wikipedia|
But... is this really true?
Well...I DO tell my students
that real details bring fiction to life, and have them listen to the following short audioclip from StoryCorps
. Talk about bringing a subject to life! The details Laura Greenberg shares with her daughter are priceless--not to mention hilarious.
Still, I struggled to write poems for The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science
). By "struggled" I mean I read science articles and wrote tons of stinky poems about rocks, astronauts, materials science, the expiration dates on seed packages,electricity, science experiments...and on and on and on.
gettting facts wrong--my worst nightmare. (Confession: writing these blog posts scares the bejeebers out of me.
In fiction, I can fly my fairy-self to Planet Bodiddley and make up all the materials science by myself. But if I have to convey facts? And then somehow bake them into a tasty poetry pie? I get tied up in knots. My writing becomes stiff as a board. I'm afraid of...
But finally I stumbled on this fascinating fact, in a review of The Big Thirst
by Charles Fishman:"The water coming out of your kitchen tap is four billion years old and might well have been sipped by a Tyrannosaurus rex."
Wow. Think of the water you drink. Think of the water you take a BATH in!!!!
Ten versions of "Space Bathtub" later (with considerable coaching from the ever-patient anthologists, Janet Wong
and Sylvia Vardell
) this fact became a poem for kindergartners:
OLD WATERby April Halprin Wayland
I am having a soak in the tub.
Mom is giving my neck a strong scrub.
Water sloshes against the sides.
H2O's seeping into my eyes.
The wet stuff running down my face?
She says it came from outer space!
The water washing between my toes
was born a billion years ago.from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science(c) 2014 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved
If you're a K-5th grade teacher, this book is so immediately useful, you'll cry with relief when you open it. Trust me. For details, and to watch under-two minute videos of poets (Bobbi Katz, Kristy Dempsey, Mary Lee Hahn, Susan Blackaby, Buffy Silverman, Linda Sue Park and me) reciting our science poems from this anthology, go to Renee LaTulippe's No Water River
. Again, trust me. (A little foreshadowing: Pomelo Books' newest anthology, Celebrations!
comes just in time for Poetry Month this year--stay tuned!)
Here's a terrific vimeo of "Old Water" produced by Christopher Alello
posted safely and scientifically by April Halprin Wayland wearing safety goggles
First off, a big Teaching Authors welcome to our latest TA, Carla McClafferty. Not only did Carla and I meet and bond some fifteen years ago at an SCBWI retreat in Arkansas, we once shared an editor. Greetings, old friend, and welcome aboard. For the next couple of posts we are going to be talking about your genre, non-fiction, and what it shares with fiction.
I have always wanted to be a Carla-sort of writer, a non-fiction writer. "Write what you love" is one of those things writing teachers (like me) tell their students. I love non-fiction. My "adult" reading consists almost entirely of biographies and history. If I read two adult novels a year, that's a big deal for me.
So why don't I write non-fiction for children? The reasons are endless, so I'll boil it down to one. I just can't stick to the facts.
Both of my novels, Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars began life as memoirs. YG was about my life, JS about my mother's family. Because they both took place in other times and places...Mississippi 1964 and Pittsburgh 1943...I did a boatload of research to make sure I had the details right. For the World War II world of Jimmy's Stars, I made a timeline of what battles occurred where and when between September 1943 and September 1944, and when news of those battles reached the States. I compiled a radio schedule for the Pittsburgh stations. I studied streetcar routes. I poured over the various rationing schedules for gasoline, food, clothing.
You would think that Yankee Girl would not require quite so much research, since after all, this was based on my own elementary school years. I even had my 5th and 6th grade diaries. Still....do you remember what week the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" reached number one on the charts? Neither did I. Since the main character is a huge Beatles fan, there is at least one reference to a Beatles' song in every chapter. In addition, this the height of the Civil Rights Movement (the Selma March to Montgomery occurs about three quarters of the way through YG). I had to know exactly what date this protest or that bombing occurred. I remembered that these things had happened but that wasn't enough. I had to know exactly when. I spent a dismal five months in the microfilm room of the Jackson Mississippi library, going through a year's worth of newspapers, reliving a sad and scary time.
By now you are thinking, "Well, with all this research, why didn't she just go ahead an write those memoirs?" Good question. All I can say is that my mind refuses to march in a straight line . Yes the facts are there, because they are part of the story. But once I start writing, my "real" character refuses to stick to their own "real" story. I start thinking "but wouldn't it be more interesting if this happened instead? Or if her best friend was this kind of person?" Before I know it, I am off on a completely different story than I had first intended. The only thing that remains the same is the structure of historical fact and detail that makes the story "real" for me (and hopefully for the reader as well.)
I am just beginning to write contemporary fiction for young people and guess what? There is no less research involved. Next month I will have a story in a YA anthology called Things I'll Never Say.
