Monday, August 30, 2010

Reading as an Eater

Reading Mary Ann's last post reminded me of a wonderful handbook for young writers that I recently bought for a talented neighbor.  In it, Anne Mazer bravely confesses that she's never much cared for Charlotte's Web.  While I adored Charlotte's Web and probably read it a dozen times, I must admit that I have no memory whatsoever of the passage Mary Ann cited with such love and affection.  I am a foodie, and instead it was the buttermilk in the creases of Wilbur's ears and the scraps of Templeton's newspapers that made a lifelong impression on me.

Reading, as I always tell my students, is a highly subjective experience.

A Wrinkle in Time conjures for me images of cocoa; lettuce and tomato sandwiches; turkey and dressing.  Of course I also remember pulsating IT, the rhythm of the bouncing balls and jump ropes, the quirky language of the three Mrs. Ws. 

In short, I am not a visual thinker.  At all.  I don't care whether the heroine of my book has honey-colored hair or which brand of shoes she is wearing.  What grounds me in an alternate reality is the scent of freshly cut grass or the taste of a dark chocolate Reese's cup.  Yet how to describe these sensations?  Because many of us are visual thinkers, English, I would venture to say, has evolved to possess a dearth of descriptive words for scents, sounds, and, to a slightly lesser extent, tastes.

From Ramona Quimby, Age 8, by Beverly Cleary:

"Ramona bit into her hamburger.  Bliss.  Warm, soft, juicy, tart with relish.  Juice dribbled down her chin.  She noticed her mother start to say something and chnage her mind.  Ramona caught the dribble with her paper napkin before it reached her collar.  The French fries -- crip on the outside, mealy on the inside -- tasted better than anything Ramona had ever eaten."   

I never liked hamburgers as a kid until I read this passage.  I don't believe that Beverly Cleary is best known for her descriptive language, but I still think of this scene every time I eat a french fry.

Of course the brilliance of Beverly Cleary is typically recognized to be in her humor, and these are the other passages that have always stayed with me.  From the first page of Ramona the Pest:

"'I'm not acting like a pest.  I'm singing and skipping,' said Ramona, who had only recently learned to skip with both feet."

I have a five-year-old daughter, and Ramona IS my daughter.  Oh, when Ramona thought she had to sit still for "the present," when she described her eye color as "brown and white," when she understood the lyrics of the national anthem to involve a "dawnzer" that emitted a "lee light" -- what child could not empathize with these situations and laugh?  I am typing this paragraph and thinking, "I can't WAIT to read these books to my kids!"

So food and funny is what does it for me.  What an interesting exercise in self-analysis this has been!  As writers and readers, it is always a good idea to ask ourselves -- what are our touchstones?  And why?
--Jeanne Marie

P.S. Don't forget to enter our fabulous Patricia Reilly Giff two-book-set book giveaway!


Friday, August 27, 2010

A Book Giveaway, Thinking Outside the Box, And A Summer Poem

Happy Poetry Friday!  The poem’s below but first….make sure to enter TeachingAuthors’ Magnificent Patricia Reilly Giff two-book-set book giveaway!

Okay, now let's settle down for the show. 

At TeachingAuthors we pick a topic, tilt our heads like my pup Eli does, and put our own spin on it. Our new topic, starting today is: Share a few lines you admire from a children’s book and why.

True confession: I don’t like jazz.  But I love out-of-the-box thinking.  And in the picture book GIANT STEPS, Chris Raschka creates a visual interpretation of jazz artist John Coltrane’s composition “Giant Steps” that is so out of the box, the cover doesn’t say “by Chris Raschka,” but “remixed by Chris Raschka”.

My favorite lines?  So many!  But the beginning lines grabbed me like no others:

"Good evening. And thank you for coming to our book." 

And so begins a wildly original book featuring a box, a snowflake, some raindrops, a kitten and an unseen narrator/conductor.

Publishers Weekly says, in part:
In this “innovative visual deconstruction of one of jazz saxophonist Coltrane's most beloved compositions…the unseen narrator/conductor introduces the performers…Each performer (representing percussion, bass, piano and sax) appears in a different color and shape... The performance begins, only to be interrupted when the kitten ("the melody on top of everything")…takes steps a little too large ("People, people! What happened?")...Those who possess a little musical knowledge will delight in such arch references as the conductor's hilarious critique ("First of all, raindrops, you were rushing on page 19"). Even the jacket repeats the book's central conceit: a clear plastic wrap featuring the kitten, painted in thick black outline, overlays the other elements. A must for jazz enthusiasts and, for first-timers, a clever introduction to this wildly creative musical genre. Ages 4-7.”

Raschka's approach is so unique and beautiful, I was sure that this book would win the Caldecott when it came out in 2002. 

Out-of-the-box thinking is beautiful in any genre.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve been watching The Great Food Truck Race (because some local --Hermosa Beach, CA--folks are in it).  The crew of the truck called Nom Nom includes such wonderfully original thinkers, it’s a pleasure to see how they approach each week’s competition.

One week they decided to pass on the challenge (talk about thinking outside the box in a challenge-based show…)…and still stayed in the game. Beautiful.

Perhaps you can approach today’s WRITING WORKOUT by thinking outside the box.  (I didn’t…but you may wish to!)

Here's today's simple writing prompt: before summer slips away, write a summer poem. You may wish to include repetition, as I did below, but you don’t have to.

Here's my poem:

by April Halprin Wayland

I like summer
when Eli is chewing his old bone
which hasn’t had meat on it for forever
and it is a gnawing chewing crunchy sound
and I just mixed yogurt and honey and pecans together
which is deeply delicious

I like the summer
when Mom opens the roof of our old car
and we zoom down the road with all the windows down
and my job is to watch Eli to make sure
he’s only putting his head out of the window
and not trying to hang his whole body out.

