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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Lisa Bullard

Crossing the Border

by Lisa Bullard

12_3MooseMountieOnce when flying back to the U.S. from Canada I met up with some zealous border control agents. The customs guy wanted a detailed description of what I’d purchased.

“I bought one of those souvenir snow globes with a little Mountie inside,” I said.

The guy thought a moment and then sadly shook his head. “Ma’am, if you’d played your cards right,  you could have taken home the real thing.”

The immigration guy looked me up and down and then barked out, “What’s ‘Oshkosh?”’

“It’s either a small town in Wisconsin or a kind of overalls,” I said. I was hoping for a gold star, but instead he rolled his eyes and waved me through.

Years later I was telling a friend trained in security about this story. “Would he really have kept me from crossing the border if I had answered the Oshkosh question wrong?” I asked.

She laughed. “He didn’t care what you answered. He cared how you answered. He’s trained to know when someone is telling the truth or when they’re lying.”

Fiction writers are also heavily vested in the kind of truth that lies underneath the surface answer.

When student writers use real-life events as their inspiration, they often get worked up over “what really happened.” But this isn’t the task of fiction. Instead, fiction is all about reshaping “what really happened” to reveal to the reader some of the biggest truths of all: truths about life, truths about people.

Explain to your students that it’s okay to leave out some details, add others, change a few more, if it’s done with the goal of pointing the reader towards the emotional truth of the story. This isn’t crossing the border from “telling the truth” over to “lying.” It’s making important writing choices.

It’s digging down to the truth found underneath “Oshkosh.”


Packing List

by Lisa Bullard

9_10SpiralNotebookI generate a flurry of lists for every road trip: A “bizarre attractions to stop and see” list. A “things to tell the cat-sitter” list. A packing list.

I love lists. I love them so much I have a whole journal full of different sorts of lists—I write down everything from household repairs to my bucket list. And I don’t keep lists because I’m one of those super-achiever types who expects to get all those things accomplished.

Instead, I make lists because I manage to forget even the most obvious of things if I don’t make note of them. Sometimes when the temperature is below zero here in the winter, I actually forget to breathe while I’m walking outside.

Okay, I don’t really write down “breathe,” because I’m not quite that hopeless.  But I do write down most practical stuff.  My lists are the best way I’ve found to successfully de-clutter my brain. By making them, I clear out space for my imagination to play.

And then whatever quirky, catawampus ideas were previously shoved to the corners of my mind have room to grow, to end up on their own lists. These get filed away under headings like “great ideas for a book someday,” or “awesome oddball character possibilities.” They are the best resource I have when I need a prompt to get me started on a new writing project.

In honor of this kind of list-making, the type that feeds the imagination, I offer you a “list poem” activity here. It reminds students not to forget four important things: namely, the other senses—sound, touch, taste, smell—that writers too often overlook. It also reminds students to “feed” their imaginations by noticing the many things that they are thankful for this Thanksgiving season.


Winter Roads

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_12-3SnowWinters add the element of surprise to the Minnesota driving equation. Mid-journey, you can be sucked into one of the car-devouring potholes caused by my state’s radical temperature changes. Or you can skid on a deceptive slick of black ice, and end up straddling a snow bank.

In those moments, you realize that your trip isn’t going to turn out as you thought it would. You might not even reach the destination you had planned.

The writing road is full of sudden surprises too. Even when I think I’ve figured out exactly where a story is headed, my creative brain might pop up one of these “journey adjustments”—an oddball image, a repeated song refrain, a quirky possibility that changes my whole perception of the story.

Often these surprises make no sense at first. But strange as they are, I’ve learned to invite them into my writing. Sooner or later, I come to understand their role in the story—and it’s often something that changes that entire writing road trip.

For one of my stories, this unforeseen “pothole” was an ugly winter hat, which floated into my brain and eventually came to represent an important turning point for my character. In another story, the surprise was a walking catfish—which proved to be a metaphor for the underlying theme of the novel as a whole. I allowed these unexpected gifts from my subconscious to reroute my stories, because I’ve learned that doing so makes my writing all the more compelling.

You can’t force your students’ brains to pop out these intuitive hints on demand. But you can teach them to be receptive to bizarre elements when they do turn up. As practice for that, throw some winter surprises at your students—by using the downloadable “Snowball” activity found here.


Home Away from Home

by Lisa Bullard

10_22I like to play a certain game when I’m traveling. I pretend that the place I’m visiting is my home, and I imagine how my life would have been altered if I had in fact taken root in that other environment.

How would things be different for me if my world swirled amidst New York City’s self-fulfilling energy? If my abode was perched atop a fog-shrouded island in the Pacific Northwest? If I was planted on the lip of a tall-grass prairie, with the world dropping off into nothingness on the other edge of the great grass sea? If I dreamed my dreams in a twig-built hut?

