Monday, December 5, 2016

My Heart-full, Hope-full, True and Honest Favorite Books of 2016

Today’s post begins our annual TeachingAuthors series in which my fellow bloggers and I share our favorite book(s) of the year – children’s and otherwise.

My Shelf of Favorites boasts books of varying formats, genres and audience appeal.
Each, in some way, re-sounded in my reader’s and/or writer’s heart, filled me with hope and spoke to my humanity in true and honest ways.  Some brought tears; some brought laughter; one or two left me fist-pumping! All modeled superb craft in storytelling.
As this crazy-crazy year began winding down, and I kept wondering “what condition my condition was in,” I became enormously thankful for these noteworthy books and the authors who created them.
The Reader in me, the Writer, the Teacher, the Human Being – we all want you to know and love these books too.
Read the flap copy I’ve shared and you’ll understand why.


THE  JOURNEY by Francesca Sanna, Flying Eye Books               “What is it like to have to leave everything behind and travel many miles to somewhere unfamiliar and strange? A mother and her two children set out on such a journey, one filled with fear of the unknown, but also great hope.  Based on her own interactions with people forced to seek a new home, and told from the perspective of a young child, Francesca Sanna has created a beautiful and sensitive book that is full of significance for our time.”


WE ARE GROWING! By Laurie Keller, Hyperion, An Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! Book
“Walt and his friends are growing up fast!  Everyone is the something-est.  But…what about Walt?  He is not the tallest, or the curliest, or the silliest.  He is not the anything-est.”


THE POET’S DOG, Patricia MacLachlan, Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins
“Alone
In a fierce winter storm
Nickel and Flora are brave
But afraid
A dog finds them
Teddy
Speaks words
And brings them to shelter
The Poet’s cabin
Has light and food
And love
But where is the Poet?
Teddy will tell the story
Of how words make poems
And connect those who hear
Each other”


RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE, Kate DiCamillo, Candlewick
“Have you ever in your life come to
realize that everything, absolutely
everything, depends on you?
Raymie Clarke has a plan.
Two days ago, her father left home with a dental hygienist.  If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home.
a rich story of three girls, one summer and a friendship that changed their lives.”





THE  BEST MAN, Richard Peck, Dial
“Archer Magill has spent a lively five years of grade school with one
eye out in search of grown-up role models.  Three of the best are his
grandpa, the great architect; his dad, the great vintage car customizer;
and his uncle Paul, who is just plain great.  These are the three he wants to be. Then along comes a fourth – Mr. McLeod, a teacher, in fact, the first male teacher in the history of the school.  Then one of them wants to marry another one. In pages that ripple with laughter, there’s a teardrop here and there. and more than a few insights about the bewildering world of adults, made by a boy on his way to being the best man he can be.”


THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR, Nicola Yoon, Delacorte,  
The story of a girl, a boy, and the universe.
Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts.  Not fate. Not destiny.  Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him.
Daniel:  I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ expectations. Never the poet.  Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that.
The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment.  A million futures lie before us.  Which one will come true?


SOMEWRITER!, Melissa Sweet, HMH                                                 
“I feel that a writer has an obligation to transmit, as best he can, his love of life, his appreciation for the world.” – E.B. White
“Like my grandfather, Melissa Sweet has somehow kept that child-like sense of wonder at the world and (thankfully) found an avenue to share it with the rest of us...Here, in these pages, you will find the grandfather I remember so well…Now, thanks to Melissa Sweet, you can know him too.” – Martha White


HUNGRY HEART, Jennifer Weiner, Atria Books
“Jennifer Weiner is many things: a bestselling author, a Twitter
phenomenon, and an ‘unlikely feminist enforcer.’ She’s also a mom,
a daughter and a sister, a former rower and current clumsy yogini, a
wife, a friend, a realityTV devotee.  In her first essay collection,
she takes the raw stuff of her life and spins it into a collection of tales
of modern-day womanhood as uproariously funny and moving as the
best of Nora Epheron and Tina Fey.”



And, last, but not least, THE OFFICIAL MLB OFFICIAL COLLECTOR'S EDITION OF THE 2016 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS!   (Picture my VERY SMILING face here.)



Here’s to a heart-full, hope-full 2017!

