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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer and her books are respected and loved by children, parents, educators, librarians, editors, and writers. She began her career as a novelist, turning to picture books later in her career. Celebrating the release of her newest picture book, the charming Winter Dance, we were curious about how she writes these short books so we asked! And this long-time teacher of other writers provided heartfelt answers.

Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer (photo credit: Katherine Warde)

If You Were Born a KittenWhen you sit down to write a picture book, what has inspired you?

Sometimes I begin with an idea I want to share.  If You Were Born a Kitten, for instance, comes out of my very impassioned belief that the miracle of birth is hidden from most young children in our society—from most of us, really.  I wanted to celebrate birth in a way that would show it both as miracle and as part of our solid, everyday reality. 

Sometimes the concept comes from something I read or something someone says to me. Winter Dance came from an editor’s saying, “What about celebrating the first snow?” 

But the actual picture book begins, always, with language.  I can’t even begin to flesh out my idea until the opening line is singing in my head.

The Longest NightDo you know the ending of your picture book before you begin to write?

I always know the end of a novel before I begin to write, and if a picture book is a story, I know the end of that, too. So when I began writing The Longest Night, I knew before I put down the first word that the little chickadee would bring back the sun. When I write concept books, though, like How Do I Love You?, I have to find my ending in the playing out of the language.

Do you write with a specific child in mind?

I write always for a child, and in the case of picture books for the adult who will be sharing the book, but I have no particular child in my heart … except maybe the small child I was so many years ago.

Do you envision the illustrations while you are writing?

I envision space for the illustrations, which is a very different thing. I don’t think what the illustrations will depict, specifically, and I certainly don’t think about what they will look like. That’s the artist’s territory. But I make sure I have created an active changing world for the illustrator to take hold of.

How much do you consider the level of the reader’s vocabulary when you write a picture book?

Honestly? Not at all. Because picture books are usually read to a child rather than by the child, I never consider vocabulary. Sometimes a totally new word is, in itself, a kind of enchantment for a child. Think of Peter Rabbit for whom lettuce had a “soporific” effect! No, I’ve never used the word soporific or anything like it, but isn’t it a wonderfully resonant word? 

I should add, though, that there is one basic rule I use with all of my writing.  I believe the best word in any piece of writing for any audience is always the simplest one.  Sometimes, though, that best word might just happen to be soporific.

Winter DanceDo you ever begin a picture book feeling at a loss for how to write it?

Yes, and when I do I always stop, set it aside, give it time. When it begins to sing to me—if it begins to sing to me—then there will be no more loss.

Winter Dance, my newest picture book, actually began with an editor’s committing to a picture book I had written about spring.  For a complicated series of reasons the text the editor contracted had to be altered substantially, and during that process, my drafts got farther and farther away from anything the editor wanted.  I mentioned earlier, it was the editor who finally came up with the idea that I write about the first snow instead.  Great idea, but first I had to find my fox, and I had to discover that foxes mate in winter so he would have a reason to rejoice over snow.  And then, of course, I had to find the song to carry him through.

What is the word length you aim for in a picture book?

A maximum of 450 words.  Even that can be too long for some books. 

You were best known for your novels for middle grade and teen readers. What influenced you to try a different book form for a different reader?

The truth is I always wanted to write picture books. In the beginning, I simply didn’t know how to write them, even though I had read them endlessly to my own children and to various foster children in my home. Picture books are a bit technical to learn, and I had no one to teach me. In fact, I started out trying to write picture books and discovered I didn’t know what I was doing. So I moved on and found it easier, not knowing what I was doing, to muddle through a novel. 

The other piece, though, was that my first editor, at a time when we  writers were owned by our first editors, said to me when I showed him what I thought was a picture-book manuscript, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer.” Now, he could legitimately have said, “Marion, that’s not a picture book.” Because it wasn’t. But even when the publishing world opened up and I did learn and began publishing successful picture books with other houses, he refused to alter his vision of me as only a novelist. So I have him to thank for my career getting established in novels. Picture books are so much fun, if he had been open to younger work from me, I probably would have been off playing with picture books much sooner.

___________________

Thank you, Marion, for sharing your thoughts about picture books in such an instructive way. We’re always happy to learn from you.

Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.

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A Kindle* of Cats

Phyllis: 

Luna

Phyllis Root’s cat, Luna

*Even though kindle means cats born in the same litter, the alliteration was hard to resist.

“All my work is done in the company of cats,” writes Nicola Bayley, wonderful picture book artist and writer, in her book The Necessary Cat.

I know what she means. Right now my cat Luna is sitting on the open copy of The Kittens’ ABC, clearly a cat of discerning literary taste.

Cats and writers seem to have a particular relationship. Cats wander in and out of our picture books, take naps on our keyboards, and curl up in our hearts. This month we looked at a few of the many picture books where cats play a role.

The Kittens' ABCI was introduced to Claire Turlay Newberry when I found a used copy of The Kittens’ ABC and was enchanted by her drawings of cats in which she captures them with a few lines in charcoal, pencil, and pastels. (Of her seventeen picture books, all but three are about cats.) The rhymes with each letter of this ABC are simple, but I could linger over those wise, playful, cozy pictures for hours. And if Luna has her way, curled up now on N is for Nap, I will.

Kittens like to take their naps
In boxes, bureau drawers, and laps;
Or else, along the sofa pillows,
In rows, like little pussywillows.

