Wednesday, March 31, 2010


First off, I love teaching.
Students. Teachers. Student Teachers.
Children. Adults.
Writers Young and Young-at-heart.
I live-and-breathe seeding and feeding my students.

But you know what?
Sometimes the teacher needs (re)seeding and feeding, too.

Chalk it up to Winter winding itself down, but, oh, how ready I was this meteorologically-uncertain month of March to sit and learn at the feet of another.
How lovely of the Illinois Reading Council Conference to provide the perfect faculty March 18th through the 20th in downstate Springfield.

Starting with my fellow Teaching Authors, of course, in our most energetic Writing Workshop the conference’s first day, closely followed by the participating teachers-turned-students in my Reluctant Writers hands-on writing project.

Next on my agenda?
Author, educator and friend Dr. Steven L. Layne’s SRO presentation, “Steve’s Top Writing Tips for Grades 3-8.”
How refreshing, how affirming, to hear another teacher bring his passion to the writing practices I live and model.
It was Steve’s spot-on delivery, though, that had the Presenting Author in me making mental notes.
Steve’s door greeter personally handed each entering teacher a bookmark that pictured all of his book covers as well as his website.
Next, Steve himself walked the room’s center aisle personally introducing himself to as many attendees as possible.
And, not to worry about the hand-outs that accompanied his organically-ordered and organized talk. Just visit his website, click on Resources, then “Hand-outs.”
We sat back, engaged, eager to learn.
Teachers left ready and tooled to teach writing.
I left especially inspired to implement Steve’s presentation practices.

“Eat, Prey, Lick: A Story about Love and Furballs” might not seem like an appropriate after-dinner talk for a roomful of teachers gathered to honor Prairie State Award Winner Laurie Lawlor.
But trust me: as presented by Judy Byron Schachner, author of the popular Skippyjon Jones books, it was.
Again, I mentally ooh-ed and ah-ed-ed listening to Judy tell her story via her books. She was brutally candid, revealing, authentic, humorously intertwining her children’s real-life stories, their fantasies and pets, her family’s story, the lives they shared.
One PowerPoint image remained on the screen as Judy made her way across her career and the ordered book covers that attractively bordered the bottom of the slide.
Could/would/should I do the same one day?
Whichever the answer, Judy’s presentation was an award-winning How-to.

It was my Friday visit to the Abraham Lincoln Library, to research the subject of my current picture book biography, that reinforced why I became a teacher.
I was a student first, albeit long, long ago, a student who loved the act of learning.
And there I was, a former fifth grade teacher, serendipitously surrounded by Springfield’s Isles School Fifth Graders also using primary documents to research the lives of Illinoisans who lived in Lincoln’s time!
Their zeal, spirit and acquisitive minds buoyed me.
My subject turned out to be ten-year-old Kelsey’s, too.
I shook my head, smiling, taken by the wonder: I was sharing texts, newspaper accounts and court documents with a fellow student and (hopefully) future reader.

I trained home to Chicago that night, recounting my learning.
By the time I reached Union Station, I realized I’d been sufficiently re-seeded and appropriately fed to successfully take on Spring and its offerings - school visits, Teacher Workshops, Young Author Celebrations, the manuscripts of my talented writers.
Thanks to my much-needed, well-timed Time-out, I’m once again a TeachingAuthor!

Esther Hershenhorn

Don't forget to post a comment by 11 pm Thursday to win a free copy of JoAnn Early Macken's gorgeous Waiting Out the Storm!  Click here for details.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Write, Revise, Repeat

Congrats to our own JoAnn Early Macken on the fabulous review of Waiting Out The Storm in The Washington Post this weekend.  (She might be too modest to mention it, but I am not!  She also happens to be in excellent company.)  If you'd like to win a copy of this terrific read-aloud for young kids, post a comment here by 11 pm Thursday, CST.

Thanks to Mary Roy for the following question:

"I am writing a children's story for the first time. I've published articles in local magazines and special sections, but not yet a book. I am starting at ground zero with this story. I feel that I probably need a class. For certain I need direction, and that's really what I'm asking for. Where should I start? How do I develop the basic story into a charming book for children?"

Mary, this is a question that bears repeating and is something I still ask myself all the time.

One good place to start is this post by Esther Hershenhorn.

I will echo her sentiment that one of the most important things to do is read, read, read.  Study what's out there.  Has a topic similar to yours already been covered in a published work?  How did other skilled writers solve the same problems you face in your own writing? 

I like to visit the bookstore (support indie bookstores!) and see what's new -- what books are being marketed heavily, which ones are facing outward, etc.  It is always fun to find a friend's book on the shelf and give it a little marketing boost by making its place more prominent. :)

Bear in mind that what is trendy today (hello, vampires) will almost certainly be well on its way out by the time anything you write now could be published in, say, two to three to four years. 

I also go to the library.  They might not have the best selection of what's new, but they almost always have the classics.  Check out the works of Esme Raji Codell and Anita Silvey for books every children's author should know.

Google is also my friend, and I often search on or for card catalog-type information so that I can get a general sense as to what books are "out there." 

Do you know whether you are writing a picture book, a middle grade novel, or a YA?  Do you have characters in mind?  Plot?  Beginning, middle, end?  I find it hard to begin writing until I have a somewhat solid sense as to all of the above, even though these elements may change significantly in the writing process.  There are so many ways to go about fleshing out a story -- of course you have to find what works for you.  You already have good writing habits, or you would not be a published author.  You will likely find that many of these habits apply to writing fiction as well.