I live in Georgia. My main characters live in Georgia. I have lived here for fourteen years. Yet, for a 3,000 word story here are just a few story points I needed to find out to make the story real: price of admission to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, driving times between different towns, the academic school year of Emory University, the most popular spring break towns with Georgia teens...well, you get the point.
My point? Getting the details right is one of the ingredients for making a story real. Editors care about details. I spent weeks nattering back and forth with my Yankee Girl editor over the dates of those Beatles songs. Readers care. I had an adult write me that if the mother in Yankee Girl used a steam iron, then she didn't also need to sprinkle her clothes before ironing. I was a little miffed that someone could read a 225 page book and this is what she chose to write me. It never occurred to me look up that sprinkling/steam iron detail. That's the way my mom always ironed. (I still probably need to look that up.)
I once read a Big Time Award Winning Book that took place in a state where I had lived and knew very well. This author had placed four major cities within an hours drive of each other. In reality, they were in different corners of the state and hours away from each other. Whatever affection I had for the book died right then. Good grief, anybody could look at an atlas (this was pre-Internet) and see where those cities were. I later read an interview by the author and discovered that she had never visited that state (or apparently done any research) but she "knew" somebody who "used" to live there. That was one of those moments when you want to scream and throw the book across the room.
That was the moment when I decided that for me, getting the details "right." Facts are front and center of a non-fiction, but they are no less important in fiction.
Now about that steam iron....
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman
My path to becoming an author is . . . unusual. Like most writers, I’ve loved books all my life. Some of my earliest memories are of being bribed by the promise of a Golden Book if I would go to sleep in my own bed rather than my parent’s bed (I took the bribe). However, as I grew up, a wide variety of books were not readily available to me. Our small town didn’t have a library and neither did my elementary school. What passed as our “library” was a small collection of books sitting on the bookshelf below the wide windows that ran the whole length of the classroom.
|Peter Rabbit was my favorite book, and was |
also one my Mama bought to bribe me.
Somewhere around the third grade I got a pink diary. I’d like to say my diary entries were long narratives about my hopes and dreams that show a budding writer’s flair for the dramatic. That is not the case. In reality my diary entries are so sparse that the entire text of my five year diary could fit on a napkin, a cocktail napkin. But when I look at that diary now, I do see the beginnings of an author—a nonfiction author. Each diary entry contains the facts and does not include any extraneous information or fluff. For example on one especially important day in history, July 20, 1969, I simply stated: “Dear Diary, the astronauts landed & are walking on the moon.” It is simple, to the point, and has the sense of immediacy—not a bad start for a future nonfiction author.
|My childhood diary shows an early glimpse into my future as a nonfiction author. My straightforward recording of the moon landing came just one day after my confession that I dreaded facing my piano teacher (I hadn't been practicing.) |
As an adult, my first career is as a Registered Radiologic Technologist. Next I became a wife and busy mother of three children. I read voraciously, but still had no thoughts of becoming a writer. In fact, I would never have become an author if tragedy had not entered my life. My youngest son, fourteen-month-old Corey, fell off of the backyard swing and died from a head injury. Life as I knew it ceased to exist. I was devastated, to say the least. Ultimately I wrote an inspirational book about the Spiritual battle I faced after Corey’s death and how God brought me through it and back to Him titled Forgiving God
. It was the first book I’d ever written.
|My first book, an adult inspirational book that deals with the death of my son, Corey.|
After my first book was published, I began writing nonfiction books for young readers. No classes. No journalism degree. No mentor. I just started researching and writing. Along the way I joined SCBWI, went to writer’s conferences, and learned all I could about children’s publishing. I listened to the old writer’s adage that says “write what you know” when I chose X-rays as the topic for my first book in this genre. That book, titled The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray
, was awarded the SCBWI work-in-progress grant and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG). When that book was finished, I wondered if I could do it again. I could. The next two books, Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium and In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry
were also published by FSG. Then came The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon
published by Carolrhoda, Tech Titans
by Scholastic, and my newest book Fourth Down and Inches: Concussion and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment
also with Carolrhoda.
|My nonfiction books for young readers. |
Since libraries fill me with awe and appreciation, I’m thrilled to know that my books are in library collections all over the world. In some ways I’ve come full circle. I began as a child with no library access and I became a nonfiction author who has done research in some of the finest libraries in America including Columbia University, Harvard University, and the Boston Athenaeum.
|Doing research at the library at Harvard.|
I didn’t plan to become a writer or a public speaker. But the twists and turns of life have turned me into both, and they are a good fit for me. I love the challenge of researching a topic I know nothing about. I love to write about ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. I love to capture the imagination of a live audience and take them on a journey as I share with them the amazing things I’ve learned about the subjects of my books. And as an added bonus, researching my books has given me incredible life experiences that I will always treasure. I’ve visited Marie Curie’s office at the Radium Institute in Paris and sat in her chair, behind her desk. I’ve stayed on the grounds of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and watched the sunrise over the Potomac River while standing on the piazza. I’ve looked into the faces of men and women who were saved from the Nazis by Varian Fry and listened to their personal experiences. I’ve wept with the parents of teens who lost their lives as a result of concussions. I’ve presented programs in a wide variety of venues including C Span 2 Book TV, Colonial Williamsburg, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. Consulate in Marseilles, France, teacher conferences, workshops, and at many schools.