I like summer
when shoes are optional and I opt no
and the breeze is good on my shoulders
and the cement is hot on the bottoms of my feet
and we get to go to the thrift store after all the errands
and I can buy anything I want for three dollars
and I pick the little red boat with a real sail

I like summer
when Dad puts one leg on the arm of our old couch
and he’s reading a mystery novel
and its night and you can hear the crickets outside
because the door is open
and Mom and I are playing Scrabble
and I have all the letters for SUMMERY
and the first M and the Y are on triple letter squares.

I like summer
because my breathing gets slower
and we don’t have to go anywhere
and we walk the dog without shoes
and a postcard comes from my friend who lives on a sail boat
and I am almost there with him,
swimming with the dolphins
and I am also here in our backyard, barefoot
eating a deeply delicious grape.

poem and photo © April Halprin Wayland
Eli Wayland

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Giveaway and Guest TeachingAuthor Interview with Patricia Reilly Giff

Lucky us!
Newbery Honor Medalist and TeachingAuthor Patricia Reilly Giff chose TeachingAuthors as her last August Blog Tour Stop.
She’s been out and about in the Virtual World sharing news of her early chapter book series for readers ages 6 through 9, Zigzag Kids, which kicks off this month with its first two titles, Number One Kid and Big Whopper.
And lucky me!
I’m the TeachingAuthor who interviewed her.

In many ways, I’m paying Kindness forward.
Patricia Reilly Giff taught me. As I traveled my oh, so long Writer's Plotline, learning my craft, honing my craft, I read her books - first as a reader, then next as a writer, over and over and over again. Today I share them with my writing students, young and young-at-heart.

Most of us know Patricia Reilly Giff as an author.  Her award-winning books include The Pictures of Hollis Woods and Lily’s Crossing. The Polk Street Kids series sat on many of our shelves, at home, in the library, in the classroom.
But I bet most of us didn't know Patricia Reilly Giff was and is a teacher still.
She taught school before she wrote, at P.S. 136 – St. Albans, New York, and on Long Island, in various districts.
And, she currently teaches Writing for Children to adults at her Fairfield, CT bookstore, The Dinosaur’s Paw. Her current class, she brags, holds five students whose books are being published this year.

In the Zigzag Kids series, Patricia Reilly Giff again creates a world and kids readers will instantly recognize: the Afterschool Center at the Zelda A. Zigzag Elementary School and the eleven wonderfully-unique students who stop by every day. Though wonderfully-unique, the five girls and six boys deal with all-too-common, universal problems. As in her Polk Street Kids series titles, Real Life becomes easily-readable – and instantly fun.

Read on to learn how this teacher became a writer, how she jump-starts her writing and what writing means to Patricia Reilly Giff. And be sure to check out the related Writing Workout at the end of this post.

And don't forget to enter our Book Giveaway Drawing by 11 pm CST, Monday, August 30!
Random House has generously donated TWO two-book sets (Number One Kid and Big Whopper) to giveaway to two lucky TeachingAuthors readers, one a classroom teacher, the other
either a writer or librarian or home-schooling parent or parent/grandparent.
Note the Entry Rules at the end of this post.

In the words of Patricia Reilly Giff.....
It’s not a far jump from teaching reading for twenty years, to teaching writing…and I’ve been doing that for twenty years now, too.
How easy it is to teach those two subjects---lifelong passions both.
In 1990, our family opened a children’s book-store, The Dinosaur’s Paw, and people began to drop in to ask tentative questions about writing their own books. Two minutes later, it seemed, my son Jimmy, who runs me as well as the bookstore, had chairs out, the coffee pot going, and there I was (and still am)…reading manuscripts, and assuring writers that if I could do it, anyone could. I believe that firmly.
The problem is that writing, by its very nature, is different from most other skills.
It’s not like reading, or cooking, or tailoring a suit.
No matter what we write, we reveal ourselves: our longings, our beliefs, our fears.
How terrible then to take a chance on rejection.
So doesn’t it follow that we have to believe in ourselves, that what we say has value, too?
Patricia Reilly Giff continues...

I’m asked often about journals and writing exercises.
But from the moment I told my husband Jim I was going to write a book, he was waiting. I had no time for exercises. I went to the library, opened the first page of ten children’s books and Ah!--This is what they do.
I tell my students this, kids and old ones: take a person, put him in a place, and give him a problem.
And there you go, diving into that world, worrying about the problem, and at last---
…into the hands of the waiting husband… and fingers crossed, to the rest of the world.

Even after all the books I’ve written, I still feel fragile about my writing.
My husband reads my books first. (If I wrote the dictionary, he’d say, “What a wonderful plot.”)
I think of this most especially in children’s writing. I tell teachers, “Find something, find anything, to praise. There’s always something.” (One boy told me his teacher loves his question marks. “Curly, you know.”)

Finally, Patricia Reilly Giff writes...

It’s a wonderful world this writing life---the long term teaching and even the short school visits. The questions get right to the point: how old am I, how much money do I make, did I come in a limo? And the letters: Dear Patricia Reilly Giff, I need to write a book. Please send me information fast. P.S. I won’t steal your ideas. What a teaching opportunity!

We're grateful to be The Last Stop on Patricia Reilly Giff's August Blog Tour.
Be sure to check out her all-new Teacher Talk blog.
And read more about the Zigzag Kids here.
Enjoy discovering Patricia Reilly Giff's newest characters in this award-winning TeachingAuthor's newest series.

Esther Hershenhorn

Book Giveaway Drawing Entry Rules

1.You must post a comment to today's blog post identifying yourself as a Classroom Teacher - OR - either a writer, librarian, home-schooling parent or parent/grandparent.  It's that easy!

2.You must include contact information. If you are not a blogger, or your email address is not accessible from your online profile, you must provide a valid email address in your comment. Entries without contact information will be disqualified. Note: the TeachingAuthors cannot prevent spammers from accessing email addresses posted within comments, so feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as the [at] and [dot].

