Monday, May 30, 2011

For Our Faithful Followers. . .

    Yes, it's Memorial Day. I am not going to open a political can of worms by telling you how to spend your day (although "holiday" and "celebrate" never seemed appropriate words to use in connection with a day originally called "Decoration Day"...a day the families of Union soldiers "decorated" their graves.) Somehow along the way, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and Memorial Day became the unofficial first day of summer.
     I am choosing to honor the unofficial start of summer by frying myself at the beach. And being a writer of historical fiction, I am contemplating those who have served our country in the military, past and present.

However you feel about a particular war or "conflict" (Neither Korea or Vietnam was ever officially designated a war, to say nothing of whatever you call the current action in the Middle East), the important thing for a writer is to not allow the world to forget the men and women who believed in sacrificing their own dreams and lives in service to their country.

    I am from the generation whose parents were in WWII. "What did your father do in the war?" was a question we kids asked as a matter of course. My parents were Navy cryptographers. My father-in-law, a Naval commander had not one, but two boats sunk from under him in the Pacific. My first boyfriend's father was in the infantry invasion of Italy. One of my distant relatives who had lied about his age to get into the service, died at D-Day, age fifteen. I had brothers who fought brothers during the  Civil War.
            (This is my mom the WAVE, home on leave. Note service flag in window. The five stars were for my mother, her three brothers, and a young man who boarded with my grandmother.)

 So today, as you are sizzling up those cheeseburgers or trying to find a place to park your towel at the beach, remember.  It's not our personal politics that matter, but those of our ancestors. We should honor their choice. Memorial Day...a day of memory.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, May 27, 2011

Really? Do we have to talk about revision AGAIN? Happy Poetry Friday!--now rewrite that poem...

This week's Poetry Friday is hosted by the delicious poet
Heidi Mordhorst over at My Juicy Little Universe

So...rewriting.  Can't we just skip it?  Can't we just write something brilliant and then jump to that thick-carpeted Hollywood office where we're signing the movie contract based on our book?

I've been feeling discouraged this week, so here's a poem about my work-in-progress, another novel-in-poems which I'd hoped would be finished when I turned in the April 14th draft in my novel writing class.

Finished?  Heaven's no!  Now that I have notes on this draft, I'm messing with it again.  My book clearly needs a little more curry or cumin or molasses or heaven-knows-what.  *Sigh*  

by April Halprin Wayland

I'm walking quickly on this path
I edit words I see are chaff
I'm making characters three-dimensional
I've integrated the high school staff
(the stereotypes were unintentional)

I've cut the zoo scene and giraffe
though it was beautifully unconventional
I'm trying not to be inflexible—
and keeping it was indefensible
(though parts of it were quite exceptional)

If only I can reach that raft
and climb aboard, untie the rope—
I'll sail off with the final draft...
at least I hope!
2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved 

My novel writing teacher's shorthand for "I like this part" is a check mark at the end of the line or sentence.  It's an effective and easy way to compliment someone.  No need to put a smiley face or write, "nice"--just a simple check mark and move on.  It also allows the person who is critiquing the book to keep stay in the flow of the book while still commenting on it along the way.

When my eight fellow classmates and my instructor had read my novel, I lugged the manuscripts home and read everyone's notes. Then I tossed the notes that were complimentary, the ones with lots of check marks and comments about how fabulous the book was. 
I mean, yes, yes--thank you, glad you like it--SO DO I--that's why I WROTE it, I want to say.  Let's get to the meat, the real nitty gritty, the stuff you couldn't stand, the poems that should be cut.  Isn't that why we're here?

But I was feeling pretty low.  So I reached into the recycling box and took out a handful of the compliments--the ones I'd so blithely dismissed.  I read them slowly.  I tried to keep my getting-ready-to-be-defensive voice from yelling back at them.  I just. Let them. Like. My words.

WRITING WORKOUT: What to do with the compliments

So what's your writing workout today? Simply this: Listen to the good stuff, too.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

One TeachingAuthor's SHOUT-OUT!

Listen up, readers!
Today I shout THANKS! to those writers I taught and/or coached and/or read and took heart from who helped me survive an especially gray, cold and wet Chicago Spring. Their words and their Good News, whether emailed, snail-mailed, SKYPED or phoned in, helped me stay aloft these past three months.

How nice that in exclaiming my appreciation for these writers’ updates and continued connections, I’m also establishing a new TeachingAuthors feature - THE SHOUT-OUT!, with the accompanying chosen image, the megaphone.

I sincerely thank (in no special order):

Putnam finally released this Florida writer’s long-awaited first picture book, THE GINGERBREAD MAN LOOSE IN SCHOOL. Laura and I first met at the 2006 LA SCBWI Conference. She worked oh, so hard, revising and readying for quick purchase this original take on a much-loved story.

Steve Layne
Illustrator Ard Hoyt is already at work on Steve’s next  picture book, STAY WITH SISTER (Pelican Press, '12). Steve wrote the manuscript – a follow-up to LOVE THE BABY and SHARE WITH BROTHER, in my 2010 Fall Newberry Library Picture Book Workshop.

• Three soon--to-be-MFA-degreed writers – Ellen Reagan of Deerfield, IL, Helen Kemp Zax of Washington, D.C. and Chicagoan China Hill.
Ellen and Helen are off to Vermont College this July; China begins her coursework at Columbia College this Fall. It was an honor to recommend all. I know when each is published, I'll say, "I told you so!”

