Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Kicking off Summer Reading, and More on Reading as a Writer

Every June, the National Education Association sponsors Summer Reading Month here in the United States. If you're an educator or parent, you can visit the NEA website for tips on encouraging children and teens to read during the summer. The NEA also has additional suggestions on their beautiful June 2010 calendar page.

June also happens to be Audiobook Month. Check out the Blogosphere Buzz section below for links to free audiobook downloads of some pretty exciting titles.

I plan to kick off my summer reading with the Newbery-honor-winner Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. The novel is the June pick for the Not For Kids Only Book Club sponsored by Anderson's Bookshops.  I really enjoy being part of this great book club for adults who want to read and discuss books for children and teens. After I finish reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, I plan to read the May posts about the book at StorySleuths, a blog where three writers "read like writers, investigating award-winning children's literature for clues about how to improve our own writing." 

My students know that I'm big on reading as a way to improve our writing skills. I blogged about this topic last year, and included a number of references with specific tips on just how to "read as a writer." But I was reminded of the value of the practice recently when my friend, Michelle Sussman, posted on Facebook asking for tips on how to incorporate backstory into a novel. (By "backstory" I mean events that happened to the character in the past, before the events of the current story.)  Michelle's question reminded me of how I learned to weave in backstory--by reading as a writer. I took the advice of one of my mentors at Vermont College and bought a paperback copy of a novel I admired, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, and then reread it, highlighting every instance of backstory. Before trying this exercise, I’d assumed authors only included backstory in the opening chapters. I was amazed to learn that Paterson had woven it throughout her novel, up to and including the last chapter. My 148-page copy of The Great Gilly Hopkins has three purple-highlighted lines on page 146! It was an invaluable lesson that has really stuck with me.

Since Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is our Book Club selection, I won't be reading it to learn any specific writing techniques. But nowadays I can't help studying every book I read. Next on my to-read list is Barbara Quick's YA novel Golden Web, set in 14th-century Italy. I'll be reading that one specifically to see how Quick incorporates setting details of the time period into her story.

For these two weeks, the TeachingAuthors will be sharing things we've learned from reading as writers. I hope some of you, our blog readers, will join the discussion by posting comments about how reading has helped your writing, too.   And do tell us: what's on your summer reading list? Perhaps it's a book you'd like to use with the Writing Workout below.  

Blogosphere Buzz
  • Don't forget--this weekend, June 4-6 is the 5th Annual 48-hour Reading Challenge. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be able to participate this year, but I hope many of our readers will. It's a perfect opportunity to "read as a writer."
  • As I mentioned above, June is Audiobook Month. To celebrate, members of the Audiobook Community are offering weekly free audiobook downloads. See the Simply Audiobooks blog for details.
  • And speaking of audiobooks, beginning July 1, SYNC, an online community seeking to build the audience for audiobooks among readers age 13 and up, will be giving away 2 free downloads every week--a popular Young Adult title paired with a Classic title that appears on Summer Reading lists. (Hunger Games is one of the popular titles they'll be offering.) See their site for details
  • Betsy Bird's great children's literature blog at School Library Journal has moved. You will now find it here. If you're looking for some great reads for this summer, check out the results of her "Top 100 Children's Novels Poll." 
  • Our very own JoAnn Early Macken is one of the authors featured on Jennifer Bertman's blog series on writers and their "creative spaces." See this post for a peak into JoAnn's workspace. 
  • Last Friday, I had the honor of being the Featured Blogger at Sally Murphy's Writing for Children Blog. Thanks again, Sally!
Writing Workout
Reading as a Writer

(This is a recap of the Writing Workout I shared on this topic last year.)

In preparation for "reading as a writer," decide what aspect of writing you (or your students) will study. For example, as I mentioned above, I used this technique to study backstory. But you might want to focus on characterization, dialogue, description, plot, setting, use of flashbacks, etc. Ideally, you will read the book you are studying more than once. The first time is to simply enjoy the story. However, if you're pressed for time, you can read for pleasure and analyze at the same time.

