Sunday, August 30, 2009

New Year at the Pier

Find out about our Teaching Author Book Giveaway Contest running all this week! Click here for details.

Happy New Year! This week we’re celebrating the new school year and our very own April Halprin Wayland’s book, New Year at the Pier--A Rosh Hashanah Story, which is about another kind of new year--the Jewish New Year.

Stay tuned for a series of Q&As from the TAs (say that five times fast) about the gestation of this touching story.

Jeanne Marie:
April, can you tell us a little about your religious identity and why you wrote this book?

Although this book is about the Jewish New Year, it’s really about universal themes of forgiveness and apologizing, friendship and multi-cultural ways to celebrate new year.

Growing up, my Jewishness was all about big hugs from Uncle Raphael, Uncle Izzy, Uncle Avrum, Uncle Chucky, Uncle Davie, Uncle Moish, Uncle Max, Uncle Art, Aunt Fanny, Aunt Cissy, Aunt Sue, Aunt Frances, Aunt Polly, sitting at the “cousins table,” the smells of matzo ball soup, the bright magenta color and hot sting of horseradish, the dark shadow of the holocaust, overlapping layers of talking, laughter, holiday songs, and Yiddish words seasoning conversations, of flickering candles.

Above all, being Jewish meant that part of my job on earth was tikkun olam—to repair the world. My relatives modeled tikkun olam every day.

I’m married to Gary, a non-Jew who embodies tikkun olam in every action, in every breath. We are both political activists in an effort to repair the world, and we weave Judaism into the fabric of our family throughout the year in other ways, too:

On Friday nights, our family goes to our favorite hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant. I’m not sure how Jewish tacos are, but it’s our way of marking the start of the Sabbath, a time of rest and renewal.

In December, we have an annual latke party, inviting neighbors to bring electric skillets, spatulas and aprons. Hanukah latkes are yummy hot-from-the-frying-pan potato pancakes, served with apple sauce or sour cream. We set up latke-making stations, cook, gab, sing, bless the candles, play the dreidle game and eat!

Gary’s a CPA and his busiest time of the year is near Passover. For many years, my son and I traveled overseas during his spring break, where I taught writing and poetry workshops. I’ve taught in schools in Germany, France, England, Italy, Switzerland and Poland, and every year we celebrated Passover with new friends. (One memorable year we ate Passover dinner on the floor of our Berlin hotel room…ask me about it sometime!)

Tashlich is a ritual during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The exact date of Rosh Hashanah varies—in 2009, it’s Sept. 18-20th. When synagogue is over, nearly two hundred of us will walk to the pier, sing songs, and fling pieces of bread into the ocean.

Each piece of bread represents something we wish we hadn’t done in the past year. Tossing the bread (tashlich means “to throw”) is a way of letting go of the past. It represents the footwork we’ve done to sincerely apologize and compensate for any wrongs we’ve done, cleaning the slate for the New Year.

Tashlich is outdoors, in a beautiful setting. Tashlich is community, a huge component of the juiciness of Judaism.
Tashlich is about healing the world, beginning with me.

Tashlich my favorite Jewish celebration. I’ve dragged many friends to the pier so they could taste its poetry. I wanted them to feel the wind, hear the gulls, experience the relief of tossing each piece of bread.

How could I not share all this in a picture book?

Readers, don't forget to post your new-year goals to enter for a chance to win April's wonderful book! Click here for details.

image credits:
interior picture from New Year at the Pier © Stéphane Jorisch 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

1) Take a deep cleansing breath. 2) Set a goal. 3) Enter our contest!

One-half of knowing what you want
is knowing what you must give up before you get it.
~ playwright Sidney Howard
(he adapted Gone With The Wind for the screen)

Envision what you want your life to look like.
Then ask yourself, “What do I have to become to manifest this vision?”
~ Rev. Michael Beckwith (paraphrased)

Dear Readers,

Huzzah, huzzah--it's nearly fall and a new
Teaching Authors CONTEST has begun!

New Year At The Pier—A Rosh Hashanah Story by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by award-winning Canadian Stéphane Jorisch, is so delicious, we want you to have a chance to win an autographed copy!

Here’s lots of juicy stuff about the book, here's the 1:16 minute book trailer and here’s a summary of the book, which got a starred review in Publishers Weekly:

Izzy’s favorite part of Rosh Hashanah is Tashlich, a joyous ceremony in which people apologize for the mistakes they made in the previous year and thus clean the slate as the new year begins. But there is one mistake on Izzy’s “I’m sorry” list that he’s finding especially hard to say out loud. Humor, touching moments between family and friends, and information about the Jewish New Year are all combined in this lovely picture book for holiday sharing. can you win your very own autographed copy?

Simple. Since the book is about the new you have a new school year goal? Great! Then post one reading, writing or teaching goal you'd like to accomplish by December 31, 2009 in 25 words or less.

Here are some sample goals to get you thinkin':

Do you want your student(s) to understand the concept of Show, Don’t Tell?

Do you want the courage to delete all of your emails so that the clutter isn't keeping you from writing the next Charlotte's Web?

Do you want to set aside 30 uninterrupted minutes to read for pleasure each day?

Do you want to send out a manuscript by Halloween?

What is that one goal for this bright and shiny new school year?

Be specific. Here’s the place to ‘fess up!