Ricky Mickiewicz
A Chicago writer and illustrator, Ricky finally gathered the courage to ready his picture book
WORMEE  THE WORM for self-publication this June. WORMEE first showed his head and rings long
ago in a Newberry Library Workshop, long before graphic novels and ePublishing became the rage.

Deanie Yasner
A newly-declared and mighty talented children’s book writer, Deanie bravely applied for and won a full
scholarship to Highlights upcoming Chautauqua. Her first-ever picture book submission brought a
response in less than 24 hours!

My River Grove Elementary School Young Writers
During my four-day visit to River Grove, Illinois’ River Grove Elementary School this Spring, the school’s eager Young Writers in grades 1 through 5, supported by a caring faculty and literacy teacher Mary 
Chamberlain, wrote and illustrated R IS FOR RIVER GROVE ELEMENTARY: A ROYAL ALPHABET.

This award-winning Mother-Daughter Combo wrote their nonfiction hearts out in ANATOMY OF NONFICTION: WRITING TRUE STORIES FOR CHILDREN, published this month by the Institute of Children’s Literature. Marge lovingly served as one of my earliest mentors. I often share her Vassar Children’s Book Publishing opening remarks with my students: “In another life time, we children’s book writers were playmates.”

Cheryl Klein
Cheryl’s SECOND SIGHT, a compilation of her insightful, manuscript-changing and writer-changing talks on writing, revising and publishing books for children and young adults, is now finally again in stock. I’m busily ear-marking pages and underlining passages to share with my writers of all ages.

Holly’s beautiful wood-cut illustrated picture book IF I NEVER FOREVER ENDEAVOR  
(Candlewick Press) hit the shelves this month too. The front flap copy describes the book as a “gentle
nudge for hesitant fledglings – of all ages and species – to step out, to dare, and to try. Who knows? If
you try, you might…fly!”

So, again, I shout out my THANKS! to those writers who shared their words and their Good News these past three months. You kept me flying, no matter the weather.

Happy flying to all!

Esther Hershenhorn

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Club Bits

My neighborhood book club may keep our local winery in business, but we do a pretty good job on the reading front, too.  This fine group of ladies even inspired me to write start a Mother-Daughter Book Club book (too bad, though I started writing eons ago, someone beat me to the finished product).  I have several friends who started mother-daughter book clubs in real life, and I'm itching for the day my daughter is old enough for me (or, preferably, one of her friends' mom) to do the same. 

What about boys, though?  How come they always seem to be left out?  I was standing at the starting line of my daughter's school's 5K this weekend, having an awesome conversation with a neighbor's son about Rick Riordan and 13 Reasons Why, which was our (grown-up) selection this month, but which he read and discussed with great insight.

At any rate, this post is really about my husband, who teaches reading at a middle school.  Because of "specials" (band, etc.), the school has a one-period, no-credit class called CORE.  For next year, the prinicpal decided that CORE should involve a school-wide book club.  My husband is on the planning committe and was asking me for book recommendations with curricular tie-ins.  He was especially interested in multicultural books and books that dealt with issues of social justice (hello, Yankee Girl).   Because students rotate through the class, his school is thinking of buying kindles to increase interest and make it feel "cool" and different.  I'm putting this out there to the whole teaching community and piggybacking on Mary Ann's fabulous Summer Reading post.  What else would you do to make this experience a memorable one for the kids? 

Fostering group reading obviously brings a whole new dimension to a process that is typically thought of as a solitary experience.  As we look at social networking and sites like shelfari, interactive texts like the Amanda Project and yes, good old-fashioned book clubs... reading is more than what happens under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime.

The other night, I lay in bed beside my daughter, each of us reading a book -- hers, Marvin Redpost (thank you, Louis Sachar!) was the first book she ever decided she couldn't put down.  Deeply moved by the parallel experience, I said to her, "I love you so much.  Can you stay this age forever?"  She said, "No.  But I'll love you this much when I'm seventeen.  Maybe more."

Isn't writing for kids the best?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tulip Insurance

In spite of winterlike Wisconsin weather that has overstayed its welcome, we've been rewarded with plenty of spring flowers. In our tiny yard, I've planted my favorite Angelique tulips (on the right in this picture) in various spots, and some of them are blooming right now.

This year (again), rabbits (or maybe squirrels) ate all the flower buds in one patch and left me the empty stalks. Here's a poem I wrote one year after a fierce thunderstorm wiped out a whole flower bed full.


The storm that filled the birdbath
broke the tulips.
Their delicate pink frills were
never meant to bear the weight of
all that water crushing down.
If we had watched by lightning flare,
we might have seen them filled to overflowing,
dumping cupful after cupful
into sodden flower beds,
lashed by roughneck wind
until they snapped.
Like fragile crystal goblets
at a brawl for hooligans,
they never were intended for that rowdy scene.
The storm that filled the birdbath—
the brute that crashed the party—
smashed the stemware,
littering the lawn with ruffled shards.

Because our springs can be chilly, unpredictable, stormy, and subject to hungry predators, I've learned to back up my favorite flowers by planting them in more than one place. Each year, at least a few of them survive to thrill me with my favorite pink blossoms.

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is at The Drift Record.

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Looking Ahead, Blogosphere Buzz, and our Blogiversary Contest Winners!

A HUGE thank you to all those who entered our Second Blogiversary Critique Giveaway Contest, and a special welcome to all our new followers!