Green EyesAnother used book find is Green Eyes by A. Birnbaum, winner of a 1953 Caldecott honor. The story follows the first year of a springtime-born kitten’s life, from scrambling out of a large box to exploring the farm life around him—chickens, cows, pigs, goats. By the time leaves fall, followed by snow, the now almost grown cat fits more snugly in his box. The art is superb, strong black lines and bright colors. This is the only picture book Birnbaum both wrote and also illustrated, but his work appeared on The New Yorker covers over more than forty years. Scrolling through images of those covers, I found myself wishing he had illustrated a whole stack of picture books (two of my favorite images:  the woodpecker rattling away after a bug to feed the nest of little woodpeckers and the exuberant crocus in a pot).  

It’s hard for YouTube to do justice to the art, but you can see and hear Green Eyes, now reissued.

Millions of CatsMillions of Cats, written and illustrated by Wanda Gag, with double page spreads, black and white lithograph prints, and hand lettered text has been called the first true American picture book. Millions of Cats won a Newbery honor in 1929 (the Caldecott did not yet exist) and has been in print ever since. The text and art roll rhythmically through the story, and the smallest cat, who didn’t consider herself pretty enough to argue with the other cats about who was prettiest, is the only one left after the hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats fight so much they eat each other up. The littlest kitten, adopted  and loved by the little old lady and the little old man (cat owners might say the people were adopted by the kitten) becomes the prettiest cat of all.

Cats in Krasinski SquareCats are the heroes in The Cats in Krasnski Square by Karen Hesse, a fictional story based on a true story of cats helping outwit the Gestapo and smuggle food into the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.

The cats
come
from the cracks in the Wall,
the dark corners,
the openings in the rubble

With her older sister (all that is left of her family) the narrator, who escaped the Polish ghetto and now lives outside its walls, is part of the resistance smuggling food to Jews still imprisoned inside the ghetto, including her friend Michael.  When the resistance learns that the Gestapo is coming with dogs on leashes to sniff out the food arriving by train to be smuggled behind the walls, the narrator knows what to do:  round up as many cats as possible and take them to the station.  As the train arrives, the narrator and her friends  release the cats, which drives the dogs wild; during the distraction the food vanishes  from the station

through the Wall, over the Wall,  under the Wall,
into the Ghetto.

Wendy Watson, one of my favorite artists, illustrated the books in somber tones reflecting the gravity of the story, where acts of great courage can resist great darkness.

So many more cat books to love!  Here are a few to check out:

Cat books

All Archie says to the stray cat on the city sidewalk is, “Hi, Cat!” in Hi, Cat! by Ezra Jack Keats, but the cat follows him and manages to ruin every act of the show Archie and his friend Peter are putting on. Still, Archie decides that the cat “just kinda liked me!”

Cats aren’t mentioned in This is Our House by Hyewon Yum, but generations of cats and kittens weave in and out of the art of this deceptively simple story of immigration, family, and home.

Ginger written and illustrated by Charlotte Voake, is a tale of “sibling” rivalry when the cat of the house must deal with a new kitten.

Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes tells of a kitten who thinks the first full moon of her life is a bowl of milk in the sky, but all her efforts to drink that milk end in disaster.  Luckily, when she returns home, a bowl of milk is waiting just for her.

Lola and the Rent-a-Cat, written and illustrated by Ceseli Josephus Jitta, tells how Lola, whose husband of many years has died, finds a cat to belong to (and keep) through the Internet. Lola chooses number 313 Tim:

  • Homely, slightly older cat
  • Loves attention and care
  • Fond of diet food

Lola and Tim are together all the time, and she is able to recall the good memories as she and Tim sit on a bench in the evenings, and Tim purrs as she strokes him. 

October 29 is National Cat Day, but any day is a good day to curl up with a cat book (and a cat, if one is handy).

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A Vehicle for Change

Fallout ShelterI’d heard my mom talk about “duck and cover”: hiding under her school desk from a potential nuclear attack. And I’d participated myself in tornado drills during my own school days, lining up in a basement hallway with our arms covering our heads.

None of that prepared me for a lockdown drill. I was on one of my regular gigs as a visiting author when the teacher pulled me aside and prepped me on what to expect. Except it turns out there’s no prepping for the feeling that comes over you when you’re locked into a dark room with twenty-some kids crouching under desks, recognizing that you’re practicing in case someday, one of them decides to show up to school with a gun hidden under a peanut butter sandwich. It ranks as the most unsettling moment I’ve experienced during a school visit.

I’m certainly not alone in wishing we could find the way to permanently erase the need for lockdown drills. The one suggestion I can offer is something I know from firsthand experience: writing can provide a valuable outlet for young people who are grappling with life’s harshest realities. When I go into a school, I might be there for only a day or a week. And yet even in that very brief chance to work together, I’ve had students who’ve used their stories to share all sorts of sad and scary realities from their lives: pain over their parents’ divorce, bullying, betrayal by a friend, death, abuse, and fear. These students follow a long human tradition of using art to shed light into the dark corners of our existence.

And because I’ve seen what a difference it can make for a young person to share their own dark corners, I also believe that we could use art as one of the vehicles of change we’re looking for. As much as I understand the unhappy necessity for lockdown drills, I can only hope that we also remember to give students enough time to sit at their desks with the lights on, writing and creating the kind of art that illuminates us all. Maybe somehow giving them those opportunities will prove even more important than teaching them to crouch under their desks, waiting for the darkness to come and find them.

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Roadblocks

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Pigs Galore

This past September, after years of writing and teaching the writing of realistic YA fiction, I was pleased to launch into the world a set of four early chapter books. Not surprisingly, the challenge of telling a story in 1000 words instead of 60,000 was huge. It was not the only challenge.