When I write mystery novels and soap operas, I outline.  In fact, all TV writers and screenwriters outline (or write treatments, as they're called).  Many novelists, on the other hand, like to be surprised by the twists and turns that ensue along the way.  There is, of course, no right or wrong way to do it -- just do what works for you!

GET A DRAFT.  That is the most important thing you can do.  Then, finally, the real work begins -- revising.

You mentioned that you think you might need to take a class.  Many of us have our MFA degrees in writing for children.  Assuming you don't want to do something quite so hardcore, you can try to find a class at a local college, where non-credit courses in writing for children are often offered.  Online courses are another great idea. There are a number of excellent courses taught through UCLA Extension and, for example.

Workshopping your manuscript is important.  That said, "clicking" with your teacher/mentor is crucial to a productive experience.  Writing is, obviously, highly subjective.  If you get feedback that doesn't speak to your heart, you don't have to take it; but if you find yourself getting the same feedback from multiple sources, then of course it's time for another look.

You may be able to find a local critique group through SCBWI.  If you find one that you like, you're golden. :)  If you find one that you hate, a break-up may ultimately be in order.

Revise, revise, revise.  How will you know when your pride and joy is ready to submit?  You might not.  You are too close to your own work.  Seek input from other seasoned writers.  Attend conferences.  Hook up with editors.  Network.

Good luck, and please keep us posted. 

And if anyone wants to start an online group, let me know -- I am desperate to find one! -- Jeanne Marie

Friday, March 26, 2010

Waiting Out the Storm, Part 1: Inspiration to Acceptance

My brand-new picture book Waiting Out the Storm was released by Candlewick Press this month. Yippee! My generous fellow Teaching Authors offered to organize a series of brand-new-book interviews like we did for April’s New Year at the Pier (starting here) and Esther’s S is for Story: A Writer's Alphabet (starting here). But spring is a busy time for me—especially this year! School visits and teaching fill up my days and nights in March and April. So I’ll write this week about the beginning of the process and continue the story in next Friday’s post. In the meantime, you’ll have a chance to win an autographed copy of Waiting Out the Storm. See the Giveaway Guidelines link below. I’ll post the winner next Friday.

Waiting Out the Storm began as a need to do something in response to the terrible events of September 11, 2001. Like many other writers during that time, I had trouble focusing on my work. I was wordless. I couldn’t stop thinking about the children affected by the tragic events, and the only thing I thought I might do was try to offer some comfort. But how?

I couldn’t write about terrorism. Not only did I feel it was not appropriate for the audience, but I knew I wasn’t equipped for such a task. A thunderstorm seemed a common childhood fear that symbolized a vague threat but that parents could explain and reassure children about. I’d write about a storm.

As for each of my books, personal experience went into the creation. Years before in Florida, I’d heard our friend Susan call her baby son “Buttercup.” I'd saved the memory of that delightful name, and I used it in the book. I researched animals, played with rhythm and rhyme, and kept trying to focus on my goal of providing comfort to children during a difficult time.

Between September 2002 and June 2003, I submitted the manuscript five times. Even though the rejection letters included positive comments, they still stung. One said it “felt too sentimental.” Another called it “not quite special or unique enough.” Ouch! I still cringe when I read them.

What did I do next? I put the manuscript away. I must have been discouraged. I kept writing, though. I  submitted other manuscripts.

I pulled out Waiting Out the Storm again to submit to our 2005 SCBWI-Wisconsin fall retreat. There, I had the great fortune of receiving a critique from a Candlewick editor, who gave me suggestions for improving the manuscript and said she’d be willing to look at it again after I revised it. I felt so hopeful!

With help from my brilliant writing group, I revised the manuscript over the next few months and resubmitted it in January 2006. We returned from a canoe trip that April to find a message on the answering machine from the editor, who said she’d like to offer a contract. I'll always remember the thrill!

For a chance to receive an autographed copy of Waiting Out the Storm, read our Book Giveaway Guidelines. Then enter our drawing by posting a comment to today's post that includes your name and e-mail address. I'll continue the story of Waiting Out the Storm and post the winner next Friday.

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Recap of Our Live, In Person, Teaching Authors' Workshop

Last Thursday, five of the Teaching Authors were gathered together as April posted live from her hotel room at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Springfield, Illinois. As April reported in that post, earlier in the day:
"Two magical, amazing and very smart professors from DePaul University--Roxanne Owens and Marie Donovan--introduced us and moderated our workshop, called Flabby to Fab-y: Writing Workouts to Shape Up Your Curriculum."
In case you weren't there, here's a recap of our presentation, which focused on the theme of exercise (inspired by our Writing Workouts): For the first half of our double session, we discussed common questions related to the five stages of writing:

Warm-up:   How do you prepare students (and their classroom) so they live and breathe and see themselves as WRITERS? (Esther)
Stretching    How do you help students generate/find ideas? (April)
Strength-training   How do you help students shape their ideas into compelling stories? (JoAnn)
Cardio          How do you help students find/create voice for the story? (Mary Ann)
Cool down   How do you motivate students to revise? (Carmela)
 Here's Esther, describing how to create an environment for growing young writers.

Then, for the second half, we offered "Personal Training" small group sessions with individual TAs. The attendees practiced hands-on activities to address these questions:

Esther:   How do you help motivate/engage reluctant writers?
April:      How do you help students discover topics that are meaningful to them?
JoAnn:    How do you help students create believable, well-rounded characters?
Mary Ann:  How do you teach students to incorporate specific details into their writing?
Carmela:    How do you help young writers “go for the burn,” inspiring them to connect with their writing on a deeper level?