With true and honest thanks to our Readers for their support.

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
Congratulations, Danielle H., winner of the Sandy Brehl 2-book giveaway!

P.P.S.
Don’t forget to enter our Book Giveaway of Jeannine Atkins’ FINDING WONDERS – THREE GIRLS WHO CHANGED SCIENCE!










Friday, December 2, 2016

Poetry Friday Interview--Jeannine Atkins' Finding Wonders

.
Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday!

Lucky Campers--you're in for two treats: 1) you get to meet my talented friend, author and poet Jeannine Atkins,

Author and poet Jeannine Atkins writes: "History shows me what changes as well as what stays the same."
.
AND 2) you have a chance to enter TeachingAuthors' book giveaway of Jeannine's delicious verse novel, Finding Wonders--Three Girls Who Changed Science, which has received starred reviews (see below for info on the giveaway)!

Jeannine Atkins first came to my attention when I fell in love with her inspiring picture book, Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon, illustrated by Michael Dooling (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1999). Wow, I thought--a young girl did that? Yes she did indeed. In fact, Jeannine writes on her website: "Almost every morning I write on my window seat about strong girls and women who have made historical contributions to science or the arts."

Boy, she's not kidding. She's written countless award-winning books about them--and here's her latest jewel, which came out this September:

Inspirational and informative, Atkins shows how pursuing one’s passion for science, math, or any field considered nontraditional is worth the risk.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Finding Wonders--Three Girls Who Changed Science (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) is a lush book in three acts about three girls, their interests, and intimate details of the historical periods which shaped them. They were Maria Sibylla Merian (metamorphosis), Mary Anning (fossils), and Maria Mitchell (the night sky). As Irene Latham wrote when the book first came out, "It's another beautiful verse novel about real women, in the spirit of her much acclaimed and beloved-by-me Borrowed Names. Jeannine knows these girls, and by the end of the book, the reader does, too."

Click on Jeannine's website and her blog for more juicy details, as well as Irene's post for three sample poems.

And so, without further delay, let's say hello to Jeannine...thanks for coming into our living room today, Jeannine! How did you become a TeachingAuthor? 

Back when I was in college, I decided to become a teacher because I loved reading. I kind of forgot that I was shy, until I stood in front of a room full of wiggly seventh graders and realized I’d better say something. Thankfully, those students had good hearts and I muddled through, but for an introvert like me, my present job is a better fit. The hours fly by as graduate students in the MFA program at Simmons and I discuss the shapes and tone of novels and poems, looking for bits to pluck and adapt for our own creations.

What would you suggest for young adults to help them develop the shapes and tones of their own writing?

Keeping a journal isn’t magic, but I’ve found that writing every day, even for ten minutes, helps me stay open to inspiration. And by that I mean writing for myself, that first, important reader, who often needs to be reminded to be kind. It’s wonderful to read extraordinary books, as long as you keep yourself from measuring your writing against what you find on printed pages.

Everyone has a voice worth hearing. Listening to your own words as you let your hands move without judgment is a great way to find out if that voice is marked by humor, solemnity, long sentences or short lines, anger, joy, or any combination of these.

Okay since you brought up anger and joy or some combination of these, here's a question out of left field: tell us about your mother.

Ouch. I often ask students to boldly face their entire experience, so it’s good to be reminded of how tough looking back can be. My mom never seemed to want to be one. I looked for mothers who hadn’t checked out in books like Little Women, and also found the sense of being seen that I craved in teachers. Becoming a mother of a daughter showed me how warm and strong that bond can be. I’ve sometimes wondered if my mother would have been happier during another era. The question of how girls and women respond to a sometimes unwelcoming world is one that has driven much of my work.

I love that last line--how succinctly you've described the theme that drives you, Jeannine.

Do you have any suggestions for teachers on how they might use one of your books in the classroom?

Oh, I’m full of suggestions! I think one of the best ways to respond to reading a poem is by writing one of your own. After reading a poem in Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, students might cite one of the small animals, fossils, or stars found in the book, then might celebrate it by writing their own ode. Maybe rocks or plants can be studied, at least in photos, then students can ask a question about it. Suddenly, they are scientists! And they can be poets, too, asking: What would you say if you could speak?