Instead of focusing on a teen girl in turmoil, I was now writing about a talking pig. An athletic one, to boot: Gracie LaRoo, the youngest member of a championship synchronized swimming team. I can just hear the younger writer me: Anthropomorphism? You’re really gonna go there?

While developing Gracie and while writing her stories I was keenly aware she was joining a crowded field. There are a lot of pigs in children’s literature, and many of them have reached one-name celebrity status. Okay, Piglet, Freddy, Wilbur, Babe, and Olivia only ever had one name, but since their arrival on the scene have they ever needed more than that?

Character is everything in literature, and I was delighted to discover some fine new and new-to-me pigs. Like almost all the books I read and reread, my list can be divided into two types of books: farm pigs and pigs-as-people (i.e., full-blown anthropomorphism).

Pigs Might Fly  

Pigs Might Fly
written by Dick King-Smith

(Mary Rayner, illus; Puffin, 1990)

I loved this novel by the author of Babe: The Gallant Pig, and not just because the protagonist Daggie is a swimming pig like my Gracie. There’s a lovely balance of realistic farm life and talking-animal whimsy. Like most of the farm-story pigs, Daggie appears destined for the breakfast table. How can he avoid that fate? Daggie is a wonderful character; his delight in cooling off in a stream on a hot day is visceral. And does he ever fly? You think I’d tell you?

Adventures of a South Pole Pig  

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig
written by Chris Kurtz

(Jennifer Black Reinhardt, illus; HMH, 2015)

An outdoor survival story with a female protagonist–what’s not to love? Okay, Flora’s a pig, but still. Perhaps because the novel begins on a farm, I had no hesitation in accepting that what happens later in the story is precisely what would happen were a pig shipwrecked at the edge of Antarctica. One warning: the shipboard rats are very frightening.

 

The Pirate Pig

 

The Pirate Pig
written by Cornelia Funke

(Kerstin Meyer, illus; Yearling, 2015)

Funke is of course the imaginative author of many middle grade and YA novels. This story about a treasure-sniffing pig who is shanghaied into labor by two evil pirates is great fun; also, how can you resist a pig pirate named Julie?

Poppleton Has Fun  

Poppleton Has Fun
by Cynthia Rylant

(Mark Teague, illus; Harcourt School Publishers, 2006)

Animals of all types abound in stepped-reading sets and series, and pigs are especially well-represented. I pored over many and quickly tossed some aside. Thanks to Newbery winner Rylant’s deft characterization and pitch-perfect language, Poppleton emerges as the best, and in this book he quilts and takes a nice bath. Fun, indeed.

 

Did I miss your favorite pig? Please comment!

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Skinny Dip with Anne Broyles

Anne BroylesAuthor Anne Broyles is a world traveler, explorer, and social justice advocate who writes books about historical journeys, family traditions, and the immigrant experience.  

Who was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

My fifth grade teacher at Schumaker Elementary School, Mr. George Willems, encouraged me to think of myself as a writer through our weekly writing assignments. One week he put on a scary piece of music called “Danse Macabre” and asked us to write the story that came to us as we listened to the music. My story was about skeletons in the graveyard. Another week, he took us out on the playground to lie on our backs and use the clouds for inspiration. I still have a lot of the work I did in his class.

I have few regrets in life, but I do wish I had returned to the school to thank him for his encouragement, but by the time I was old enough to realize that this might have meant something to him, he was already gone.

What is your favorite part of starting a new project?

I love the initial inspiration of a new project, then the research into making sure my ideas, setting, language, and details are all accurate. For instance, in my research for my middle grade novel-in-progress, Plenty Powerful, I spent two weekends in Arthurdale, West Virginia, a planned community that Eleanor Roosevelt helped found during the Depression. I spent time with the real-life people who, had my character been an actual person, would have been her classmates. They told me what it was like to move from extreme poverty in mining camps to a place where they had homes, running water, electricity, and a sense of community. Those are the kinds of details I love to include in writing fiction..

grilled cheese and tomato soupFavorite lunch as a kid?

Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich.

Barefoot or shoes?

I grew up in Tucson, so I am definitely a thongs/sandals person. I feel sad when summer is over and I have to start wearing “real shoes.” Though I backpacked through Europe for seven months right after college and loved my heavy hiking boots so much, I sometimes slept in them after I got home!

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Like Anne Frank, I “believe, in spite of everything, that people& are truly good at heart.” I try to look for and find the light that is in everyone I meet.

Best invention of the last two hundred years?

The telephone, because it gave people opportunity to communicate with family and friends who were not geographically close. I use email and texts to stay in touch, too, of course, but there’s nothing as satisfying as hearing the voice of someone I love, and getting to have a back-and-forth conversation when we are apart.

Long Way DownBook on your bedside table right now?

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, which I just picked up today. I look forward to seeing how he pulls off the concept of “a novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.”

Your most cherished accomplishment?

I received a Youth Mentor Award from the League of United Latin American Citizens.

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From Gridlock to Road Trip

gridlock

If you were stuck in bumper to bumper gridlock, heading south on Hwy 100 last week, you may have noticed a woman laughing all alone in her car as she waited patiently (with eyes on the road) for things to start moving again. The very next day you might have caught a glimpse of that same lady wiping a tear or two from her cheek, again, staying attentive to the traffic. This emotional driver wasn’t reacting to the road congestion or the fact that her time behind the windshield was double what it should be. The source of her amusement and sadness was coming from her car radio speakers, more specifically, the audiobook Gone Crazy in Alabama, written by Rita Williams-Garcia, narrated by Sisi A. Johnson. That captivated listener/careful motorist was me, making the most of rush hour by savoring a story that begs to be heard in audio format.