 Here's JoAnn, discussing characterization with her small group.

We sure made those attendees sweat! But, judging from the feedback we received, they really did feel "Fab-y!" afterward. Here are a few of the comments:
"Excellent presentation!"
"They should offer this again."

"Thanks so much! You've given me a step-by-step process I can take back to use with my students."

"I can't believe that was two hours--the time went really fast."
"You're all so enthusiastic; your passion for writing really comes through."
"You were obviously having fun."
We really did have fun, as you can see from the photo below.
From left to right: Mary Ann, Esther, JoAnn, Carmela, and April.

We're hoping this will be the first of many Teaching Authors' workshops. To facilitate that, we've added a new link at the top of our Web page, just below our logo. If you click on "Workshops and Visits," you'll see information regarding how to arrange a presentation by one or more of the Teaching Authors at your school or conference. Do check it out!

There's also another new link at the top of our Web page labeled "IRC 'Top Ten Questions.'" That takes you to a page featuring the questions we addressed in our presentation, along with links to corresponding Writing Workouts. (Sorry, I haven't had a chance to post the full ten questions yet, but hope to get to it soon.)

If you receive our posts via email, I hope you'll visit our Web site to see these new pages. And if you're a new visitor to our blog who would like to receive emails of our posts, please see the box in the sidebar labeled "Receive Our Posts Via Email." You'll also see other subscription options below that, including via Google and Facebook.

Finally, if you attended our IRC presentation, please post a comment here telling us what you thought of it. We'd love to have your feedback!

By the way, if you're wondering who won our last giveaway, see my post from Monday. And don't despair if you weren't our winner--you'll have a chance to win an autographed copy of the most recently published Teaching Author book on Friday.

Happy writing!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Our Latest Giveaway Winner

We Teaching Authors are still catching up from being away at the Illinois Reading Council Conference last week. I'll report on the conference on Wednesday. Meanwhile, while we were gone, our Guest Teaching Author Johanna Hurwitz selected our latest giveaway winner:
Cheryl S of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Here's Cheryl's winning question, and Johanna's answer:

I have sketched out the main characters for my novel in my mind, but have yet to name them. I have determined the conclusion and have chosen the title. What do I do next? Where should I begin? Should I begin with a story outline? Should I concentrate on fleshing out my main characters? Should I mention that there are subplots?

Wow. You have a lot of questions and a lot of work ahead of you. Many writers prepare an outline before they begin writing. However, there is no rule. You already know your conclusion so you just have to think of a beginning and work towards that ending. Personally, I don't use an outline. I like to be surprised by my story just as if I was a reader. That's the way I work - I compare it to taking a trip and knowing where I want to go but leaving the map at home. That means I might get lost, I might waste time. But there will be surprises along the way and that's what makes writing fun for me.

Why don't you give your characters their names? (You can always change them.) They will seem more real to you once they are named. Then sit down and write. Nowadays with computers it is so simple to flesh out characters or make changes at any point. When I began writing (in the Dark Ages), I literally had to cut and paste my stories together and retype over and over. You are spared that but there is still a lot of work ahead of you. Start now or you'll never finish.

Good luck - you've already won a free book!
(Cheryl will receive an autographed copy of I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Jokes, Tricks, and Switcheroos, edited by Johanna Hurwitz and featuring a story by me, Carmela Martino.)

Thanks again, Johanna, for sharing your wisdom with us. And thank you to all our readers who entered our contest. If you didn't win this time, never fear. You'll have another chance to win a new autographed book on Friday, when we celebrate the release of the latest TA book: Waiting out the Storm, by JoAnn Early Macken.

Happy Writing,

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Howdy From the IRC Conference!

Out and About!

Guess what?  Teaching Authors are PORTABLE! 

Today, five Teaching Authors gave a wildly successful workshop (I can say that, right?) at the Illinois Reading Council's 42nd annual Conference, and now we're schmoozing with teachers, attending banquets, and generally having a wild time.  Woo-woo!

Two magical, amazing and very smart professors from DePaul University--Roxanne Owens and Marie Donovan--introduced us and moderated our workshop, called Flabby to Fab-y: Writing Workouts to Shape Up Your Curriculum. 

As "personal trainers," we warmed-up, stretched, strength-trained, cardio-ed and cooled down the attendees...and then awarded them tres cool certificates of completion to hang on their walls with pride.

And yes...we really did teach them one actual physical exercise!  In the break-out sessions we taught hands-on writing exercises.


Spring in Springfield, IL is fabulous--wish you were here!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Out and About in the Clover-dash-Shamrocks!

I’m Out-and-About and in clover today, wheeling to Springfield, Illinois to join four of my five fellow Teaching Authors for our Workshop tomorrow afternoon Thursday at the 42nd Annual Illinois Reading Conference.
(And, for the record, I care little o'bout the variety of the three-leafed plants that surround me – red, black, white or otherwise, all of which can be classified as Shamrocks. My Chicago River’s flowing green today!)

Visit us Friday to view photos of our singular workshop we’re co-presenting with Dr. Roxanne Owens and Dr. Marie Donovan of DePaul University’s School of Education – “Flabby to Fab-y: Writing Workouts to Shape Up Your Curriculum.” Thanks to you, our readers, we’re able to focus on the Top Ten Teaching-Writing Issues Teachers Face Daily and ways Young Writers can stretch, flex and bend.

