Friday, January 29, 2010

Writer: Creator. A poem. Two boys. And a book giveaway!

Happy Poetry Friday!

Hi there!  This is the last of six blog posts about how we got the idea for one of our books.  (And speaking of our books, Saturday, January 30th is the last day to enter the contest to win one--see below for details.)

And since the book I'll be talking about is a novel in poems and since it is Poetry Friday, let's start with a poem:

Writer: Creator

I want to
make something


If I could
make peaches—grow them
from my pen…

or stretching my palms
up to the sun, watch as
they grow from my lifeline,

would be something

© From Girl Coming in for a Landing—a novel in poems by April Halprin Wayland 

When I was eleven, we began house-hunting in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles.  “I have dibs if there's a small, blue room in our new house,”  I said.  Mom and Dad said that they would keep this in mind.

The house we bought did, indeed, have a small blue room. It was downstairs, while the other two bedrooms were upstairs. And though my sister was two years older than I was, I got the downstairs bedroom.

I’m not saying that room was where this book came from...but that's when I began typing late at night while everyone else was asleep upstairs. (When my mom would come down to check on me, I’d snap off the light and freeze. As soon as she went back upstairs…I was tap-tap-taping again on that portable Corona typewriter.)

What was I typing?  Love poems about a boy who played viola in orchest. Tap-tap-tap.

The beginning of a novel about a white girl and an African-American boy stranded on an island.  With only one can of tuna.  And no can opener. Tap-tap-tap.

Bits of dialogue.  Musings.  Dreams.  And every joke from the weekly T.V. show, Laugh-In. Tap-tap-tap.

Gary Owens and Lily Tomlin on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In

Junior high was all about poetry.  Poems of passion about the outside world (the agony of napalm, poured out of planes onto human beings during the Viet Nam war) and poems of passion about two boys, both budding actors, best friends. One, that same violist, was a brooding black-haired freckle-faced boy with a deep voice and a scar across his chest from open heart surgery. The other, who looked like a 14-year-old James Dean, was off-the-charts smart, theatrical, funny, ridiculous, loud and completely crazy. He rode on my bus, belting out rude, witty comments, gleefully stopping all conversations.

They're both characters in Girl Coming in for a Landing—a novel in poems (exquisitely illustrated in collage by Elaine Clayton, published by Knopf), which is my story, of course—but it’s tweaked and fictionalized and finally, not my story.

It’s the school-year-in-the-life-of a ‘tween. Her first period, first crush, first date, first kiss…and first published poem. It’s about those two boys.  And about coming to terms with her sister and coming to accept herself…and her passionate need to write.

That was me, Girl Writer, and that's where the seeds of this book came from: journals from junior high, high school, college and beyond. Journals were a place for love poems, a place to lean into, a place to record my history.

Do I still keep a journal?  You betcha.  I’ve been emailing it to a dear friend, one day at a time, for years—I call it my blog with one reader.  And she actually reads it.

Now that’s a friend!

Writing Workout / Lesson Plan

As Carmela, Mary Ann, JoAnn, Esther and Jeanne Marie have emphasized in the past five posts, finding the heart of the story is the key and for me, the biggest challenge.

Sometimes condensing an idea makes it more potent. More powerful. Years ago, I thought that I had to write every single thing that happened in my journal every night. It takes a long time to write a historical account of the day. I got tired just thinking about it! Finally, I stopped writing in my journal altogether.

Then, one of my friends, a screenwriter, shared her journal writing secret. Her rule is this: she only has to write for one minute each night.

One minute! I tried it—it's wonderful! It's freeing! Writing for one minute a night forces me to figure out the essence—the heart of that day—it helps me focus: what do I want to remember? The low cooing of a mourning dove? When a friend hurt my feelings? When the janitor winked at me and made my day? How a black cat swished her tail patiently by a pond? How slowly the classroom clock moved right before three o'clock?

Condensing the time I have to write is similar to fitting my words into a poetic form. My day as haiku.

Okay, it's your turn.
1) Date your page.
2) Look at the clock and write down the time.
3) Now, think about something you want to remember from today. You may write for only one minute.
4) Ready? Go!

They say it takes 21 one days to make a, do this for 21 days. Then read back over your One-Minute-Journal entries. As JoAnn suggested in her last post's Writing Workout, “Explore your idea collection. Choose two or three ideas that don’t obviously fit together. Try to find a way to connect them into one story. Be open to surprises. Trust the process. Have fun!”

Remember to breathe. And as always, write with joy.

Drawings by April Halprin Wayland

Reminder: for those of you who are teachers or homeschoolers: there's still time to enter our contest! The prize is your choice of one of the six TeachingAuthor books we've been discussing. Entry deadline is Saturday, January 30. Read all about it here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Story I Never Expected to Tell

I never planned to write Rosa, Sola. And I never would have if I hadn't gone to graduate school.

You see, Rosa, Sola is based on events from my life that I never expected to share in a published story.  I originally enrolled in the Vermont College MFA program to complete a YA novel based on something from someone else's life--a story my sister, a medical intensive care nurse at the time, had told me. But not long into the program, I realized that I didn’t yet have all the writing skills I needed to make that particular story work.

"Plan B" was a middle grade novel about a 12-year-old boy whose best friend moves away. When my advisor, Marion Dane Bauer, critiqued the opening chapters of that novel, she said it lacked “emotional core.” I was devastated. I knew what my character was feeling, but apparently those feelings weren’t coming across on the page. Marion suggested a writing assignment: she asked me to write a short story about an event from my childhood that still aroused emotion in me. It could be any emotion, so long as it was something I could still feel in my gut. I chose to write about fear—the fear I’d experienced at age ten, after my mother nearly died in childbirth.