Before I share the winners' names, I have a question for you, our readers. As we look ahead to our next year of blogging, we're wondering what topics or questions you might have for us. Do you have a burning (or maybe just "nagging") question related to writing or to teaching writing? Or some writing-related topic you'd like us to address? If so, we encourage you to either post your question in the comments below or use the "Ask the TeachingAuthors link in our sidebar to send it via email. (If you're sending an email, please be sure to include the words "Teaching Authors Question" in the subject.)

By the way: if you're an email subscriber and you haven't visited the blog lately, I encourage you to stop by and check out some of the new links in our sidebar. I've been adding to the sections "Websites of Note," "General Children's/YA Lit Blogs," and "Author/Illustrator Blogs." I've also updated the pages "About Us," "Markets for Young Writers," "Resources for Teachers," and "Workshops/Visits." And if you'd like to see if we've already addressed a topic you're interested in, see the "Subject Index of Most Popular Topics" near the bottom of the sidebar.

And now here are the names of our two critique winners:
  • Susan Kaye Quinn, who requested a novel critique, and
  • Katie Cullinan, who requested a critique of a fiction picture book
Congratulations, Ladies!

If you didn't win, don't despair--see the Blogosphere Buzz below for a link to a contest where you can win a manuscript critique from publisher Elizabeth Law!

Now for some Blogosphere Buzz:
  • If your burning question (see above) has to do with the current market trends in children's literature, instead of asking us, read this post by author/agent Mandy Hubbard. Here's an exerpt: "editors are really short on MG and feel this market is primed to boom in the way YA has."
  • Would you like a chance to win a 30-page manuscript critique from Egmont publisher Elizabeth Law? Then head over to the Cynsations blog! And while you're there, be sure to read Cynthia's great interview with Elizabeth and author Allen Zadoff.
  • I recently stumbled upon the YA Historical Fiction Challenge over at the YA Bliss blog. If you enjoy reading middle-grade and YA historicals, check it out.
  • Speaking of challenges, the annual 48-Hour Book Challenge hosted at the MotherReader blog will be here June 3-5. Sign up is already open.
  • Congratulations to all the SCBWI Crystal Kite Winners! Beginning this week the SCBWI market blog is featuring a series of interviews with all the winners. Today's interview happens to be with my friend and fellow VC grad, Ann Angel, author of Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing. Hurray, Ann!
Happy writing!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Outfoxing the Summer Reading List Blues

Summer is just around the corner. How do I know? Because at least once an hour, the TV reminds me that summer won't be worth living unless I drop a size or two; or a National Tutoring Chain assures me my child's brain will turn into a blank slate over the summer. (I especially like the commercial with equations and words tumbling out of the ears of some hapless kid.)
    For those of you who don't watch as much TV as I do (guilty, guilty, guilty), the first sign of summer might be The Summer Reading List. I say might because I usually find my daughter's Summer Reading List crumpled under the couch about mid-July. If your child springs forth on the last day of school, waving the SRL and demanding to go to the library right now...which is the kind of kid I might want to skip on down to the Writer's Workout.
     Although I was willing to read what the school district thought every third grader should read, I usually lost my enthusiasm by book two or three. I am an omnivorous reader, and always have been. Yet, somehow, the Literary Poobahs in Curriculum Development managed to come up with twenty of the dullest books available for the grade level; Newbery winners, biographies about Important Men (always men, never women) and "classics" of dubious value. But I had to read at least one all the way through, because the first assignment on the first day of school (after the "What-I-Did-On-My-Summer-Vacation" essay) would be a book report on one of the summer list books. Not once did any teacher ask if I liked the book. The point was that words passed before my eyes at some point of those three months.
     In my child's school district, book reports have gone the way of the Walkman. Reading is "encouraged" by taking computerized multiple choice tests on Certain Books Approved by the Company Who Sells the Test Software. Certain books are assigned so many points. (I will save my opinion of this sort of thing for another day and rant, but I will tell you that I couldn't pass the test on Yankee Girl...and I wrote the book!)
    In short, up until high school, the emphasis is on plot, characters and the odd nitpicky fact. No one ever asked if we liked the book, or not until, my sophomore English teacher. That was a real loser of a year as far as required reading: Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables (before Broadway ditched all the boring parts and added some great music).  Where other teachers acted personally insulted when we didn't froth with delight over Evangeline or The Scarlet Letter, Miss Strain cared.  We didn't have to like a book or a character, but we better have a reason why. "Just 'cause" or "It's dumb" were not acceptable reasons. Without telling us, she introduced us to the concept of critical reading.
     Many, many years pass. I become a librarian. I read constantly, almost unconsciously. I taught myself to speed read in college, so I blew through dozens of books a month. When I finished, I sometimes had the feeling I had just wasted my time. Other books, I loved so much I had to force myself to slow down and savor every word. Yet, all the time I recommended books to readers (or not), I could not tell you why I did or did not like a book. I assumed that if I didn't like a book, it must be my fault, that I just didn't get it. After all, this writer had a book published, and I didn't.
    Many years pass and I finally get the guts to enter an MFA in Writing for Children program.  Almost the first thing we newbies are told is that we will be doing a lot of reading. . .and critiquing.  Criticism of the educational variety was something that had not crossed my mind since my days in Miss Strain's class.
    "To be a writer, you have to learn to read like a writer," we were told.
    Uh-oh.  No more reading for entertainment or points or book reports. We were to read, thoughtfully, mindful of what did or did not ring true for us as a reader.  While it was hard for me to slow down, I was allowed the freedom to dislike a book. I was allowed to listen to those little voices that told me that this character wouldn't speak like this, or that a boy wouldn't act that way. One of the most consistent "little voices" were the ones that said that although a book was set in contemporary times, the characters talked and thought a lot like I did at that age, forty years ago.
      I am sometimes asked "Doesn't that ruin reading for you?" No. For one thing, I don't read every book that way.  But learning to read and write critically taught me more about writing than anything else I learned in the program.   Francine Prose has an excellent book on the subject (for adults), How to Read Like a Writer.