Part of a writer’s task is to create alternative homelands, to build distinctive worlds for each of our characters to inhabit. Once we have our world crafted, we invite readers to make themselves at home there too. We hope that they will want to hunker down into this habitat that we have fashioned and make it a part of themselves; to allow it to take up residence in their hearts and imaginations.

One of the easiest ways to teach young writers about envisioning an environment is to talk with them about the worlds they have wandered through in their fantasy reading. Good fantasy writers are masters at the art of world-building, and students can learn a lot by meandering through the keyboarded landscapes of these writers who have built worlds before them.

Once you have had a chance to help students recognize the importance of “place” in the stories that they have loved reading, start them writing with the Fantasy Land activity found here. It will help your young writers begin to visualize a “home away from home”—a place where they might house their next story.



Plotting Your Route

by Lisa Bullard

10_8PaulBunyanUsing an “I’ll just see where the road takes me” approach has led me on all sorts of adventures. But it’s also meant I’ve arrived at midnight and discovered every hotel room in town is rented to lumberjacks.

I still don’t plan ahead for lumberjack influxes—I figure one of those per lifetime is probably my quota—but that experience has forced me to rethink my approach a bit.

I’ve learned the same thing about writing road trips. My earlier, shorter projects didn’t travel enough distance to require planning ahead. I always had a final destination in mind (the ending of a story is clear to me early in the process). But I didn’t worry over the how-to-get-there details. A few unexpected detours just meant more fun.

It was different when I began drafting a novel. I jumped in with my usual spontaneous approach, steering towards the ending but exploring all the intriguing side roads. Then my character dug in his heels and refused to move forward. I suddenly recognized what a vast expanse stretched between the beginning and the ending, and I completely stalled out.

I reluctantly recognized it was time to plot my route. As soon as I had that outline in place, I began writing again at full speed. I’m not a full outline convert, but I now see that a road map can be an important writing tool.

Some young writers are natural outliners. Others are like me, dragged to it only by necessity. You can help these “outline resistant” students develop their outlining skills. For example, you can work together as a class to outline a published story. Or you can outline a “typical” human life or a calendar year for practice.

Sometimes even the most spontaneous writer needs to stop and plot their route in order to make forward progress.


Round Trip

by Lisa Bullard

9_24One of life’s great satisfactions is returning home after a long journey. We rejoice in the familiar clasp of our own bed, in the bracing taste of our home air. Everything seems comfortingly the same, yet also fresh and remarkable.

This is because, even if home has stayed the same, journeying has changed us. The cat’s suspicious investigation of our foreign smell confirms it: We have returned to the place our old self lived, altered by the world. You can go home again, but it will be a different “you” that you bring there.

This thinking comes in useful when I talk with students about story endings. Strong story endings have two important elements. Even young writers seem to intuitively grasp the first: some kind of satisfying resolution to whatever conflict the character is facing.

But students often overlook the second element. That element focuses on the way the character has been transformed by facing the conflict. How have they been changed by taking the long and complicated journey through the story?

A story that doesn’t include this second element is easily forgotten. The stories that do explore character transformation can linger in our imaginations long after we’ve returned the book to the library. Moments from these tales may periodically spring up to surprise us, like the unexpected whiff of suntan lotion the next time you open the Miami suitcase.

Here’s a way to explain it to your students: A merry-go-round only circles us back to the place where we started. But before the ride is over, we’ve been through a whole lot of ups and downs. A ride like that alters a person.

Great story endings have two parts: First, the writer gets the character off the horse. Then, the writer shows us how taking that wild ride has changed the character forever.


East, or West?

by Lisa Bullard


I think road-tripping together should be a requirement for every couple contemplating life partnership. There are few other circumstances that allow you to so quickly learn about how someone navigates through life.

Would you rather plan the whole trip in advance, or just get in the car and drive? Do you stop and ask for directions, or go ahead and get lost? Hotel room or camper? Talk radio or hip hop? Speed limit or speedster? Healthy or unhealthy foods? Good tipper or bad?

Riding together tells me almost everything I need to know about a person.

So does writing together. In fact, one of the quickest tricks I have for getting to know a new group of students is to pose a “would you rather…?” writing prompt for them.

For example, I might prompt: “If you had to choose, would you rather have the power of invisibility, or flight?” Then I’ll ask them to write about their choice for ten minutes. Here’s what I’ve found:

“Invisibility” kids often worry that things are being kept from them, that there are important secrets they don’t know. Sometimes they love being sneaky. Sometimes they want to become invisible to bullies. Invisibility can be about revenge, or power, or compiling information.