Now I’m honored to join this amazing group of women known as TeachingAuthors. It will be a whole new adventure and I’m looking forward to it.
Carla Killough McClaffertywww.carlamcclafferty.com
I had such a fortunate Teachable Moment while brainstorming my picture book FANCY THAT with my Holiday House Editor Mary Cash.I knew the setting – Berks County, Pennsylvania; I knew the time – 1841; and I knew my story’s Hero – young Pippin Biddle, orphaned without warning, the son of a limner - an itinerant portrait painter. Mary agreed with me that such a picture book would be ripe with historical and arts curriculum connections. My sketchy plotline was just that – i.e. sketchy: accompanied by his dog Biscuit, (whom I pictured to be lap-size), Pip would travel the Pennsylvania/New York area through the first 3 seasons of the year unsuccessfully earning his keep painting people’s portraits, returning at Thanksgiving with an empty purse and heart. “But why would young readers care about such a boy on such a journey?” I asked my editor. “Well,” Mary began, “could he have a few sisters who needed Pip to earn his keep?” she asked.Orphans, Mary shared, can be lovely in a story.“And, maybe,” she suggested, “Pip’s dog could be part of the resolution?”And then she paused, her gaze meeting mine.“You know, Christmas books do so much better than Thankgiving titles,” she commented. “What if Pip returned at Christmas?” Driven to tell this singular story, I back-burnered Mary’s 3 delicious suggestions with an open mind, even though I’m a nice Jewish girl from West Philadelphia and writing a Christmas picture book was not in my wheelhouse, as they say.
Fast forward to the stacks of the Wilmette Public Library, one week later, when I discovered (1) there wasno Thanksgiving to celebrate in the U.S. in 1841 and (2) few Americans celebrated Christmas at that time!
And OOPS²… except...the German immigrants, who’d just happened to settle in Berks County in central Pennsylvania, had brought along their Christmas tradition of making evergreen wreaths and decorating their fir trees!while Pip’s dog Biscuit gathers the greenery of each season, and Pip paints his portrait to send home to his Poor House-ensconced sisters Emma, Lyddie and Martha,
Pip’s sisters themselves, inspired by Pip’s portraits, create a livelihood that builds them their homeand Pip discovers his hidden talent.
Fancy that!Lucky Pip and his sisters! Lucky me and my readers!
And all quite by accident.
P.S.Jennifer T won the SKIN AND BONES giveaway!
P.P.S.A writer with whom I corresponded this past week shared the following Dalai Lama quote benath her name. I thought it relevant.
"Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck."
When this topic came up, I thought it would be an easy one to write about. I make a lot of mistakes. I tried to think of one I turned into a positive experience. Not so easy.
Brainstorming gave me a couple of ideas. One was Milton the Monster
. The other was Mom saying “Oopsie Daisy” when one of us kids fell down.
The mistakes that haunt me now are often errors of omission—things I should have done but didn’t. Given a difficult choice, I can agonize until it’s too late to do anything. What if a better option comes up? Mom used to say, “Sometimes not to decide is to decide.”
|Bird feeders outside Mom's window. Can you tell I'm craving spring?|
Fear can be paralyzing, so sometimes almost any action is better than none. What if I make the wrong choice? No use crying over spilled milk, Mom says.
I always try to make the best of whatever situation I find myself in. But when I try to think about my mistakes, well, I don’t want to. Mom's advice? Don't dwell on them. Maybe blocking them out is the best way for me to be able to pick myself up, dust myself off, and carry on.
Don’t forget to enter our drawing for an autographed copy of the young adult novel Skin and Bones by Sherry Shahan. Today’s the last day!
JoAnn Early Macken
We TeachingAuthors have been posting about our intended plotlines for 2015.
I so appreciate my fellow bloggers’ insights and their willingness to share their experiences, smarts and intentions for this coming year.
Like JoAnn, I’ve been walking a dog too this past week - my GrandDoggieDaughter Maggie, in the soul-freeing coatless-bootless-hatless-gloveless-scarfless clime of warm and sunny mountain-surrounded Phoenix.I’ve been thinking on what I need/want/wish to share in this post and it is this: when it comes to plotlines, the character’s in the driver’s seat. It took me forever - as in countless rejected manuscripts showcasing countless puppet-like characters - to understand this truth.And not just as it applies to the plotline of a story I’m writing…but also to the writer’s plotline I’m living every day. I need to know my character’s need/want/wish … and I need to know mine. Otherwise neither of us can act, re-act, grow and triumph as we drive the twists and turns of our stories’ highways. Digging deep within – my characters and myself - reveals the answer, always. Fortunately, we’re but 19 days into our new year. So as I work on my own writer’s story, I’m digging away, hoping to uncover my need/want/wish, helped by the following three insights I came upon the first week of January. Marketing guru Seth Godin’s January 1 post – “USED TO BE” – set off non-stop sparks in my mind and heart. The phrase “used to be,” it turns out, connotes neither failure nor obsolescence. Instead, it signals bravery and progress. “If you were brave enough to leap,” Godin posited, “who would you choose to 'used to be'?” Hmmmmm…..I pondered. The possibilities intrigued me.