You can exercise, too, of course, by checking out this year’s Children’s Choice Book Awards list, a joint project of the Children's Book Council and the International Reading Assocation.  Each year publishers submit hundreds of titles for consideration by five teams of some 12,000 young readers from across the country. Share the voting opportunity which began Monday, March 15, with your students, children, grandchildren, library patrons - AND/OR - use the list to acquaint yourself with titles children already enjoy. We children’s book writers need to know The Best of the Best as determined by – drum roll, please – our readers.

Finally, please remember: 11 pm today Wednesday is the deadline for our current book giveaway of Johanna Hurwitz’s I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos.
Keep those insightful questions comin’!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Esther Hershenhorn

*Credits for photo

Monday, March 15, 2010

Job Description

For all the Johanna Hurwitz fans out there (me, me, me!) and those with tween readers who may have missed it, check out Carmela's interview for our fab new book giveaway.  Lots of great questions have been posted already. 

I am the sole, lame Teaching Author who will be sitting on her butt (butt in chair -- hey!) next week while my cohorts do the heavy lifting of presenting at the Illinois Reading Council Conference this week. 

Between my full-time job of writing soap operas and my part-time job of teaching college and my part-part-time gig writing articles and that 24/7 job of raising children, I have found my travels to be severely curtailed for the last few years.  Note that the one job that I did not mention is, yes, writing books -- of which I have done precious little of late.

My college students are, as I write this, working busily (I hope) on their definition essays.  I have to confess, this is my very favorite type of essay to assign.  As I tell my students, words are powerful; words can be the most potent weapons on earth -- whether you are six or sixty.  Does anyone believe that old chestnut about "sticks and stones"?

The public discourse, it seems to me, has devolved into a series of loaded words being flung back and forth with increasing frequency.  Am I alone in wanting these verbal missles to be channeled into a productive discussion?  Please define "victory."  Define "terrorism."  Define "socialism." Define "anti-American" and explain how it differs from "anti-government."  There are important distinctions to be made; there are substantive arguments to be made on both sides of every issue.  And yet, it seems, that all we do is shout the same words over and over until they lose all real meaning.

It took me many years of working as a writer and a secretary, a writer and a transcriptionist, a writer and a go-fer, for me to finally be able to call myself a "writer."  This transition happened in my mind not when I published my first article or my first book (as I had always imagined it would) but when I was finally able to earn my living consistently as a writer.  Unfortunately, as a professional soap opera writer, my job security is nil.  And a funny thing happened when I lost my job a few years back.  I have not been writing or selling books for awhile (see above) and have never earned more than a pittance doing so, anyway.  Can I continue calling myself a writer if I'm not being paid to write?  And if I am not a professional writer -- what am I?

This evening I was putting my daughter to bed and reading to her from Meet Kit, the first in the American Girl series that takes place during the Great Depression.  Very early in Chapter 1, it is established that one of the characters' husbands has been unemployed for two years, and the family has lost their home.  My daughter, Kate, said, "That's terrible that he lost his job.  But this is just a made-up story, right?"  I assured her that it was and continued reading.  A moment later, she interrupted, "But do people really lose their jobs?"  I said that yes, they do.  Then, "Are you going to lose your job, Mommy?"  (Now, full disclosure.  When I am on a deadline on a childcare-free day and my daughter is making her two thousandth demand of the day in full whine, I have been known to threaten that noncompliance will result in my unemployment, which will have dire effects on her toy collection.)  So I explained to Kate tonight that yes, someday Mommy will probably lose her job.  And she cried.  And she cried and cried and cried.  And I thought -- couldn't I have just said that Mommy will always have a job?  I will always, always be her mommy.  And, honestly, after all this time, is there any going back?  Whether I am a soap opera writer, I will always be a writer. 

I FINALLY, after lo these many years, completed a mystery manuscript that's rapidly going nowhere.  I recently got some professional feedback and am excited to have a clue what to do with it.  So there's another two years of my life to invest in a manuscript that may never be read outside a very small circle of friends and critics.  It is hard, I now realize, to turn down paying work, to believe in oneself enough to risk zero return on a huge investment of time and energy and heart. 

I just finished reading a rough draft of a student's essay on the definition of courage.  It takes courage to be a writer.  COURAGE to us all.

And does anyone know a really good online critique group?  Because I could surely use one! 
--Jeanne Marie

Friday, March 12, 2010

Strength Training Your Stories! (And a poem about being lost for Poetry Friday!)

Happy Poetry Friday!

Today's poem is lost at the bottom of this post.

As Carmela has mentioned, on March 18th, from 1:45-3:45 pm, we Teaching Authors will be at the Illinois Reading Council presenting a workshop with DePaul University professors Roxanne Owens and Marie Donovan called Flabby to Fab-y: Writing Workouts to Shape Up Your Curriculum.

Exciting!  I am v-v-v-v-v-vibrating in anticipation of this adventure beyond my Southern California borders!  (I'm also packing winter underwear and mittens.)

In keeping with our workshop's title, here’s a “strength training” exercise which will surely help you and your students generate ideas and get that first draft down.

 ('re going to have to use your
writerly imaginations here.
Suddenly I can't upload images...
even ones I've used before.
So the cartoon I drew of a girl
bench pressing a giant pencil
is something you're just going to have to
conjure up on your own.
I know you can do it.)

This exercise comes from my friend, poet and prolific children's author Janet Wong.  Janet teaches this exercise to help kids and adults alike find content for poems.  But it could just as easily be used to jump start stories.

WRITING WORKOUT--Generating Ideas

She calls it her "Mind Walk" exercise.