3.You must post your comment by 11 pm (CST) Monday, August 30, 2010. (The winner will be announced on Wednesday, September 1.)

4.You must have a mailing address in the United States.

5.If you win, you automatically grant us permission to identify you as a winner on our TeachingAuthors website.

Writing Workout

 The Random House Educators Guide that accompanies The ZigZag Kids series titles offers both classroom and afterschool activities.

 Here are two that are especially perfect for Back-to-School.

• In Number One Kid, Mitchell is nervous because he is the new kid at Zelda A. Zigzag School. Have students make a welcome kit for new students.
Suggest that they include a welcome letter, something about the school, a school map, a description of Afternoon Center activities, items like an eraser, pencil, etc.

• Challenge students to make a list of rules for the Afternoon Center that doesn’t include the word "don’t." (e.g., instead of saying “Don’t run,” say “Walk”) Divide the class into small groups and assign each group one rule.
Ask them to find a creative way to present the rule to the class. They may sing it, act it, or draw it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Writing Is Like a Box of Chocolates

       My favorite book is Charlotte's Web.  I loved it as a third grader, and I love it today. I cannot think of another book that makes laugh, cry and think . . .  sometimes in one paragraph.   Any book that can do all that for me, over a period of . . . well, a lot of years . . . is my definition of a masterpiece.
       E.B. White's seamless writing is a delight to read . . . and hard to pull apart for examination.  One thing that struck me as a child, was his use of lists as description.  He does it in several places, particularly in describing the contents of Wilbur's slops.  My favorite "list"is this one, after Charlotte's first web message.

           The Zukerman's driveway was full of  cars and trucks from morning till night--Fords and Chevvies and Buick roadmasters and GMC pickups and Plymouths and Studebakers and Packards and DeSotos with gyromatic transmissions and Oldsmobiles with rocket engines and Jeep station wagons and Pontiacs. ---pg. 83-84.

      White could have ended the sentence at the word "night", and still had a perfectly serviceable sentence. But, no, he wanted to show the reader how many different kinds of people, through their various vehicles, came to see the wonder of the web.
      I am sure E.B. White never gave a thought as to whether he was writing a "timeless" story to be read sixty years later in a world without Studebakers, Packards and DeSotos. Even reading it for the first time in the early 1960's. those cars were as dead as the dodo for me. That small detail never bothered me. What struck me was White specificity in using those brand names.  Without knowing what it was called, I was introduced to the concept of specific writing.          
       While revising, I spend hours and hours picking over my word selection. Rather like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, ("you never know what you'll get") I never know how a specific noun, verb, adjective and occasionally, an adverb is going to feel in a sentence. I insert the word, and read the sentence out loud.  Often, a word that sounded just fine in my head, tastes like a lemon cream center when spoken.
         I hate lemon cream chocolates.
         Unlike, Forrest, who was perfectly content to let life surprise him, I punch holes in my words, looking for the one with the maple fudge center.
         I love maple fudge chocolates.
         The perfect word, that specific detail, will melt slowly and sweetly on my tongue, like my favorite candy. Looking for that one word--the one that can describe that moment, that emotion, that person--is the reason I write so slowly. I can select, "chew" and reject words for hours on end. As Mark Twain said "The difference between the right words and the wrong word, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
        When I have bitten into my nineteenth lemon cream, sometimes I use the listing method, writing down all the possibilities I can think of. Sometimes, I end up using the entire list, as White did.  More often, listing frees my mind to produce that one word.  For instance, in my picture book, Surprise Soup, I stalled out in the scene in which Kevie actually makes soup. I don't cook. Period. I couldn't list cooking techniques or tools. I could, however, list the sounds of cooking, since that is as close as I get to a kitchen.  Listing sounds -- splishety splash, chippety chop, scrubbety scrub-- got me back on track.
        In writing, finding that maple fudge chocolate is everything.

Writing Workout

       In her book Paper Lightning, Darcy Pattison uses the phrase "billions-and-billons to one-and-only-one" to explain specific writing to students. For example, "I caught a fish" is a dull sentence because there are billions-and-billions of fish. Pick a specific fish, maybe sharks. Still, there are lots and lots of species of shark (360, to be specific!). OK, how about a bull shark?  Having narrowed it down to a specific kind of shark, what is different about this particular shark? Maybe he had an evil look in his eye.So our new sentence would be "I caught a bull shark with an evil look in his eye."
      To get to that specificity, you can do a "list drill". Pick non-specific nouns that are common to your student's writing such as bike, dance, video game. Pick one, and give the students one minute to quickly write down all the possible specific types of bikes, dances or video games. (I always tell my students not to "think too hard....just write!") After each one minute drill, I encourage (never demand) that students share their descriptors. This can be done with nouns, verbs and adjectives (adverbs are a whole other topic!).  This trains the student to quickly think of alternatives in the revision process.

P.S. I apologize for the lateness of this post---today is the first day of school here in Atlanta. Utter mayhem!

---posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Saturday, August 21, 2010

And the Winner of Our Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don't) Giveaway is...

I'm excited to announce that the winner of an autographed copy of Barbara Bottner’s Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don’t)  is Kathleen, who teaches struggling readers in fourth and fifth grade.

Kathleen, we hope you and your students are inspired by Barbara’s wonderful book!

And thanks to all who entered the contest. I'm sorry we couldn't give everyone a prize; stay tuned for more TeachingAuthor giveaways!

And, as always, write with joy ~

Friday, August 20, 2010

Crossing the Barrier

“The air outside the Barrier seems different, seems to hum with possibility. And every time I draw a breath of it I feel as though I’m leaving behind who I used to be and becoming something else.”

In The Dead-Tossed Waves, a companion book to The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, Gabry and a group of her friends sneak outside the protective Barrier around their town and face the horror of the Mudo, people infected by a deadly virus that kills them and then brings them back to viciously attack, bite, and spread the infection.