In her January 4 Chicago Tribune column, writer Heidi Stevens suggested we skip declaring New Year’s resolutions and instead write a mission statement. A mission statement, she wrote, “was less about what she should tackle and more about the shape she wanted her life to take.” I liked that insight. What struck me most was her own mission statement: to focus on what she knows to be true. Hmmmmm….I pondered further. More possibilities to consider.
Finally, Stevens’ fellow Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich shared an idea in her January 7 column that April Halprin Wayland echoed in her January 9 post: choose one word to live by in the coming year. Having to select that one word that would guide your new year was akin to “being dropped inside a Super Target,” Schmich wrote, “and asked to pick one object, and only one, that you would carry with you for the next 12 months.” Once again, I pondered intriguing possibilities. Embrace? Flow? Risk? Grow? Leap? Simply, be?
What and who I used to be. My mission statement. My one word for the coming year.
I believe knowing all of the above will help me finally nail my need/want/wish for 2015.Just like that, I’ll be traveling my plotline, both hands on the wheel, eyes open and focused.
Happy Driving to our TeachingAuthors’ readers! Saturday, January 24, from noon to 4 pm (in respective time zones) is the first-ever National Readathon Day, a nation-wide reading session that allows you to promote reading while pledging and fundraising to support the National Book Foundation. Think of it like “a walk-a-thon charity drive, only you’re turning pages instead of walking laps.”
I've enjoyed reading my fellow TeachingAuthor' posts on plotting and planning. That series ended with Esther's post on Monday. Today, I'm presenting a new topic: a guest TeachingAuthor interview and book giveaway! But first, I want to share some updates regarding our blog. The next few months will be a busy time for me due to a variety of personal and professional commitments. (If you live in the Chicago area and you're looking for a writing class, I hope you'll check out my class offerings, including one tomorrow on "Great Beginnings.") So, while I'll continue to work behind the scenes here, I'll be taking a blogging break. And I'm THRILLED to announce that the talented Carla Killough McClafferty will be blogging in my place. If you don't know Carla, do read her bio info on our About Us page. I hope you'll give her a hearty welcome when she makes her debut here three weeks from today.
Now, for today's guest TeachingAuthor interview, let me re-introduce you to Sherry Shahan, author of picture books, easy readers, and novels for middle grade and young adults. You may recall that Sherry contributed a terrific Wednesday Writing Workout back in July. I began that post by saying:
>>Sherry and I first met virtually, when she joined the New Year/New Novel (NYNN) Yahoo group I started back in 2009. I love the photo she sent for today's post--it personifies her willingness to do the tough research sometimes required for the stories she writes. As she says on her website, she has:
"ridden on horseback into Africa’s Maasailand, hiked through a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, shivered inside a dogsled for the first part of the famed 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, rode-the-foam on a long-board in Hawaii, and spun around dance floors in Havana, Cuba."
Sherry's most recent young-adult novel, Skin and Bones
(A. Whitman) required a different kind of research, as she shares in her interview below. According to Kirkus Reviews
, she did her work well::
"Shahan tackles eating disorders in a fast-paced, contemporary coming-of-age novel. . . A quick read with a worthy message: We are all recovering from something, and the right companions can help you heal. The wrong ones can kill you."
The paperback edition of Skin and Bones
will be released in March. Meanwhile, Sherry is generously contributing an autographed copy for a TeachingAuthors'
book giveaway. To enter, see the instructions at the end of this post. First, though, be sure to read the following interview:Sherry, how did you become a TeachingAuthor?
In the 1980s I lived in a small town and didn’t know anyone who was a writer. I hadn’t even heard of SCBWI
(Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I heard about a local Writers Conference and signed up. At the end of the workshop focusing on children’s books, I asked the instructor if she’d critique my middle-grade novel manuscript. She agreed. Soon thereafter she told me she’d shared it with her editor (a school book fair publisher). They bought that novel and I worked with them on five more.
Fast forward: After graduating from Vermont College of Fine Arts
(MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, 2007) I was brimming with enthusiasm about writing. My friends soon tired of discussions of emotional subtext, objective correlatives, polyphonic elements, etc. When I heard that UCLA was seeking teachers for online writing courses I sent the department chair my resumé. I’ve been teaching for them ever since.What's a common problem that your students have and how do you address it?