Janet says,   “I write the numbers 10 to 5 on the board, in descending order, and I talk briefly about one memory from each of those years of my life.

As I talk about the memory, I jot down 3-5 words next to the year. I talk about my skateboard accident and stitches (7 years old), spitting milk on the table at a birthday party when someone told a funny joke (9 years old), riding an elephant (10 years old), getting in trouble for taking a nickel to show my underwear to the boy next door (5 years old)-various things.

Then I give the students 1 minute to jot down some memories.  This is easy for them because most of them have started thinking of memories while listening to my stories-you can see them practically bursting to tell someone about the time they broke an arm, or whatever.

At the end of the minute, I call on people to share their memories aloud (and this is another time when people get ideas).

I ask if anyone still has no memories; if hands go up, I then ask a bunch of silly questions: Have you ever cut your own hair, and it turned out awful? Have you ever vomited in public? Have you been embarrassed by your parents? Have you ever cheated, or lied for a friend-and gotten caught?

I then talk briefly about rhyme, repetition, and rhythm, and tell them to write their poem.

I tell them, "If you're stuck for a beginning, you might want to try something like this, writing "I am x years old" and describing what happened in the present tense, as if it's happening right now. A couple of them will take this route.

This exercise produces interesting results because it invites people to shock others and also reminds them of funny/strange things that they might otherwise never have the opportunity to remember. Such as: the woman in her mid-20s who put Nair hair-removing cream in her "friend's" shampoo bottle when she was a teen; the teen girl whose dog bit off her bird's head when she was 6 years old; the boy who accidentally set fire to a house with firecrackers at age 5, etc.”

Thank you, Janet!

So...what are YOUR childhood memories?  Write down ages 5-10 and unearth a few embarrassing or a silly or a tender or scary ones.  Then, risk all by writing a story or poem about one of them.  When you're done, as Esther Hershenhorn encourages, read your work aloud.

Do it!  And then...will you do me a huge favor?  Will you check in when you've done it?  Will you drop us a line in the comment section?  We live for your comments! 

Here’s a poem that came from one of my childhood memories:

by April Halprin Wayland

 I reach up to hold your hand.
 It isn’t yours.
 All of a sudden
                          there you aren’t.

 A forest of legs, legs,
 footsteps, footsteps:
 families clattering through the zoo
 to the elephants!  To the lions! 

 They’re all scared of the snake house,
 pushing past me
 boarding the fat tram—
                                     but nobody is you!

 My face is hot.  My buttons are tight.
 You are lost in this jumble of giant Strangers.
 Where are you? 
                       Where are you? 
                                              WHERE ARE YOU?

A navy-blue uniform
takes my sweaty hand,
gives me cold water,
turns on a microphone:

“Will the parents of a lost youngster
please come to the Zoo office.”

I’m sitting on the desk
sucking a cherry lollipop.

I’m not crying
       but those wet things
                                    keep running down
                                                                from my eyes...
 you come hugging!

This poem has been accepted for publication in Cricket Magazine.  Copyright © April HalprinWayland

Remember to breathe.  And remember to write with joy ~
Photo and drawing by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Johanna Hurwitz

I'm honored to announce the publication of my short story, "Big Z, Cammi, and Me," in the new middle-grade anthology, I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos (Candlewick Press), which was released yesterday. (Don't you just LOVE the cover?) Here's a description of the book from the Candlewick website:
An arrogant prince tries to bluff his way out of paying the bridge troll’s toll, only to find that honesty really is its own reward. Judy Moody dreams up her best-ever prank on Stink, but he finds a hilarious way to make her joke fall splat. And when a boy’s grandfather plays an elaborate trick that has the whole town laughing at him, can he use it one day to big-time advantage? Edited by acclaimed children’s author Johanna Hurwitz, this collection of stories -- all woven around the phrase "I fooled you" -- range from a comic graphic tale about clever chimps to thought-provoking explorations of fairness, empathy, eccentricity, and the power of imagination. How many different ways can ten leading middle-grade authors tell a story including the line "I fooled you"? Prepare to be surprised!
And today I'm especially thrilled to be able to feature a Guest Teaching Author interview with Johanna Hurwitz herself. In the interview, Johanna shares a bit about how the anthology came to be, and also about her own experiences as a Teaching Author. She has also generously agreed to provide an autographed copy of the anthology for one lucky TeachingAuthors reader. You'll find details about the giveaway following the interview.

Although I've never met Johanna Hurwitz in person, I have long been familiar with her work as the award-winning author of over 50 books for young readers, including picture books, novels, and biographies. Two of her recent titles are Amazing Monty and Squirrel World. You can read more about Johanna at her website.

And now for the interview:

Johanna, can you tell us how you became a Teaching Author?

I was a school librarian and then at one of my positions, I was asked to teach reading. I guess I did too good a job because before I knew it I was asked if I could teach writing as well. I drew the line when the school director, realizing that I knew how to type, asked if I would type up all the teachers’ student evaluations. Subsequently, after several of my books were published, I was invited to teach summer writing workshops at Hofstra University on Long Island and a three-day workshop at the University of Vermont.

What’s a common problem/question that your students have and how do you address/answer it?

“I don’t know what to write.” Everyone has a story or many stories to tell. So I may ask my students: “What do you talk about at supper with your family? What happened today at school that made today different from yesterday?” But usually I make up a topic that everyone can answer in their own way. For example, “If you have a pet, write as if you were this animal and describe yourself from the pet’s point of view. And if you don’t have a pet, write from the point of view of the pet you wish you had.”