If you are able, purchase a paperback copy of the book you've chosen. With a highlighting pen, mark occurrences of the technique you are studying. I used a purple highlighter to mark every occurrence of backstory in The Great Gilly Hopkins, whether it was via a flashback, dialogue, narrative, etc. If you're working with a borrowed book, then take notes describing each occurrence of the technique, making  sure to include the corresponding page numbers. When you're done, come back and post here about your experience and what you learned from it.

Happy Writing (and Reading!)


Michelle Sussman said...

This is great timing and thanks for including my question! I just finished the first draft of my WIP on Monday and yesterday I was trying to decide which books to purchase for my great highlighting adventure, courtesy of your advice!!!

My summer reading list:
Mistwood by Cypess
The Body Finder by Derting
Bones of Faerie by Simner
Firelight by Jordan
The Healing Spell by Little
Hex Hall by Hawkins
Rampant by Peterfreund
Sisters Red by Pearce
Slammerkin by Donoghue

Scotti Cohn said...

Great ideas, Carmela! I have used the method you mentioned to try to understand various techniques, including how a character's emotions can be conveyed by "showing, not telling." While reading, I often flag a page that has a sentence or paragraph on it that stands out for some reason.

What's frustrating, though, is when I come across things that illustrate what we writers are told "not to do." I can't help wondering why the author I'm reading "got away with it"!

Carmela Martino said...

Wow, Michelle, that's an impressive list! You'll be busy this summer.

And Scotti, sometimes when I'm reading as a writer, I also end up identifying techniques I DON'T want to use because they don't work well in my opinion. It IS frustrating to see published (and sometimes bestselling) books that don't live up to my standards. Sometimes, it may be a matter of taste, but other times I think it a matter of either an insufficiently trained editor or an editor who doesn't have time to do his/her job properly.

Thanks for the comments, ladies!

Michelle Sussman said...

I have to admit, I am having trouble convincing myself to highlight in a book, even one I own. I wouldn't even do it in college - it felt too destructive. My mom is a librarian, I am well-trained. :-)

Must face my fears!!!!!

Oh, and I'll hopefully read all of those books and more. If I'm not reading I feel braindead.

Anonymous said...

Great advice, Carmela! I just finished reading Varian Johnson's YA novel Saving Maddie. He masterfully wove backstory in through dialog. His dialog also revealed so much characterization and each dialog was purposefully written to reveal something. I'm now in the middle of reading Border Crossing by Jessica Lee Anderson and I'm picking up our reading selection for this month which is The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney. There are about 40 children's authors that all chime in and discuss the book.

Have a great summer!


Carmela Martino said...

Hi Carmen,
Thanks for sharing your reading experience with Varian's book. Where does the group discuss these books--is this open to anyone? If it is, we can share the link here.

Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Barbara Quick said...

Hi Carmela,

What a great blog! When you've finished reading A GOLDEN WEB, I'd be glad to answer any questions and share my own experience of researching and writing this novel.

Have you seen my 2007 title from HarperCollins, VIVALDI'S VIRGINS? It has crossed over as a YA novel--and makes a good pairing with A GOLDEN WEB (especially for an author interview!).

Anyway, I'm at your disposal if you or any of your readers want to contact me. My website is
and I have a blog called

For any of your readers who are local to Northern California, I'm teaching a one-day workshop on writing historical fiction on Saturday, June 19, from 10:30-4:30, at Book Passage in Corte Madera (in Marin County). The cost of the workshop is $105.

Warmest and best wishes,

Carmela Martino said...

Barbara, how wonderful to hear from you. I'd love to pick your brain after I finish reading A GOLDEN WEB. I read VIVALDI'S VIRGINS shortly after it came out and thought it was extremely well done.
How I wish I could attend your workshop this weekend! I hope you have a great turnout.