    Writer's Workout

      Everybody is a critic, although at my house, my daughter's critiquing skills are most evident at the dinner table.  Her first spoken sentence was "This is too spicy," (she somehow learned this was an acceptable way of saying "yuck.") It has remained her staple "no thank you," even if she is offered oatmeal.

      Keeping a critic's journal is a nice break from the usual observational journal, or those "writing prompt journals. Ideally, it would be great to tie the critic essay to a book, but I have had students critique everything from graphic novels to video games to movies to books on tape/CD. I make it a point to not use the word "journal"(smacks of school) or "diary" (implies you are about to dig into their secret souls).

I think anything you can get a student to do that involves reading/writing during the summer is nothing less than a miracle. However, I do have a few guidelines (I never use the world "rules.")

1. The student can critique any medium they want (although it is best to avoid critiquing the efforts of family members, although a restaurant meal is fair game.) And it's best to start the process as a conversation. (This exercise will probably not work for anyone over fourteen when students' vocabulary shrinks to single syllables. A group discussion might work better...depending on the kind of student you have.)

2. The writer is allowed to say that something stinks, is stupid, is awesome, bites (whatever is acceptable language in your family/class/group). However, the generality then has to be broken down into specificities.  For instance--the special effects were awesome. Then encourage the writer a bit more: What was awesome about the special effects? Were they real or computer generated or could you tell? The hamburger was awful...was it too greasy, too drippy, didn't taste like a hamburger? What did it taste like?

3.  At some point, you convince your student that his opinion was so well thought out, why doesn't he write it down in this notebook?

4. I especially like to have students read a book, then see the movie version and have them compare the two.  It doesn't work the other way around....the idea is to have the student form his own mental version of the book before seeing the movie. I have found that in almost every instance the student prefers the book version if it is read first. (This apparently doesn't apply to the Twilight Series. However, my students could go on forever as to why The Lightening Thief, the book, was so much better than the movie.) Again, make sure the comparisons are specific. Did the movie leave out your favorite character or scene? Why do you think the screenwriter did this?

5. For those long car trips, turn off the DVD player for a change (if you have one) and put on a book on tape.  My daughter is dyslexic and was always frustrated at the huge gap between what she could actually read and what she could understand. This is how we "read" Harry Potter, The Narnia Chronicles, Holes, Hoot and almost everything Beverly Cleary ever wrote.  (My personal and unasked for opinion is that Neal Patrick Harris and Stockard Channing made the best Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby, ever)  Even my husband, who is not a big reader, enjoyed listening. Some of these can be compared to the movie version, but some (like Henry Huggins) should be heard just for the fun of it.

Remember fun? Summer? Nothing is more fun than having adults ask for and listen to your opinion. Then, as a former teaching colleague used to say "you have to 'fox' the kids into learning."

Happy "foxing"
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

P.S. from Carmela: Don't forget that the deadline to enter our Blogiversary Critique Giveaway is 11 pm (CST) Tuesday, May 17, 2011. That's tomorrow! Don't miss your chance to win a critique from one of the TeachingAuthors. See our Blogiversary post for details.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Remembering a Tree...Happy Poetry Friday!

Happy Poetry Friday!
Jama Rattigan's hosting Poetry Friday at Alphabet Soup ~ thanks, Jama!
And here's the upcoming Poetry Friday Schedule.

Raise your hand if you knew that the United Nations proclaimed May 22 International Day for Biological Diversity..and that 2011 is International Year of Forests.  Me neither!  To get you in the mood, watch the UN's beautiful 30-second video, Forests In Our Everyday Lives, created by "an adolescent" (I can't find out who this teen is...if you can, let me know...):
All this got me thinking--what forests do I know personally?  Well...I've known some pretty wonderful trees in my time. So, naturally, I wrote a poem.

by April Halprin Wayland

I wish I could FaceBook our old avocado.  
She held out her arms for us to climb
when I was nine.

My sister dubbed her The Ubbery Tree;
we knighted my sister our Ubbery Queen—
her crown was green.

We stepped in the middle of our tree tent,
crunched on brown leaves and sticks and dirt,
we smelled raw earth.

We searched for her fruit, climbed her scaly branches,
rode her dragon-grey trunk, holding on tight
in filtered light.

We crushed glossy leaves between our fingers,
then breathed her spicy, licorice perfume
in our leafy room.