Win-an-autographed-copy-of-New-Year-at-the-Pier CONTEST rules:
1) Read the two quotes at the top.
2) Take a deep breath.
3) Post ONE reading, writing or teaching goal for the new school year in 25 words or less.
4) Your goal must be posted on one of the
Teaching Authors blog posts between Friday, August 28, 2009 and Monday, September 7, 2009.
5) You must include your email address in your post so that we can contact the lucky winner.
Here are our general giveaway rules.

The winner will be announced Tuesday, September 8, 2009.

We expect to hear back from you in the first two weeks of January—every one of you. If you don't win this time, you'll have another chance in January when you report on your progress. How did you do? Who or what helped you? Who or what hindered you?

Coming next week: more on New Year at the Pier!

And finally, because it's Poetry Friday...and to REALLY confuse you now that you're thinking about goals...I leave you with a beautiful completely contrary anti-goals poem by my wonderful friend, poet and author
George Ella Lyon

First homework, then housework, now soulwork.

No list, no checking off, no done.

~ George Ella Lyon

image of girl with a goal by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Multicultural Dialogue: Please Pass the Patate

Today, I'd like to follow-up on Mary Ann's response to an Ask the TeachingAuthors question submitted by Pam. Pam asked: "In MG and YA novels, do you ever use diction from other cultures or parts of the country in your characterizations? Or do you focus more on a character's actions, behavior and gestures to define them?"

When writing my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola, I had the challenge of trying to portray the speech of recent Italian immigrants. Members of my own immigrant family speak with heavy accents and often intersperse Italian words, or Anglicized Italian, with English. If I tried to reproduce such speech in my novel, readers would have a difficult time deciphering it. As Mary Ann pointed out in her post, such dialogue "can be murder to read."

Instead, I used several techniques to portray my immigrant characters' speech:
  1. I occasionally interspersed relatively easy-to-pronounce Italian words with English, structuring the dialogue and conversation so that those words could be understood in context.
  2. As much as possible, I used cognates of English words to make it easier for readers to guess a foreign word's meaning.
  3. For the characters with the heaviest accents, I tried to keep their sentences short. I also structured their speech in nonstandard ways.
  4. I included a glossary of the Italian words and phrases that appeared in the text.
For example, here's how I handled the first occurrence of the word sola:
Mrs. Morelli returned before AnnaMaria did. "I'm sorry, Rosa." She took the baby from Rosa. "AnnaMaria should not have left you sola."

"But I wasn't alone." Rosa smiled up at Mrs. Morelli. "Antonio was with me."
Because many readers are familiar with the word "solo," they might guess that sola means alone. But even if they didn't, they could surmise the meaning from Rosa's response. Similarly, for the title of this post, I'm hoping you guessed that patate means potatoes. Initially, I'd planned to say "Please pass the piselli," but I chose patate because the word looks more like "potatoes" than piselli does "peas."

Like Mary Ann, I also had to be careful regarding the historical accuracy of my dialogue because Rosa, Sola is set in the 1960s. The online etymology dictionary is a great resource to help insure historical accuracy. For example, if you look up the word "groovy," you'll learn:
As teen slang for "wonderful," it dates from 1944; popularized 1960s, out of currency by 1980.
My current work-in-progress, a young-adult novel set in 18th-century Milan, presents even greater challenges when it comes to dialogue. Unlike the characters in Rosa, Sola who speak a mixture of Italian and English, my Milanese characters speak only Italian. Therefore, it really isn't appropriate to intersperse Italian words in their dialogue. While I have read books that do, I try to avoid it. For example, to me, it doesn't make sense to write:
Luigi said, "Please pass the patate."
when, technically, it should be:
Luigi said, "Passami le patate per favore."
So in my novel set in Milan, the only time I have Italian dialogue is in complete (very short) sentences, such as:
When Maria passed him the potatoes, Luigi said, "Grazie."
I still use Italian words in the narrative at times, to help remind readers of the setting, but I avoid mixing them with English in the dialogue.

I hope this discussion has satisfactorily addressed Pam's questions. If we haven't answered your Ask the TeachingAuthors question yet, please be patient. We plan to tackle our backlog in September. Meanwhile, we hope you'll use the link in the sidebar to keep those questions coming!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Reader's Question on Dialect and Diction or Easy on the Tabasco Sauce

Today's Reader Question is one that I address nearly every day in my writing:

"In MG and YA novels, do you ever use diction from other cultures or parts of the country in your characterizations? Or do you focus more on a character's actions, behavior and gestures to define them?"

Great question! And my answer depends!

My novels (so far) have taken place in very specific places and times (Jackson, Mississippi, 1964-65 and Pittsburgh, 1943-44). Because the setting in these books (Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars) has the same weight and importance as my main characters, to ignore how characters sound style: is a lost opportunity to add another dimension not only to the characters, but to the entire story as well.

The way people talk has always been a big issue in my own life. I moved to the South from the Midwest when I was ten, and to this day, whenever I open my mouth, native Southerners say "You're not from around here, are you?" Most of my cousins are Pittsburgh-born and raised. When we talk, I note the difference in their sentence structure, and the local expressions that pepper their conversation. Pittsburghers are so proud of their unique vocabulary, it has been officially dubbed "Pittsburgh-ese", complete with dictionaries, websites and cultural studies.

In a mobile society that has been made ever smaller by TV and the Internet, Americans are losing their geographical and cultural speech patterns. We are beginning to all sound alike, with a homogenized "standard Broadcast American Speech" *sd they called in Speech Class) I think it's sad. We lose something of our roots in the disappearance of "local color" in our language.