Me, in fourth grade

That short story, “Rosa’s Prayer,” was about losing and regaining faith. It focused on only a few weeks in the life of Rosa Bernardi, an Italian-American girl growing up as an only child in 1960s Chicago. (There are many parallels between Rosa's life and mine, but I am not an only child. See the photo of me with my siblings on my website.) At the beginning of the story, Rosa's mother is in the hospital. Like my own mother, Rosa's mother nearly bled to death due to complications from delivering a stillborn baby. Ten-year-old Rosa had prayed fervently for that baby. As "Rosa's Prayer" opens, Rosa is angry at God for letting her baby brother die, and she refuses to pray. The pivotal scene occurs the day Ma comes home. She is still so weak that she can barely walk. The sight of Ma frightens Rosa--she fears her mother will die. Rosa's only recourse is prayer. The story ends with Rosa on her knees, praying for her mother.

The scene of Ma's return from the hospital is very much like what actually happened to me. However, when I sat down to write the story, I found I couldn't remember many of the details. For example, I couldn't recall what happened either right before my mother's arrival, or right after. So I made up scenes and dialogue to create a story arc. After revising the story several times, I submitted it for critique at the next residency workshop. My workshop group provided terrific feedback for improving the story. They also encouraged me to expand “Rosa’s Prayer” into a novel--they wanted to know what happened to the fictional family I had created. Did they ever recover from their loss? How were their relationships affected by it?  Would Rosa always be an only child--sola?

Over the next 18 months, as I expanded the short story into a novel, the story's time span went from a few weeks to a full year. The novel became a story about facing grief head-on instead of trying to hide from it. Although the novel was truly fiction, I found I could not tell Rosa's story without reliving some painful parts of my own childhood. As I reexamined those memories, I made an important discovery: in their attempt to protect me, the adults around me had never allowed me to mourn the loss of my own brother. Thirty years later, I was finally able to forgive them.

As I worked to find a way to bring Rosa's story to a healing conclusion, the floodgates opened. I sat at the keyboard with tears streaming down my face. I was surprised at how much grief I still carried within me. At times, the writing process was so emotionally exhausting that I had to take a nap after finishing a scene. But there were fun times too, as I added touches of humor to counteract the sadness. In the end, guiding my character through the stages of grief finally allowed me to resolve my own feelings.

While I never intended to write Rosa, Sola, I am so glad I did. And I will be forever grateful to Marion Dane Bauer for assigning that initial writing exercise. It not only helped me learn to portray emotion on the page, but it gave me a tool I can use over and over to find story ideas. It's a tool I've shared with students of all ages, as you'll see from the Writing Workout below.

Reminder: for those of you who are teachers or homeschoolers: there's still time to enter our contest! The prize is your choice of one of the six TeachingAuthor books we've been discussing. Entry deadline is Saturday, January 30. Read all about it here.

Writing Workout:
Mining our Memories for Story Ideas

I regularly teach workshops in "Transforming Life into Fiction" for students in grades 3 through adults. The first step in the process is "mining for memories." The key to powerful writing is to choose memories that arouse strong emotion in you--that emotion will help the story feel authentic to the reader no matter how much you eventually change the actual facts of the story.
Note: if you're doing this exercise with children, you may want to first talk about emotions in general and brainstorm a list of a variety of emotions.

  1. Prepare a notebook and pen/pencil. (I recommend you do this exercise by hand and not at a computer, but you can try both ways.)
  2. Set a timer for ten minutes.
  3. As quickly as you can, brainstorm a list of events from your childhood that still arouse emotion in you. It can be any emotion: anger, fear, joy, jealousy, etc. Note: If you're using this with younger students, you may want to "assign" a specific emotion. For example: "Make a list of times you felt scared." 
  4. Write just enough about a specific event to identify it, then go on to the next event.
  5. Try to list as many events as possible before the time is up.
Using the timer and writing quickly helps to quiet your inner critic. When you're done, you should have a whole list of possible story ideas. I suggest repeating the process periodically because the list you generate may vary greatly according to your mood and where you are in your life.

Happy writing!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Clueless in Atlanta: A Writer's Search for a Heart

     How do I begin a story?  Usually, with an idea that jumps on my shoulder and shouts "Pick me, pick me." Sometimes the idea seems so ripe and whole I think the Muses have send me a full blown picture book, characters, plot and all.
      Then I sit down to write, and discover that I have almost everything. 
      I have a series of events, an anecdote. That magic thread that weaves the events into a story, isn't there. That magic thread is theme, the heart that drives the story. 

   Such was the case with A TREE FOR EMMY.
    My daughter Lily's first real friend, Emme, lived across the street. As pre-school BFF's they shared a love of anything pink, stomping through mud puddles and flowers (especially pink ones.) Emme's mother was an easy going woman who allowed the girls to dig and plant in her yard.