Ah...Mask Poems of Science--there's your next book! Or maybe, I am a Rock? Wait a minute, I think Paul Simon already wrote that one...

Getting back to business, is there something you do to celebrate finishing a book, sending off a book, getting an acceptance or getting a great review?

Writing is one word that holds a lot of parts. I’m usually in the midst of starting another book when I’ve finished one, sending out several things for publication, steadying myself from rejections, when I get good news. It would probably be smart to do more than whirl a little around the kitchen or tell the dog or grin at my computer, but really the writing life is one of ups and downs and getting back to work. Which makes me feel like a very lucky writer. Though now that you mentioned celebration, I’ll add that I’m never opposed to cake.

What kind?

I tend to like pound cakes or coffee cakes, maybe with fruit.

from either morguefile.com or pixabay.com...I don't remember which


And here's one more new book for us to celebrate with a sweet slice: your next book of verse history, which will be out in January 2017, is called Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis. And it's already gotten starred reviews in Booklist and Kirkus--congratulations, Jeannine and thank you for stopping by!

Campers, here's your own delicious slice from Finding Wonders:

Playing Planets
from Finding Wonders--Three Girls Who Changed Science, by Jeannine Atkins

Schoolmasters don’t make much money, so Father earns more

by walking around the island to take measurements for maps

that mark shorelines and shoals. Maria suspects he also asks

relatives for news of Andrew, who disappeared last week.



While Father is gone from his schoolroom, Maria arranges

primers, chalk, and slates. Taking out the wooden spheres

to give an astronomy lesson, she remembers Father holding

the largest ball, bringing the Sun to their parlor.

The children ran around him like orbiting planets, taking turns

as Saturn, Mars, Neptune, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, and Uranus.

Holding a baby, Mother was Earth.



Maria loves how planets take measured places in the sky,

but also hold mysteries. Once, she wished she could be a comet,

soaring close to the sun to be seen,

appearing as if from nowhere

among the whirls of sisters and brothers,

her father steady in the center.

poem and photos © 2016 Jeannine Atkins. All rights reserved


Jeannine Atkins holding her newest book, Finding Wonders--Three Girls Who Changed Science, which includes the story of Mary Anning
(also told in her picture book, 
Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon)

And now, Campers, here's your chance to win your own copy personally autographed copy of Finding Wonders ~

Join us in our celebrating Finding Wonders--Three Girls Who Changed Science! Enter our giveaway for an autographed copy!

Use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter to win an autographed giveaway copy of Finding Wonders. You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options. 

If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY'S blog post below or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page. If you haven't already "liked" our Facebook page, please do so today! 

(If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)

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.

Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA THE WIDGET BELOW
The giveaway ends December 16 and is open to U.S. residents only. 

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

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Poetry Friday is at Wee Words for Wee Ones today...thanks, Bridget!

Posted with wonder (and a little help from Eli and Monkey), April Halprin Wayland

Monday, November 28, 2016

My Favorite Research Tool


As a nonfiction author who does a lot of research, I’ve found one tool that is indispensible:  my camera. 

I’ve traveled to many different libraries, museums, and historic homes to do book research. Every library and museum has research documents that no one else has.  While a growing number of primary sources are scanned and made available online, there will always be more that are not online.   The only way to access them is to go and see them in person.    

When I travel to research sites I have limited time to spend.  So getting as much information in the time I have is crucial.   Sometimes research libraries will allow me to scan the documents I need.  For those I scan them to a flash drive, or email them to myself.  

But sometimes there are simply too many documents to scan.  In that case, I ask for permission to take photos for research purposes.  I always ask first.  While libraries and museums want researchers to use their information, they are also very protective of their collections.  If there are lots of documents, taking photos is much faster than scanning them.  So I take photos of the entire page.  When I get home I can go through them and zoom in to get a better look. 

I use both my phone and a point and shoot camera for this.  I’ve also learned (the hard way) to take extra battery chargers to power up my phone, as well as extra camera batteries and memories cards for my point and shoot camera. 

On my last research trip to Mount Vernon, I spent a lot of time in the amazing Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington.  I came home with literally thousands of pages of research material.  Some are scans and some are photos.  