I wish I could FaceBook our old avocado tree.
She held out her arms for us to climb
when I was nine.x
(c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved
photo by Amanda Wray

WRITING WORKOUT: Remembering A Special Tree

1) Read tree poems.  You might read some of these.
2) Close your eyes.  Breathe.  Think back; remember a tree.
3) Jot down as many memories about the tree as you can.  Scribble wildly about the smells, about each sense.
4) You're looking for real details.  The ants.  The nest.  A little dead hatchling under the tree. Fruit-juice dribbling down your chin.
5) If you can find a similar tree, go to it now.  Lie under it and look up, run your fingers along its branches, crush and smell its leaves, climb it.
6) I couldn't go back to my tree, so I went to Google images and typed in various combinations of the words, avocado tree, trunk, branches, climb.  I found the terrific photo of the squirrel in the avocado this way (and met generous Amanda Wray when I asked if I could use her photo.)  This photo brought back my tree and helped me remember more details.
7) Even young children will have a favorite tree.
8) If they cannot remember a tree--or if they live in an urban area and have no connection to trees, ask them to write about NOT having a tree memory...perhaps how it makes them feel, or what kind of tree they wish they had.  The key here is honesty...and to stay away from cliches. So if they're writing about an imagined tree, ask them to do research--go outside or go online.  Little, true details make all the difference.
9) Okay.  So now you have the raw material.  Now what?  I didn't know either.  I finally decided to write three-lined stanzas in which the last two lines rhymed.  In the end, the rhythm of each third line is the same. Try this...or find another poem you love and imitate the structure of that. Enjoy your tree memories!
I'd love to hear what tree you or your students chose to write about!

In the end, it's the specifics, the details that make a poem.
poem and drawing (c) April Halprin Wayland.  All rights reserved.
P.S: Remember to enter our Blogiversary critique give-away!--you have until 11 pm (CST) Tuesday, May 17, 2011!

P.P.S: A 28-minute cable TV interview when I was Out and About recently. (If only I'd cut my bangs!)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Announcing the Winner of our Camp K-9 Book Giveaway

The winner of our latest giveaway is Megan Bickel, who blogs at The Write-at-Home Mom. Congratulations, Megan!

Megan will be receiving an autographed copy of Mary Ann's terrific new picture book, Camp K-9.
Megan posted that she plans to share the book with her three boys. I'm sure they'll all enjoy it.

A big THANK YOU to all who participated in the contest. Don't forget, there's still time to enter our Second Annual Blogiversary Critique Giveaway. You could win won of two manuscript critiques. See this post for all the details.

And, as always, happy writing!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Little Illinois: You Put Me In A Happy State!

Please help me welcome my newest book, the board book Little Illinois.
The book’s lively illustrations are courtesy of wildlife artist Michael Glenn Monroe.
It’s the latest entry in Sleeping Bear Press’ Little State series.
Each Little book in the series shares 10 rhyming riddles that introduce the very youngest of readers to a particular state’s symbols and identifying features. Brightly-painted clues frame each riddle.

I’ve been smiling-smiling-smiling since Sleeping Bear Press invited me to write the Illinois entry for this series.
Forgive the pun, but little did my publisher and editor know: I’ve been preparing for this moment since I was 9 years old!

My state, when my fifth grade teacher Miss Smiley (I swear that was her name!) at Overbrook Elementary School in West Philadelphia assigned each of us a U.S. state, oh, so long ago, Alaska and Hawaii were relatively new? Illinois, the Land of Lincoln!
I used my very best penmanship to write my perfectly formatted business letter to The State of Illinois, Springfield, Illinois, requesting materials to share with my class.
I can still remember waiting at the top of my Philadelphia home’s steps, hoping my mailman's worn brown leather bag held my package.
Once my Illinois-postmarked manila envelope arrived, I read the colorful pamphlets, memorized the state symbols, the state capital, the largest city, the crops and famous Presidents, then shared my information with my classmates.
Miss Smiley awarded me an A for my presentation. :)

Miss Smiley and that treasured package traveled my mind as I drove west, college diploma in hand, through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, to Illinois, to “the city by the lake that stands sky-high.” I was off to teach fifth grade (!), serenaded by the “purdy-purdy-purdy” of Illinois’ very own red-feathered state bird. Several Augusts in a row I drove south to the state capital to that “summer party with show cows and pigs.” Along the way, I passed Illinois’ “golden-petal-ed “Hi!”-waving prairie flowers and farmers’ fields ripe with tall, kernel-ed stalks.

O, the joy I had writing Little Illinois.
(The state’s last syllable made for a celebratory intro and conclusion.)
My most difficult challenge? Illinois is the Land of Lincoln. How could I introduce Abraham Lincoln to 3 and 4 yr. olds?

The penny connection had me smiling again.

                         I’m small and round,
                        Worth but a cent.
                        Turn me over.
                        See a president!

Who knows? Maybe William Penn and cheese-steaks and the Liberty Bell would have had me smiling too, had Sleeping Bear Press invited me to write Little Pennsylvania.

                       Ten little riddles!
                       Oh, the joy!
                       Clap and shout,
                       “Hurray for (Little) Illinois!”

Enjoy! Enjoy!
Esther Hershenhorn

The Chicago Public Library is this book’s designated give-away recipient!

Don't forget our Second Blogiversary Critique Give-away!

Don't forget our give-away of Mary Ann Rodman's newest book, Camp K-9!
The deadline is 11 pm Wednesday, today!

 Writing Workout - How to Write a Riddle!

 According to Merriam-Webster, a riddle is “a mystifying, 
 misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be
 solved or guessed.”

Try your hand presenting a subject – Your School, Your Classroom, Your City, Mother Goose rhymes, Fairy Tales, The American Revolution, Geometry, Story elements - via riddles, even rhyming riddles.

Brainstorm your subject's essential components and/or identifying features.
Next choose your top five or top ten components/features.
Create at least 3 clues that make answering each riddle easy/possible.
Compose the riddle in narrative first, then try rhyme.

ReadWriteThink offers the following instructional links:
Write Your Own Riddle
What Am I? Writing Riddle Poems

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ham the Ham

First things first:

Don't forget our second blogiversary critique giveaway! Details at:

And enter our book giveaway for Mary Ann's new release, Camp K-9!