That sounds like a great Writing Workout for teachers. Do you have any suggestions for how teachers might also use some of your books in the classroom?

First Birthday Surprises (Morrow, 1995, now available in paperback from Avon), and now I Fooled You (Candlewick, 2010), take a single premise and have different authors write their own version. A teacher could read aloud one or two stories from one of these books and then ask students to write their own story. The important thing to stress is that there is not a correct way to write the story and each is different. Another suggestion is in conjunction with my three-book series about Ali Baba Bernstein: The Adventures Of Ali Baba Bernstein (Morrow, c1985, now available in paperback from Avon), Hurray For Ali Baba Bernstein, and Ali Baba Bernstein Lost & Found.  Ali Baba’s real name is David but there are three other Davids in his class. In order not to be confused with the others, he picks a new name for himself. I ask students to discuss with their parents the name(s) they were given and why. Surprisingly, many don’t know if they were named after another family member. Then I ask them to write about their name. Also, if they were going to change their name, what name would they select and why. Each chapter in the books begins with David Bernstein’s age (for example, eight years, six months, seventeen days). It’s a great exercise to have the students figure out their exact age, too.

I was so pleased when I found out that my short story, “Big Z, Cammi, and Me” would be included in the I Fooled You anthology. Would you tell our readers where you got the idea for the anthology and how you collected the stories for it? Had you already written your story when you sent out the invitation to other authors?

With the success of my first anthology Birthday Surprises
(NCTE Teacher’s Choice Book, Junior Library Guild selection, starred reviews), people said to me, “You found the only subject that would work this way.” I wanted to prove them wrong. After much thought, I got the idea to write a book called APRIL 31st. I wrote my own story and came up with about two other stories that would work as well. However, when I discussed this subject with Candlewick editor Sarah Ketchersid, she felt it was too limiting a topic. We discussed it and eventually decided to have all the stories show someone playing a trick on someone else. Sarah and I then made up a list of potential authors. Some are personal writer friends of mine and some are people (like you, Carmela) that I was unfamiliar with but who Sarah suggested. Some of the people that we approached had too many commitments and rejected the invitation at once. A couple never responded. A couple said they’d get back to us but the book has come out and they never did.

It was my idea to have a poem and I suggested Doug Florian who is in my writing group. I love his contribution. It’s a great lead-in to the stories in the book. I also felt we should have a graphic tale as there would be no illustrations in the book and a graphic story would break up all the dark print. Sarah suggested Jennifer and Matthew Holm who are famous for their Baby Mouse books. Jennifer didn’t have the time but Matthew offered to do a story on his own. Two authors were so delighted to be invited that they each sent three different stories. I read all six stories and sent them on to Sarah. Coincidentally and fortunately, she favored the same story from each author as I did. I think the finished book is a great mix of humor and seriousness with first person and third person stories, contemporary settings and a historical one, a modern fairy tale, as well as the poem and graphic story. I hope reviewers and readers will agree.

Finally, would you share a funny (or interesting) story related to your career as a Teaching Author

The Internet has provided me with messages from all over the world. Last September, I got a letter from a woman who said she heard me speak in 1989 when she was a fourth grader and I did a visit at her school on Long Island. She even still owns the book I signed for her and has a photo of standing in line waiting for my autograph. Now she is a third-grade teacher at a school in Delaware. She was reading one of my books aloud to her class and she told them about meeting me. She said they were very excited about this personal link. I wrote back and in my letter I mentioned that I still make school visits. “Should your school ever consider inviting an author, think about me,” I told her. This was the beginning of a long correspondence, but the ending is that her principal and the other teachers in her school loved the idea, she applied for and received a grant to cover all expenses, and in April I will be visiting the school and having a “reunion” with someone who remembered me after more than twenty years.

This anecdote is a wonderful reminder that as an author one never knows when a book we’ve written or a talk we’ve given has influenced someone. Even after a book has gone out of print, it is still available in libraries and via on-line bookstores. Even after a talk is given, our words resonate with our listeners. It’s a big responsibility but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to share ideas and hopefully give something important to our audience.

Thanks so much for taking time to share your words with us today, Johanna. I have no doubt they will resonate with our blog readers. Your comments may also raise additional questions in our readers' minds. So, readers, we are offering you an opportunity to ask Johanna your own question. As Johanna would say, "No fooling!" By posting a comment below with a writing or book-related question for Johanna, you will be entered for a chance to win your own autographed copy of I Fooled You: Ten Stories of Tricks, Jokes, and Switcheroos. The book is a fun read, featuring the work of David A. Adler, Eve B. Feldman, Douglas Florian, Matthew Holm, Johanna Hurwitz, Ellen Klages, Michelle Knudsen, Megan McDonald, Barbara Ann Porte, and me, Carmela Martino. If Johanna chooses to answer your question in a follow-up post, then you will be our winner. It's that easy!

A few "do's" and one "don't":
  • Do try to ask a unique or intriguing question to increase your chance of winning.
  • Do make sure your question is related to writing and/or children's books.
  • Do provide your email address or a link to your own blog in your comment.
  • Do post your comment by 11 p.m. (Central Standard Time) on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. 
  • Do read our complete giveaway guidelines here
  • Don't enter if your address is outside the U.S.
The winner will be announced in my next post, on Wednesday, March 24. (Sorry to keep you in suspense, but we TAs will be speaking at the IRC conference on March 18, and I'll be in catch-up mode after that.)