It’s simply the overuse of passive verbs—and that’s across the board, no matter what the person’s writing experience. As an exercise, I post a short paragraph that’s riddled with ‘was,’ ‘seems to be,” ‘must have been,’ ‘would,’ ‘had,’ etc. I then ask them to reconstruct the paragraph using active verbs. Happily, writings submitted after the exercise shine with lively, active language.Back in July you shared a terrific Wednesday Writing Workout with our readers and talked a bit about Skin and Bones. You mentioned then that the novel started out as a short story. What inspired that original story and how did you expand it to a novel?
I had a crazy idea about a love story from the perspective of a teen guy with anorexia, which I set in an Eating Disorders Unit of a hospital. The short story sold right away to a major literary journal. Later, a London publisher included it in their YA anthology, and after that it appeared in their Best of collection. So far the 1,400-word version of Skin and Bones
has appeared eight times worldwide.
My agent kept encouraging me to expand the story into a novel. But I wasn’t ready to spend a year (or more) with young people in the throes of a life-threatening illness. I weighed the pros and cons.Pros:
* The short story would serve as an outline since the basic story arc was in place.
Each character already had a distinctive voice.
The hospital setting was firmly fixed in my mind.
The subject matter had proven itself to be of interest to readers.
Proven ground is attractive to editors and publishers, as long as the topic is approached in a fresh way.Cons:
* The story would require an additional 60,000 words.
I would have to create additional characters.
Every character would require a convincing backstory.
I would need compelling subplots.
Every scene would require richer subtext.Well, the "Pros" obviously won out.J We don’t often hear or read of boys having anorexia. How did you go about researching this story? What kind of response has it received from readers and teachers?
My primary research was memoirs about teens with addictions. There were striking similarities between the mindset of say, someone with anorexia or bulimia, and a young person addicted to drugs. Shame and guilt effected both addictions. I wasn’t prepared for the skillful manner in which teens—males and females—manipulated friends, family, and the environment in order to keep their obsession secret.
I’ve been visiting high schools and libraries talking about Skin and Bones
and the dangers of eating disorders. Many people have known a male with anorexia. According to N.A.M.E.D. (National Association of Males with Eating Disorders)
approximately ten million males in the U.S. suffer with this disease. Sadly, there are too many heart-breaking examples on the Internet.Do you have any suggestions for teachers on how they might use one of your books in the classroom?
My Alaskan-based adventure novel Ice Island
(Random House/Yearling) is used as part of the “IDITA-Read” program, a fun reading race from Anchorage to Nome.Goal:
Read *1,049 minutes or pages appropriate to student’s reading level.Procedure:
1. Explain to the students that they will compete in their own Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Their race will be a reading race.
2. Each student draws a musher from entries on the Iditarod website
(which includes trail maps, mushers’ diaries, etc.). Students try to read faster (pages or minutes) than the distance their musher travels on the trail.
3. Teachers track each student’s progress on a large map of Alaska by daily visits to the Iditarod website
4. Students select their books before the “vet check.” (Dogs are checked before the race to make sure they’re healthy.) Teachers decide if students’ books are “healthy” (grade/ability level).
5. As students read their way to each checkpoint, they are responsible for logging in their time and having it checked by a race marshal (teacher or librarian).
6. Provide prizes or special recognition for those who compete in the reading race.Materials:
1. Large map of Alaska with Iditarod Trail & checkpoints clearly marked.
2. Legend listing distances between checkpoints.
3. Name pins/tags to mark students’ reading progress on the trail.
4. Sleds or dogs (felt or construction paper) to mark progress of mushers.
5. Iditarod “Reading Log” for each student.
6. Lots of books!Objectives:
1. Encourage recreational reading.
2. Develop an interest in history and geography of Alaska.
3. Encourage completion of a project.Wow, what a fun activity! I hope some of our blog followers who are teachers will give it a try and report back to us. Finally, Sherry, what are you working on now?
I’ve just finished a very rough draft of a YA novel that explores the emotional and psychological trauma of abduction. My protagonist is a sixteen year-old girl who’s kidnapped on her way to meet her boyfriend. The kidnapper isn’t someone the readers will suspect.Sounds like a real thriller, Sherry. Good luck researching that one! And thanks again for today's interview.
Readers, here's your opportunity to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of Skin and Bones
(A. Whitman). Use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options specified. If you choose the "comment" option, share a comment to TODAY'S blog post answering this question:
What will you do with the book should you win: save it for yourself or give it away?
If your name isn't part of your comment "identity," please include it in your comment for verification purposes. Comments may also be submitted via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com. If the widget doesn't appear for some reason (or you're an email subscriber), use the link below to take you to the entry form.
The giveaway ends on Feb. 6.
After you've entered, don't forget to check today's Poetry Friday
roundup over at A Teaching Life
Good luck and happy writing!
P.S. If you've never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here's info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway
and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address. Email subscribers
: if you received this post via email, you can click on the Rafflecopter link at the end of this message to access the entry form.
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There are two things about writing that never get any easier for me. . .coming up with a good title and naming characters. I still have a hard time with titles, but I have developed strategies to give my characters good names.