Good luck!


So... momentous moment in our household of writer types! My four-year-old wrote his first note the other day – unprompted and perfect.

[Translation: “I luv Kate.”]

You wouldn’t know it from all the fighting heard around our house this weekend, but hey.

In fact, Patrick is currently in a phase (I hope) in which at least 20% of what he says is completely made up. I asked him to describe a book he read the other day, and the fantastical account that I got led me to believe that he either A) has no idea what he read or B) decided he could make up a much better story. (After enduring a zillion easy readers about ‘nibs’ and ‘vats’ and all manner of CVC words that mean little to preschoolers, I am pulling strongly for the latter.)

His elder sister, on the other hand, is mostly a staunch realist these days (apart from the occasional game of Superhero and her steadfast belief that someday she will indeed fly). She brought home from kindergarten this week the most perfect writing assignment of all time.

Ham is a (stuffed) English Bulldog. He comes with his own carrying case, bone, leash, collar, bedtime books, and journal. He goes home with a different student each weekend and comes back to school with a full report on his weekend activities.

Because we are one of the last families to have Ham (and boy, have I heard about that!), we had the privilege of reading most of Kate's classmates’ tales. These were generally factual accounts peppered with some fun leaps of faith: Ham misses the teacher. Ham enjoyed a mac and cheese dinner. Ham made a puddle on the floor (three, in fact).

The delicate melding of fact and fiction is, let's be honest, something we do in our lives every day. How often do we embellish, do we add or remove detail to make our point most effectively? Creative non-fiction and biographically based fiction (“write what you know”) have a lot more in common than we might like to admit.

I always tell my students that the fact. vs. opinion vs. fiction dichotomy is more of a continuum -- much blurrier than we often realize.  Into which category, for example, does The Bible fall?

When I wake up from a hazy dream – as occurs frequently since I can’t remember my last uninterrupted night of sleep – and later can’t remember whether something was real or a figment of my imagination – if I were anyone but a writer, I might think I was losing my mind. As a writer, I think -- good! My unconscious is working on a story for me!

Writing Workout
1. Write a 250-word account of an event that's happened to you within the last 24 hours.
2. Change one specific detail to make your story more vivid or interesting.
3. Finally, keep a nugget of truth from your story and rewrite the whole thing so that it's almost entirely fictional.
Which is your favorite version?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Buddies, Bullies and Blankies

     Roxie and her pals sat in my "possibilities" file while I wrote and sold two more picture books, and researched my next novel. I kept thinking of one of my first editors who told me "There's a story in there somewhere." She was referring to Yankee Girl, which, at that point, I had been writing for over three years. I knew there was a story in Camp K-9. . . somewhere.
    I would like to say that I had one big "Aha!" moment and found that story.
    I didn't. Instead, I had a lot of little "Oh" moments.
    One "oh"came when I realized that most of my camping experience had been as a counselor. I was fourteen when I had my only experience as a camper.  I thought of Roxie as an eight-year-old in "people years." Most of my personal camp memories would have to go.
    Great.  My manuscript was vanishing, not growing.
    Another "oh" moment came while stuck in Atlanta traffic, which happens at least once a day.  I was planning a writing exercise for one of young writers' day camps. I decided I would have them write about their most precious possession.  I needed to give them an example of something or someone you are deeply attached to. I didn't want a lot of essays on X-Boxes or their latest birthday present.  What had been my most precious possession?
    From nowhere (because I wasn't thinking all that hard) I thought "my quilt." When I was born, my Grandmother Rodman made me a quilt from corduroy remnants. It was the size of a twin bed coverlet. I wasn't as bad as Linus and his blankie, but I dragged "the Quilt" everywhere.  I called it "Meemaw's Quilt" after it's creator. After I started school, the Quilt left the house only for road trips and sleepovers.  Since everyone took bedrolls to sleepovers (in the days before pink My Little Pony sleeping bags) no one ever noticed the quilt.
      I had taken it to that 8th grade camp, rubbing on s particular corner, worn velvet soft, comforting myself to sleep.
     I had just enough time to scribble "M'maws quilt" on a Wal-Mart receipt before the traffic on Georgia 400 once again took off like the Indie 500.
     I was actively thinking about Roxie as I was taking the MARTA train to the airport one day. Specifically, the conflict between Roxie and Lacy. Lacy was a bigger dog. Would that be enough to make her so disagreeable?  Would it be enough for Roxie to fear her?
    The answer; no. What if Roxie had a secret she didn't want anyone to know, especially not Lacy?
    I heard the voice of one of the many superstar writers I had listened to over the years.  I don't remember who it was, but the voice said "It isn't enough to get your character into a jam.  You have to put them in as much peril as you can without killing them. And remember, they have to figure it out for themselves. No fairy godmothers, no magic genies coming to the rescue."
    Now the voice didn't say that the Situation (not the one from Jersey Shore) must be life-or-death. The character didn't have to be tied to the train tracks with a locomotive roaring in her direction. "You find  the worst thing to happen to your character. It might not be life-or-death for you, the reader, but you must understand how perilous this is for him/her."
    Not an "aha" moment...just another question I couldn't answer. I scrawled "life or death for Roxie" on a Walgreens receipt before I was shoved out by the crowd at the Airport Station.
    That night I was in an unfamiliar city, trying to sleep in an unfamiliar bed. I always fret over these presentations, no matter how many times I have done them before. A good bed helps. I recall with fondness a room in Miami with one of those cloud-like coverlets and a pillow to support every part of your body, and fabulous Egyptian cotton sheets.
    Well, some schools and organizations have more money than others.  This bed had the scratchiest linen ever and feather pillows.  I am allergic to feather pillows. The TV didn't get Comedy Central.  I can't sleep without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Oh, and the thermostat was one of those locked ones, and the room temperature hovered in the low 80's. Yeah, I was really going to be on the ball in the morning.  I left The Weather Channel on and wished for something, anything to comfort me to sleep. Like Meemaw's Quilt.
    At that moment, sweaty and half asleep, the Big AHA shot through my brain. Of course, Roxie would not Lacy to know about her blankie, but what if...?  And what was camp really all about anyway? I opened my computer and typed away with The Weather Channel droning in the background. This time I knew I had nailed it, and the good folks at Peachtree agreed and bought it.  And it only took four years.
    Some of my fellow writers never read their reviews.  I do, because quite frequently the reviewer will tell me what my book was really about. For instance, A Tree for Emmy is about the deadly sameness of suburban life, feminism and ecology...none of which crossed my mind while I was writing it.
    So far, the reviewers have told me that Camp K-9 is "a cosy tale of friendship" which, in the end, was what I was aiming for. But another review stopped me short when it mentioned it was a story of how to deal with the growing problem of bullyism. Really? Hmm. I guess it is.  I was just telling a story about dogs having a good time at camp.
    As for Meemaw's quilt, I still have it, as carefully preserved as my wedding dress. Why?  Because I always want to be reminded of that eight-year-old who could soothe away her troubles by stroking a corduroy quilt.