   Because Emme and Lily loved wildflowers, dandelions, wild daisies and Queen Anne's lace had free reign in the yard. The neighbors were not amused.
     It was no big surprise when Emme announced she wanted a mimosa tree for her birthday. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of living near a mimosa tree, they produce lovely fluffy pink blossoms and big stringbean-like seed pods. The tree also sheds those blossoms and pods, leaving an untidy yard. This bothers some people.  
     I am not one of those people. Neither was Emme's mother. A TREE FOR EMMY sticks closely to the real-life events. Girl wants tree, girl meets resistance, girl gets tree. Real-life handed me characters, plot and conflict. What more could a writer ask for?
     A heart. I had written a story, but I didn't know what it was about
     Over time, I've discovered I have to write the story first and hope that by the next time I read it, I'll have an idea of what is flowing beneath the surface.
     I literally don't know what I am writing about.
     I wrote EMMY and put it away. I read it six months later. . .and I still didn't know what it was about. Another six months, another reading. Nothing. Six more months. Still clueless.  So much for a "complete story" bestowed on me by the Muses.
     In the interim, I wrote another picture book in which the main character was a dead Christmas tree (no kidding). A critique that story received was "A dead tree doesn't do anything. If it were a living tree, it would at least grow."
      The Big A-Ha Moment.  Trees grow!  A TREE FOR EMMY was about growth, both plant and human. At last my story had a heart.
      It only took five years to find The Missing Heart. Like Emmy and her tree, I discovered that writing requires time and patience. 

      P.S.  The "dead Christmas tree" picture book eventually became a middle grade historical fiction, JIMMY'S STARS.

                                   Mary Ann Rodman

P.S.S.  Are you a Teacher or Homeschooler?  Remember to enter our contest!  The winner can choose one of six Teaching Author books as a prize.  Read all about it here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

It’s like my heart’s restored. . . .

When I was a kid, I sang a lot. My whole family did. Our mother sang love songs while she did housework and taught my sisters and me how to harmonize as we washed and dried the dishes. Our father belted out Irish tunes and sea shanties and led us in rounds on long car trips. My sisters and I entertained ourselves, the neighbors, and our parents’ friends at every opportunity—and sometimes when there was none.

My son Jimmy started singing as soon as he could vocalize, and he hasn’t stopped yet—thank goodness! He reminds me of my younger self, of the pure joy of letting go with an exuberant song, and of how words and music together can express emotions even better than words alone.

Ten years ago, I suffered through a terrible winter. Everything seemed dull and endless, dreary and gray. I was grieving the loss of my father, struggling through graduate school, trying to figure out what I could do with the rest of my life, and wondering whether I would ever be able to put my thoughts into words that adequately expressed what I felt.

When spring finally arrived, I saw green shoots poking up through the snow and felt the warmth of the sun. I heard birds chirping and felt like singing myself. Spring is more than my favorite season. It’s a whole new beginning, a fresh start. For me, the new year begins on March 4th, which I celebrate annually. March forth!

Nina Simone perfectly expressed that feeling of renewal in her moving version of “Another Spring,” written by Angelo Badalamenti and John Clifford:

“And then one morning
Another spring is there outside my door
Things are blooming
Birds are singing
And suddenly, yes, well I ain’t sad
Ain’t sad no more, ain’t sad no more
When it’s warm and the sun is out
It’s like my heart’s restored. . . .”

Of course I find inspiration in music. The refrain of a song I found in a hymnal expressed my feelings, too: "How Can I Keep from Singing?" by Robert Lowry.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?

All those separate pieces (and more) came together in my head to become Sing-Along Song: that joyful spring, Jimmy’s exuberant singing, and the "How Can I Keep from Singing?" refrain. Other pieces fell into place, too. My sister Judy contributed the word “delish,” which she used to coax our kids to eat. Memories of my father coming home from a long day at work and my mother cheerfully cooking fit in, too.

One inspiration alone may not be enough to make a book. Ideas pile up, combine, and percolate until they achieve a momentum of their own. The evolution of a book can be mysterious even to the writer, who has only to trust in the process and keep going.

Writing Workout:
A Bird in the Hand

Do you keep a writing journal or notebook? Do you jot down ideas on scraps of paper and collect them in a file or drawer? Or do you list them in a document in a computer file? The sum of your random thoughts might be greater than the individual pieces.

Explore your idea collection. Choose two or three ideas that don’t obviously fit together. Try to find a way to connect them into one story. Be open to surprises. Trust the process. Have fun!

JoAnn Early Macken

P.S. Are you a Teacher or Homeschooler? Remember to enter our contest! The winner can choose one of six Teaching Author books as a prize. Read all about it here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So, What's the Big (Story) Idea?

I tell my school audiences, Kindergarten through high school: our writer’s job is to notice the world. We use our five senses to:
Raised antennae are the name of the game, to use anywhere, everywhere 24/7.

A (long) while back, at a McDonald’s Restaurant in Skokie, Illinois, I observed my then ten-year old son playing the restaurant chain’s first-ever Monopoly game.
I watched him place his latest earned game piece on our family’s close-to-full Monopoly game sheet.
And I heard him say,
“When we win the $10,000 I think we’ll all go to Hawaii!”
He spoke with such certainty, I could taste and smell the coconuts.
His zeal so buoyed me, I swerved to duck the waves.
A boy and a contest!
And not just any boy. A boy who went from A to Z with no stops in-between.
And that is how Howie Fingerhut came to be.

As for the story itself,
I immediately bought a marbled school composition notebook, the black-and-white kind, to hold my first scribbled thoughts.
I brainstormed for days, then weeks, then months.
I free-associated, webbed, clustered, supposed, wondered, asked “What if?”
The six Questions Words – WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, HOW and WHY - became my very best friends.
WHO might that boy be?
WHAT might be the Contest?
WHERE and WHEN might the story take place?
The HOW – i.e. the plotline? Well, that would come later.
The WHY behind the WHAT?
My WHO would need to tell me.