I picked up The Forest of Hands and Teeth last summer because I was intrigued by the title, and after I read it, I passed it on to my sister and my nephew. We all shivered at the thought of those ferocious former humans out in the wilderness, waiting.

As this summer winds down, our two sons and many of their cousins and friends are packing and planning and preparing for new adventures in the exciting world outside the protection of the homes they’ve always known, leaving behind who they used to be and becoming something else.

Good luck, you guys! Stick together in the wilderness. Know that you can always come back to the comfort and safety of home. And watch out for the Mudo!

JoAnn Early Macken

P.S. You still have until 11 p.m. (CST) to enter our giveaway drawing for Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don’t), written by Barbara Bottner and illustrated by Michael Emberley. See April's interview of Barbara for details.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wait. Look. Notice.

I just finished reading Michael Scott's young adult fantasy, The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas FlamelScott's novel is one of this month's selections for Anderson's Bookshop's Not for Kids Only Book Club, and a nominee for the Illinois Rebecca Caudill Book Award 2011.  While reading Chapter 6, I was struck by the following lines:
Josh was about to take a step toward the door when Flamel's iron hand clamped onto his shoulder.
      "Don't move," he murmured. "Wait. Look. Notice. If you keep those three words in mind, you just might survive the next few days."
Nicholas Flamel's words to 15-year-old Josh stop him from entering what we soon learn is a booby-trapped hallway. In reading these lines, I was struck, in particular, by the three one-word sentences:
Wait. Look. Notice.
So I paused to consider why these sentences caught my attention. Here are a few of the reasons I came up with:
  • The short sentences have an arresting effect on both Josh (causing him to physically stop) and the reader (causing us to wonder what danger lies ahead).
  • As dialogue, they fit the personality/speech patterns already established for the character Nicholas Flamel.
  • They increase tension.
  • They create a pause in the fast-paced action.
Interestingly, I'm usually annoyed when I read a series of one-word sentences, as in:
Don't. Even. Think. About. It.
I understand the intent, but I still don't like such sentences.
This is another reason why I paused after reading the above excerpt from The Alchemyst--I wanted to understand why, in this case, I wasn't bothered by the one-word sentences.

Perhaps the difference between these two sets of sentences is more obvious to you than it was to me at first:
Wait. Look. Notice. 
are true sentences, each made up of one-word imperative statements. On the other hand,  grammatically speaking,
Don't. Even. Think. About. It.
are not true sentences. (For a basic explanation of why, see this page.)

I think it's interesting that the difference bothered my internal grammarian even though my conscious mind couldn't put my finger on the reason why at first. Have any of you ever had a similar reaction? If so, please post a comment telling us about it.

Flamel's instructions: Wait. Look. Notice. happen to also be great advice for writers. I hope you'll put this advice to practice in the following Writing Workout.

But first, I have another one-word sentence for you: Remember! That is, remember that you have only until 11 pm (CST) this Friday, August 20, to enter our giveaway drawing for Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don’t), written by Barbara Bottner and illustrated by Michael Emberley. Read April's interview of Barbara for details.

Writing Workout

Wait. Look. Notice.
An exercise in "reading as a writer"
While I was a student at Vermont College, I was fortunate to hear a presentation by award-winning author Graham Salisbury. During his talk, Salisbury held up a small notebook and explained how he used it to record bits of writing he especially admired. I suggest you try something similar. The next time a piece of writing captures your attention, make a note of it, and think about why. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • What, specifically, about this writing caught my attention?
  • Is there some aspect of it I could imitate in my own writing?
Happy Writing!

Monday, August 16, 2010


My daughter and I had an afternoon outing to the library today, and I felt a major pang as I saw the displays of beach reads and baseball books.  Then I reminded myself that whenever I start writing a new novel, I always want to set it in September.  I was a kid who loved school, and I am a grown-up who will forever love fall.

Today dawns the beginning of the last week of summer vacation in the Ford household.  Next Monday, Patrick starts in his new preschool class (fingers and toes crossed for potty training success!).  On Tuesday, Jim goes back to prepare his classroom for incoming middle school students.  On Wednesday, Kate starts kindergarten (!).  I have a week's reprieve (grading research essays for my online class), and then I will be back in the classroom the following week.

Jim attended an in-service a few weeks ago for a new Junior Great Books curriculum that has him excited about the coming year.  Likewise, I found two great books that have me looking forward to the year ahead.

The first is Getting it Right: Fresh Approaches to Teaching Grammar, Usage, and Correctness, by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm.  Because I have mostly been winging it in the teaching-myself-how-to-teach department, I've learned that the area in which I feel most hopeless is grammar.  It seems that something either "clicks" for most students in about second grade... or it doesn't.  If you get to college and don't know what a run-on sentence is, is there still hope?  I'm still not sure, frankly, but this book offers the best information I've found in terms of helping students to grasp basic grammatical concepts.  It references studies and research and talks about the general uselessness of studying grammar independent of the writing process.  It also offers the wonderful suggestion of limiting the number of terms introduced to students and suggests that one teach grammar on the basis of a very limited number of concepts.  Students need to know what a noun is, for example, but an appositive?  Not so much.  This concept seems intuitive to me, but if I followed my textbook to the letter, I'd spend weeks confusing my students with talk of nonrestrictive clauses -- never mind that I know how to use them but still have to look up the proper terminology myself (every time!).

Even better, this book offers plenty of tips for helping students to learn and remember what is taught.  Pantomime, anyone?  I can't wait to try these exercises with my students come fall!

One of my husband's major undertakings with his sixth graders is vocabulary.  Likewise, I generally (in response to a student request in my first semester of teaching) open my college classes with a "word of the day."  My husband has started finding photos and videos to help his visual learners associate a mental picture with a given word, and I have taken my cue from him.  

I picked up a novel at the library this week that I will purchase for my husband's classroom ASAP.  Its enticing title is My Life as a Book, by Janet Tashjian. Not only is it a terrific story, but it is aimed at reluctant male readers and makes a point of offering enticing visual renderings (by the author's teenaged son) of vocabulary words on each page.  A middle school teacher's dream! 