"Out and About"

This evening, I will have the pleasure of speaking at the North Suburban SCBWI-Illinois Network meeting on the topic of "Character Names." Instead of having a handout, I've posted some character-naming resources on my personal blog. If you'll be attending the meeting, or would like to check out the links, you can access the blog post here.

Good luck to all the contest entrants, and Happy Writing!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Wrestling with Voice

     Warning to reader:  This was composed on my father's dinosaur of a computer. Enough said.

     Trying to define “voice” in writing is like trying to define “air” (the invisible stuff you breathe) or “love”( an emotion that makes you act stupid). After much hairpulling and consulting a bunch of writing manuals, I think I have a definition.

     Writing is what you say, and how you say it. Voice is the “how you say it” part. The term can be used in different ways. One is the writer’s voice. Since I am not a literature scholar, I’m not going to try analyzing writer’s voice, within the confines of a blog post!

     A more manageable topic is character voice. In this context, “voice” consists of the vocabulary, speech pattern and tone used by the individuals. Think of some memorable fictional figures. Could you ever confuse Jane Eyre with Scarlett O’Hara? Huck Finn with Holden Caulfield? Ramona Quimby with Laura Ingalls? Is there another literary child who sounds even remotely like Eloise? Each of them speak and think in a way that is completely their own.

     What influences character voice? The character's gender, age, setting, cultural background, education, family, economic status, occupation and on and on. Taking these factors into consideration, even persons who share some these aspects will still sound unique. Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are both teenage boys. The uneducated, resourceful and adventuresome Huck, narrates in the dialect of a 19th century Mississippi River “rat.” Holden, immature and introspective, uses repetition, slang and fairly limited vocabulary, that reflects his isolated, upper-middle class, Post-World-War-II American prep school life.

     Even characters who may share many of the same characteristics, should be distinguishable from one another. One of the best examples of this is Rachel Vail’s Daring to Be Abigail. The story takes place in a camp cabin of 11-year-old girls who at first glance, seem to share exactly the same background. Within two pages, the reader knows each of the eight main characters as separate entities. I have read this book over and over, trying to figure out how she established characterization through voice so rapidly, without resorting to stereotype. I’m still reading!

     My students sometimes have trouble creating distinct character voices. For instance, a conversation between two ten-year-old boys, whose dialog could be interchangeable, because they speak exactly alike. When I ask the writer to tell me about these characters…who is their BFF? what’s in their school backpack? what is their least favorite school subject? …the answer is often “I don’t know.” The problem is that the student is trying to write about characters they don’t really “know”.

     My characters live in my head for years and years before I get around to bringing them to life. I keep notebooks, computer files and file folders on future characters, as they "share" with me such diverse information as their favorite baseball player, what their side of a shared dresser top looks like, how they feel about various family members. Sometimes I learn more about my characters through the writing process, but I would never presume to tell their stories without having at least a working knowledge of them.

     In the classroom, we don’t often have the luxury of allowing characters a leisurely germination period. Both the student and the teacher want the story finished within a few class sessions. The following workout can speed the development along.

 Writing Workout

1.      Interview your character. The student will select four or five questions from a masterlist. Although the information the writer “receives” from the character may or may not directly relate to the story at hand, it will make the imaginary more concrete to the student. The questions should only be things you would not know about the character just by looking at them. One of my favorite questions for a character is “Who is your BFF? Why? Where did you meet? How long ago?”

2. Have two characters interview each other. Same sort of questions…much different result.

Here is a list my personal “recommended reading” list of books with great voice. This list tends toward female writers and protagonists and middle grade and YA books. Please send me your own picks for books with great voice. I'm always looking for new ones.

The Make Lemonade Trilogy by Virginia Euwer Wolff
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Letting Go of Bobby James: Or How I Found My Self of Steam by Valerie Hobbs
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems
A Step From Heaven by An Na
Goin' Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt
Sparks by Graham McNamee
When She Was Good by Norma Fox Mazer
The Lightening Thief  by Rick Riordan
What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
The  Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
Uncle Ronald by Brian Doyle
Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles
Keeper of the Night by Kimberly Willis Holt
Alvin Ho: Allergic to School by Lenore Look

posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, March 5, 2010

What Should I Write About?

Ideas are everywhere, right? Wherever you look, smell, taste, hear, touch, or imagine, you run into them—or they run into you. (Write them down! I always carry a pocket notebook for those elusive ideas I’d forget if I didn’t nab them when they first appeared.)

Suppose you want to write a poem. How do you decide which idea to write about? Three things make an idea a good idea. Use these tips to evaluate yours:

1. Write about something you care about. This is true of almost every kind of writing—and especially poetry. If you try to write a poem about something that doesn’t matter to you, you probably won’t be satisfied with the result. The poem will suffer. Readers will recognize your lack of enthusiasm.

2. Write about something familiar. Nothing will derail you faster than running out of things to say because you’ve exhausted your knowledge. The better you know something, the better equipped you are to write about it. Yes, of course, you can research your topic—if you care enough to make the effort.

3. Write about one specific thing. It seems like a contradiction, but you can actually say more about one dog (especially if you know it and care about it) than you can about the whole canine species. Why? Because dogs don’t have all that much in common. Not all dogs bark. Not all dogs wag their tails—or even have tails to wag. Not all dogs have glossy fur or sparkly eyes or an earth-shaking wiggle. Your own dog, on the other hand, has its own quirks and tricks and endearing behaviors, providing a wealth of unique qualities to describe.

So grab your notebook—the one with the long list of ideas—and choose the best one for you!