As for the story’s telling,
whoever my WHO was, I knew HE would do the telling, in a marbled composition book, like the one in which I wrote.
I always had my story’s opening line.
“Hi. My name’s Howard J. Fingerhut but everyone calls me Howie. I’m the author of the book you are reading.”

Thirteen years and many revisions later, each one guided by an interested editor or agent, Holiday House bought my middle grade novel, The Confe$$ions and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut.
At our first meeting, my editor Mary Cash complimented me on Howie’s voice. Then she requested I move the novel’s time period to the 21st century.
She also requested I drop Howie from fifth to fourth grade.
“Next,” I told her, “you’ll be asking for a plotline!”
Mary smiled. She said, “Well, actually, yes!”
It took some time but once Howie coughed up WHY he NEEDED to win the H. Marion Muckley Junior Businessperson of the Year Contest, OR ELSE (!), I had a plotline true to Howie’s heart.
The fact that Howie’s WHY resounded in my heart helped me tell a story that could resound in my reader’s.

So, what’s your Big (Story) Idea?
You tell me.
Raise your antenna, keep your senses primed, everyday, everywhere, 24/7.

Oh, and please remember to check Carmela Martino's latest post for details on entering our new book giveaway contest for teachers and homeschoolers. I'm offering a signed copy of the above middle grade novel, The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut.
The contest asks Teachers and Homeschoolers, "What is one of the biggest challenges, problems, or questions you have when teaching writing to students in grades 1-12.?

Writing Workout

I love learning a writer’s story spark!
It’s often my first question when working with a writer.
It makes the story more delicious…while introducing me, a fellow writer, to possibilities.
For instance, did you know that James Marshall’s and Harry Allard's Miss Nelson came to be from a whispered name - Viola Swamp - in a nighttime phone call?

Choose a favorite book (or two).
Imagine the Big Idea that got the author going.
Then, track down the Truth in the author's own words.
If possible, visit the author's website.
Or, if relevant, check out the author's blog.
Try Googling, in quotes, the author's name, the book's title and story idea.
For instance, I Googled "Libba Bray and where she got the idea for Going Bovine."  The book is the 2010 Prinz winner.
Up popped an interview with the answer I sought.
Fantasy writers share story ideas in Leonard Marcus’ The Wand in the Word;  funny writers do the same in his Funny Business. 
Anita Silvey's Children's Books and Their Creators is a treasure trove of writer nuggets.
Other resources include Sandy Asher's Where Authors Get Their Ideas, Gale's Something About the Author and the amazing resource at
Don't forget author biographies and autobiographies, too.
And be sure to note your findings in your Writer's Notebook.

Esther Hershenhorn

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ideas on Ideas

My four-year-old daughter woke up yesterday morning and announced, with terrific enthusiasm, that she wanted to "write a book for Dr. (Martin Luther) King."  After much concern about how to make "the outside part of the book" and time spent on selection of workspace, paper, and appropriate markers, she sat down to work, turned to me, and said, "Now what should I write?"

Our next topic is the first of the "Six Traits of Writing."  Of course it all begins with the IDEA.

It occurs to me that my daughter's writing process is much like mine -- and many of my students' -- and probably at least some of yours.  I get an idea.  I get excited.  I sit down to write.  I discover I have no clue where I'm going.  And that, alas, may be the end of that.

In my exit conferences with students at the end of the semester, they tell me almost universally that they feel that topic selection is the most important part of the writing process.  When I give assignments, I always tell them that I want to "feel their passion" (in a PG sense, of course).  If they don't have so much to begin with -- which is often the case, let's face it, when dealing with an assigned essay -- I think one of my most important jobs is to help them do so.

Often students are able to identify a general idea about which to write ("world hunger"), but when it comes to distilling their paper into a thesis or, as we say in fiction, that one-sentence pitch -- homing in on exactly what they want to say is often the most difficult part.  I have frequently been asked where I get my ideas.  A better question might be how to decide whether an "idea" is worth writing about. 

I have at least five unpublished novels in a drawer, to say nothing of the unfinished ones.  Mind Games is (so far) my notable exception.  What makes it different is, I'm quite sure, something that happened before I ever put a word to paper.  I chose a topic that mattered not only to me but would also, theoretically, be of interest to parents, teachers, kids, and/or editors (not necessarily in that order).

The first series books I read as a kid were The Bobbsey TwinsThanks to Bert and Nan (Freddie and Flossie, not so much), I spent most of my childhood wishing I were a twin. Another book that had a big impact was And This is Laura, by Ellen Conford.  I was certain I had a latent case of ESP.  After all, there was that time I dreamed a gerbil lost its tail in my hand (eew), and this very same disgusting circumstance happened in real-life the next day.  So in eighth grade, when it came time to pick a topic for the science fair, I chose ESP.  I read about the Minnesota Twin Study (fascinating!).  I was even able to use identical twins as subjects.  I did not conclusively prove anything -- but of course it is impossible to DISPROVE that something like ESP exists. 

My grandmother used to dream of her old house at 305 Broomall Street in Chester, and the next morning she would tell my mom to play that number in the Pick-3 lottery.  And more often than not, she won.  As I think about it, I started writing Mind Games just after my grandmother died.  She was, of course, my inspiration for the character of Babushka.  And, despite the fact that she could not read and had no regrets about this fact, I know she would be very, very proud of her published author granddaughter today.