“Flight” kids often crave freedom. They sense that they don’t know enough about the world. Sometimes they feel superior. Sometimes they crave escape. Flight can be about expanding their horizons, or seeing a different point of view, or pushing themselves beyond the limits.

In other words, by writing out an answer to this one simple question, students end up telling me an enormous amount about who they are and what they want from the world.

Would you rather go east or west? Think carefully: your answer might tell me more than you could ever guess.



Are We There Yet?

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_27KeyboardMy Texas grandparents  usually made the long drive to Minnesota. But the summer I was thirteen, my parents piled me, my two younger brothers, and a borrowed boy cousin into the old station wagon and headed us south.

I escaped into the far back, propping myself up on suitcases and reading a thousand-page-long Civil War novel called House Divided. The boy’s constant bickering added a backdrop of battleground sound effects.

Did I mention how often we had to turn around and go back somewhere to retrieve my cousin’s forgotten retainer?

“Are we there yet?” That question comes out on every long drive. There’s point where we just want to be DONE with all the traveling. It’s the same with a writing road trip. There’s at least one moment during every one of my writing projects when I think: I’m done. This has to be good enough. The problem is, I’m often nowhere near my destination  when this happens.

To be a writer over the long haul, you have to get back on the road and keep writing despite those moments.  But it helps enormously to change things up somehow—I might alter my writing location by going to a coffee shop, or turn on music (usually  I’m a non-music writer).

Students have this same “I’m done” response after they’ve worked on a long project for a while. One of the most effective ways I’ve found to generate a new burst of enthusiasm in them is to let them switch from writing longhand to keyboarding. Sign up for the computer lab, or let students take turns on a classroom computer. This simple change always fuels new writing energy.

Even on the longest trip, the answer to “Are we there yet?” is eventually, “Yes! We finally made it!”



Middle Kingdom: Nebraska City, Nebraska

Middle Kingdom: Nebraska City, Nebraska

The books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Each month, Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard will visit the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This month’s journey takes us to Nebraska City Middle School in Nebraska City, Nebraska, where Lisa talks with Media Specialist Alice Harrison.

Lisa: What would you like to tell our readers about your community?

Alice: Nebraska City, Nebraska is home to the national holiday Arbor Day, celebrated every year the last Friday in April. J. Morton Sterling, the founder of Arbor Day, migrated to the Nebraska Territory in 1854, where he later became the Secretary of Nebraska Territory. Sterling saw the agricultural and economical benefits of planting trees, and in 1872 he convinced the Nebraska Board of Agriculture to establish a specific holiday for everyone to join in planting trees. April was chosen to correlate with Sterling’s birthday, and several presidents since then have declared Arbor Day a national holiday on the last Friday in April. Since the first Arbor Day celebration to the present day, Nebraska City has celebrated with a parade down the main street where area middle school and high school bands come to perform. Tree starters are distributed to the attendees, as well as tons of candy!

The abundance of apple trees planted in Nebraska City has led to another celebration—the AppleJack Festival  was established to celebrate the harvesting of all those apples. Taking place the third weekend in September, people come from all over to consume apple pies, apple bread, apple donuts (my favorite!), several varieties of fresh apples, apple jams, and a long list of other apple items, along with participating in other celebratory events.

Lisa: What changes are ahead this year for your school or library/media center?

Alice: Nebraska City Middle School has 325 students, predominately white with a large population of Hispanic students. It is a Title 1 school with 45.8% free and reduced lunch. The district school board passed the implementation of a technology 1:1 initiative, beginning the school year of 2015-16, as a pilot program in the Middle School. All the students, staff, and faculty will have Chromebooks to use (at school only) by checking them in and out of the homerooms or alpha classrooms. Presently, the Middle School is the only school in the district approved to participate in this pilot program. Every classroom teacher will be using Google Classroom (a Google Apps for Education app). The goal is to help teachers save time by organizing lesson plans, incorporating interactive curriculum, allowing for student and teacher collaboration, and providing immediate teacher feedback, along with displaying and accessing class assignments and grades. To incorporate this 1:1 initiative, our IT director is setting up every student with their own personal Gmail account.

To teach digital citizenship and personal responsibility with the Chromebooks, every teacher, including myself, will be teaching and utilizing the Common Sense Media curriculum. I am only a ¼-time Media Specialist at the Middle School (I teach at the elementary school for the other ¾-time), so I am fortunate to have a marvelous full-time assistant in the Middle School library. The first few days of school this coming year, all the students will be attending training sessions taught by the faculty and staff to instruct students in the use and care of Chromebooks. In the past, I have taught 6th grade keyboarding, but to date, I do not know of any plans for keyboarding instruction.