So to answer the question, I often use speech as a component equal to action and gesture in developing a multi-dimensional character and to add depth to my fictional word. HOWEVER...

Pure dialect or dialog written entirely using regional expressions can be murder to read. Maybe it's just me, but looking at a page that thick with apostrophes substituting for all the dropped "g's" in an attempt to "sound Southern," makes my eyes hurt. (If you don't believe me, find an old edition of anything by Joel Chandler Harris.) If you don't have an issue with your vision, then try reading the page out loud. For me, anything that I can't read aloud smoothly, is not great writing. If I have to re-read a dialect-laden sentence over and over to puzzle out what the heck the writer is trying to say...well, that's a sign of dialect overkill. Using dialect correctly is a tightrope act. Too little of it, and it calls attention to itself, which of course, takes the reader of the fictional world you have worked so hard to create. Too much of it, and it's like someone dumped a bottle of Tabasco sauce on your meatloaf. A little brings out the flavor; too much, and your dinner is simply inedible.

The trick to using dialect and local speech is a light hand in places where the meaning can be understood in context. It's easy to fall into a trap of stereotypical speech. All Southerners don't sound alike, just as all Midwesterners or New Yorkers don't sound alike. Listen to your character. Let your character talk to you in his own voice. I find this easy, because I have never attempted a speech style that I haven't heard first hand. I never drop "g's" or the initial sounds of a word to "sound Southern." I prefer to use expressions like "we're fixing to go" or "what're you so ill about?"(Translation: We are about to leave, and why are you in a bad mood). I handled the Pittsburghese in Jimmy's Stars by using my mother, who left Pittsburgh in 1943, as a model. If the terms "slippy," "lift supper" and "redd up" had remained in her speech after all these years, they must be central to Pittsburghese, and fairly easy for the outsider to comprehend in context. (Translation: slippery, put a meal on the table, and to clean up a room)

Sometimes speech has more to do with the age and social class of a character. I have a pet peeve of indicating the age of a young character by using the words "gonna," "gotta" and "wanna". (In fact, when I teach Young Writers classes, some of my students are surprised to find out that these are not actual words!) If I use each one of those words once in a book, I feel that I have taken a short cut by resorting to the stereotypical "mush-mouth" teenspeek There are other ways to accomplish the same effect. Kids don't talk in complete sentences. They use contractions. They sometimes use incorrect grammar. They run words together. They talk in Text Speak. Ok, I made up the term, but some of my fifteen-year-old's friends do say things like "You're my BFF" or "OMG, OMG" (and if you don't know what those mean, you need to eavesdrop on kids more often!) Again, all kids don't sound alike. Let your character be your guide.

My last point has to do with the use of historically accurate terms. Or, if you don't write historical fiction, allowing your contemporary characters use outdated or archaic expressions. Like from when we grew up. You know what I mean? Like groovy? Can you dig? (Hopefully your mental ears are hurting by now as I "laid my best 60's jive on you.") If you DO write historical fiction, you have to be aware that some commonly used words today had an entirely different meaning fifty, thirty, even ten years ago. Believe it or not, there was a time when there were no "nerds." When I was in junior high (oops middle school), nerds were "goobs" or "social misfits" and several less politically correct terms. Yes, sometimes I do use politically incorrect words, but only if absolutely essential to the story and character, and never, if there is an acceptable "goobs." In Jimmy's Stars"goobs" were "sad apples", "wet blankets" or "drips." Again, who says this, and in what context, should make the meaning apparent to the reader.

To sum up (finally!!), in using dialect and expressions, less is more. More is...too much of a good thing. Easy with the Tabasco.

THIS WEEK'S READING. I've been slacking a little since school has started here (always a trauma at my house.) But here is what I've managed to digest between High School Emergencies:

CHAPTER BOOK: For the Duration by Tomie DePaola
MG/YA: Night Fires by George Edward Stanley
MG/YA CONTEMPORARY: Slobby Ellen Potter
YA FICTION: After by Amy Efaw, Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles, Donut Days by Lara Zielin
YA NON FICTION: Years of Dust by Albert Marrin
ADULT MEMOIR: The Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon.

Friday, August 21, 2009

List + List = Story Start

I am a list person. I think best with a pen in my hand, and I buy my legal pads by the case. I use calendars with spaces for five or six goals per day, and I usually fill them all up. I feel such a thrill when I cross off an accomplishment that I confess I sometimes list things I’ve already finished just to be able to cross them off. (That’s not cheating, by the way—it’s Being Accurate.)

Right now, I’m swamped with preparations for the fall semester. I’m teaching three classes; each one has its own list already, as well as its own stack of books and its own book bag. Heaven help me if I ever grab the wrong bag!

Yes, I am definitely a list person. So, naturally, my Back-to-School Writing Workout begins with a list—two lists, actually. This exercise is appropriate for any age level.

List + List = Story Start

1. Think about characters. Make a list of a few you’d like to get to know better, and describe them briefly by their most obvious personality traits. Each one should have his, her, or its own identity, which can be inspired by someone you know. Name the ones that seem most real to you. Examples: Jarrett, a boy who wishes he could play trombone; Rosie, a girl who loves soccer; Randall, a talking firefly; Sprink, a fairy who plays tricks on people; Xon, a lavender life form from Pluto

2. Think about settings. Describe a few places you know (or can imagine) in ten words or less. Examples: the basement of a busy department store, a quiet street in a small town, the playground of your elementary school, a path through deep woods at night, a big city subway station

3. Choose a character from your first list. Place him, her, or it in one of the settings in your second list. Give your character a chance to look around a bit. Describe the setting from your character's point of view.