Wishing a happy summer's end to all!  And don't forget to enter the Barbara Bottner Book Giveaway! -- Jeanne Marie

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Barbara Bottner (who shares her favorite exercise for picture book writers!)

Author/illustrator Barbara Bottner
Today I'm pleased to introduce you to your guest TeachingAuthor: Barbara Bottner.  Barbara was among my first teachers in this field--lucky me!   Barbara has written--and in some cases illustrated--over thirty-six books for children, published by all the major houses. She has contributed to every aspect of the field; from wordless picture books, picture books, story books, I Can Reads, Chapter books, middle grade and two Young Adult novels.  

Her most recent picture book,  Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don’t), illustrated by Michael Emberley, was on the New York Times Bestseller list, an Indie Pick for Spring, the March Amazon Pick, the Bank Street pick, as well as garnering starred reviews and appearing on blogs everywhere.

What's it about?  With the help of Miss Brooks, Missy’s classmates all find books they love in the library—books about fairies and dogs and trains and cowboys. But Missy dismisses them all—“Too flowery, too furry, too clickety, too yippity.” Still, Miss Brooks remains undaunted. Book Week is here and Missy will find a book to love if they have to empty the entire library. What story will finally win over this beastly, er, discriminating child? William Steig’s Shrek!—the tale of a repulsive green ogre in search of a revolting bride—of course!Barbara Bottner and Michael Emberley pay playful homage to the diverse tastes of child readers and the valiant librarians who are determined to put just the right book in each child’s hands.

See below for information on how you can enter to win an autographed copy of Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don't)!

Barbara's other well-known titles include Bootsie Barker Bites, illustrated by Caldecott winner Peggy Rathmann, and Wallace's Lists, co-written with her husband, Gerald Kruglik (who's a doctor in his spare time!). Bootsie and Wallace were both animated and translated into other languages. 

Scaredy Cats was selected as the One Picture Book, One Community choice for the Miami Book Fair. She has taught award-winning authors such as Lane Smith, (Stinky Cheese Man) Laura Numeroff, (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie) Bruce Degan, (The Magic School Bus) Peggy Rathmann,(Officer Buckle and Gloria), Robin Preiss Glasser,(Fancy Nancy) Antoinette Portis,(Not a Box) Denise Doyan (Once Upon a Twice) and received “The Distinguished Teaching Award” from the New School in 1990. She has taught at UCLA, Parson’s School of Design, has been on staff for the Miami Book Fair, and lectured nationwide.  Visit her website and check out her artwork!

When I heard about the wild success of Barbara's latest picture book, Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don't), I knew I wanted to interview her for our TeachingAuthors blog.

Howdy, Barbara! 
How did you become a TeachingAuthor?
I had just published my first book, What Would You Do With a Giant, and around that time I was also doing a little bit of work in the advertising business.  For some strange reason, an art director told me quite out of the blue that he thought I’d make a good teacher. I’d met him only a few minutes before, but I decided to follow up on his tip.

He sent me to the New School for Social Research in the Village which owned Parsons School of Design. The Dean was available, so I sat down with him. He hired me on the spot, not because I had anything much to recommend me. I had written and illustrated a single picture book. As I went through the revolving doors, the teacher who had been scheduled to teach writing and illustrating books for children, was leaving on the same rotation. It was Kismet: I was learning how to write and was facing a huge class of opinionated New Yorkers who wanted to learn. I basically taught myself as I taught them.
(c) artwork by Barbara Bottner.  All rights reserved.

Out of the early days at Parsons, Laura Numeroff, Bruce Degan, Jacquii Hann, and many other talents passed through my doors. By day, Maurice Sendak was there and we shared a student whom we agreed was not being recognized by her teachers. She went on to publish a book she worked on with me (and Maurice? Don’t know!) Her name is Amy Aiken.

When I was to leave New York for LA, I asked to be transferred to the faculty here, when Otis Parsons was down by McArthur Park. Happy days and it's where I met you, April.

You were a fabulous and generous teacher, Barbara.  You introduced me to your editor at Scholastic who became my first editor.  And I'm still using what you taught me in both my writing and my teaching.  So let's talk about your teaching.  What's a common problem your students have and how do you address it?

I’m mostly dealing with novels now, although there are some writing picture books to very great, even national success. Novels are complex by nature. The voice, to me, is very important and can lead you deeply into the core of a story, but as we know, plot has to be dealt with. So balancing the raw juice of the narrative voice but knowing when to start thinking of plot is an issue. We don’t want contrived stories, so it’s a back and forth.  The other thing that happens is that sometimes we writers zoom past the obligatory dramatic scenes because we’re in it for the long haul. I find I often stop and say to a writer----where’s this confrontation? The tendency can be there to overlook the most dramatic of moments. I find now, that my entire class picks that up for each other right away. We all scan the work closely, so nobody gets away with weak writing or weak prose.

This makes me want to sign up for your class again!  Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?

For picture books, I love this assignment: Think of something going on in the pictures that isn’t going on in the text. This is a powerful way to think pictorially and to think in juxtapositions. My early book, Myra, was a direct result of applying the exercise.  Peggy Rathmann’s two books, Officer Buckle and Gloria, and Goodnight, Gorilla both originated from this exercise, as many other picture books have, including, most recently, Not a Box, and Not a Stick, by Antoinette Portis.

I remember that exercise.  It's harder than it seems.  That's what's behind your deceptively simple book, Be Brown, too.  Okay, what's one piece of advice you have for teachers?

My best advice for teachers is to be honest. Kind, but honest. And following that, it would be to try to get to the deepest emotional core of the story the student is wanting to tell. And at times, know when to say, ‘keep going’ and know when to advise them to dig a little deeper. A superficial story is never going to be satisfying, even if well-told and, in my opinion, serves no one. I find people really want the encouragement to be a little bolder and aim for meaningful stories, even if they’re funny and entertaining. Don’t let them off with ‘good enough.’ There is no such thing a ‘good enough,’ is there? 