The Nebraska City Middle School band preparing to perform in the Arbor Day parade 2013

The Nebraska City Middle School band preparing to perform in the Arbor Day parade 2013

Lisa: What else will be new for the Middle School library this year?

Alice: I am excitedly anticipating this new school year at the Middle School because this past May I purchased 37 e-books, our first time to acquire this format. The e-books that I purchased were from Follett, but our library automated system is the online, cloud-based version of Library World. Follet sent me detailed instructions as to how to set up the e-books for checkout. The students and faculty will be able to read the e-books on the Chromebooks, but only online. However, they can be accessed on all other devices for online or offline reading. I’m ecstatic!

Sixteen of the e-books are our state award nominees, which are called Golden Sowers . There are a total of 30 books nominated every year for three levels, with 10 nominated in each level: Primary, Intermediate, and Young Adult. And that leads me to how I came to connect with Lisa Bullard, who asked if I would participate in this interview for Bookology—her book Turn Left at the Cow is a Golden Sower nominee for the 2015-16 school year.

Lisa: Alice, the Golden Sower nomination is such a huge honor for me, and I’m so delighted that it brought the two of us together! Can you tell us more about the impact of the Golden Sower titles on your library and student reading?

Alice: Each summer, I try to read as many Golden Sower nominees for the coming school year as I can. READING…my favorite pass-time!

As you can imagine, a major concentration of our promotion at the Middle School library is devoted to the Golden Sower state nominee books. Our literature/reading teachers also heavily promote these in their classrooms. At the end of every school year, the students are awarded certificates for four different levels of completion for reading the Golden Sowers. From these students, three names are drawn for additional prizes.

Some of the Golden Sower nominees are books from a series—then I usually purchase the whole series, because the students are so interested in the nominated books. For example, some of the series with recent Golden Sower nominated-titles are: Richard Paul Evans’ Michael Vey series, the Starters series by Lissa Price, Rob Buyea’s Mr. Terupt titles, the According to Humphrey books by Betty G. Birney, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, and the Legend series by Marie Lu. Two years ago, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, was chosen as a Golden Sower Award winner and our Middle School selected this book as an all-school read.

Lisa: What other books and series have been popular reads in your Middle School?

Nebraska City Middle School

Nebraska City Middle School

Alice: The list includes the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, the Conspiracy 365 series by Gabrielle Lord, the Selection series by Kiera Cass, Erin Hunter’s Warriors series and Seekers series, the Ascendance Trilogy by Jennifer A. Nielsen, and the Cirque du Freak series by Darren Shan. Other popular authors with our middle schoolers are Mike Lupica, Laurie Halse Anderson, Meg Cabot, and Carl Hiaasen.

Lisa: I’m amazed at all you have going on—especially since with your split schedule, you don’t have a lot of time to do it all! Are there any other initiatives you’d like to share?

Alice: In the past year, I have been trying to focus more on our reluctant readers in the Middle School. I’ve been purchasing more nonfiction graphic readers and fiction graphic novels. Also, this new school year I am incorporating a new promotion at the Middle School for the Golden Sowers. I have been making audio and printed text QR codes for each Golden Sower book and printing the book covers to apply them to the covers. I will be displaying them in the Middle School library and hallways. The audio portion features me reading the book’s summary, and the printed portion contains links to book trailers, author websites, and book theme links.


Places We Never Expected to Go

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_TwinsOn-the-road Lisa is different than Lisa-at-home. Traveling Lisa takes bigger risks. She’s less responsible. She puts herself in the way of more trouble.

You might almost call her my Evil Twin.

Something happens when I’ve moved outside my comfort zone. I perceive things in a fresh way. I feel a freedom to be someone other than who I usually am. My perspective and my relationship to the world change with my surroundings.

Writing gives me this same chance to try on different parts of myself, but without the need to set aside bail money. So what if I’ve never been a fourteen-year-old boy? A musical genius? Homecoming queen? I can write my way inside any one of those characters, any one of those facets of the human experience. When I am successful in doing so, it means I have managed to travel to an unexplored part of myself—a part that, like my Evil Twin, experiences the world in a very different way.

Your students can explore the power of an alternate outlook through a simple “swapping viewpoints” writing exercise. Give them a basic story conflict, such as a scenario where a “perfect” older brother and a “screw-up” younger sister have to work together to achieve a common goal.

Ask students to immerse themselves as fully as they can into the consciousness of the brother. Have them write for ten minutes, telling the story from that character’s point of view. Then, ask them to swap and rewrite the exact same scene from the younger sister’s point of view. They’ll be surprised by the possibilities they discover in the story, and in themselves, by exploring these alternate viewpoints.

One of the beauties of writing is that it can take us places we never expected to go—perhaps especially, places we never knew existed inside ourselves.