4. Think about conflict. What is the worst thing that could happen to that character in that setting? Don’t be afraid to make the problem seem insurmountable or at least really difficult. Give your character a serious challenge—that’s what makes a story interesting!

5. Think about your character again. How would he, she, or it behave in the situation you’ve described? How could he, she, or it solve the problem? Many stories follow the Rule of Three: a character makes three attempts to solve a problem, which can get much worse before it gets better. Give your character three chances to solve the problem, and let the last one be successful from the character’s point of view.

Use this exercise as a jumping-off point. Write in first or third person, present or past tense. If one of your elements is not exciting to you, try another one from your list. If a really good idea grabs you, keep going with it, even if it's not what you intended. Try to write a whole rough draft before you think about revising. Have fun!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

One Hundred Eighty Days (And Ways)

September, not January, begins my calendar year.
And it always has, since that long-ago September day in West Philadelphia when I first set foot in Miss Patton’s Kindergarten room at the now-100-years-plus Overbrook Elementary School pictured above. I was newly-shoed, my black bangs cut and even, eager to begin what I’d been playing at for years.

Like Joe Fox in my favorite movie You’ve Got Mail, come September I want to buy school supplies! I bestow the following Back-to-School ideas as a bouquet of newly-sharpened #9 pencils. Sniff (and use) to your heart’s (and students’) content.

What better way to start the school year, and each and every one of its 180 days, than with an original poem by a singular original poet, say, for instance, J. Patrick Lewis.
And Lewis’ Countdown to Summer: A Poem for Every Day of the School Year (Little, Brown, ’09) helps you do just that.
Starting with #180, “A Sixth Grader Sees the Future,” Lewis offers listeners a variety of subjects sure to hit home in a variety of poetic styles ripe for modeling: limericks, haikus, riddles, shape and narrative poems and nonsense verse as only he can write.

Lewis’ final poem - #1, “School’s out!” - provides the perfect exclamation point to this fun and funny collection, illustrated in Ethan Long’s cartoon style.

“School is out and I’m so sad
(That is what I told my dad).
I’ll miss Mrs. Rosenbaum
(That is what I told my mom).”

Of course, J. Patrick Lewis, a former teacher himself, is a prolific writer.
In fact, I’m challenged to pick a favorite title.

He’s the perfect subject for an Author Study, which is the perfect vehicle for coming to know a writer – his life, his writing process, his works and inspiration.

To learn the Who, What, When, Where, How and Why of Author/Illustrator Studies, visit Esme Codell’s PlanetEsme.
Next, visit Lewis’ website to learn everything you want to learn about this former Economics-professor-turned-award-winning-author-and-poet. The section “Scenes from my Life” offers glimpses of Lewis’ childhood, growing-up years and family life.
The “For Teachers” section lists interview links to keep you reading for days.
The “For Kids” section provides answers to Frequently Asked Questions.
“Poems and Riddles” shares a reproducible classroom hand-out.
Finally, the “Books” section is an all-year-and-then-some Reading List of Lewis’ titles that span poetic styles, formats (short story, easy-to-read, picture books), genres (biography, myths, legends, tall tales) and subject matter (Math, Science, Music, Art, History, Language Arts, Geography).

Oh, the learning opportunities (at least 180) from but one singular poet! By the time April (and National Poetry Month) come around, pockets will be stuffed with poems and riddles for reciting.

Writing Workout

Lewis’ poems often appear in collections and anthologies, such as Falling Down the Page, a collection of list poems edited by Georgia Heard (Roaring Brook Press, ’09).

What is Earth?

What is earth, whale?
A sea where I sing.
What is earth, robin?
A thing I call Spring.
What is earth, python?
A space to squeeze in.
What is earth, penguin?
A place to freeze in.

List poems make for instant poets.
How might a Kindergartner, a returning student, the New Kid in Town, a graduate, a teacher, a substitute teacher, a Principal, a Cafeteria Lady, a Building Engineer, the office secretary, a parent, a classroom hamster answer, "What is school?"
Why not create a class poem, asking the question of (and naming) each of your students while showing, not telling, the importance of Viewpoint.

Georgia Heard’s “Recipe for Writing an Autumn Poem" also models a "Recipe for Writing a School Poem."
Heard's recipe includes:

One teaspoon wild geese.
One tablespoon red kite.
One cup wind song.
One pint trembling leaves.
One quart darkening sky.
One gallon north wind.

What weights and measures and ingredients might your students choose?
And which senses respond to each ingredient's describing word?
Brainstorm possible ingredients, webbing the school building, its residents, its happenings, the school year’s 180 days.
Brainstorm measurements, webbing not only liquid and dry measurements and measurements of time and space but original measurements and long-ago units.
And brainstorm those describing words. A poet is a wordsmith.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Come September

On the first day of school in our first year of marriage, my teacher-husband indoctrinated me into the Ford Family Back-To-School ritual. Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies were expected to greet the returning troops from a day of collecting book covers and rules, tales of summer and, in the case of my father-in-law, a day at the “office” as principal of several hundred elementary students (including two of his own).