Gone Crazy in AlabamaThe Gaither sisters, Delphine, Vonetta and Fern, along with Big Ma, their grandmother, and Ma Charles, their great grandmother, joined me for the commute down Hwy 100 for about a week. The combination of exquisite writing by Ms. Williams and enthralling narration by Ms. Johnson transformed several days of difficult maneuvering on the interstate to an extended road trip with some of my very best friends. There was even one morning when I finally arrived at the school parking lot only to have to pull myself away from my vehicle, after telling myself “Just five more minutes to finish this chapter!”

In addition to Gone Crazy in Alabama, I have enjoyed nearly three dozen other audio titles in the past year. My top recommendations stand out for their memorable and engaging narrations. Other than The Hate U Give (most appropriate for age 12+), these audiobooks would be great additions to middle grade (4th-6th) classrooms.

All American Boys by Brenden Kiely and Jason Reynolds

Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

The Hate U Give by Angela Thomas

Listen, SlowlyListen Slowly by Thanhha Lai

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

Refugee by Alan Katz

Reign Rain by Ann M. Martin

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

My all-time favorite audiobook adventure was Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan. With a running time of ten and a half hours, this masterpiece is well worth every minute spent taking in the captivating tale of magic, mystery and harmonica music. The fate of three children is interwoven from Germany to the United States, from the Rise of Hitler to post-Pearl Harbor as the harmonica plays an integral role in the characters’ connections and the book’s conclusion. I am convinced that the audio production of Echo offers a unique and memorable experience that is beyond comparison to either the read aloud or independent reading option. Whether Echo becomes your first audiobook or lands at the top of your existing “to be listened to” list, you will not be disappointed (well, perhaps you will be, but only because it has to come to an end).

If you are looking for other great audio picks, consider the award winners chosen by YALSA and ALSC.

The Odyssey Award sponsored by YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) recognizes the best audiobook produced each year for children and/or young adults. In 2016, the Honor Recording was Echo.

In addition to the Odyssey Award winners, a longer list of exemplary audio recordings are offered annually on the Notable Children’s Recordings list, selected by the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children). In 2011, One Crazy Summer was recognized.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on a powerful quote from Kylene Beers from Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading; “Nonfiction lets us learn more; fiction lets us be more.” This is what I want most for young readers and I bet you do as well.  Yet, like me, you might wonder just how many of our kids have ever experienced this powerful aspect of fiction? I believe that for some, if not many, exceptional audiobooks may be the ticket to helping kids be more through the books they experience. There was a time in my teaching career when I didn’t give audiobooks and their listeners the credit they deserve. I have come to appreciate the aural reading experience both personally and professionally. I hope you feel the same.

Resources that promote access to audiobooks:

Epic!

Epic! is the leading digital library for kids, with unlimited access to an incredible selection of 25,000 high-quality books, learning videos, quizzes and more. You can access Epic! on any device, including your smartphone, iPad or computer—FREE for educators!

Overdrive

Borrow eBooks, audiobooks, and more from your local public library—anywhere, anytime. All you need is a library card.

Scribd

Scribd is a reading subscription that is available anytime and on any device. Enjoy access to 3 books and 1 audiobook each month—plus unlimited access to magazines and documents—for $8.99/month.

Skybrary

Skybrary is a carefully curated, ever expanding interactive library of digital books and video explorations designed to engage young readers and foster a love of learning.

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Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I have had the pleasure of entertaining a few young writers in my office in the last couple of months. They come with a Mom, usually. (My office doesn’t really hold more than three people at a time.) These Moms are so thankful that I would do this “generous thing” of having them over that I feel almost guilty. Because I do it for me. These writers, most of whom have not hit the double digits in age yet, are such an inspiration for me.

We often share our WIPs (works-in-progress). Theirs is beautiful, because they are almost always illustrators as well as writers. Some write picture books only, but some cross over into illustrated chapter books, filling notebook upon notebook. I usually show them some mess I’m working on, and although they’re polite, I can tell they’re startled (or amused) that I don’t have my act more together.

We discuss process. I ask them if they write most every day and they say things like, “Of course.” And “I use my free time in class efficiently.” These kids leave and I have the urge to clean my office, start a new notebook and calendar, and get my act together. They are good for my soul.

They usually try my Wesk (Walking Desk) and they spend a lot of time looking at my bookshelves. This is how I know they’re serious writers—they’re serious readers. I tell them this. And they nod smartly or look at me with the “Duh!” look on their face. Mostly we talk about newer books—those published within their lifetime—that we love. But I had one young writer recently who kept remarking on the books of my childhood.

Ramona the Brave! I love Ramona…. The Borrowers! Remember when we read that when we were visiting your friend, Mom? Wind in the Willows! I like Mr. Toad….”

And then she spied Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. She pulled it off the shelf and scrutinized the cover. “Is this the same Mrs. Frisby we have?” she asked her mother, doubt and suspicion in her young voice. Her mother answered that it was, this one just had a different cover. “Was this yours when you were a girl like me?” she asked, her eyes darting my way but then immediately back to Mrs. Frisby in her modest red cloak on the cover.

“No,” I said. “This was my son’s copy.” The cover says: Celebrating the 35th anniversary of NIMH. It’s not nearly as well done as the art on the original, which I had—the book is nearly as old as me.