I spent most of my pregnancy struggling to come up with just the right name for my daughter, a name that would be all her own. In writing, I do not have the luxury of spending eight months on one character name.
I believe that name is the single most important aspect of a character. It is usually the first thing a reader learns about him. The name should reflect the character's personality is some way, however subtle. Sometimes that is a mysterious process that goes on in the author's head, unexplainable to anyone else. I do not know how E.B. White decided on Charlotte and Wilbur, but can you imagine them named anything else? A book called Barbara's Web? A pig named Bob? No, somehow Charlotte and Wilbur, along with Fern and Templeton and Mr. Zuckerman are so right, they could not be anything else.
Since I write historical fiction, I have a second barrier to finding just the right name. My names need to fit the time period. The characters in Yankee Girl were pretty easy. The book was about my sixth grade class. I used names that were popular in 1964, as well as names that were popular in the South. Jimmy's Stars, which takes place in 1943, was a little more difficult. I knew that my main character was born in 1932, and would have graduated from high school in 1950. I scoured libraries and second-hand stores for 1949-50 high school annuals. (There were an awful lot of girls named Betty.)
Contemporary fiction isn't much easier. Names change as quickly as any other fashion. Some names scream a particular decade. I am a baby boomer, and I was usually the only Mary Ann in a class full of Debbies, Karens, Cathys and Sharons. When I was a middle school teacher in the late 80's, I taught more than a few Farrahs. My friends who had babies about then named them Ashley and Kate (not after the Olsen twins!) When I had my daughter in 1994, I was the only one in my childbirth class who did not name their child Tyler or Taylor (regardless of sex).
Then there are adult names. In children's books, they are usually not a central character but occasionally they are. (Miss Gruen and Reverend Taylor in Yankee Girl come to mind.) How do you name adults?
Here is a list of sources I have compiled that help me with The Naming Game.
1. Baby name books. These often reflect the popularity (or lack of popularity) of a name, as well as give a cultural origin. (Warning: I learned not to carry one of these in public unless I wanted to start rumors about a possible new addition to my family.)
2. School annuals. These work for both contemporary and historical fiction.
3. School directories, websites, newsletters, newspapers, class lists. Schools in my neck of the woods generate an enormous amount of student information. If you don't have access to your own personal student, read the school news pages online or in your neighborhood paper/website.
4. Obituaries. Yeah, I know it's kind of morbid, but I have collected a number of "old-timey" names from them. Around here, they usually include the person's nickname as well.
5. Observation. I live a mile away from the fastest growing immigrant community in the country. Call me nosy (or a writer), but I notice workers' name tags. I ask the employee where they are from and how they pronounce their name. No one has been insulted (yet), and I have collected names I would never have thought of on my own.
6. The Social Security Index of Popular Baby Names. This site is unbelievably cool. It lists the top 200 names for boys and girls for each decade, from 1880 to 2010. Not only is it searchable by decade, but by each state as well. (Apparently Mary and James were the hot names of my decade.) http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/decades
What do I do with all these names? I list them in a notebook, separate from my regular journal. Right now, the 1910 Social Security list is getting a heavy workout from me. My characters are named.
Now if I could just think of a title...
Don't forget about our current book giveaway. For more information click here.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman
By: Carmela Martino and 5 other authors
Blog: Teaching Authors
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, Sherry Shahan
, Wednesday Writing Workout
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, Writing Workout
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As a follow-up to last Friday's Guest TeachingAuthor Interview with Sherry Shahan
, I'm repeating the Wednesday Writing Workout
she shared with us in July 2014
. After reading this post, I'm sure you'll want to enter for a chance to win a copy of Sherry's Skin and Bones
(A. Whitman), if you haven't already entered the contest.
Sherry's young adult novel is a quirky story set in an eating disorder unit of a metropolitan hospital. The main character “Bones” is a male teen with anorexia. He falls desperately in love with an aspiring ballerina who becomes his next deadly addiction.
The novel was inspired by a short story Sherry wrote years ago, “Iris and Jim.” It appeared in print eight times worldwide. Her agent kept encouraging her to expand “Iris and Jim” into a novel. Easy for her to say!
* * *
Wednesday Writing Workout
Tell It Sideways
by Sherry Shahan
During the first draft of Skin and Bones
I stumbled over a number of unexpected obstacles. How could I give a character an idiosyncratic tone without sounding flippant? Eating disorders are serious
, and in too many instances, life-threatening.
Sometimes I sprinkled facts into farcical narration. Other times statistics emerged through dialogue between prominent characters—either in an argument or by using humor. Either way, creating quirky characters felt more organic when their traits were slipped in sideways instead of straight on.
There are endless ways to introduce a character, such as telling the reader about personality:
"Mrs. Freeman could never be brought to admit herself wrong on any point." — Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People."