Can you share the story about how you sold your first book?

Well, when I wrote What Would You Do With a Giant, I was brand spanking new and had no contacts or inside information. But back in those days if you were an illustrator, you could meet art directors and even editors by making an appointment.  I remember going up to Knopf when the (to some of us) famous Fabio Cohn took a look at my book dummy.

He got very defensive all of a sudden and said, “I don’t know who you are. You just blew in the door. I can’t just publish you because you’re young and talented. I just won’t!”

That’s the moment I realized I was going to get published, but not by him. Eventually I published at Knopf and my most recent book, full circle, is a Knopf book. I always remembered Fabio affectionately, as he really told me such good news.
(c) artwork by Barbara Bottner.  All rights reserved.

Readers, to enter our drawing for an autographed copy of Barbara Bottner's Miss Brooks Loves Books (and I don’t) you must follow these Entry Rules:

  1. You must post a comment to today's blog post telling us why you'd like to win a copy of Barbara's book. 
  2. You must include contact information in your comment. If you are not a blogger, or your email address is not accessible from your online profile, you must provide a valid email address in your comment. Entries without contact information will be disqualified. Note: the TeachingAuthors cannot prevent spammers from accessing email addresses posted within comments, so feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as the [at] and [dot].
  3. You must post your comment by 11 pm (CST) Friday, August 20, 2010. (The winner will be announced on Saturday, August 21.)
  4. You must have a mailing address in the United States.
  5. If you win, you automatically grant us permission to identify you as a winner on our TeachingAuthors website.  
For more information on our winner selection/notification process, see our official giveaway guidelines.

Blogosphere Buzz

Poet extraordinaire David Harrison's interviews me today, too!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Letting Your Characters Have Their Say

This is the last post in our series on journaling. The series was inspired by my interview with Karen Romano Young, author of Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles--a book about a girl who combines doodling and writing together in her journal. The novel is, in essence, one character's journal.

Like Mary Ann, I've kept journals and diaries since I was a girl. However, it wasn't until graduate school that I stumbled on the idea of keeping a journal from a character's point of view. While working on the first draft of my novel, Rosa, Sola, I was also reading Finding Your Writer's Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall. I decided to try completing the writing exercises in the book from Rosa's point of view. I hoped the process would help me find Rosa's voice, and it did.
Rosa's Journal

Later, when I decided the novel would work better with a third-person-limited viewpoint, "Rosa's journal" became an important tool for keeping close to my character. Whenever the writing became distant, I would take out the journal and turn to a fresh page. At the top, I would write a question for Rosa. Here are a few examples:
  • Rosa, how did you feel the first time you saw AnnaMaria's baby brother?
  • Rosa, do you believe your father loves you?
  • Rosa, what do you really want?
After writing the question, I shut my eyes and imagined what it must have felt like to be Rosa, a ten-year-old only child of Italian immigrants living on the north side of Chicago in the 1960s. I opened my eyes and pretended I was Rosa as I wrote a first-person answer to the question at the top of the page.

I learned a great deal about Rosa via her journal. To my surprise, I was also able to use it to solve plot problems. For example, when I was stuck in a scene, I'd turn to the journal and ask Rosa, "What happened next?" To my amazement, she answered!  

I was in the midst of revising the novel when I was reading another craft book: Judy Reeves' A Writer's Book of Days, which includes, among other things, a writing prompt for every day of the year. One of the prompts was: "She doesn't know . . . " At the time, I was having problems with the character of Rosa's father. So I decided to use the journal to let Rosa's father respond to the prompt. That's when I discovered that Rosa didn't know the motives behind her father's behavior. She also didn't know that, despite his actions, he really did love her. The insights from that journal entry helped me make him a more rounded, and more sympathetic, character.

Writing Workout

Create a journal where your characters can have their say.
  • I prefer using a paper journal that I write in with a pen. Something about physically pushing the pen across the page allows me to connect with my characters in a different way than typing on a keyboard.
  • The journal doesn't have to be expensive. It can be a simple spiral notebook or composition book. (These are on sale now for back-to-school!) 
  • I also like personalizing the journal's cover. I typically paste a photograph that represents something important to the character, or that is an image of the character herself. 
  • Use the journal to ask your character questions: What are her likes/dislikes? What is his biggest problem or fear? What does she REALLY want? and/or
  • Let your characters respond to writing prompts from their points of view. You can do this for both your main character and important secondary characters. (See the Blogosphere Buzz below for more on finding writing prompts.) 
Blogosphere Buzz
Happy writing!