You Be Thelma, I’ll Be Louise

by Lisa Bullard

pit stopIt’s best to bring a buddy when you hit the highway.

With a traveling companion along for the ride, the guffaws are louder.  The adventures are grander. The late-night soul-searching is more soulful.

Then there are times like the morning I woke up mid-road trip with severe food poisoning in Myrtle Beach, a day before needing to catch a plane in Raleigh. Do you know how long it takes to drive from one Carolina to the other when you have to make an emergency pit stop every ten minutes? My friend “Thelma” does. She drove the entire nightmare trip while I lay curled around a bucket in the backseat.

I line up lots of people to ride shotgun when I set off on writing road trips.  These writing companions are often different people than my riding companions, but they’re just as important to my creative journey. My writing group alternates between tough-love critiques and cheerleading sessions. My other writing friends let me despair over rejection letters, and then offer encouragement  and advice. There’s always somebody willing to take the wheel when my writing life hits a back-seat-and-bucket moment.

And a writing critique group is a two-way road: I not only receive feedback for my work, but I learn an enormous amount from evaluating other writers’ manuscripts.

You can build supportive writing relationships in your classroom by offering peer review opportunities.  Model constructive feedback for students; show them how to strike a balance between feedback that is kind, but too vague to be useful, and feedback that is overly negative. As a starting point, you can download my peer review handout.

If you haven’t tried it before, I think you’ll find that the buddy system can be a real writing boon.



Lisa Bullard: My Superpower

When I do school visits, the students treat me like a superhero. The time with them is exhilarating, and it would take a much more hardened heart than mine to resist the curiosity and imagination these young people exhibit. But my classroom days also leave me bone-deep exhausted. One afternoon, midway through a weeklong residency, I lay down in my front yard when I arrived back home, too tired to tackle the Mount Everest that had replaced my front steps.

orange starThat’s one of the reasons I stand in awe of classroom teachers. The degree of patience and endurance that they require to show up day after day for an entire school year astounds me. I also have a secret theory that education majors are trained in super-human bladder control. For my part, I need to stay fully hydrated to survive school visit days—which means I develop an early awareness of the restroom layout for any school I visit. That’s how I got to be particularly friendly with one young writer who I’ll call Jake. In his particular school, there was a handy faculty restroom just off of the nurse’s office. Between classes I’d duck in, and more often than not find Jake sitting on the nurse’s bed.

“Hey, Mrs. Writer Lady,” he’d invariably greet me, and we’d exchange pleasantries and chat about the activities I had planned for his classroom that day.

After several more restroom visits, I became worried about Jake. The little guy seemed to spend a good part of his school day in the nurse’s office, and I imagined an array of chronic diseases that might be the culprit. I finally caught a rare moment where the nurse was present but Jake was not, and understanding that she couldn’t reveal confidential medical information, I told her of my concern for Jake’s health. She laughed, waving a hand.

gr_Zap“Jake’s not sick,” she said. “They just stash the sent-to-the-principal students in here when the principal is away.” In other words, Jake was That Kid: the one who spends a good part of his educational experience getting into trouble, disrupting other students, and being sent to the principal’s office. Yet this side of his nature was completely foreign to me—when I worked with his class, he was enthusiastic and engaged, cheerfully creating a highly imaginative piece about a polar bear who McGuyver-ed bubblegum to solve his story’s conflict.

Jake was my first hands-on evidence of something I’ve observed time and again during my classroom visits: stories can have the power to reach That Kid in a way that few other things can. I’ve now had many teachers seek me out after class to tell me about That Kid in their classroom: how, to the teacher’s great surprise, That Kid was able to focus, to behave, to show enthusiasm, for my story-writing activity in a way That Kid seldom can for other classroom activities. Stories certainly aren’t the magic fix for every struggling kid, but I now believe strongly that they can sometimes work wonders for That Kid.

blue starMost superheroes need a superpower: mine is stories. I work really hard to make my school visits fun (hence the need for all that hydration!). But the truth is, I’m not an entertainer by nature—I’m a writer who spends most of my work days alone with imaginary characters and a cat. So the credit for the ability to reach some of those hardest-to-reach kids should rightfully go to the power of story rather than to me. That means that any classroom that allows time for pleasure reading and creative writing can tap into that power, too.

You just need to stock up on good books, sharp pencils, and not-empty-for-long notebooks, and Kapow! Zap! Boom! It will be superhero time in your classroom (or living room) before you know it.



Shifting Drivers

by Lisa Bullard

Take TurnsIf you go road tripping with enough different people, you discover another way that human beings sort themselves out: into the drivers of the world, and the passengers of the world.