The idea of writing a book told from multiple viewpoints appealed to me for several reasons.  (At the time I undertook this project, the multi-POV middle grade novel was not quite so faddish as it is today.)  However, ever since I read the Beverly Cleary books -- Beezus and then Ramona, Ellen Tebbits and then Otis Spofford -- I became conscious of trying very hard to see the world from different perspectives.  As a scriptwriter, one of my alleged skills is in writing characters' specific voices.  Because a television script has a preordained structure and length and because the scientific method lends itself, IMO, to plenty of natural drama (and yes, mystery), I decided to use the format of a science fair project report.  This structure was a crutch, a terrible constraint, and a great challenge.  I also found it amazing fun.

My husband teaches sixth-grade reading, and apparently the current curricular push centers on "reading to perform a task" (i.e., pass a test) at the expense of novel analysis, which he has essentially been told can only be taught supplementally.  Cross-curricular novels are thus becoming increasingly popular.  Of course this was hardly on my mind when I decided to incorporate the scientific method into my storytelling process.

I would also like to comment briefly on writing-for-hire and the problem of what to do when you don't have a burning passion for your subject but need to write about it anyway.  (This situation is probably analogous to what many of my English Comp. students go through with every assignment.)   Of course one always does one's best in the assignment selection department but, failing that, TRY to find SOMETHING to like and relate to, even if this thing is not immediately evident.  (Writing for a soap opera requires frequent use of this tactic.  I love my job, but I had a boss once who felt that women did not belong in the workplace.  That was a tough year.  We also had aluminum-foil-clad "aliens" who landed in a pod.   That was another tough year.  I won't even discuss Satan in Salem!)

Please see Carmela's latest post for details on entering our new book giveaway contest for teachers and homeschoolers!  Unless you want a DAYS script or an old Nancy Drew, I am offering a copy of Mind Games up for grabs.  Happy reading, happy Monday, and Happy Birthday, Dr. King!

Friday, January 15, 2010

And the Winner is…or How I Learned I’d Won!

I almost deleted the email.

It came from my website and the subject header was, “Question for You”…as in Blessed One, How much money can you send to my cancer-ridden mother in Nigeria?

But I opened it:

Hi April,
Please give me a call when you get a chance. I wanted to ask you a question about your book.
Thank you,
Kathe Pinchuck, Chair
Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee
Association of Jewish Libraries

It included her phone number.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award is for the best Jewish children’s book of the year in three categories (Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers) given by the Association of Jewish Libraries.  I’d savored the chicken at the STB Awards dinner at the AJL Convention in Chicago last year.  The conventioneers were smart and welcoming--I'm so glad I attended.

What question could she have about New Year at the Pier?  Did she want to know if my wonderful illustrator, St├ęphane Jorisch, was from the United States?  Would they disqualify our book from consideration if they discovered he is a Canadian?  (Not to worry.  The Association of Jewish Libraries is an international organization; the award is an international award.)  What else could she want to know?

So...the question she asked me?  “April, where on the cover of New Year at the Pier do you think the gold Sydney Taylor medal should go?”


And here’s the hardest part of all: I could only tell my husband.  Okay...I told my son, too.  (I mean, really.)  Then we hunkered down and did a lot of NOT TELLING for a week.  (Remember Show, Don't Tell?  This was Don't Show, Don't Tell...)

In July, they will fly me and my husband to the AJL Convention where I will finally meet
St├ęphane Jorisch, illustrator extraordinaire, in person!

Here’s the complete list of the 2010 Sydney Taylor winners, honor books, and notable books.

And here’s a shout-out to my friends Elka Weber, who wrote the honor book, Yankee at the Seder, and to Jacqueline Dembar Greene, who wrote The Secret Shofar of Barcelona.

And here
is the podcast by  Heidi Estrin, wonderous light of librarians everywhere, who says of this podcast, “They let me record the big reveal, which you'll hear first. Then I snuck Kathe Pinchuck, the awards chair, out of the meeting for a little while to talk about the books in detail.”  Heidi also writes a fabulous blog devoted to this award.  (Yes, Heidi is everywhere in cyberspace you want to be...)

Thanks to all who have sent me an email, a facebook message or phoned in their congratulations.  Winning this award means so much to they'll say my name in the same breath as fellow Teaching Author Esther Hershenhorn, who won the Sydney Taylor in 2003 for her book Chicken Soup by Heart!  

Okay.   That's enough for today.  Forgive me for repeating myself, but
WOW, wow, woweeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

all drawings by April Halprin Wayland

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Latest Contest Winner and New Contest for Teachers and Homeschoolers

Congratulations to our New Year Resolution Contest Winner: 
Irene Latham
Irene's 6-word resolution was:
Celebrate. Create. Inspire. Plot. Enjoy. Finish.

From reading Irene's blog, I see she has much to celebrate this year. Her first children's novel, Leaving Gee's Bend, has just been released by G.P.Putnam. Hurray for you, Irene!

And a big thank you to everyone who posted a resolution. I hope we ALL succeed in following through on them.

Our next contest will be especially for Teachers and Homeschoolers. (If you're not a teacher or homeschooler, please spread the word to someone you know who is.) We'd like you to answer the following question: What is one of the biggest challenges, problems, or questions you have when teaching writing to students in grades 1-12?
If we can, we'd like to suggest solutions to some of those problems on this blog later in the year.

The contest will run in conjunction with a new series of posts on the topic of IDEAS, the first of the Six Traits of Writing. (If you aren't familiar with the Six-Traits approach, you can read more about it here.) As part of our discussion of IDEAS, each TeachingAuthor will talk about the idea that inspired one of her published books. Our contest winner will then be given his or her choice of one of those six books as a prize. (See the addendum below for a list of the six books.)