So take your camera and start researching!


Carla Killough McClafferty

Friday, November 25, 2016

Wrapping Up 3 Weeks of Thanks-Giving with a Tribute to Katherine Paterson and a Grateful Poem


Happy day after Thanksgiving and Poetry Friday! You'll find a poem at the end of this post and the link to this week's roundup. Below that, you'll also see a link to our current giveaway

While others may be enjoying Thanksgiving leftovers or Black Friday shopping, I'm pleased to wrap up our Three Weeks of Thanks-Giving with a tribute to one of my favorite authors, Katherine Paterson.

I didn't discover Katherine Paterson's work until I became interested in writing for young readers. She's probably best known for her 1978-Newbery winning Bridge to Terabithia, a novel I first read in August, 1995. I found the book moving, but it was Paterson's 1981 Newbery winner, Jacob Have I Loved, which I read the following month, that really touched me as both a reader and an aspiring writer. I wrote this of Jacob in my book reading log: "When I finished it, I immediately thought, 'I’d love to write a book that moved other people the way Jacob moved me.'"

But of all of Paterson's novels, The Great Gilly Hopkins has influenced me most as a writer. I first heard of it in 1996, at the Highlights Writers’ Workshop in Chautauqua, New York, when editor and author Patricia Lee Gauch discussed Gilly in a lecture on characterization. I read The Great Gilly Hopkins shortly after returning from the conference and was amazed at how Paterson was able to make me love a character who really wasn't that likeable. As I wrote in my reading log: "You empathize with Gilly, in spite of, or maybe because of, her brashness. You know she’s hurting and you want her to find happiness." The novel became one of my all-time favorites.


Years later, when I went to Vermont College to work on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Gilly became my "mentor text." My first adviser in the program, Marion Dane Bauer, suggested I take a paperback copy of a book I admired and highlight "backstory" in one color and "sensory details" in another. When I tried this exercise on The Great Gilly Hopkins  I was amazed to discover that Paterson incorporated backstory throughout the novel, even in the last chapters. Before that, I'd assumed you had to include every bit of pertinent character history in the first few chapters.

 highlighted interior of my copy of The Great Gilly Hopkins  
My paperback copy of The Great Gilly Hopkins is getting rather ragged looking, so when Paterson offered a giveaway of the new edition on her Facebook page, I entered right away. The giveaway was to celebrate the release of a movie version of Gilly. Lucky me, I won the book and a bookmark highlighting the movie's cast!
My NEW autographed copy and bookmark!
Our Not for Kids Only book club, sponsored by Anderson's Bookshop, recently re-read The Great Gilly Hopkins. I was surprised that I loved the novel as much as ever, and was happy to introduce it to several members. We'd planned a field trip to see the movie, but by then it was no longer playing. I look forward to watching it as soon as I'm able.

I had the pleasure of hearing Katherine Paterson give a visiting lecture while I was at Vermont College. She struck me as a humble, hardworking writer. In her lecture, she encouraged us to “write out of who you are, not who you think the reader might be.” I still strive to follow that advice in my writing.

In researching Paterson's work for this post, I discovered her beautiful book Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs of Thanksgiving, illustrated by Pamela Dalton. You can read a lovely review of it at Kid Lit Reviews. In honor of Poetry Friday, I'd like to share a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem from the book that is still appropriate on this day after Thanksgiving.

        Thanksgiving

        For each new morning with its light,
        For rest and shelter of the night,
        For health and food,
        For love and friends,
        For everything Thy goodness sends.

        by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1883-1882)
from Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs of Thanksgiving, © 2013 by Katherine Paterson, illustrated by Pamela Dalton

And I'm grateful for Katherine Paterson and her wonderful contributions to literature for young people.

This week's Poetry Friday roundup is at Carol's Corner. Before you head over there, be sure to enter our current giveaway if you haven't already done so. You could win a 2-book set of great historical fiction by Sandy Brehl.

Don't forget to Write with Joy!
Carmela

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thanks to My First-ever Forever TeachingAuthor!



When it comes to thanking only one author during our November TeachingAuthors Thanks-Giving celebration, how could I not choose my very first TeachingAuthor, former Illinoisan Berniece Rabe?