“This does not look like Mrs. Frisby,” she said, her nose scrunched up in disapproval.

“I don’t think so either,” I said. For the life of me, I do not know why they redid the cover. Zena Bernstein’s gorgeous (pen and ink?) drawings are still inside the book. Why did they change the cover to something that looks so…blah for the 35th anniversary?

“She looks…pretend.

Right. I remember so clearly being this young writer’s age, and my second grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, reading us the story after recess each day. This was my favorite part of the day. I just fell into the world of Mrs. Frisby and her wee family in such danger in their cozy cinderblock home. There was nothing pretend about it. Young Timothy had pneumonia—I’d had pneumonia and I knew exactly what that felt like. I wheezed along with Timothy in solidarity. I remember visiting the Rats of NIMH with Mrs. Frisby, and my heart pounding with hers as she delivered the sleeping powder into the cat’s dish.

“I mean, I know it is pretend,” said my young visiting writer. “Technically. But it doesn’t feel pretend when you’re reading it.” She pushed the book back into my overcrammed bookshelf. “That’s the kind of book I want to write.”

Me, too, sweetheart. Me, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Young Writers Need an Authentic Audience

bored writerFor me, writing nonfiction is a fun adventure. A game to play. A puzzle to solve. A challenge to overcome.

But many students don’t feel the same way. According to them, research is boring. Making a writing plan is a waste of time. And revision is more than frustrating. It’s downright painful.

Why do young writers have a point of view that’s so completely different from mine? While there’s probably no single answer to this question, one thing that’s missing for young writers is an authentic audience.

When I begin writing, I know exactly who my audience is—kids, of course, but also the adults who put the books in the hands of children. I’m excited to share information with my audience, and I hope they’ll find it as fascinating as I do.

I know people are reading my books because I see reviews online and in journals. Eventually, I see sales figures. Kids respond by sending me letters, by asking probing questions at school visits and, sometimes, by dragging their parents to book signings. Teachers and librarians respond via social media and by inviting me to their schools and conferences.

These responses are different from the ones I get from my critique group and editors. Sure, they read my work too, but it’s their job to find fault with it. While I appreciate and depend on their feedback, it’s far less rewarding than the reactions I get from my true audience, my authentic audience.

Students often don’t have an authentic audience. Their teacher is like my editor. And if peer critiquing or buddy editing is part of their writing process, those classmates are like my critique group.

How can we give young writers the kind of experiences professional writers have when they write for and get responses from an authentic audience? Here are a couple of ideas:

  1. Share writing with younger students. Encourage the younger students to respond with writing of their own or by drawing pictures or making an audio or video recording.
  1. Create a class blog and encourage students in other classes and/or parents to read the posts and leave meaty comments.

If you have other suggestions, please share them in the comments below or via social media. I know there are lots of ways we can create an authentic audience for our students.

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On Growing Older … Old

Growing OlderWhy is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?

To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door. But old … ah, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance. Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-our-society word … death.

I am approaching my birthday month. It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to. I will be 79 next month.

Can you name the number?

Forty didn’t trouble me a bit. I had a friend, several years older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age. It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.” And she was right! I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident … and still young.

Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare. As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all. Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security and Medicare, and for the self-employed that is no small thing. I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me. Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal. (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.” That’s what Medicare is, and it works! It works better than any other pay-for-care system this backward system offers.)

When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party … at my request, I should add. It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me. Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.

“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.

She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”

But this is 79! And yes, I might as well name the number. Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!

It’s the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix. Not that I’ve given up trying. I walk vigorously two of three times a day. I do Pilates three times a week. I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene. Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.

From time to time, bits fall off.

And my mind? That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about. I can still produce a workable manuscript. I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too. But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.

My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.

Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement. Who is ever prepared? After all, old has never been something to aspire to … despite the alternative. A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.” And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.

I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be. I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all. I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings to a room.

I want to use these years to live. Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those. We all have enough of those.

I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully. And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.

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Pumpkin Muffins

Pumpkin Muffins
Yields 18
Melanie Heuiser Hill, the author of Giant Pumpkin Suite, would like to think that Gram would be baking Pumpkin Muffins this month. Enjoy!
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Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
Ingredients
  1. 2-1/4 cups all-purpose flouor (about 10 ox)
  2. 2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  3. 1-1/2 tsp baking soda
  4. 1 tsp ground ginger
  5. 1/4 tsp salt
  6. 1 cup golden raisins
  7. 1 cup packed brown sugar
  8. 1 cup canned pumpkin
  9. 1/3 cup buttermilk
  10. 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  11. 1/4 cup molasses
  12. 1 tsp vanilla extract
  13. 2 large eggs
  14. Cooking spray
  15. 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400 deg F.
  2. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda, ginger, and salt in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Stir in raisins; make a well in center of mixture. Combine brown sugar, canned pumpkin, buttermilk, canola oil, molasses, vanilla extract, and eggs, stirring well with a whisk. Add sugar mixture to flour mixture; stir just until moist.
  3. Spoon batter into 18 muffin cups coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake at 400° for 15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove muffins from pans immediately; cool on a wire rack.
Notes
  1. Prepare these muffins up to two days ahead of serving them.
Adapted from Cooking Light
Adapted from Cooking Light
Bookology Magazine http://www.bookologymagazine.com/
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Shifting Gears

Darth Vader with Light SaberThe only argument I’ve ever witnessed between Teenage Nephew 1 and Longtime Girl-friend was a doozy.