Don't forget our second blogiversary critique giveaway. Details at:

And if you want to find out more about Roxy and Lacy, enter our book giveaway for Camp K-9. 
See Monday's post for further information.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Meet Roxie, Lacy and Pearl the Pug

      When I get a writing idea, I usually live with it awhile before I start working.  ("Awhile" could be two weeks or two years.)  I never sit down right then and plough into it.
      Except sometimes. Especially if it has been awhile between good ideas. This was one of those times.  I had a character I already knew very well (Nilla) and more than enough scenes for a 32 page book. I banged away at the computer far into the night. What's more I finished it! In one sitting!  I went to bed, wondering which of my editors I would "grace" with my genius.
     I wait a couple of days before re-reading a picture book manuscript. You know, long enough to catch a bug here and there. I figured Camp K-9 needed so little "de-bugging," I would mail it that day.
    Hmm. This manuscript seemed unusually long for something that was supposed to be under 800 words. (I know editors like them shorter than that, but I have never which managed less than 775.)  I read on and on, then hit the word count command.
     2500 words. Gulp.
     I wasted three pages (usually the length of the entire manuscript) with a story "frame":  Nilla belonged to a little girl and this would be the first time they had ever been apart, and there was a wizard who turned the kennel into Camp K-9 every night and blah, blah, blah. What was I thinking?  I never use story frames, not even in novels.
    Things went from bad to worse when I realized that I had written a YA picture book for seven-year-olds.  For thirty seconds, I considered turning it into a graphic novel...until I remembered that I
can't draw.  And what editor would buy a graphic novel about a Valley Girl dog and her friends?  Who would read it?
   My hand hovered over the delete key.  I didn't want to give up on Nilla. I liked the title Camp K-9.  I would simply write about Nilla as a puppy.
    The trick to writing a picture book (if you are not your own illustrator) is to include a lot of action scenes to give the artist something to work with.  After three hours I had only two Nilla puppy memories.  She would fall asleep across your shoes, thus trapping you in place until she woke up. And whenever you came home, she would be so excited she would pee at your feet (not on them, thank goodness.) Not great visuals. And worse, no story.
    Sigh. I deleted Camp K-9, except for the title.  There would be a book called Camp K-9 some day.  Just not this day.
     Months went by with Camp K-9 in my mental "creative crockpot."  I had a critique group meeting coming up, and no manuscript to contribute. I re-opened the empty Camp K-9 file.
    Maybe the real Nilla was getting in the way of a fictional one.  I changed her name to Roxie, the name of the boxer who lived down the street. I suddenly realized that almost everyone I knew had a dog.
A dog with a human name;  apparently people don't name dogs Spot and Skippy any more. I quickly had a roster of dog campers with names like Bea and Hannah. I didn't specify breeds for any of the dogs, save two;  Lacy, who was a standard poodle who lived across the street. Since I planned for her to be "the mean girl," I thought the combination of a breed known for being "a chick dog" along with her sweet name, would be hilarious. The other "real dog" was Pearl the Pug, who incidentally belongs to Emmy of A Tree for Emmy fame.
     Once, I had those dog names, I could see them, doing all sorts of things that canine campers would do;  hiking, swimming, making paw-print crafts. Yeah, I gave my future illustrator a lot to work with.
I counted the days until critique group.
     "And now, Mary Ann's picture book," said the group leader. Was I being paranoid or was everyone taking a long time to find my manuscript in their files?  "Who wants to start?" asked the leader.
     Long silence. Someone's chair creaked. A throat cleared. A little nose blowing.  Usually, we all had a million things to say, suggest, critique and couldn't wait to say them. This loud silence was not a good sign.
     Someone said they liked the dog names.  Another long pause. Someone else said that the illustrations would be "cute." My toes curled. I hate the word "cute."
     Finally, the bravest of us said "This isn't a book."
     My heart dropped.  How many times had I heard that particular criticism?   A lot.
     "You have a bunch of dogs running around doing stuff at camp, then they go home. So what?"
     Disappointed as I was, I knew she was right.  There was no conflict, no tension. Sure, Lacy and Roxie had a few run-ins, but they had no resolution.
     "Maybe this isn't your kind of book," someone suggested in a kind way.  "You write good novels.  Maybe you should stick to novels."
       This person is a friend, and I know she meant to be encouraging, but it wasn't. It just made me more determined that I would not waste perfectly good characters like Roxie, Lacy and Pearl the Pug.
       There would be a Camp K-9.  Some day.