As an avid nonbaker but equally avid chocoholic, I have grown very appreciative of this rite of fall. (Thank goodness for the break-and-bake variety of desserts now available in your grocer’s freezer.)

A teacher friend from Pittsburgh wrote me over the weekend that all these posts on about going back to school were making her depressed. This observation was followed, instantly and characteristically, by her enthusiastic plans for the new year ahead.

Many of us, it would seem, have a peculiar love-hate relationship with the return to homework, lesson plans, sports, friends, colleagues, structure, tests, grades, and “real life.” While fall is my favorite season, the end of summer is bittersweet as my husband (boo) and kids (I have to admit, mostly yay) go back to school.

September is that one special time of year when I often feel especially inspired to write. I step into a school, I smell that “school” smell (part cafeteria, part paste and markers, part I-don’t-think-I-want-to-know), and I am nine years old again. So many of the “school story” books I’ve always enjoyed began with the new school year. And of course come September I have a quiet house, which is always a help regardless of whether inspiration is actually at hand.

Now that I am married to a teacher, I live the school schedule as much as any kid. My husband and I watch the Weather Channel all winter long in hopes of a stray flake that might close schools (sometimes for more than a day, this being a panic-instantly-at-frozen-precipitation sort of state).

A week from today, my husband will go off for his week of teacher prep, my son will start his first day of preschool ever, and my daughter will finally be relieved of the endless boredom of summer (as she has reminded me every day). I will have a blessedly and somewhat depressingly quiet house, and I will fill it with the sound of clicking computer keys and the smell of brown sugar and melting chocolate.


The “Diagnostic Essay”

As I may have mentioned before, I write lousy first drafts. Therefore, I am sensitive to the somewhat dubious predictive value of the “diagnostic essay” typically given at the beginning of the school year.

I was told that, at the college level, this essay is assigned to:
1) ensure proper placement
2) give a baseline indication of a student’s writing abilities to make future plagiarism more difficult (or at least more easily recognizable).

My husband, a sixth grade reading teacher, said that he used to assign a topic of “favorite books.” I read his students’ papers with great professional interest, but he grew disenchanted with the assignment after too many protests of, “I don’t have a favorite book,” “I only read comics,” and other such statements that make the year ahead seem very long.

Last year, he changed the assignment to “write about your passion.”

I promptly plagiarized from my smart husband and asked my students to do the same.

As a new teacher, I worried about remembering my students’ names. After this assignment, I no longer worried.

I asked my students to avoid clichés and to provide vivid and specific details (making use of all five senses). I asked them to try to make me “feel their passion.” (Yes, I did have the foresight to specify PG-only.)

I wanted these essays to set the tenor for the semester to come. I wanted my students to know that writing is not a magical/mystical process, and it need not be painful or something to look upon with dread.

For every subsequent assignment, I tried to give the typical “descriptive essay,” “comparative essay,” “narrative essay” assignments a spin that would allow them to explore their interests and write about something that mattered deeply to them. I had my share of students who lacked the discipline to complete assignments, but I had very few problems with plagiarism, as the subject matter demanded honesty and self-reflection.

We professional writers have all heard the advice to “write what you know,” and we have also heard its antithesis. I believe that when it comes to choosing a topic, only one thing truly matters. If we strive to write well – the reason we strive to do it at all -- is to write what we’re passionate about; and, of course; to be passionate about our writing.

Signing off to eat chocolate,

Friday, August 14, 2009

Show Don't Tell: Pastrami, Aunt Cissy and Pineapple-Banana Smoothies

Happy Poetry Friday!

This is the third in our series featuring back-to-school Writing Workouts especially for teachers and homeschoolers and anyone who wants to ramp up his or her writing skills.

Today the poem comes first. Why? Because I want to show you something.

What's more fun--when a friend tells you that her drippy coleslaw and pastrami sandwich is delicious? Or when she pushes the plate towards you and lets you take one big, messy bite?

I vote for a big bite myself. A writer can give you a real taste of it, too. She can if she doesn't say something boring like, "Boy, that sandwich was good!" She's got to show it in word pictures: "I took a bite of the sweet coleslaw mixed with the salty-tangy pastrami, then licked each of my fingers so not one molecule of the juice got away."

This is called Show, Don't Tell.

My aunt died this week. I could tell you how I feel. But let me show you instead:


by April Halprin Wayland

This empty space

used to be full

of Aunt Cissy.

Aunt Cissy’s great glup of a hug—tight, tight.

Her bright eyes for me, just me.

Her big laugh.

Her foaming

pineapple-banana smoothies…

in real soda fountain glasses.

Her perfume—no, her flavor.

I swear she was born

with Tabu in her pores.

Cissy in the summer

glossy with sun.

Cissy painting the ocean.

Cissy talking to Uncle Art after he died,

happy to have him over her shoulder.

Cissy laughing.

Cissy fixing our toilet,

patching the hole near the stove,

mending the satin trim of my blue blanket.

My heart

is folded in half.

My stomach

is a hard dark pellet.

My arms

don’t want to lift up.

My legs

walk slow.

This empty space

used to be

so full.

© April Halprin Wayland

Did I call her my beloved aunt, use the word sad, or say that I was weeping?

Show don’t tell is a way of inviting your reader to sit next to you on the bench as you cry, while tears run down her cheeks, too.