If her name is new to you, click here to read about some of her books, awards and accomplishments in this Chicago, Tribune 1993 article.
There’s also this lovely write-up that sadly, has not been updated to include Berniece’s death 3 years ago.
Her very own words as to why she writes for children speak volumes about who and what she was.

"My books speak of survival, of hard times. . . . Often there is love and humor interwoven and my characters not only survive, they live with hope and confidence. I write such books for I believe all children have a time for suffering and a time for happiness. How we cope with the suffering determines the time left to happiness. Our struggles cause us to crumble or to grow, the choice is ours. To make my readers aware that there is a choice is why I write."

The first of anything is always unforgettable, often eye-opening and if we’re lucky, life-changing.
Bernice deserves all three adjectives.

She first came my way at the very start of my Writer’s Journey, courtesy of SCBW - so long ago, the “I” for Illustrators wasn’t even an idea. 
Think: no Internet (!), few Writing for Children classes and a handful of books on the craft of Writing for Children. J.K. Rowling was years away from becoming the Children’s Book Writers VIP Influencer.
The inexpensive SCBW membership offered me (1) validation, thanks to my lovely blue membership card that named me a Children’s Book Writer, (2) an informative newsletter, (3) an annual conference (of sorts) and (4) best all, The Manuscript Exchange, which is how I first met Berniece.
By that time she was already an award-winning published author of her first semi-autobiographical middle grade novel RASS and the 1978 Golden Kite Award-winning middle grade novel THE GIRL WHO HAD NO NAME.

I counted several sleepless nights awaiting the arrival of my SASE that held Berniece Rabe’s critical response to my first picture book, CATCH A PATCH OF FOG. I could only pinch myself when SHE asked ME to respond in kind to one of her manuscripts!

I still shake my head at her assessment: Berniece Rabe, a real honest-to-goodness author, thought I was a children’s book writer!
She qualified the affirmation, of course, while teaching me volumes about the truths of story-telling and the picture book format.  I had years to go before I’d be published, she shared.  She was kind enough not to tell me why. She kept to herself what she saw in my stories but I as yet couldn’t: I was unconnected to my characters, still unwilling to feel as my characters felt, writing well but above their plot lines.

As luck would have it, over the next 15 years, I continued to learn from my first TeachingAuthor - at Children’s Reading Round Table conferences in Chicago, at the Off Campus Writers Workshop in Winnetka, Illinois.  Indeed, anywhere she was speaking and teaching, there I was.
In the beginning, her words would play through my mind as I sat at my kitchen table, typing away until my toddler son’s spilled juice on the floor pulled me away, then later at my desk, when I’d  write in between Life’s comings and goings – i.e. mothering, wife-ing, freelance writing, Room Mother responsibilities, baseball playoffs, carpool, Hebrew School and familial obligations.
I was a Writer!  It was my duty and my right to honor that calling!  Berniece Rabe said so!

Simply put, Berniece gave me confidence and courage.
I remain grateful that in the late 90’s, I was able to share with her how she’d kept me growin’ and goin’ until I proved correct her long-ago assessment of my publishing time-line.
I could only smile when 3 weeks ago I handed her picture book THE BALANCING GIRL (Dutton, 1981), based on her granddaughter’s true experiences, to a Newberry Library Workshop student to use as a mentor text.  Berniece Rabe lives on!

Thank you, Berniece, my first-ever forever TeachingAuthor, for your keen eye, your outstretched hand, your steely spine and your unyielding Spirit.  YOU kept ME keepin’ on!

Happy Thanks-Giving!

Esther Hershenhorn


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Thank You, Mr. E.B. White :3 Weeks of Thankfulness

      I was a frustrated three-year-old who wanted to read. The world was full of words and I had to know what they meant. I taught myself to by asking the closest adult (usually my mother)t o read me the words on the TV screen, the OTC remedy bottles on the toilet tank, the signs on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Equipped with a vocabulary that included restaurant, constipation, and the most beautiful word in the English language, chocolate...I became a compulsive reader.

 
A little breakfast literature with Quick Draw McGraw.
I read everything. Cereal boxes. The contents of the mailbox; National Geographic, Look, LifeThe Sears & Roebuck Catalog. Little Golden Books at the supermarket check out. (I could get through at least one by the time the groceries were bagged.)
   An indiscriminate reader, you might say.