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Five Minute Journal

       I've kept diaries/journals since third grade.  Decades of journaling has left me with more notebooks and journals than I can count.  As a third grader, I figured out writers have to practice, like I had to practice piano. Unlike piano practice, which felt like an hour chained to the piano bench, writing practice was nothing but fun.  I wrote morning, noon and night, when I wasn't doing other things like oh, say, going to school, or later, going to work.
     I got married.  I kept journaling. I worked two jobs. I wrote during lunch and work breaks. Going a day without writing was like forgetting to brush your teeth. The world didn't end, but you had this feeling that something wasn't quite right.
     Then I had a baby, and my world did cartwheels. Now I had a baby, two jobs and a husband who traveled. A lot.  I was tired. A lot. I had read A Writer's Way.  Julia Cameron's voice whispered in my ear
You're not journaling. Writers journal.  Oh great. In addition to all the other things I fretted about, I coud add the voice of a woman I'd never met, nagging me to write.
      I wanted to write. But now, even when I had a spare ten minutes, the words didn't come. My words were like stale bread; dry, tasteless, crumbling. No wait. Make that  crummy. See, said my imaginary Julia, what happens if you don't journal.
      But I couldn't do everything.  If I only had an hour a day to write, I didn't want to spend it writing "Morning Pages." But I couldn't just sit down and write without some sort of warm-up.  And without my journal I was finding it hard to generate new ideas, stay enthused about writing. I was a Writing Burnout, and I hadn't sold a single sentence.  That was just sad.
      When I began working with young writers, we discovered we had a mutual problem;  journals. Me, because I had no time. The students were "victims" of a well-intentioned local curriculum that requires ten minutes of journaling first thing every morning, second through eighth grades. My students blanched at just the word journal.
      So we stopped journaling.  Now we observe and report.
     We keep a large notebook, which is our log, but we carry with us a pocket size notebook for reporting.  We have a standing assignment. Each day, my students and I record these three things.
       1. Something that makes you stop and go "Hunh?  I wonder what's up with that?"
       2.  An overheard piece of conversation that catches your ear. Yes, I encourage eavesdropping, but only in public places.
       3. Something that makes a strong sensory impression.
       That's it.  They aren't supposed to do anything with it. They don't draw story webs or brainstorms ten ideas they write about. Just the facts ma'am.
        Here are some examples of my students observations: a bright yellow Porsche parked in the driveway of a small shabby house with an unkempt yard.  A person (sex undetermined) in full clownsuit mode---red wig, floppy shoes and all---waiting at bus stop in the middle of a weekday afternoon. An unused baby swimming pool, now swarming with tadpoles.
      Overheard conversation include such memorable quotes as "Hey, you wanna piece of me?" "I am not leaving this bathroom until I find some mascara." "Peas do not belong in ears."
      Strong sensory impressions ranged from "the pain of having your braces adjusted" to "our neighbors' noisy parties" to "the taste of Grandma's Pizza Potpie.
      At the beginning of each session, I ask if anyone would like to share their observations. I never insist that someone share, but after hearing their friends observations, nearly everyone wants to share.
      Sometimes, the image is so thought-provoking that the group will spontaneously brainstorm on their own. If it happens, cool. If it doesn't, see the five exercises below.

                                                                    Writing Workout
  1.  Have the student choose one of their observations for a five-minute free write.

   2. Using one of the observations, the student will write about it, using all five senses in the description.

   3.  Have the students choose one of their five senses. and write using only that sense. They are not allowed to choose sight as their sense.

   4.  The students write from their observations, this time using all the senses except sight.

   5. Ninety-nine per cent of the time students write first person personal narratives. It's easier (I do it, too!)  Assign each student a particular character (the snob, the mom, the little sister, etc) and have them write the piece again, this time from the point of view of their new character. They can still write in first person, but now they are writing as mom, or an orthodontist, or an older brother.

     After each exercise, the students are then encouraged to share. When sharing generates enthusiasm resembling a pep rally. ("Hey why don't do you this?" "What if..." "And then he could..."), it's time to turn the hounds loose.

     Typically, I only need to use one or two of these exercises before students leap from straight description, to a story or a poem.

     My students come to a session, notebooks in hand, dying to "share."  Little do they know that "share time" is a spring board to writing in their logs." I call it "expanding your observation."You could also call it journaling.  I don't.

    This process has also worked for me, the writer. Jotting down a couple of things to expand on later takes the pressure (and guilt) away.  Julia Cameron is where she should be; between the covers of her books, and not in my head.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, August 6, 2010

Wherever I Go

I am lost without a notebook and pen. First thing in the morning, almost every morning, I grab a cup of coffee, a purple pen, and a spiral notebook. Morning Pages are my confessional, my pep talk, my to-do list, my way of working out priorities and possibilities. They often contain more writing about writing than actual writing, but on a good day, those pages turn into creative work or at least lead up to it. In between projects, when I’m feeling my way through the dark to begin something new, I dump what I can on paper and try to move forward. That’s where I am right now, peering into the void, hoping for a spark. Actually, that’s what I’ve been doing for much of this summer, slogging away, trusting that sooner or later, something worth my while will come of the scribbling.

Sometimes I write poems and picture books in spiral notebooks, too, and sometimes on loose leaf paper or legal pads. When an idea is burning in my brain, I grab whatever paper is closest and write as quickly as I can, from the beginning to as far as I can go. The next day, I start at the beginning again and write as far as I can, usually at least a little farther.

I carry a pocket notebook everywhere I go, whether I’m walking the dog, working in the yard or the kitchen, riding a bike, or even paddling a canoe. In those little notebooks, I might jot down one word, scribble an inspired thought, or tear through page after page. I also keep paper and pens next to my bed for the ideas that pop up in the middle of the night. I turn on a book light so I can decipher my writing in the morning.

Esther’s post reminded me of another journal I keep and really ought to update one of these days. It’s a Word file I call my Sent Mail Journal. In it, I paste copies of important e-mails I’ve written and sent, and then I delete them from my e-mail folder. For me, it’s an easy way to keep track of events and thoughts without having to write about them again.

From time to time, I pull out an old notebook and pore over the pages. Sometimes I see topics I’ve circled around for years. Sometimes an old idea fits perfectly with a new one. Sometimes I find things I don’t remember writing. I’m due for that project now: the notebooks are piling up, and I could use some fresh old ideas!

JoAnn Early Macken

P.S. Look for me today at Concordia University Wisconsin's Early Childhood Literacy Festival on the Lake!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Winner of Our Doodlebug Giveaway

I'm happy to announce that the winner of an autographed copy of Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles is Theresa, a teacher who blogs at Looking for the Write Words. Theresa, we hope you and your students enjoy Karen Romano Young's book!

Thank you to all who entered the contest. I'm sorry we couldn't give everyone a prize, but stay tuned for two more giveaways this month!

And, as always, happy writing!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A page from the journal of...