So here are the contest details:
  1. To enter, you must be a teacher or homeschooler of students in grades 1-12.
  2. You must post a comment answering the following question: What is one of the biggest challenges, problems, or questions you have when teaching writing to your students?
  3. You must specify the grade level of your students and whether you teach in a school or at home.
  4. You must provide your email address or a link to your own blog so that we can contact you. (U.S. residents only, please.)
  5. Entries must be posted by 11 p.m. (Central Standard Time) Friday, January 29, 2010 Saturday, January 30, 2010.
  6. The winner will be announced on Monday, February 1, 2010.
A detailed explanation of our general giveaway guidelines are posted here.

If you have any questions about the contest, you can post them as a comment. Good luck!
Addendum (1/22/10): our contest winner will receive her or his choice of one of the following TeachingAuthor books: 
You can read the posts about the ideas behind these books here. The last will be posted on January 29.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Resolution Wrap-Up and Hurray for New Year at the Pier, Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner

I'm the last TeachingAuthor to announce my resolution for this New Year. (I hope you're not sick of the topic by now.) My fellow bloggers have already shared five wonderful resolutions, and many of our readers have contributed their own inspiring six-word goals. (If you haven't shared your resolution yet, be sure to read to the end of this post to see how you could qualify to win an extra-special prize!) I want to do just about everything that has been suggested: evict my inner heckler; have more fun; start the day with my stories; take time to read, rest, and relax, etc.

However, I already came up with my six-word resolution before reading all these terrific ideas.  Here it is:
"Match my activities to my priorities."
This resolution came from being frustrated with my own behavior. I've been working on two projects for a LONG time: a historical novel set in 18th-century Europe and a nonfiction biography of one of the women who inspired the novel. Despite the fact that I'd really like to finish these projects, I would often find myself spending my designated writing time checking email, surfing the Net, and reading my friends' Facebook posts. With the start of the New Year, I was ready for a change.  

I like this resolution because it's general enough to apply to my personal life as well as my career as a teacher and a writer. However, it is rather vague, which could make it hard to carry out (and measure). Lucky for me, an article in the January 3, 2010 issue of Parade magazine provided specific suggestions for how to turn vague resolutions into lasting changes. The article's number one tip:
Give yourself crystal-clear directions. 

So I translated my general resolution, "Match my activities to my priorites," into three steps:
  1. Create a daily plan or to-do list
  2. On that plan, block out the first two hours for writing/revising. (This means NO blogging, email, Internet surfing, or Facebook until AFTER I've put in my two hours.) 
  3. Also use the plan to set aside specific, limited, times for email, Facebook, etc.
Well, one advantage to announcing my resolution almost halfway through the month is that I can report on my progress to date. So far, I've stuck with my first-two-hours-for-writing commitment. [That's why this post is up much later than my usual 7 a.m. publication time. :-) ] In fact, my dedicated writing time has stretched to close to three hours on several occasions. Hurray!

I wish I could say I've been as consistent with limiting my email/Facebook time. But I'm definitely doing better, and I hope to keep improving.

I'll share another suggestion from the Parade article in today's Writing Workout. If you'd like additional tips on how to turn your resolutions and goals into lasting changes, I encourage you to read "Make Changes That Last" by Chip and Dan Heath for yourself.

Before I present today's Writing Workout, I want to share some news that has all the TeachingAuthors jumping for joy. Yesterday, Kathleen M. Bloomfield announced the 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winners on her blog forwordsbooks, and the winner of the 2010 Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Younger Readers is New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story by our own April Halprin Wayland! Hurray for you, April! You really are "on fire"!

And hurray for you, our readers! If you posted a new or revised resolution here per the guidelines April announced on January 1, you have been entered for a chance to win your very own autographed copy of New Year at the Pier. If you haven't shared your six-word resolution yet, don't worry, there's still time. (U.S. residents only, please.). Don't forget:
  1. Entries must be posted by 11 p.m. today, January 13, 2010 (Central Standard Time).
  2. Provide your e-mail address or a link to your blog in your comment so we can contact you.
We initially said the winner will be announced by 11 p.m., Friday, January 15, 2010. However, tomorrow I'll be posting about a brand new contest especially for teachers and homeschoolers. I hope to be able to announce our New Year winner at the same time. So be sure to check back with us!

Finally, before I leave you with today's Writing Workout, I want to extend a special welcome to all the new readers who found us through the 2010 Kidlit Comment Challenge. We're pleased to have so many of you participate in our New Year contest and we hope you'll keep coming back. I also hope you enjoy our first Writing Workout of 2010. It's rather unusual, as it may require a bit of drawing instead of writing. Or, if you're like me and feel uncomfortable drawing, you can use your computer to copy and paste appropriate images.

Writing Workout: Create Your "Destination Postcard"
In "Make Changes That Last," Chip and Dan Heath recommend creating a “destination postcard” to help you stay focused on your goals. They describe a "destination postcard" as follows. It's a:
". . . vivid image from the near future to show you what’s possible. If your goal is to work out three days a week, find a picture of yourself from a year or two ago in which you look fantastic, and use it as your screensaver. Or hang up the dress or suit you’d love to wear if it weren’t so tight. Just keep the destination reasonable. You’ll be setting yourself up for frustration if you tape up a photo of an Olympic athlete or display jeans you last wore in college." 
I created two "destination postcards" for each of my two writing projects. One is a black and white representation of what the cover page of each manuscript will look like when it's complete. The second is a full-color simulation of the cover of each of the books after they're published.  I look at both postcards right before I sit down to work. The images remind me of my short-term and long-term goals.