   I read for information. In kindergarten, my favorite book was Facts about the Presidents and Their Wives.  I can still recall endless, useless facts from this book.  Example:  Martin Van Buren's wife was named Hannah, and died before he took office.  James Buchanan's niece, Harriet Lane, served as the official White House hostess for our only bachelor president.  Calvin Coolidge's youngest son, Calvin Jr died at 16, from blood poisoning after playing tennis without socks, and developed an infected heel blister. (That scared me away from sockless tennis shoes for years.)

    I loved reading more than anything, but I hadn't yet found magic in words.  I read books the way I ate Fritos...one after another until someone told me to stop. Lots of Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drews, an occasional Hardy Boys, but beyond them, I cannot recall a single title that made an impression on me.

    Until Christmas, third grade.

   Each Christmas, my dad scoured his favorite second-hand bookstore for a good, hardcover book for me. (Hardcover books! More precious than gold!) The year I was eight, Dad gave me The Book. The one that showed me words could be woven not only into stories, but could send you to an alternate universe. Words burnished into characters who made you laugh, cry or ponder months after you'd read the last chapter.

   The book was E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. 
E.B. White (photo by Jill Krementz)


   It was not love at first sight. Garth Williams' cover art made it clear this was a book about animals. After reading Old Yeller, I figured out that whatever the book, if there was an animal character, it would die. I couldn't stand dying dogs and deer caught in forest fires. My dad's childhood favorite, Toby Tyler, left me with a lifelong dislike of both chimpanzees and circuses. Don't even get me started on Black Beauty.



    I opened the book and read, "'Where is Papa going with that ax?' said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast."

   Who could put down a book with a first sentence like that? Before I knew it, Fern had saved a runt pig, named him Wilbur and eventually took him to his new home at her Uncle Homer Zuckerman's farm.  Poor Wilbur was lonely without Fern.  I knew how that felt. I was always the new kid at school. Would Wilbur make new friends? I was well into the story before I realized Wilbur talked, and so did his barn mates--sheep, geese, and a rat named Templeton. By the time I met Charlotte the spider, I was totally hooked.

    That sneaky Mr. E.B. White made me like a book with talking animals. Animals as human as my own classmates. (In some cases, more human.)
Third grade me

     I loved snarky Templeton, the rat. He was sneaky, underhanded, manipulative and utterly hilarious. The line "'What do you think I am, anyway, a rat-of-all-work?'" still makes me giggle. There was the wise and gentle Charlotte, who was a spider, for crying out loud. I loathed spiders but Charlotte was my first lesson in "things are not always what they appear to be." I adored the innocent and gullible Wilbur. Plus a whole Greek chorus of lambs, horses and geese.

   For the first time, I noticed the way the author used language to create scenes as vivid as a movie. He lovingly listed just what pig slops are:"Middlings, warm water, apple parings, meat gravy, carrot scrapings, meat scraps, stale hominy and the wrapper off a package of cheese."  To show the enormity of the crowds that came to see Charlotte's web, White catalogued every kind of vehicle you might find in rural 1950's New England. "...Fords and Chevvies and Buick roadsters and GMC pickups and Plymouths and Studebakers and Packards and DeSotos with gyromatic transmissions and Oldsmobiles with rocket engines and Jeep station wagons and Pontiacs."

     Up until now, description, those long, long paragraphs, unbroken by dialog, were something I skipped. Not now. I might miss the details of Templeton's night of culinary debauchery at the State Fair.

   But Mr. E.B. White was not finished with me.  One grisly January day, I sat in an overheated, overcrowded allergist's office, waiting for my weekly allergy shots, Charlotte's Web in hand. Unlike my usual habit of tearing through books in a couple of hours, I had taken my time with Charlotte, savoring every character, description and turn of plot. I was at the most exciting part, where Wilbur, Charlotte and Templeton go to the State Fair. The sniveling, sneezing kids, stuffed into smelly nylon parkas, receded. I smelled the gamey sawdust of the Fair barns, heard the screams from the Midway rides, and best of all, Wilbur winning the blue ribbon. Could this get any better?