The drivers are only completely happy when they have control of the steering wheel. But, on every trip, there comes a point where they tire out and lose their concentration.  Then it’s necessary to shift drivers. Even a short break can bring the original driver back to peak driving ability.

This is true of a writing road trip as well.  At some point, we tire out and lose our concentration.   When my students have been focusing on a longer writing session, I’ve discovered that temporarily “shifting drivers” works as a quick and effective break.

Here’s how it works. Ask students to shift their writing utensil to their non-dominant hand, and to try writing two or three sentences with that hand. Sometimes I use the board to model the “crazy ax murderer” results that my left hand produces when I shift drivers this way.

This gives students a chance to shake out their dominant hand, which has likely grown tired of gripping a pencil. It provides students a chance for a quick laugh over their attempts to write with their non-dominant hand. And I’ve read information that suggests that shifting hands this way re-engages the other side of our brain, which enlivens the writing process.

So when you’ve assigned a longer writing project, remember to follow the road signs in today’s photo at some point: First, STOP. Then, TAKE TURNS.  It’s a little trick to bring your students back to peak writing ability.



Traveling Abroad

by Lisa Bullard

Swiss ChaletIn college I spent a month traveling in Europe. I savored dozens of exciting new foods.

But it was the ketchup—something I usually took for granted—that stood out. Foreign ketchup was so foreign. Had ketchup become so familiar at home that I’d stopped noticing its taste? Was it because I was eating ketchup in Switzerland that it seemed like I was tasting ketchup for the first time?

To me, the elusive concept of “writer’s voice” is like foreign ketchup. I know, now you’re saying, “Seriously, ketchup?” But teachers are being asked to help even young students develop their writing voices. The first step must be to define voice, yet adult writers struggle to grasp what it means. Is a condiment comparison really so out of line?

The best definition I have for voice is that it is the writer embedding her personality, history, essence, into her writing. Is it true that there are no new stories? If so, then voice is the thing that makes us want to hear the old stories told over and over again—because each new voice makes those stories seem fresh and surprising.

Voice is each new writer saying to you as the reader:

“I’m going to tell you a story… about being afraid… about losing someone… about finding your true self… about staying a good friend. Sounds familiar, right? But I’m going to tell you this story in the way that only I can tell it, so you’ll hear it as if for the very first time.”

My story, told in my voice, will taste like foreign ketchup to you.  Still recognizable as the condiment you take for granted. And yet also so unexpected, so newly noticed, it will seem as if you have never eaten ketchup—or heard that particular story—ever before.



Middle Kingdom: Shakopee, Minnesota

The books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Each month, Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard will visit the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This month’s journey takes us to East Junior High in Shakopee, Minnesota, where Lisa talks with media specialist Amy Sticha.

Lisa: What are three to five things our blog readers should know about your community, school, or library/media center?

ph_shakopeeeastAmy: East Junior High is one of two junior high schools in Shakopee, Minnesota, a rapidly growing suburb of the Twin Cities. Because of our district’s growth over the past several years, we have gone through a lot of reconfiguration of grade levels at all of our buildings. Currently, our junior highs house students in grades 7-9, but with the passage of a referendum to build an addition to our high school a few weeks ago, we will be changing to grades 6-8 by 2018.

As a result of all this shuffling, the EJH library has been split twice in the last eight years to accommodate other schools’ libraries. It has been challenging to maintain a relevant collection with the loss of so many materials, but thanks to a supportive administration and community, we are in the process of adding technology like mediascapes, charging tables, Chromebook carts, and 1:1 iPads, and updating our district’s media centers to add makerspace areas and other spaces to stay current within the changing scope of a school library/media center space. I invite you to visit my media webpage

Lisa: What five books (or series) are checked out most often? 


  • the Missing series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  • I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
  • the Michael Vey series by Richard Paul Evans
  • the Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
  • the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare

Lisa: What book(s) do you personally love to place into students’ hands?


  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • Bruiser by Neal Shusterman
  • Every Day by David Levithan
  • Swim the Fly by Don Calame
  • Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • Emako Blue by Brenda Woods
  • Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle
  • The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Lisa: Could you share some information about your most popular/successful/innovative program for promoting books and reading?

Amy Sticha's list

Amy Sticha’s list

Amy: Promoting reading is probably one of my favorite things to do as a junior high media specialist.  In addition to book talks and displays, my para and I work closely together to come up with a variety of fun and interactive reading promotions throughout the year. We use Facebook and Twitter accounts to announce contests, special events, and updates about new books or what we are currently reading. I actually just finished putting up my favorite display of the year, which is our Top 10 Summer Must-Reads and is made up of my para’s and my favorite books we have read throughout the year and would suggest for fun summer reading. Both students and staff members around the school make comments about our lists every year. Several times over the last few hours today, I have looked up from my desk to see someone taking a pic of our lists with their phone. 