For your Writing Workout, come up with your own "destination postcard" to represent your writing goal(s). If you're a teacher, have your students do the same. When you're done, be sure to report back here with a description of your "destination postcard."

Happy New Year, and happy writing!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Evicting Your Inner Heckler

   Without  a doubt, high school physics was my all-time worst subject. Mr. Jones might have been lecturing in Sumarian, for all that I understood. Today, here is my total recall of nine months in his class:
     Newton's First Law of Motion:  An object in motion, will remain in motion. An object at rest will remain at rest.
    So how does this pertain to the subject of New Year's Writing Resolutions?
    A writer who writes will continue to write. A writer who goofs off will continue to goof off.
    For a lot of really valid (to me) reasons, last year was my least productive writing year ever. Initially, I thought my six word resolution would be "Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing." However, my mind kept adding the words "you big slug."
    Uh-oh.  My Inner Heckler was awake and throwing nasty stuff from the cheap seats.
    Ms Heckler's voice can curl shingles. "Hey you, Rodman" she brayed. " You're undisciplined, lazy and disorganized. You haven't had an original thought since George Bush, Senior was president. You're weak!"
     Isn't she lovely? There she is, a rogue radio station, jamming my creative frequency with unproductive negative thoughts. The scary part is that she sounds like me when I am nagging my daughter.
    Well, not exactly. You don't get a kid to clean his room by calling him a lazy slob. (At least not my kid.)  It's counterproductive.  I would certainly never use that tone of voice to inspire my students.
Would I ever, under any circumstances tell a student they were undisciplined or lazy or uncreative?
    No! I emphasize their strengths, and offer positive suggestions for improvement.  I nurture my students, helping them to find their creative selves. I balance criticism with praise.
    So why I can't I do that for myself? Why can't I try to look at my own work more objectively?  Why can't I tell Ms Heckler to get lost?
     This is not a new problem. At least once a year, my elementary school teachers would write on my report card "Mary Ann is her own worst critic."  Somewhere along the line I must have decided that if I expected the worst, I would never be disappointed. Which might make sense when you are eight, but not when you are....well, never mind how old I am!
     So, in order to help myself to be the writing embodiment of Newton's First Law of Motion, here is my real six word resolution: "Tell Ms Heckler, 'take a hike'." Only after I begin to treat myself with the same care, understanding and encouragement (and yes, an objective eye), can I become a Writer in Motion.
     Happy New Year, all you teaching writers. We're in this together!
     Mary Ann Rodman

*Addendum from Carmela: It's not too late to enter our contest. All you have to do is post a comment with your six-word resolution for the new year (or an update on the resolution you posted here last fall). For complete details, see April's post.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Slow down. Pay attention. Have fun!

My goals for the new year? Slow down. Pay attention. Have fun!

I didn’t plan to use this six-word format until I read my blogmates’ inspiring posts. I began preparing for this post the same way I always do: by making a list of my good intentions. And, oh! What a list! Impossible stuff! Become a whole new (kinder, smarter, healthier, more productive, etc.) person. Tear my entire house apart and reorganize. Catch up with everything once and for all.


So I decided to simplify—not only this post but also my expectations. I think these six words encompass everything on my list: Slow down. Pay attention. Have fun! I’ve been giving this advice to my students for years. I need to follow it myself.

To me, slowing down means being conscious of priorities and recognizing the difference between urgent and important instead of getting sidetracked into tasks that eat up time without making real progress. As Esther says, putting my own work first not only gets it done faster but also enables me to enjoy the process and gives me the satisfaction of seeing a finished piece of writing. Slowing down gives ideas time to percolate, ripen, evolve. Slowing down means making time to plan ahead, striving for that elusive balance, and avoiding frantic last-minute scrambles before deadlines.

To pay attention is to open up to possibilities: ideas to ponder and write about, of course, and also opportunities to learn about people and places, the world with its wonders and intricacies, anyone and anything that could use my help. April’s touching New Year poem shows the kinds of specific, amazing details we notice when we pay attention. When I pay attention, I’m not only inspired but also grateful.

Having fun doesn’t—or shouldn’t—need any explanation. My own mother once called me too serious. My kids are always telling me to lighten up. I need to allow myself to let go once in awhile—to enjoy a well crafted book, a delicious meal, a movie, a walk in the woods, a crossword puzzle, and certainly my writing. As Jeanne Marie points out, filling the well is not only fun but necessary. I need to remember that not all writing is serious work—some of it has to be play. I vow to spend more time playing!

No one can make me laugh like my sisters do.
Here I am with five of the six. Our cousin Nancy is in the middle. 

* * *

Remember to post your own six-word resolution and enter to win a copy of April Halprin Wayland’s award-winning picture book New Year at the Pier. (U.S. residents only, please.)

(1) Provide your e-mail address or a link to your blog in your comment so we can contact you.     

(2) Entries must be posted by 11 p.m. Wednesday, January 13, 2010 (Central Standard Time).

(3) The winner will be announced by 11 p.m., Friday, January 15, 2010.

Good Luck!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Those Six Little Resolute Words (Plus a Tweet)

I lack April Halprin Wayland’s artistic skills and techy equipment, so please read my TeachingAuthors’ 2010 Writer’s Resolution below as if blinking marquis-worthy neon lights (maybe ruby red and silver?) showcase the six thoughtfully-chosen words.