Writing Workout

Brainstorming for a Topic

Here are some categories of topics you can consider when you write your own poem. Remember to test your idea against the three tips above.
  • a family celebration
  • your favorite (or least favorite) food
  • something you do in your spare time
  • a place you've visited
  • a bird, plant, or animal you know
  • something you remember from a long time ago

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Listen Up! It's Time to Read - ALOUD!

March 1 found my fellow Teaching Author Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford’s daughter Kate Ford, only 4 11/12, writing across America.
March 2 found her, dressed Seusssationally, reading across America.
Today, March 3, Kate can celebrate literacy all around the world by reading aloud her Once Upon A Time story.
Happy World Read Aloud Day!

Not to worry if you know neither the day nor LitWorld, its sponsoring organization.
Both were unknown to me until I heard Pam Allyn passionately address the Anderson’s Bookshop’s 8th Annual Children’s Literature Breakfast two Saturdays ago in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, sharing her life’s work and recent teacher literacy training sessions in Africa.

Pam serves as the Executive Director of LitWorld, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing quality education to the world’s most vulnerable children, as well as of LitLife, a nationally-recognized organization that specializes in transformative school improvement through literacy education. She also recently authored What to Read When: The Books and Stories to Read with Your Child (Penguin/Avery, 2009).

Pam invited the 750 Breakfast-gathered authors, teachers, librarians and young readers to celebrate World Read Aloud Day today - to join the global literacy movement that works to ensure that every child, in every part of the world, is given the right to read stories, hear stories and write the stories of their lives.
I graciously extend that invitation to you.

Visit the LitWorld website to discover a variety of suggested activities and opportunities – for teachers, parents, family members, librarians, children.
Or simply read aloud – to your children, students, grandchildren, friends, at a school or library, in your home or Senior Citizen facility.
Choose your favorite book, your favorite poem, a book you’ve just discovered, a favorite blogger’s post.
Even read aloud, for your ears only, your latest revision of your work-in-progress!

Writers are readers.
But how many of us became readers because someone in our lives read aloud to us?
At the Anderson’s Children’s Literature Breakfast, two guest authors described their teachers’ reading of E.B. White's Charlotte’s Web as life-changing.
I still hold a visual of the blue braided oval reading rug in my beloved teacher Miss Patton’s Kindergarten room. I still recall the day she read us The Ugly Duckling.
I read aloud to every fifth grade class I taught, every day, for fifteen minutes. Several of my students, now grown and parents, to my surprise recalled each and every title.
My writing class read alouds include picture books and novels.

What read-aloud books do you recall?
And who were the readers who lovingly read them?
Who helped you read and hear stories?  Who helped you write the story of your life?
Maybe find a moment to write one of those readers a Thank You note.
(Today would be perfect.)
Then, read that note aloud.

Happy World Read Aloud Day!

Esther Hershenhorn

Looking for a good book to read-aloud and/or tips to keep your listeners listening?
Check out Reading Is Fundamental, ReadAloud and Jim Trelease’s and Esme Codell’s Read Aloud Bibles.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing Across America

A co-worker called me on Friday en route to Target.  I was jealous (I unabashedly adore Target) until he told me the purpose of his trip -- to get materials for his kindergartener's "Dr. Seuss book costume."  Being a practical parent, he was going the simple route -- posterboard to make green eggs and ham. 

Of course all the teachers among us know that tomorrow marks Dr. Seuss' birthday and the NEA's annual Read Across America Day.  How many parents have been scrambling for materials to make extravagant tributes to Dr. Seuss? 

As a kid, I was never (sacrilege, I know) a huge Seuss fan.  Neither are my own children, though "Dibble dibble dop" is one of our very favorite nonsensical things to say.  However, Green Eggs and Ham was the basis of one of the most moving television scenes ever, IMO -- on St. Elsewhere -- so I am probably the only person I know who thinks of Dr. Seuss and instantly wants to cry.

My daughter, at age 4 and 11/12, just last night read a whole REAL book at bedtime for the first time.  Oh, the excitement in our household!  Of course no one was more excited than she.  (Once upon a time, she worried that learning to read would mean that she would no longer be READ TO.  I think she has finally overcome this fear.) 

Kate goes to a Montessori school, and one of the precepts of the curriculum, I recently discovered, is that kids typically learn to write before they learn to read.  Perhaps some of you early childhood educators could shed some light on this concept.  At any rate, Kate has been using a "moveable alphabet" to sound out words since she was three.  Her spelling is atrocious, but her sense of phonics is pretty impressive.  Just this week she brought home her first story:

Then, the fire-breathing dragon put her in a cage.  Later, the princess saw a police.  Finally, the police put the princess out of the cage.

I'm so proud of my little author!

My mother had to point out the anachronism of police and fire-breathing dragons co-existing, but she didn't seem to have a problem with the amusement park. :)

I will tell you what I love about Kate's school.  I love that her teachers don't correct her spelling.  I love that they encourage creativity and allow her to think for herself.  And I really, really love this exercise.  It teaches beginning, middle, end.  First, next, last.  Story structure!  The rule of threes!  It gives encouragement and prompts, but it leaves the bulk of the imagining to the child.  Between fire-breathing dragons and princesses, what four-year-old boy or girl would not be engaged in the topic?  The next day, Kate had to create an advertising slogan for a perfume for skunks.  The result was unprintable, but again -- genius!

I don't know when it is that writing -- and often reading -- start to become a chore, something to be dreaded.  But for some kids, obviously the joy persists.  I pray that my daughter will always come home and say, "I need a pencil.  I want to write a story!"

--Jeanne Marie