August 4, 2010
I’m supposed to be posting today about writers and their journals.
What exactly do I want to say - or even show - after thinking about this topic for the past seven days?
Probably that

(1) I personally journal to figure out Stuff. MY Stuff.
 Sometimes, I have a question that needs answering or a quandary that needs clarifying (and I don’t
 even know it).
Other times an issue begs for daylight.
I probe my heart, mind, soul and gut, spilling words onto the page as I write in the moment.

(2) My journal entries are for my eyes only.
For my ears too, actually, because I’m speaking non-stop.
(I love how my journal lets me hear my own voice.)

(3) My journal ISN’T my Writer’s Notebook, in which I live as a writer, growing and crafting and  
polishing a story.

(4) My prompts vary,
from an astrological forecast for the coming month (“Your Moment has finally arrived…”)
to a passage from a newspaper book review,
(“When something is broken, it can be pieced back  together. It might look and feel a lot  
  different than it did in its original incarnation, but there’s strength in moving forward.”)
from a painful situation, an intentional hurt,
to a Random Act of Kindness or one of Misfortune.
An email from a friend. (“Remember me? Long time no see...")
A card from my son. (“Thanks for remembering…”)
A bit of gossip overheard.
A long-standing “To Do” list.
Maybe something or someone made me feel proud,
or angry,
or determined,
or hopeful,
and I want to know why.
Sometimes I simply type the lyrics to a song I can’t stop singing. ("I just haven't met you yet!")
Often I simply write a Gratitude List.
A friend gifted me with a book – “Write It Down! Make It Happen!”
Those two simple directives continue to prompt journal entries galore.
I love to journal conversations I’ve had,
or words I wish I’d spoken,
I’m Sorry’s.
Lost promises.

(5) My journal writing times vary too.
I might go weeks in between entries, or even once or twice, months.
Morning time.
Lunch time.
In the middle of the night.
I follow no set schedule or time of day.

(6) Since 1996, my computer has been my vessel, my vehicle, my leather-bound journal, so to speak.
Forget those gorgeous hand-made volumes I use for Writer’s Workshops and Conferences.
When it comes to recording my very own story,
I click on New Document.
I date the entry.
I type my prompt.
Then I writewritewrite ‘til my fingers stop. (“So there!” I usually say.)
Finally, I save the document in a yellow computer file named JOURNAL.

(7) I love re-reading my earlier journal entries!
How else can I know how far I’ve come (or not) if I don’t know from whence I started?
I celebrate each New Year by reading previous posts written around the same time of year.
I mark Key Anniversaries by doing the same.

(8) I also love reading other people’s journals, especially those of writers.
A recent favorite?
Phyllis Theroux’ The Journal Keeper, A Memoir (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010)
A long-ago favorite?
Paula Graham's Speaking of Journals (Boyds Mills Press, 1999)
(Interviews with children's book authors Bruce Coville, Marian Dane Bauer, Jack Gantos and
  20-some other notable authors, with excerpts from their Journals)
A little-known journal I discovered via research and use with Young Writers?
Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals (Roberts Brothers, 1889)

(9) I’ve been known to create journals for my characters. I choose an interesting font, adjust the type  
size, give the entry a meaningful prompt that usually addresses motivation or plot, and just like that, a
character lives and breathes, speaking on the page, opening his or her heart the way I open mine.

(10) Dare I share my current work-in-progress utilizes a journal for its format and structure? :)

That should do it, along with my Good Wishes.

I’ll likely end with,
      “Happy Journal Writing – whenever, wherever, however, whatever!”

So there!

       Esther Hershenhorn

Don't forget to remind readers about TeachingAuthors’ latest book giveaway for Karen Romano Young’s intriguing graphic novel about a girl who keeps a doodles-and-writing journal, Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles. The entry deadline is TODAY - 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, August 4, 2010!

Maybe mention that Phyllis Theroux's journal website offers a video with journal-keeping advice - "If you want to keep a journal... "

Monday, August 2, 2010

On Not Keeping a Writing Journal

As a kid, I took flute lessons for many years.  I was supposed to practice nightly.  I think once or twice per week was the best I ever managed.  The part I dreaded most was always the scales -- chromatics, thirds, "long tones."  I always hurried through to get to the "real music." 

As an adult, I play only for fun.  My competence level is probably about what it was when I was in seventh grade.  I haven't attempted scales since, and I can't say I've missed them.

I think of keeping a writing journal as the writer's equivalent of a musician's disciplined practice routine.  Unfortunately, "discipline" and "routine" are problematic concepts for me and have been all my life.  Right now, I am teaching an online class; I have an article due on Monday; I have a full-time job; I have two kids whose favorite word most days seems to be "Mommy." Writing time is precious. Some days I fall into bed too tired to brush my teeth.  (Thus, I'm sure, my long chronicle of dental woes.) 

I know that disciplined writing practice outside of my current projects is simply not going to occur.  Unlike flute-playing, at least I do write all day long.  If my writing "muscles" aren't well limbered by emails, thank-you notes, and the 20-page outline (or two) that I write weekly, then spilling out words in a rough draft can count as my morning (or, more likely, late-night) pages.

In high school English, we were required to keep daily writing journals for two years.  While sometimes the process was therapeutic, I was never moved to voluntarily continue the practice.  I was not a child who had a diary, who enjoyed corresponding with pen pals, or who did a good job of keeping in touch with my farflung fellow military brats.

Now I keep an open idea file on my computer filled with vaguely indecipherable notes, scraps of character descriptions and plot outlines for about a dozen different projects.  Such is my "system."  Could it be better?  Surely.  But as I tell my students, the process is highly individualized -- do what feels comfortable and refine as you go along.  I'm hanging in there, and that's about the best I can do.

Speaking of writing journals, don't forget about TeachingAuthors’ latest book giveaway for Karen Romano Young’s intriguing graphic novel about a girl who keeps a doodles-and-writing journal, Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles. Entry deadline is 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, August 4, 2010. If I did keep a writing journal, I know it would be full of doodles (and I can't draw!). And if I could enter this contest, I so would. I can't wait to read this book!