And I couldn’t help chortling with glee because the basis of their disagreement was so close to my heart: What makes for the best possible story?

Actually, the way they put it was, “What’s better, ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Harry Potter’?” But don’t let the fact that they were comparing two fictional worlds fool you: this was a white-hot debate, the competitors more impassioned in their arguments than politicians at a pre-election picnic.

Neither was giving ground; they had dug their heels in, and the “wizard vs. space warrior” dispute looked as if it was coming perilously close to derailing Young Love, when Teenage Nephew 1 suddenly shrugged and said, “All I know is, lightsabers are bigger than wands,” in a definitive way that signaled that in his mind, at least, he’d had the final word.

And they say that size doesn’t matter.

Size may not, but stories do matter. We all have stories that have become an integral part of us; we carry them around and they help shape who we are. Capturing stories on paper, however, can be tricky, and leads some students to dread story-writing. So one of the tricks I’ve found to generate classroom enthusiasm for writing stories is to first get students talking about the stories that have mattered most to them personally. What are their favorite books or movies, and why? Does their favorite song tell a story, maybe about love gone right or love gone wrong? What are their most treasured personal stories: the scary thing that happened on their family vacation? The memory of that time their dog ate the holiday dinner?

Based on the age of your students and the size of your group, you might choose to have them share favorite stories in a big group, or break them into smaller groups. The point is to have them realize how much certain stories have mattered in their own lives, or even to extend the discussion to talk about how a big a role stories have played in shaping human history.

Once all those great stories have filled the room, it becomes a whole lot easier to shift gears into having them write stories of their own.

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Skinny Dip with Patti Lapp

Patti Lapp

A dedicated educator in Pennsylvania, we invited Patti Lapp to answer our twenty Skinny Dip questions.  

Who was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

Mr. Jordan was my favorite teacher who taught 7th grade. He was funny and straightforward; all of us students respected him, and he certainly kept everyone in line. I attended a Catholic school, and he was unique in that setting.

When did you first start reading books?

My mom read to me when I was very young, and because of her dedication, I could read independently when I entered kindergarten. I have been reading voraciously since.

Your favorite daydream?

I daydream of having time to write!

Dinner party at your favorite restaurant with people living or dead: where is it and who’s on the guest list?

The dinner party would be at Soggy Dollar in Jost Van Dyke, BVI. The guest list would include: Jesus, of course! This choice is cliché, but how interesting would this dinner conversation be with Him?! At this dinner, I would also invite Mary Magdalene, Stephen Hawking, David Bohm, Albert Einstein, Gregg Braden, Nikola Tesla, Edgar Cayce, Nostradamus, Shirley MacLaine, Nelson Mandela, Charles Dickens, Maya Angelou, Avi, Viggo Mortensen, Paul McCartney, and my father and grandfather, both deceased.

A Tale of Two CitiesAll-time favorite book?

A Tale of Two Cities—brilliant plotline, indelible characters, and a notable beginning and end!

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

My mom made the best French toast. The key is a lot of cinnamon.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Getting ready the night before for the next day’s work.

What’s your favorite part of starting a new project?

Inspiration.

Barefoot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

Barefoot or socks—season dependent.

When are you your most creative?

Sitting alone in the quiet dark at night, decompressing before bedtime.

Your best memory of your school library?

When in elementary school, my best memory is of the Nancy Drew mystery stories that I borrowed every week. Now, as a teacher, my best memories are discussing novels with the many librarians that we have had over the years. They read a lot; so do I.

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Cherry Garcia.

Purgatory Ridge William Kent KruegerBook on your bedside table right now?

William Kent Krueger’s Purgatory Ridge, the third novel in his Cork O’Connor murder/mystery series of currently 16 books. I got hooked on his brilliant story, Ordinary Grace, a standalone novel. He writes beautifully.

What’s your hidden talent?

I can weave.

jacksYour favorite toy as a child …

Jacks—Anyone remember that game?

Best invention in the last 200 years?

Clean water and indoor plumbing and the printing press and the electric light.

Favorite artist? Why?

I love Van Gogh because of his textured brush strokes, color, and creativity.

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

Snakes are the worst. I do not kill spiders because they will consume most of the insects in our homes. If they are big and hairy, they pack their bags and leave—in a cup—to move outside.

vegetablesWhat’s your best contribution to taking care of the environment?

I am a vegetarian. It takes 15 pounds of feed to generate 1 pound of meat; hence, more people in the world can be fed when people consume a vegetarian diet. Additionally, animals are saved, many that would be raised in inhumane conditions, many that would be treated inhumanely.

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Ideas are humans’ most valuable resource. If we continue to invest in innovation and research that make our planet healthier and improve the quality of life for the global community, we have hope. As a very simple example, look at the fairly new awareness of GMOs in our food. With awareness, comes demand. With demand, comes change—and humanity clearly needs to continue to make pioneering and positive changes.

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The Book Box

For a fiction workshop, I asked participants to bring in childhood books that influenced them to become a writer. Naturally, I did the assignment myself. Choosing the books was easy, but they felt insubstantial in my hands, vintage hardbacks that lacked the heft of, say, the last Harry Potter. When it came my turn to talk, I figured I’d stammer excuses for their shabby, old-fashioned, stamped jackets. (“Well, this is the way library books looked in the fifties.”)

I wanted to tuck my beloved books in a box to keep them safe, like baby robins fallen out of a nest. Really, what is a book, but ideas, adventures, people, and places protected by cardboard, shaped like a box? I carried this notion with me on a trip to Michael’s, where I found a sturdy box with a jigsaw of little boxes stacked under the front flap. I knew just what I’d do with this prize: showcase my favorite books in an assemblage. 