Para's List

Para’s List

Every month, we have a student book club that is led by a different staff member. At the beginning of each year, I ask for staff volunteers who would be interested in leading the club for one of the months of the school year. In preparation for the upcoming month’s book club, the staff member and I decide on which book they would like to choose, and students who participate get a free copy of the book and free breakfast at the two meetings held during the month. Some months have better participation than others, but overall, it is a fun way to show students that staff members read for pleasure outside of school, too.  

We also have a Tournament of the Books every March to coincide with the NCAA basketball tournaments. Thirty-two books take on each other in our annual tournament to see which one is chosen by our student body to be the ultimate winner. This year’s winner was The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan.  

This year for the first time, we had a spring break reading competition during which we encouraged students to take pics of themselves reading in unique, strange, fun, or interesting places. Our overall winner took a pic of himself reading in front of a mountain range while visiting his grandparents in Arizona. This year we also participated in the Young Adults’ Choices project sponsored by the International Literacy Association and were introduced to a number of really great titles!  

We have a great time promoting reading to EJH students!



Pulled Over

by Lisa Bullard

Cousin Susie on our road trip to Galveston

Cousin Susie on our road trip to Galveston

My brother’s wedding rehearsal is in three hours, but my cousins and I take a jaunt from Houston to Galveston anyway. Then a cop car pulls us over. One cop stands behind our car, gun drawn; another leans menacingly into the window and grills us. Eventually, he admits that our car and the three of us match the descriptions of the perpetrators of a just-committed, serious crime.

I start playing the “What if? Game” in my head:

—What if we have to spend the night in a Texas jail?

—What if we have to spend the next thirty years in jail?

—What if my brother kills me for missing his wedding?

My over-developed imagination loves to think up outrageous possible outcomes like this. So when I started visiting schools, I was surprised by how many students told me they struggle to think up story ideas. I might have trouble translating my ideas into workable stories, but I never lack for the ideas themselves.

And then I realized: I needed to teach students the “What if? Game.” You simply take something predictable— tomorrow’s bus ride, soccer practice, dinner at Grandma’s—and you brainstorm a list of the funniest, scariest, or most life-altering alternatives as to how that event could turn out. Then you assign one of these imagined disasters to a character. Now you’ve got the start to a story.

Try it out. Prompt your students with, “What if when you walk into school tomorrow morning—.” Then set them to brainstorming: What if zombies are chasing your classmates? What if the U.S. president is sitting in your desk? What if the principal has turned into an alien?

And, yes, the cops let us go and we made it to the wedding. But what if instead…?



Middle Kingdom: Hartland, Maine

The books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Each month, Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard will visit the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This month’s journey takes us to the Hartland Public Library in rural Maine, where Lisa talks with librarian John R. Clark.

Lisa: What are three to five things Bookology readers should know about your community or library?


Hartland Library

John: Hartland is very rural, economically depressed, and isn’t close to any city with a bookstore. That means the library assumes a much larger role in terms of offering access to juvenile fiction than a city like Portland or Boston. We’ve tried to address this in creative ways, like swapping books online at PaperBack Swap, using revenue from books sold online to add to the collection, and trading with other librarians in Maine when we get recent duplicates. Maine is big in size, but very close in terms of library cooperation. It helps immensely that we have a statewide interlibrary loan van service. That makes encouraging younger patrons to feel comfortable using interlibrary loan an easy process.

Lisa: I’ve heard that you’re retiring, so I have a couple of connected questions I really hope you’ll address given your valuable in-depth perspective: How have books for middle kingdom readers changed during your tenure in the library? And have the types of books that readers this age ask for changed in any key way?

YA area

The new YA fiction corner

John: There has been a major shift in both juvenile and young adult fiction, particularly in the past few years. I attribute this to two things. First, J.K. Rowling stood the publishing industry on its ear and suddenly everyone realized that there was one heck of a market for books that involved fantasy and kids who weren’t ‘average.’ The second was 9/11. I don’t think adults (except for writers and librarians, maybe) had a clue how scary that made the world for everyone. Escape into books became a very healthy and popular part of life. In the past few years, we have seen a second wave begin, that of addressing all sorts of social/mental health/family issues in literature. This is more pronounced in young adult, but things like divorce, gay parents, sibling loss, and bullying are being addressed, very excellently I might add, in juvenile literature. In fact, one of my blogs at Maine Crime Writers recently was about this phenomenon, which I think is a hip version of what we used to call bibliotherapy when I worked in the mental health field. Kids have responded very well to these books and I read them myself because I enjoy seeing how different authors address the topics. Juvenile readers have responded to these new topics and I often see them come in and ask specifically for a book a friend read that they think will be interesting because of something going on in their life.