           “Start each day with - my - stories!”

That’s what I used to do, way back when, when writing and only writing claimed my day and heart.
I lived and breathed my characters’ stories; their words and actions consumed my waking moments.
And sleeping moments, too, actually.
I’d trained my brain to work the nightshift, assigning it a problem to solve the second sleep befell me.
More times than not, I awoke with the solution. I was off and running, soon lost in my story.

A lover of quest stories, I shouldn’t have been surprised when my writer’s journey brought me something even better than the published children's books I’d sought: namely, teaching and coaching.
Helping others find and tell their stories utilized and maximized all I had become.
How could I not embrace both treasures with heart and soul?

Except that, with but 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, four weeks in a month, twelve months in a year, my stories soon sat (way too) comfortably off in a corner of my writing room, watching me start my day with another.
They sought my attention, those stories of mine – waving, humming, calling my name.
But oh, how delicious my students’ and clients’ successes!

Not until this past year, writing and publishing S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet, was I able to admit: I miss my writing!
Happily I realized, none too late, that feeding and satisfying the Writer in me first, helps me better feed and nurture my students and clients.
A Win-Win solution, thanks to the light of a brand new year.

In the beginning is your end, of course; in the end is your beginning. Or as Richard Peck advises, “Your first page holds the last; your last page the first.”
What better way to remain resolute, to ensure I honor my six-word intention, than to creatively visualize my resolution’s results?
The December 24, 2009 edition of the Chicago Tribune invited readers to sum up their year in a single 140-characters-or-less Tweet.
I invited myself to do the same, for 2010, assuming I’d honored my opening resolution.

Once again, please read the thoughtfully-chosen words below as if showcased in blinking marquis-worthy neon lights (maybe royal blue and gold?).

              “Wrote and sold pb bio, board book,
                re-visioned Mg novel, grew writer/teacher/
                librarian workshops, helped countless
                writers find and tell their stories.”

Hurrah! Hurrah!
And, Happy New Year!

Esther Hershenhorn
Don't forget to post your six-word resolution and win a copy of April Halprin Wayland’s award-winning picture book New Year at the Pier.

(1) Provide your email address or a link to your own blog in your comment so that we can contact you.
     (U.S. residents only, please.)

(2) Entries must be posted by 11 p.m. Wednesday, January 13, 2010 (Central Standard Time).

(3) The winner will be announced by 11 p.m., Friday, January 15, 2010.

Good Luck!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Prospero Ano y Felicidad

Happy New Year! 

I'd like to begin with a tribute to Jon Scieszka, outgoing Children's Literature Ambassador, guy's guy, writer's writer, kids' hero. 

The drive to write is the drive to be connected, to move others in some fundamental way.  Scieszka has said he writes to make kids laugh.  As a mother of preschoolers, I say -- Bless him.  As a writer, I say -- Bless him.  As a teacher, I say again -- Bless him.

So, who will be the next Ambassador?  I would offer a prize for the correct guess, but we already have some big contest action this week.  April's wonderful picture book (congrats on the latest kudos, April!) and her recent posts have frankly made me see New Year's Day in a new light.  Yes, in 2010 I'd love to get fit, eat more healthfully, drink less, etc.... but in all honesty, the sacredness of the occasion has not been so clear to me at any time since I was seven years old.  That was the year my parents went to a party and promised to wake me at midnight; but (and I understand completely now that I'm a parent of a hard-sleeping girl) they didn't have the heart to follow through.  I remember the next morning -- mourning, wailing, gnashing of teeth, and many tears because I would never see the Old Year again.  (And yes, 1979 was a great year!) 

A facebook friend posted last week that she regarded this new decade with mixed feelings, as the last (nameless, generally reviled) one marked her marriage, new motherhood, and the advent of the "grown-up" years.  I must say, I feel exactly the same.

I am not a habitual resolver, as I am far from resolute.  Further, once I fall off the wagon (so to speak), I'm gone.  Like most people, I respond far better to positive reinforcement than negative consequences; but of course, what better reward is there than the fruits of one's writing labors?

In the hope that posting it here will keep me honest or at least remotely on-task, here's my six-word resolution for the New Year.  I resolve to:
Rest.  Read.  Play.  Love.  Laugh.  Relax!

You will note that there is nary a mention of writing in my writing resolutions.  However, in these early years of motherhood and consuming day job, I have often failed to nurture myself, to "fill the well" (as they say) and do the things that inspire.  So I hope to make it a nine-word memoir and add write/revise/repeat to the tally.  But I refuse to beat myself up if I don't make it there.  Someday -- as you all have so often and kindly reminded me.

I just had two weeks' vacation from work.  I had time to read!  I downloaded the free Kindle for PC application.  I am neck-deep in mysteries and kids' books and loving it.  I resolved to update my website, and I did that, too.  Being html-illiterate, I tried the yahoo sitebuilder tool.  It's garnered mixed reviews online, and I've hardly built a professional-quality site; but it's serviceable and, significantly, I can now update it myself.  I've spent time reading about teaching and planning my syllabus for the upcoming semester.  I've slept and played with the kids and relished the time we've had to just BE.  And, not so coincidentally, the writing ideas are percolating like mad.

Today marks the end of vacation but the beginning of a new year filled with promise.  Wishing you all much happiness in 2010 and always!
Jeanne Marie
*Addendum from Carmela: In case you didn't know, today is "Thank Jon Scieszka Day!" To read more about Jon and his work, please visit A Year of Reading.