The Book Box

At FedEx Office, I color photocopied the book covers, reduced them several sizes, then dashed through A.C. Moore’s miniature section to collect tiny endowed objects. Next, I happily sorted through my scrapbook and ephemera stash for just-right window dressing. I glued on paper, adding the objects. Pictures and trinkets were pretty, but not enough. The box needed words to set the stories—and their meaning—free.

Home for a BunnyI typed quotes and notes into strips folded accordion-style. Margaret Wise Brown’s Home for a Bunny gently reminded me that once I had lived “under a rock, under a stone.” Like the bunny, I had no home of my own until I was five. This was my first book, my first experience in identifying with a character.

The title of Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion contained “secret” and “mansion,” words that made my heart thump. Trixie lived in the country like me, and had to work in the garden, like I did. Trixie stumbled into mysteries and I did, too, when I furiously scribbled whodunnits in fourth grade. Just like that, I became a writer.

Diamond in the WindowThe Diamond in the Window opens with a quote from Emerson: “On him the light of star and moon / Shall fall with purer radiance down … / Him Nature giveth for defense / His formidable innocence; / The mounting up, the shells, the sea, / All spheres, all stones, his helpers be …” At eleven, I skipped those words, but I didn’t ignore the small lessons from Emerson and Thoreau sprinkled throughout this fantasy / adventure / family / mystery story. This book changed my life.

I had to be married on Valentine’s Day, after the “Bride of Snow” chapter (and I was one, too, in three feet of snow!). Our powder room has a Henry Thoreau theme and we have a gazing globe (“The crystal sphere of thought”) in our back yard, like the Hall family.

Gazing Globe

With some thought and imagination, a book box can be a tangible book report. Supplies required: a cigar box, construction paper, glue, and a favorite book. A box covered in red construction paper could represent Wilbur’s barn. A lid could replicate the map of Hundred Acre Wood. Or Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Making my book box helped me slow down and think about what my favorite books meant to me. How Diamond in the Window led me to the works of Thoreau and Emerson, inspired me to look up from the printed page and truly see the great sphere of our world.  

I still fill my pockets with rocks, pick up shells at the beach, and stare at the stars. I wonder if the rocks were broken off from ancient glaciers, and what happened to the sea creatures inside the shells. The shells and rocks stay in jars and boxes. The stars cannot be contained, thankfully.

Book Box Interior

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Bookstorm™: Giant Pumpkin Suite

Giant Pumpkin SuiteCompetition is a part of young people’s lives: art, sports, music, dance, science, cup-stacking … many children spend a good part of their day practicing, learning, and striving to do their best. Giant Pumpkin Suite is about two types of competitions, a Bach Cello Suites Competition and a giant pumpkin growing competition. Rose and Thomas Brutigan are twelve-year-old twins … but their personalities and interests are quite different. It’s a book set within a neighborhood that pulls together when a serious accident changes the trajectory of their summer. We meet so many interesting people, children and adults, in this book. It’s full of hold-your-breath plot turns. 

The book is written at a level for 5th to 8th grade readers (and adults) and it has many ties to popular culture, mathematics, gardening, and the nature of competition. It’s an excellent choice for a book club discussion.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, articles, websites, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests.  

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more information about Melanie Heuiser Hill on her website.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Johann Sebastian Bach. Rose Brutigan focuses on an upcoming Bach Suites Competition by practicing … a lot. Who was Bach and why is his music still with us 260 years after his death? Resources include books and videos of our best cellists playing the Bach Cello Suites.

The Cello. More about the instrument Rose plays, with a number of videos you can share with your class or book club.

Charlotte’s Web. This book is a favorite of Rose and her neighbor Jane. Charlotte’s Web provides a major turning point in Giant Pumpkin Suite. Learn more about the book and its author, E.B. White.

Giant Pumpkins. Thomas and his neighbors work together to grow a giant pumpkin. Today, these pumpkins (not grown for eating) can way over 2,000 pounds—more than one ton. Books, videos, and articles share stories and how-tos for growing giant pumpkins competitively.

Japanese Tea Ceremony. Mrs. Kiyo shares this beautiful ceremony with Rose. The Bookstorm suggests a video for your students to watch.

Mathematics and Bach. Are you aware that Bach used math and physics when creating his compositions? Your students can delve into this fascinating aspect of the composer!

Movie Musicals. The music from musicals of the 1940s and 1950s is very important to Jane and Mrs. Lukashenko—they sing and tap dance at the least suggestion. We provide three suggestions for watching these movies.

Music Competition (Fiction). There are a number of excellent books about young people preparing for, and playing in, music competitions! 

Music in Middle Grade Books. And more novels in which music is an important part of the plot. 

Neighborhood Books. We suggest books in which the people and places of a neighborhood are integral to the plot of a book. Perhaps you’ll find your favorites.

Tap Dancing. Who can resist a good tap dance? Another strong plot point, we suggest books and videos to share with your students.

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

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E.B. White

A couple of weeks ago I was in the basement of the Science and Engineering Library at the University of Minnesota getting a little writing in before work. It’s a good spot—there’s a nice coffee shop, nothing in the stacks is intelligible to me on that floor so I’m not distracted, and it’s quiet and out of the hordes of university traffic. Only those looking for serious quiet go all the way down in the basement.

When I was done with my jolt of creativity caffeine, I packed up to head out. As I walked through the library’s security gate, I set off the alarm. I turned around and looked at the sleepy scruffly young man at the check-out desk. He looked as surprised as I did.