   No. Because in the next pages, Charlotte tells Wilbur and Templeton the plans for her death.

   What? I re-read the previous chapter to see if I had skipped a page, a paragraph, a sentence that would explain that Charlotte was kidding, or that her death was far in the future.

    I had forgotten the lessons of Old Yeller and Toby Tyler.  

    "Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans...Charlotte died. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infields was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

     Mr. E.B. White had committed the ultimate sin.  He made me do something no other book had done before.  Not Old Yeller, not Toby Tyler.

     He made me love a character who died. He made me cry. In public, in front of strangers. In an allergist's office, for crying out loud! (which I was.)

     I had discovered that the best of writers, plump, prune and position each word just so. The result?, An imaginary world, more immediate and alive than "real life." That's the kind of writer I wanted to be.

     I'm still trying.

     Update: Jane H is the winner of our latest Book Giveaway, Toby by Hazel Mitchell.

     Don't forget to enter our latest giveaway, our latest book giveaway, for Bjorn's Gift by Sandy Brehl. Deadline is Nov 30, so get that entry in before you are distracted by Turkey Day.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman
   
 



Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Wednesday Writing Workout: Keeping it Real plus a Two-Book Giveaway!

I’m happy to bring you this Guest Teaching Author post by Sandy Brehl, author of Bjorn’s Gift, a historical novel of Norway’s occupation years. Sandy visited us in 2014 when her first novel, Odin’s Promise, was published. Read that post for more about Sandy's background, her research process, and using historical fiction in classrooms. Below, you can enter to win autographed copies of both novels.

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It’s a privilege to return to the Teaching Authors blog with a guest post, especially for a Wednesday Writing Workout about creating characters. My recently released middle grade historical novel, Bjorn’s Gift, is the second book in a trilogy that emerged from my debut novel, Odin’s Promise, in 2014.

The initial book was written as a stand-alone historical novel based on the first year of the German occupation of Norway. I had spent years researching, writing, and revising, never quite finding a main character who was as eager to tell the story as I was. I worked on it through years of sporadic efforts tucked in between teaching and writing other things. Then, in a scholarly resource, I found and read journal entries written by young Norwegians. Mari emerged from those excerpts, stepping into my long years of false starts and reshaping them to reveal her point of view and life struggles. She added elements and eliminated others, confidently guiding my words on the page. Within months of finding Mari’s spirit within those journal samples, I completed a full draft. Less than a year later, it had been revised, submitted, and was contracted for release.

Once it was published, readers consistently asked, “When is the sequel coming out?” I worried that the ending hadn’t been satisfying. The gratifying response was that the ending made perfect sense, but the occupation wasn’t over and readers felt they HAD to know what would happen to Mari and her family during the remaining war years. They cared about Mari as much as I did, as if she were “real.” And they wanted to learn more about Norway’s fate and hers. Their questions were both specific and global.

Can you imagine how wonderful that felt? A character that was born of my research, imagination, and storytelling had “come to life” on the page for my readers.

But it was also terrifying!

I had never considered a sequel, and I didn’t know how to write one. It had taken me decades to write about just one year of the occupation, and there were four more years before Hitler was defeated. At that rate I wouldn’t live long enough to answer their questions.

I knew how to do research, though, and to tell a story. And I had Mari to guide me along the way. In the process she and I both had some growing up to do. It was a struggle, and a steep learning curve, but Bjorn’s Gift is on the racks, and the final book, Mari’s Hope, will release in spring, 2017.

When I finally put pen to paper, feedback on my first draft from critique partners and my editor had this in common:  “Less history, more story-telling, please.” Apparently I had written Mari’s story with too much of my “teacher voice,” eagerly “reporting” what I had learned about the remaining occupation years. Once again I needed to turn the story over to Mari. I began by “asking” her, “Does this matter to you?”  “Does this make your story stronger?” That applied in several categories:

Do these research discoveries matter?
I reviewed the stacks of facts and personal stories I had collected. Each was examined though Mari’s eyes and sorted into MUST HAVE, MAYBE, or DUMP. I retained no veto power over her decisions, although I rescued some personal favorites from the DUMP. Those tidbits may find their way into website resources, other writings, or program presentations.