Don't forget our second blogiversary critique giveaway at

And don't miss out on a chance of winning an autographed copy of Camp K-9
See Monday's post for further information.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hooray, It's May; We're Giving Another Book Away!

     The above title should tell you why I rarely attempt poetry!
     The book for our latest giveaway is Camp K- 9 (Peachtree Publishers) by yours truly, with the most wonderfully funny illustrations by Nancy Hayashi. By now, you have probably figured out that this is a picture book about dogs going to camp, but more about that on Wednesday.
    Believe it or not, this book took me four years to write because I was stepping outside my comfort zone.
    What comfort zone? you might ask.  You've written picture books before. Lots of them.
   Ah, yes, but within the picture book genre, there is the book I find the most intimidating (besides anything that rhymes!) 
    I call them "talking critter" books, where the animals act as surrogate humans. Because some of my writing idols (Kevin Henkes, Carolyn Crimi and Lisa Wheeler) are masters of "the talking critter," I decided the field didn't need whatever measly effort I might produce.
    So what changed my mind?
   A dull Fourth of July neighborhood party. I was so hot and bored that I went home for the publisher's catalogs that I kept tossing on my desk to read "later."
   It was later.
   I was struck by how many "talking critter" books were in the picture books section, and how few involved real children (my genre). It hit me that if I was going to stay in this business, I better learn to write critter books and soon.
   The trouble is my creative brain doesn't look at a cat and see a barrio feline, whipping up dinner for his new neighbors, a family of mice, as in Gary Soto's hilarious Chato's Kitchen.  I see my psychotic cat, Rosie, doing cat things; sleeping, eating, chewing my face off because I am late with her grub. Not picture book material.
    Then I remembered our first dog, Nilla. Now she was a character. Nilla already thought she was human, and we thought of her the same way.
   When we got married, my husband wasn't at all sure I could handle motherhood, despite the fact that I had been school librarian, responsible for lots of kids every day for ten years.  Our pound puppy was supposed to be my surrogate baby. Really. If puppy turned out OK, it was assumed I would do equally well with a human baby.  Really.
   Nilla was part cocker, part spitz, so when asked, I said she was a pure bred "spitzer" (I will resist an Elliott Spitzer joke here.) Because she was pure white, and because the rapper Vanilla Ice (remember him?) was on Saturday Night Live that weekend, I named her Vanilla Ice, which soon became Nilla.
   Even as a puppy, Nilla seemed like a human teen-ager. We imagined that she hung out with Paula Abdul and the Laker Girls (we're talking early '90's here). We imagined she'd swiped our car keys to hang out at the mall with her "girls."  But most of all, I remembered Nilla going to "camp."
   I don't remember the actual name of the kennel, but I do remember its logo; a dog carrying a tennis racquet, golf clubs and a suitcase. "See," I told my guilty husband.  "We're not deserting Nilla to go on vacation. She's going to camp."
   We imagined what Nilla might do at camp. I thought she might French braid fur and give pedicures. My husband knew she was teaching the other "campers" poker, and that she probably cheated.
   Yeah, I thought, as I gathered my publisher's catalogs and headed for home, I can do this. I already have a great main character and premise.  I'll write a book about Nilla going to camp. I'll call it Camp K-9. I can write talking critter books, too.
   That was the easy part.  There is a part two. And three. Tune in Wednesday and Friday to learn about leaving your comfort zone (and freaking out), making mistakes (and fixing them!) See the instructions below to enter for your chance to win a copy of Camp K-9.

And don't Forget About Our Blogiversary Critique Giveaway
For details click this link:

To Enter Our Camp K-9 Book Giveaway: 
1. You must comment to today's post, telling us why you would like to win Camp K-9.  Will you be keeping it for yourself or sharing it with another young reader?
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 send us a valid email address in your comment.  Entries without contact information will be disqualified.  Note:  The TeachingAuthors cannot prevent spammers from accessing e-mail addresses posted within the comments, so feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions such as "dot" and "at." 
3.  You must send us your post by 11 pm (CST), Wednesday, May 11. Winner will be chosen at random via and announced on Thursday, May 12.  Note:  Winners automatically grant us permission to post their names here on the TeachingAuthors website.
4.  You must have a mailing address in the United States.
5.  You must respond to the notification e-mail and provide a mailing address within 72 hours, or the prize will be forfeited and an alternate winner chose.

Those are the official rules. If you feel like sharing a camp memory, that would be great, but certainly not required.
     To get the ball rolling here, I will share the only thing I remember about Girl Scout day camp.
     We had to make our own meals, and every day, dessert was boxed banana pudding. Every day, I would find boulders of unstirred pudding mix in my dish. To this day I shudder at the mention of banana pudding.

How about you?  It doesn't have to be sweet, embarrassing, or even super memorable (see "banana pudding.") Later on, you'll find out what camp means to Roxie, Camp K-9's main character.  
  I can't wait to hear from you.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman