To celebrate Bobbi’s appearance on our blog, we're giving away an autographed copy of Davy Crockett Gets Hitched. To enter the drawing, see the instructions at the end of this post.
How did you become a Teaching Author?
I am one of those nerds who knew how to read and write by kindergarten. I have always read and written stories. I studied hard to hone my craft, too. As an undergraduate, I studied writing and anthropology. I went to Simmons College, the Masters of Children’s Literature Program, where I studied the folklore process in children’s literature. I investigated voice and perspective, and most of all, the language of the storytelling process! I also went to the Vermont College (now the Vermont College of Fine Arts) MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program. To tell you the truth, I think everything I learned up to that moment was preparing me for this experience at VCFA.
But the real surprise in this journey is that after graduation, I became a writer who teaches writing. While I was a student, I worked as an editor, a bookseller, and just about anything to pay the bills. Once I became a teacher, however, I discovered that I really enjoyed the connection to the students, to my colleagues, to the process of teaching. This teaching of writing keeps me connected to language itself. I find that in the teaching of writing, I engage more in understanding and expanding my knowledge of writing.
What's a common problem or question that your students have, and how do you address it?
I teach composition and advanced composition as well as all levels of writing for children. In all of my classes, the primary question becomes the use of language. It’s more involved than simply using a thesaurus. Language is more than mere words; it’s not only the rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language, it’s a character in its own right. Writers talk of voice, but it’s a metaphorical application, because writing has no voice! Voice is grounded in the organic nature of language.
In my tall tale retellings, for example, the tall-talk of the tall tale is as wild and unabashed as the frontier. The language, like the characters that inhabit these tales, is rambunctious and bodacious. The language of the tall tale 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 teetotaciously, splendiferous 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. More than this, the grander language captured the bigger ideas.
In this day of truncated text-talk and quick fixes, we take reading and writing for granted. The crux of this is that we take language for granted. So, in my classes, even as we discuss character, plot and setting, we explore how language reflects character and plot; how language reflects the bigger idea.
How does your love of folktales and storytelling inspire your writing?
It’s a natural fit, folktales and storytelling and writing. Traditional tales are a genre defined by its oral nature, and language becomes as integral to the package as the story and the illustration. In fact, language becomes as much a character as the protagonist. Think Eric Kimmel, Virginia Hamilton and Ashley Bryan, Verna Aardema, Julius Lester, Jane Yolen and Gail E. Haley, to name a few whose use of language creates storymagic.
This language is crucial in all genres of writing, and is reflected in the best readings. Science fiction and fantasy tend to use the formal language as found in Grimm’s fairy tales. Historical stories worth their while tend to reflect -- without falling back on cliché -- the language of their times. Two books I recently read that exemplify this marriage of language and story: Kathi Appelt’s book, The Underneath, and Grace Lin’s book, Where The Mountain Meets the Moon.
How can teachers use your books in the classroom?
Obviously, the first connection is with language. My website includes links to lesson plans created by teachers who have used my books in their classroom. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed.
Another concept: Yana Rodgers, of Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, suggests using my book, ONE FINE TRADE, for teaching the importance of self-reliance, bartering and trade to young readers.
Then, at its core, ONE FINE TRADE is a process analysis, reflecting how one man achieved his goal. And DAVY CROCKETT GETS HITCHED is a cause and effect, reflecting what happens when a burr gets stuck in the bum. These two organizational strategies, process analysis and cause and effect, are at the core of most academic writing and analysis. Learning these strategies is key to successful writing in school and higher learning.
Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?
In my writing for children courses, we use poetry -- continuing our study of language -- to recreate a character from one of the stories we read. They cannot name the character, of course, and then the class has to guess which character is reflected in the poem. We repeat this exercise, using a secondary character from our own stories. Because poetry by definition reflects the emotive element of language, students often discover some emotional element of their character that they could not see before the exercise. The exercise clarifies their process in unseen ways. Sometimes, they discover -- to their utter surprise -- that the secondary character often make a stronger protagonist.
Thank you, Bobbi! The Teaching Authors appreciate your stopping by!
For a chance to win an autographed copy of Bobbi Miller's Davy Crockett Gets Hitched, post a comment to today's blog post telling us the title of your favorite folktale. Be sure to include an e-mail or blog address so we can contact you if you win! To qualify, your entry must be posted by 11 p.m. on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be announced by 11 p.m. on Thursday, February 12, 2010.
Before entering our contest, please read our Giveaway Guidelines here.
We look forward to reading your entries. Good luck!
JoAnn Early Macken