Or by detailing a character’s appearance:
"The baker wore a white apron that looked like a smock. Straps cut under his arms, went around in back and then to the front again, where they were secured under his heavy waist ." —Raymond Carver "A Small, Good Thing"
The art of creating fully realized characters is often a challenge to new writers of fiction. As a longtime teacher I’ve noticed:
1.) Writers who use short cuts, such a clichés, which produce cardboard or stereotypical characters.
2.) Writers who stubbornly pattern the main character after themselves in a way that’s unrealistic.
3.) Writers who are so involved in working out a complicated plot that their characters don’t receive enough attention.
In Skin and Bones I let readers get to know my characters though humorous dialogue. This technique works best when characters have opposing viewpoints.
Consider the following scene. (Note: Lard is a compulsive over-eater; Bones is anorexic.)
“I’ll never buy food shot up with hormones when I own a restaurant,” Lard said. “Chicken nuggets sound healthy enough, but they have more than three dozen ingredients—not a lot of chicken in a nugget.”
Bones put on rubber gloves in case he’d have to touch something with calories. “Can’t we talk about something else?”
“That’s the wrong attitude, man. Don’t you want to get over this shit?”
“Not at this particular moment, since it’s almost lunch and my jaw still hurts from breakfast.”
Lard shook his head. “I’m glad I don’t live inside your skin.”
“It’d be a little crowded.”
Exercise #1: Choose a scene from a work-in-progress where a new character is introduced. (Or choose one from an existing novel.) Write a paragraph about the character without using physical descriptions. Repeat for a secondary character.
Exercise #2: Give each character a strong opinion about a subject. Do Nice Girls Really Finish Last? Should Fried Food Come With a Warning? Make sure your characters have opposing positions. Next, write a paragraph from each person’s viewpoint.
Exercise #3: Using the differing viewpoints, compose a scene with humorous dialogue. Try not to be funny just for humor’s sake. See if you can weave in a piece
of factual information (Lard’s stats. about Chicken Nuggets), along with a unique character trait (Bones wearing gloves to keep from absorbing calories through his skin.)
Happy Poetry Friday (link at the end, original poem's in this post)!
If you follow this blog, you'll remember the day we spent with author/illustrator Barney Saltzberg and his marvelous book, Beautiful Oops! (Workman). Well, guess what?
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you've wrapped the gift for your friend Julie, sealed it in a box, stuck stamps on it and then, as you're listening to the Beatles sing "Hey Jude
," you address the package... to Jude. OOPS!
what? Well, if you're Barney, you'll make a weird-looking cartoon heart over the word "Jude"...which sprouts legs and arms, a top hat and cane, and suddenly there's a host of fabulous creatures framing Julie's mailing address...a veritable celebration. That's
a Beautiful Oops...a mistake made beautiful.
The point of this book is to encourage all of us to allow "the magical transformation from blunder to wonder," and as schools all over the world celebrate Beautiful Oops Day
(in any month, on any day; a school could decide to celebrate Beautiful Oops Day each month), I wish we'd celebrated it when I was in school!
The Beautiful Oops Day website includes project ideas
shared by teachers from all over the world to get you started. And here's a 1:41 minute video of Barney sharing with young students:
How does this translate to writing? I just happen to have a perfect example. Here's a new poem author Bruce Balan
sent me just this week; beneath it is his "mistake" backstory:THE PLAINTIFF CALL OF THE WILD
by Bruce BalanI submit to the courtthat this specieshas ignored the proper protocol:They’ve decided that it’s allfor themand no one else;Not fish nor elknor tiny eels.Their ills are real.They spoil and takebreak and forsakeand maulevery spot and plotand it’s not as ifthey don’t know…They do!They just ignore,which underscoresmy call.
Please dear Judge,I do not intend to fawn,butI pray the courtwill look kindly on my callbefore my clients allare gone.
(c) 2015 by Bruce Balan. All rights reserved.
Bruce (whose newest book, The Magic Hippo
, is available at the iTunes store, B&N
, and Amazon
) explains: "I was going to write a poem called The Plaintive Call of the Wild (it just popped into my head), but I misspelled plaintive and so ran with it…"
Perhaps today's Beautiful Oops lesson is RUN WITH IT!
So, thank you, Barney Saltzberg, for gifting us the space to make mistakes; to be human.Campers, stay tuned: on February 4, 2015, Barney will share a Wednesday Writing Workout
on this very blog!posted with inevitable mistakes by April Halprin Wayland
As April Halprin Wayland reminded us, sometimes mistakes are masterpieces waiting to happen, that there is a “magical transformation from blunder to wonder.”
We continue to celebrate The Beautiful Oops Day!
The transition from blunder to wonder can be challenging. As psychologist Kristi DeName suggested, whenever we experience transitions, we are letting go of Some Thing. These transitions are defined by loss. Some losses are profound: a marriage, a home, a friend, a pet, a job. Some are less profound, as we let go of habits or objects, or an idea. But all change is scary because all loss is scary. It is unsettling, overwhelming, disappointing, and confusing.
Adapting to change forces us to gain perspective. We are forced to re-examine our lives and our choices… and our options.