Show don’t tell, besides lighting up your writing, also implies great respect for your reader. In effect you’re saying, “I know you’re smart and that I don’t have to pound you over the head to tell you I'm sad—I know you will understand it viscerally.”

Writing Workout/Lesson Plan—Show, Don’t Tell
For ages 7 through adult (or younger, with individual help.)

Objective: This lesson teaches beginning writers how to make their storytelling more three dimensional and how to generate empathy in their readers. Best taught early and often.


1) Recruit three students and quietly assign each student one of the vignettes below. Ask each one in turn to pantomime their character and action without any sounds or words, so that the rest of the class can correctly guess who they are and what they are doing.

A) A very old person trying to cross a busy street.

B) A child who is furious because he or she can’t have a toy.

C) A dog who has peed on the carpet or chewed up something…and whose owner has just come home.

2) Once the class has guessed all three, ask, “What do you suppose an author means when she says to ‘show your reader, don't tell your reader’”?

During the ensuing discussion, give the following examples:

"The boy was nervous" is plain. "Sweat trickled down the boy's face. His stomach tightened into a hard knot." (from Keeper Of The Swamp by Ann Garrett) is much more interesting.

"She is old." Is ordinary. "She is hunched over, crunched up, bent, like an empty soda can" (from Girl Coming In For A Landing—my novel in poems) is more interesting.

"She was sad" is boring. "…a misty grayness crept inside her and would not go away." (from Loud Emily, by Alexis O'Neill) is infinitely more interesting!

The authors above don’t tell the reader what the character is feeling or how they look. They show it.


3) At the board, ask the whole class to help you rewrite the following examples from telling to showing:

~ Grandma was angry.

~ Emma was tired.

~ The dog was happy.

4) Now have each student write a scene—less than a page—which shows how a character feels.

5) When they are done, ask for volunteers to share their examples. Discuss wildly--enthusiastically! Open all the windows! Jump on your desk!

6) Extra credit: Come in with examples of show, don't tell from the internet, books, TV or magazines.

7) And always, always write with joy!



dancer: April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Getting to Know Me--Six-Word Memoirs

This is the second in our series of six posts featuring back-to-school Writing Workouts especially for teachers and homeschoolers. But all you writers out there, don't touch that dial--today's Writing Workout is for you, too.

On Monday, Mary Ann shared an alternative to the all-too-familiar "What I did over my summer vacation" assignment. Today, I'd like to suggest a writing activity that will not only give students writing practice, but will also help them get to know each other. And, as an added bonus, it may give teachers some insight into their students' personalities too. The activity? Writing a six-word memoir.

"Six-word memoirs" were recently popularized by SMITH Magazine with the publication of their book Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.

According to SMITH Magazine's Six-Word Memoirs website:
"Legend has it that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. His response? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Starting in 2006, SMITH Magazine re-ignited the recountre by asking our readers for their own six-word memoirs. They sent in short life stories in droves, from the bittersweet (“Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends”) and poignant (“I still make coffee for two”) to the inspirational (“Business school? Bah! Pop music? Hurrah”) . . . ."
I first heard of six-word memoirs this past January, when members of the SCBWI-Illinois listserv were invited to introduce ourselves to the group via these brief bios. Here's what I wrote in response:
"I read that someone (perhaps Madeline L'Engle) once called the deep, universal truths in fiction “truth with a capital T” (as opposed to factual truth). So, I’d like to introduce myself as: 'Seeking truth with a capital T'"
Today, I am also: "Writing teacher blogging about teaching writing."

While I haven't yet tried this writing activity with children, others have, as described in this blog post and on the SMITH Magazine site. In Not Quite What I was Planning, the editors state that the "bittersweet" memoir quoted above: “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends,” was written by a nine-year-old. The book also includes this one by a teen: "Fourteen years old, story still untold." The six-word memoirs have been so popular with teens that SMITH Magazine will soon be releasing I Can't Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous and Obscure. They have also set up a website for teens to post their six-word memoirs. (Teachers and parents take note--some of the teen bios may be inappropriate for younger children.)

See the Writing Workout below for specific suggestions on using this activity in a classroom. Or, if you're an adult writer, check out the Six-Word Memoirs website for inspiration on writing your own six-word memoir. (The site even provides a box where you can type in your memoir and have your computer automatically count your words!) When you're done, I hope you'll share your six-word memoirs here as comments to this post.

Out and About

On Saturday, August, 29, I'll be teaching the one-day workshop, "From Goodnight Moon to Harry Potter," in Oak Brook, Illinois. This class is an introduction to the children’s/​young adult writing market for those new to the field. For more information, visit my website.

Also, I'm happy to announce that my article, "What's in a Name: Maybe More than You Think," appears in the newly released 2010 edition of the Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Alice Pope. The article is in excellent company, too. To read more about this edition of the CWIM, see Alice's blog.

Writing Workout--The Six-Word Memoir
For ages 8 through adult

Objective: To engage students in thinking about their lives and to show them how to write concisely. Secondary objective: as a beginning-of-the-school-year activity, sharing these memoirs can serve as a way for students to get to know one another, and for the teacher to get to know the students.

Lesson: Begin by talking about the word "memoir," and how it has the same root as the word "memory. Then share examples of six-word memoirs. See this blog post for samples written by eight- and nine-year-olds, and this blog post for some by fourth-graders.

Instructions: Have students make lists of facts about themselves. For example: Where do they live? How many siblings do they have? What are their favorite things to do, favorite foods, etc.? Depending on the students' ages, you may want to let them work on this with a partner.