Is each scene and situation necessary?
Scenes and subplots were held up for Mari’s scrutiny. She insisted that anyone who reads only this book of the three should feel as engaged and positive about it as they did about the first. Once again, her categories were MUST HAVE, MAYBE, or DUMP. Any MAYBE scenes that weren’t improved by moving or refocusing on Mari’s story made their way to the DUMP. Some of Mari’s rejects had been favorites of mine, but I let her have the last word, although I snuck behind Mari’s back, collecting her discards for repurposing in the future.

Is every character pulling his/her load?
The toughest part of this analysis was that Mari and I cared differently for various secondary characters, and for different reasons. Salvaging in this category involved giving the survivors more complex personalities and roles, incorporating elements from the rejected players. Here, too, voice was a crucial consideration. In at least one case I won a reprieve by going back to rewrite a character’s point of view and voice, removing the adult-ish tone of a young character and proving that the part still mattered to the story. Mari was convinced, and the character stayed.

The workout I’m suggesting isn’t about writing a sequel. Despite reading many series with a writer’s eye and now writing a trilogy, I’m a novice at it. There are better teachers of sequel-writing than I can be.

What I did write successfully was characters who are REAL. I hope you can see from the process I used that Mari was both real and reliable in guiding my writing and revision. The process itself made her even more real to me, allowing me to debate various decisions and dig more deeply into what mattered most to her.

Having Mari as a fully developed character going into this process was a huge advantage. Nevertheless, there are things writers can do to achieve that same level of confidence in your characters, to lift them from being two-dimensional “character-actors” to a level worthy of decision-makers and writing partners.

Here’s a workout to try:

Identify several questions related to the time and circumstances of your character’s story, whether the text is for a picture book, a short story, or a novel. It may be a question or proposition that’s not even a part of your story, just a topic that your main character would know and care about.

Challenge your character to support or criticize the proposition relative to his/her/its life experience, using one or more of these approaches:

  • Role play a debate: Take the part of your character and invite writing partners or others to argue the opposite position. Maintain your character’s voice and point of view throughout the debate, making notes about what arguments, logic (or lack of it) comes through, what values are espoused, what temperament your character displays, what mannerisms or language patterns are used.
  • Assign your character to make a pro-con list regarding the proposition or decision: Again, keeping yourself in the mindset and voice of the character, list and support both sides of the case as fully as possible, then arrive at a conclusion. Write a summary of the conclusion in the character's voice.
  • Offer your character a red pencil: Allow your character to read through your draft and redline any/all parts that distract, diminish, or otherwise impede the progress of the story the character needs to tell. Require explanations for the choices and be ready to “listen” openly to what is said.
It’s likely to take several tries to remove yourself from the process and become a spectator/conduit to the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and reactions. You’ll catch yourself (repeatedly) inserting your own arguments, your own values, and drawing on your own experiences. That will force you to realize that you’re still writing “your” story, not the one your character is trying to tell. Back off, sit quietly. Allow time and space for the characters to breathe themselves into being. Then, and only then, will you trust them to help you find the heart of your REAL story.

I applied this process to historic characters and stories. For additional exercises on creating REAL contemporary characters, I strongly recommend Kate Messner’s Real Revision: Authors' Strategies to Share with Student Writers (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011), in particular, her Chapter 9, "Are the People Real?" It’s a treasury of practical and effective craft suggestions, but the entire book is a must-have for writers, especially those of us who teach.

One last tip: if you find yourself struggling to hear your own character’s voice and views in this workout, try it with something you’ve read and loved. It will be particularly helpful if it is something you consider comparable to your own work. If the author has done his/her work well, you should be able to crawl into the skin of that character and, in the process, recognize how complex and real even picture book characters can be to readers.

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Thank you, Sandy, for your helpful suggestions! Readers, you can enter to win autographed copies of both of Sandy's novels, Bjorn’s Gift and Odin’s Promise, with the Rafflecopter widget below. If you choose option 2, you must leave a comment on today's blog post or on our Teaching Authors Facebook page. If you haven't already "liked" our Facebook page, please do so today! (If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)

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.

The giveaway ends November 30 and is open to U.S. residents only.

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Good luck!

JoAnn Early Macken

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