As you know, I’ve long studied American folklore and history. I graduated from Vermont with a four-book contract for picture books that highlighted my love of American folklore and history. But, as much as I knew about writing and story, I knew nothing of the business of children’s publishing. That was my blunder, followed quickly by another: I signed on with the first agent who would help me with the multi-contracts. While this agent helped seal the deal with the contracts, issues arose. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out. I was referred to another agent, and more problems arose. It turned out that the contracts contained a couple of damaging clauses. According to this second agent, I couldn’t submit work elsewhere, and she couldn’t renegotiate the clauses. In other words, my career was not only stalled, it was completely derailed.
My first two picture books came out in 2009, eight years after signing the contract. The third book came out in 2012, eleven years after signing the contract. The fourth contract, however, was cancelled. Determined, I went to Author’s Guild, learned what I had to in order to understand these clauses, and then I renegotiated the particular clauses myself.
But there was yet another, stronger riptide I had to steer through. Beginning in 2001, the children’s market was changing dramatically. The folklore picture book market was bottoming out. The very genre that I had studied, loved, and sought as my career was no longer an option. Talk about a bumpy ride! My friend Eric Kimmel said I should write middle grade books.
Middle grade novels? I liked reading middle grade novels, but I had never considered writing them. How was I going to combine all that I had learned and loved in folklore and history with this new format? Was it even possible in a market that no longer viewed folklore as relevant? Historical fiction was having an equally hard time in the market.
What do I do now?Not only do writers have to adapt to the shifting markets, sometimes we have to make our own place in it. And there’s the wonder of it!!
As my wonderful new agent, Karen Grencik, said “As long as you are writing what’s in your heart and doing the best you can…” Finally, twelve years after I graduated from Vermont College, Karen sold my first middle-grade novel Big River’s Daughter
to Holiday House. Three months after that, she sold my second middle grade novel, Girls of Gettysburg
, also to Holiday House. All things happen for a reason at the time they are supposed to happen. As River and Tiger plunged into the wilds of the frontier, taking on the Pirates Laffite and the extraordinary landscape of the mighty Mississippi River in the rough-and-tumble Big River’s Daughter, there is that truth of River’s journey: if one perseveres, life can be full of possible imaginations.
“This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and wooly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the big river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.” River Fillian, Big River’s Daughter
Don’t forget about our giveaway, featuring an autographed copy of Sherry Shahan’s YA novel, Skin and Bones!
By: Carmela Martino and 5 other authors
Blog: Teaching Authors
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April Halprin Wayland
, Barney Saltzberg
, Beautiful Oops
, knowing your characters
, letter writing
, Wednesday Writing Workout
, writing exercise
, Add a tag
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(Before I begin...make sure to enter our latest Book Giveaway of Sherry Shahan's Skin & Bones (which ends February 6th)!
|Two of the six TeachingAuthors in our corporate headquarters. |
photo courtesy morguefile.com
In 2012 we invited author/illustrator (and good friend) Barney Saltzberg
into our tree house for a cuppa tea, a chat
, and a book give-away, and just last Friday we told you
about the newly launched, worldwide Beautiful Oops! Day
based on his book.
Today, to complete the trifecta, Barney is graciously sharing a Wednesday Writing Workout
with us. Take it away, Barney!
|This is Barney (with friends). He's the cutest one.|
I thought I'd share something I teach at UCLA Extension which seems to help unleash power and in many cases, people’s dark side. It's terrific.
I call it, Utter Expression Without Consequence
. Here's the prompt:
Write to someone and really let them know how you feel. It’s a chance to get anything and everything off your chest. It could be that you secretly are in love with someone. You could despise someone. Maybe a boss is constantly picking on you and you haven’t opened you mouth to complain. Now's your chance!
It can be in the form of a letter, or even a list.
|Choose your blackest crayon.|
This exercise gives you the opportunity to tap into feelings which you've sat on. Topics which you've avoided. Now's your chance to pour everything out...to a boyfriend, a wife, a friend. Or someone you ‘thought’ was a friend. A boss. Anyone you address. Just let it go and flow. This is a very freeing moment.
What I find is that this prompt helps shape a character. Ultimately, I hope this exercise lets the writer get into the head of a character who has a lot weighing on them. It's a step towards shaping a character. Our job is to know who we are writing about, even if some of the background research we write never makes it into our story. It just makes it so our characters appear to be writing the story for us when situations arise, because we know them so well.
Have fun with this--dive in!
I wish I had something brilliant to tell you as far as how this writing prompt helped make a story. I can say that time and time again, I saw how it empowered people. Students who were struggling to find their voice finally had a sense of what that looked and felt like.
C'mon...tell them how you feel!
A woman told off her husband in a letter. A teacher got everything she ever wanted to yell at an administrator on paper. If you are looking for a way to tap into feelings, this is a great way to dive in.Thank you, Barney!
And readers ~ tell us how you really
feel!posted loudly and proudly by April Halprin Wayland