Then have the students choose six words from their list to summarize some aspect of who they are or what they like. Encourage them to use mainly nouns and verbs.

When the students have finished their memoirs, they can read them aloud to the class. Or if they have worked with partners, one partner may introduce the other to the class via the six-word memoir.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! As any student will tell you, the new year doesn't begin January 1; it's the first day of school. Today it's heading toward another 95 degree day here in Atlanta, but it's "the new year"; the first day of school.

If you've read First Grade Stinks, which is based on my daughter's struggles to adjust to a new teacher, you might guess that "Happy New Year" is not the way we greet the first day of school at my house. My daughter is now a sophomore in high school, but the first week of school is always Mr. Toad's Wild Ride with new teachers and schedules and lockers. It's a lot to juggle.

Teachers have their own juggling act with new students of wildly varying personalities and abilities. I now realize that the perennial first day writing assignment, the dread "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," was not meant as an instrument of torture while the teacher re-arranged her seating chart.

The "five paragraphs, no erasures, spelling counts" essay was supposed to give the teacher an idea of how well we could write. For me, it was an introduction to the Wonderful World of Writers Block.

As the kids around me scribbled away about trips to the Wisconsin Dells or Riverview Amusement Park, I thumped the eraser end of my pencil on the desk. Here was my summer; checking out library books and reading them in my self-built "clubhouse" while consuming a bag of Brach's Wintergreen Mints. (They didn't melt in the heat.) The end. Every year I got a C for the brevity of my writing...and lots of erasures.

At some point, teachers stopped asking for that vacation essay, and I stopped having writer's block. I had forgotten that fear of the page, the fear of "looking stupid", until I began teaching young writer's classes. My very first student, a fifth grade boy, stalked into the room, threw himself into a chair, and with narrowed eyes, informed me that his teacher had "sentenced" him to my Saturday afternoon workshops so he would "learn" to write. When we began our opening exercise (which I no longer remember), I watched the boy bounce the eraser end of his pencil on the table. Deja vu! Thanks to this particular boy (who I later learned was mildly learning disabled, but turned out to be an articulate writer), I developed this lesson.

Writing Workout: New School Year Writing Lesson

LESSON PLAN (appropriate for fourth through eighth grade)
Objective: To free the student from "fear of writing" and to show them that they can always find something to write about (also known as brainstorming...but don't tell them that)
Goal: Fluidity of thought in writing. Secondary goal, the concept of first and second drafts.

Lesson: Give the students a word or a phrase as a writing prompt. Do NOT use the word "summer"! Use something generic like "fall" or "school" or even "happy New Year." (I would not use the word "teacher" unless I was very, very brave!)

Instructions. Tell the students they are to write for the next ten minutes without thinking or stopping. They must keep their pencils moving. They are to write the first thing that comes in their head that relates to the prompt, and then write whatever thoughts follow. It is not important that they "stay on the subject." Spelling, punctuation, and grammar do not count. Do not write in paragraphs or even complete sentences. If nothing comes to mind, write "blank blank blank" until something does. Remind them that this is only for ten minutes, and they must keep writing.

At the end of ten minutes, they are to stop. They now must revise their work by adding punctuation, arrangement on the page, and corrected spelling. They are not to leave out anything they have written, including the blanks.

The purpose of this assignment is not to assess the student's ability to write in complete, well-punctuated sentences with perfectly spelled words. This is to show them that everyone has something to say, and that if you let yourself go, you can say it on paper. Emphasize that spelling and punctuation is something that you can correct the second time around, but not the first. (I can spend all day fiddling with the placement of a semi-colon, or I can produce ten pages of miserably spelled and punctuated prose that I can clean up in the second draft. I choose the latter!)

The student's final paper will look something like this. This is my stream-of-conscious "poem" using the prompt "fall":

Football football
Rah rah rah
I hate football
Running and running
Get that ball!
Run this way
Run that way
We score a goal.
Who cares?
Jump on the guy
with the ball.
Grunt grunt grunt
Clunk clunk clunk
Heads butt
Helmets crunch
Fans go wild
Scream and yell
Stomp'em! Kill'em!
Just like war
Hate like war
Hate the other team
We don't know them
but we hate them
Because they have the ball

So I'm not Emily Dickinson. That's not the point. The point is written self-expression.
You have the whole rest of the year to turn your students into Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson (kidding...a little bit).

IN MEMORIAM: Those of you who have read Jimmy's Stars know that the novel was based on stories from my mother's family, particularly those about my Uncle Jimmy. I was saddened to learn that the "real" Jimmy, my Uncle James Smith, passed away in Florida this week at the age of 84. RIP Uncle Jim. Thanks for the memories. (That's Uncle Jim in his Merchant Marine uniform picture above.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Out & About in Cleveland

Good news! My nonfiction picture book Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move received the Growing Good Kids - Excellence in Children’s Literature Award from the American Horticultural Society and the National Junior Master Gardener Program.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Cleveland to receive the award at the 2009 National Children & Youth Garden Symposium in Cleveland, Ohio. During the award ceremony at Case Western Reserve University, I spoke briefly to an attentive and welcoming audience of teachers, Master Gardeners, university extension faculty, garden writers, and other youth garden enthusiasts.