“I didn’t even go into the stacks this morning….” I said.

“Huh,” he said.

“Can I just go through then?” I asked.

“Well…I’m supposed to look in your bag.” He grimaced.

“Okay,” I said, heaving my giant bag up on the counter in front of him. He peeked in. Didn’t even touch it. Clearly, this was not something he did often.

“Would you like me to pull stuff out?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure.” So I pulled out the detritus that is my commuting bag—a couple of folders and notebooks, my knitting, sunglasses, The Horn Book magazine and two small books, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of markers and colored pencils, the pouch of meds/lipstick/emergency supplies, some hand lotion, my wallet and phone, a pair of socks, the granola bar I couldn’t find the day before, my water bottle, lots of Kleenex and ticket stubs, and the program from my daughter’s band concert the night before. I threw out a couple of receipts while I was at it, and tidied the collection of post-it notes and recipe cards etc. while he stared at the pile. He looked to be completely overwhelmed.

“I can live on the streets for three weeks out of this bag,” I said.

“Wow,” he said.

“I’m kidding,” I said.

He looked at me nervously and then ran his hand half-heartedly over the paper items and picked up one of the books. The Wild Flag by E.B. White. (I wrote about it in Red Reading Boots a few weeks ago.) It’s the perfect size to slip into a purse and I’ve been carrying it around since I purchased it this summer. It’s also a pleasure to hold—worn, but solid linen-esque cover, comfortable size and shape etc.

“What’s this?” he asked, turning it over in his hands. He even sounded suspicious.

“It’s called The Wild Flag,” I said. “I purchased it in an antique store in Stonington, Maine this summer. The receipt is serving as a bookmark, I believe.” He pulled out the receipt, glanced at it, and then stuck it in somewhere else. Not that it matters. You can open this book up to most any page and start reading. It’s a collection of editorials.

“Who’s it by?” he asked.

“E.B. White.”

“Is that the dude that wrote Charlotte’s Web?” he asked, looking suddenly awake.

“The very dude,” I said.

“My Mom read that to me a bunch of times when I was little.” He smiled. “I loved the rat.”

“Templeton,” I said.

“Yeah, Templeton!” He handed me the book back.

“So, may I repack my bag?”

“Sure!” he said. “You have a lot of stuff. But I know you didn’t find that book down here.”

Indeed.

Wherever this man-child’s mother is—she should be proud. He woke up early one morning and remembered Templeton all these years later. That’s the power of reading to a child.

 

 

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Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

Samurai RisingDon’t be alarmed by the ghoulishness of my title. Trying to resurrect the life of someone who turned to dust centuries ago is a challenge, especially if the person left behind no personal writings such as letters or diaries. But it can be done. In preparation for writing Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune, I read all the academic and primary sources I could find about late-twelfth-century Japan. And while what-happened-when is the basis of biography, you can challenge students (or adults) to dig deeper. If you really want to try to get into the head of the long dead, go beyond the obvious. Try answering these questions.

What did this person believe was going to happen after they died?

No, I don’t mean what they thought might happen to their kingdom or their reputation. I mean: did they believe in an afterlife? How would such a belief (or lack of belief) color their perception of the world? Twelfth-century Japanese of Yoshitsune’s social class were Buddhists. In all likelihood, at the very end of his life Yoshitsune accepted that his fate was determined by karma (the sum of good and bad deeds during his current and past lives). He hoped that his next life would be kinder and he would be reunited with his friends and family.

What assumptions did this person have about their place in society?

In other words … there was probably something about this person’s role or status that they never questioned. What was it?

We are all members of human society. Each society, in each time period, has some underlying assumptions that are rarely (if ever) questioned. Nobody in Yoshitsune’s time questioned the notion that the Emperor was semi-divine … or that some people were better than others because of their imperial descent … or that loyalty should be based on bloodlines. I think it’s safe to say that Yoshitsune enthusiastically believed in his own superiority. If you insisted to him that “all human beings are equal” he would’ve thought you were nuts.

(Extra credit if you can articulate an assumption from contemporary culture that may seem really bonkers to your great-great-great-great grandchildren.)

How was this person impacted by technology (or lack of it)?

Here’s an example. The technology of warfare in twelfth-century Japan demanded that samurai leaders display personal bravery and credible martial skills. In those days you had to get up close and personal to kill your enemy—within ten yards to be really accurate in horseback archery, and much closer with spear or sword. There were no guns, no cannons, no sitting in HQ and phoning orders to your troops. To be an effective leader Yoshitsune had to be willing to risk his life.

What’s underneath all that armor?

What kind of underpants did this person wear?

What’s underneath all that armor?

Someone actually asked me this about Yoshitsune. Amusingly trivial? Well, as it turns out, you can’t answer the question without an understanding of the material culture specific to the society and time period. So here we go.

When Yoshitsune was an apprentice monk, he would have worn a loincloth (a strip of cloth wrapped and tied around his privates). It would’ve been made of hemp cloth because that’s what poor people used as fabric in twelfth-century Japan. (Cotton wasn’t introduced until centuries later.) When Yoshitsune was older and living in Hiraizumi, Kamakura, and Kyoto, he would have had clothes benefitting his status, and high-status Japanese wore silk. However, I strongly suspect that when dressed in full armor, wearing a loincloth under his hakama (wide-legged trousers) would’ve made relieving himself quite a hassle. In that case I think Yoshitsune would’ve gone commando.

See how much fun biographical research is?

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