After the ceremony, I signed books at the gorgeous Cleveland Botanical Garden. We strolled through the Hershey Children's Garden and the Eleanor Armstrong Smith Glasshouse with its indoor butterfly exhibit. What an exciting day! (Here I am with Randy Seagraves of the National Junior Master Gardener Program.)

Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move grew out of my desire to combine my love of poetry with what I knew about writing nonfiction. Holiday House editor Mary Cash and illustrator Pam Paparone deserve a sizeable portion of the credit for any successes of the book. Holiday House also helped make it possible for me to travel to Cleveland.

My husband Gene drove me all the way to Cleveland and back. On the way there, we stopped for dinner in South Bend, Indiana, with April Pulley Sayre, who also gave us a tour of the Notre Dame campus. Coffee in hand, we took a much-needed walk around a pond, past The Grotto, and into the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Our friend Susan welcomed us to Cleveland and showed us the town, including Lake View Cemetery, where we peeked into the Wade Memorial Chapel. The interior, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, includes wall-sized mosaics and an amazing leaded glass window.

As a writer, I spend much of my time alone, scribbling in a notebook or staring at a computer. An opportunity to travel, visit good friends, and meet new people provides a welcome break--plus it's fun to be the center of attention once in a while!

Of course, I never really work alone. Support from my family, my Vermont College classmates (a.k.a. The Hive), my brilliant writing group, five warm and generous blogmates, and other writer friends enables me to pursue my dream of writing for children. Any recognition for my work not only belongs to all of us but also reminds me how lucky I am!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Out and About

I’m off and flyin’ to the 38th Annual SCBWI Conference - 4 days (count ’em!) of non-stop meeting, greeting, learning and laughing - oh, and dancing, too, beneath LA’s Blue Moon, all in the service of creating children’s books.

My (too-big-to-fit-in-the-overhead-compartment?) suitcase bulges with the manuscripts I’ll be critiquing, transparencies for my Saturday “Keeping The Writer’s Dream Alive 24/7” Workshop, and one very stylish 40’s navy blue organza chapeau I plan to don for Saturday night’s dancing.

But guess what?

YOU can attend the 38th Annual SCBWI Conference too!
Simply register for the SCBWI TEAM BLOG on Twitter.
(#SCBWI09 is the tag that will be on all the conference-related tweets.)
Team members who will be blogging throughout the conference include Writer’s Digest’s Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market Editorial Director Alice Pope and authors Jaime Lemairik, Jolie Stekly, Paula Yoo, Suzanne Young, and Lee Wind.
Visit the SCBWI Conference Blogspot to learn more.

And, non-Twittering folks can view photos and presentation reports uploaded daily at SCBWI’s website.

Happy Conference-goin’, in Real and/or Virtual Space!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Freshman English

I was hired to teach English 101 at a local community college last summer, a week before class was to start. My primary qualification was my long career as a semi-professional student. Of course I had no clue what I was doing.

On the first day of class, I asked the students to split into pairs, perform cursory interviews of each other, and then make introductions accordingly. Mode of transport apparently ranked as one of the most important biographical details, at least among the males in the class.

I also asked the students they were taking English 101 and what they hoped to gain from it. Because the course was a requirement for all students, I received the expected answer from nearly everyone – they were taking it because they had to, and what they hoped to gain was a passing grade and college credit.

Because this particular course was added to the schedule in the week before school started (thus my last-minute hiring), my students had also been those who were still figuring out their schedules, for whatever reason, at the very last minute. Many were dealing with serious financial and personal issues, illnesses, multiple jobs, etc. Some were in high school. A few were older than I.

I had no idea what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect what I got. One of my students, an excellent writer, explained that he had gotten through 2/3 of the class in the previous semester but had had to drop out upon being sent to prison. He further explained that he had recently developed a case of severe writers’ block which he attributed to the cessation of recreational drug use.

Another student was a professional plumber in a technology AA program. He was well-muscled and tattooed. His writing was breathtaking, and he shared with me that he sometimes wrote poetry in his spare time. The following semester, he became an English tutor, and he has since received a scholarship to pursue a four-year degree.

I did not experience many of the issues I had been warned to expect from my students with plagiarism. Missing assignments (and highly creative excuses) were more the norm. But those students who did adhere to the butt-in-chair rule and took the work seriously turned out to be generous sharers, both with me and with one another. They talked about what mattered to them. They confided intimate details of their personal crises, dreams, desires, fears, secrets – not just to me but in their online workshops, as well.

In an essay on role models, one student wrote about Britney Spears and Martin Luther King, Jr. And, God love her, she actually made it work.

I honestly have no idea whether I taught them anything, but they taught me so very much, and I am grateful to all of them.

Writing Workout

During one of the earliest class sessions, I asked my students to describe a place that was meaningful to them, choosing details carefully to evoke a particular mood. After they wrote for fifteen minutes, I asked them to go to the place and write the description again.

I expected that most of them would say they were able to write a more fleshed-out essay with more vivid sensory detail when they were in the place rather than just imagining it. Indeed, a few did. Many said that quite the opposite was the case – that their imaginations were hindered by the presence of the actual physical environment. Some said that their essays were merely different – that they wrote about the crowded cafeteria at lunchtime and then, while there, wrote about the cafeteria empty.

(Then there were those who got lost looking for the place and those who never came back – the dangers of ever letting students escape the classroom, even at the college level.)
My take-away lesson for next time was to make sure to plan adequate time afterward for discussion of differing writing styles, habits, preferences, and methods. This exercise was a big eye-opener for me.