Lisa: What five books (or series) are checked out most often by readers in the Middle Kingdom age range?


  1. anything by Rick Riordan
  2. anything by John Flanagan
  3. the Saranormal series by Phoebe Rivers
  4. Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell
  5. The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold

Lisa: What book(s) do you personally love to place into middle school readers’ hands?


  1. Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
  2. A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck
  3. The Secrets of Tree Taylor by Dandi Daley Mackall
  4. A Million Miles from Boston by Karen Day
  5. The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky by Holly Schindler
  6. Sizzle by Lee McClain
  7. Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
  8. Lost Boy by Tim Green

Lisa: If you had a new staffer starting tomorrow, what piece of advice would you be sure to give them about working with readers in this transitional age?

John: That’s easy, read in the genre if at all possible because you can’t beat real, firsthand experience when it comes to talking about books with teens and tweens.

Lisa: What do you like most about working with middle-schoolers?

John: They’re really excited when they realize you understand their interests and treat them as intelligent human beings. It’s doubly rewarding when they come in waving the book you suggested and say, “You rock! What else should I read?”

Lisa: Could you share some information about your most popular/successful/innovative program for promoting books and reading?

car photo

The car.

John: Several years ago, I won a street-legal version of Kasey Kahne’s Dodge from Gillette. It included a trip to meet Kasey at the Citizen’s Bank 400 in Michigan. The staff of the promotion company was really interested in my summer giveaway program for kids who read. They got various NASCAR drivers and teams to send me a ton of posters, shirts, and banners to use as reading incentives. I added in a bunch of stuff like MP3 players and new DVDs we’d gotten for Pepsi points and we gave away over $1,000 worth of prizes for a combined reading and writing program. Kids were beyond thrilled.




Collecting Souvenirs

by Lisa Bullard

Author's snow globeNot all writers can claim the vast and varied assortment of souvenir snow globes I’ve acquired on my travels. But most writers I know are constantly collecting other things: stories, words, images, emotions, quirky characters, new experiences, and oddball facts. These “writing chachkas” clutter the rooms of our imaginations until we need inspiration

Then we pick one up, shake it, and watch to see what lands in our writing.

A big part of the writing act is sedentary—sooner or later, you have to set your butt in a chair and focus on a page or a screen. But movement is crucial too: you have to get out into the world and find new souvenirs to add to the mix, or your imagination can quickly grow stale. Even a simple “road trip” to a coffee shop or the park can provide fresh material or a new perspective on old material.  I’ve learned to value these times away from my writing chair as an important part of my writing process.

I’ve met many kinesthetic learners who hate writing because they hate to sit still. And even students who have a knack for sitting quietly can benefit from a change in perspective.  So I’ve worked hard to build movement into my writing sessions with students.  One of the most popular activities is a simple poetry-writing Treasure Hunt.  (Download a description here.)

Why not get your students started on collecting their own word souvenirs by simply sending them on a writing road trip across the landscape of your classroom?



Heavy Baggage

by Lisa Bullard

I wrote in “The Beauty of Roadblocks” about how students sometimes forget to include the critical element of conflict in their stories.

White squirrelSometimes I’m faced with a different problem: a kid will include painful, intense conflict—something that is clearly based on their own experiences. Some young people carry around “heavy baggage,” and a writing road trip can unexpectedly wrench those bags open. In worrisome cases, such as descriptions of abuse, I’ve chosen to follow up with teachers or principals to let them know that a child may need additional support.

Outside of remembering to stamp this heavy baggage “handle with care,” I haven’t come up with a way to prevent the emergence of these more complex emotions and memories. Opening up about the experiences that have moved us in the past can be a powerful and even liberating part of the writing act. But I do want young writers to feel secure when these tough issues emerge, so I often use a tactic that creates a buffer of sorts: we assign these intense experiences to animal characters.

A student might write about the Rabbit family struggling through a divorce. Or the death of Grandpa Eagle. Or the all-white squirrel who is bullied for looking different than his gray squirrel schoolmates. The stories are still emotionally honest—but there’s a protection granted the young writers because the traumatic events are removed from the human world.

This tactic doesn’t work as well for older students—by Grades 5 or 6, some kids think it’s too babyish to write about talking animals. But until that point, you may find that a squirrel can come off as surprisingly human when it acts as a stand-in for a character facing one of life’s tough moments.



Skinny Dip with Lisa Bullard

Turn Left at the CowWhat keeps you up at night?

I don’t need anything to keep me up at night—I am almost always up at night no matter what! When I have morning obligations, I force myself to go to bed at a reasonable time. But when I have a few days in a row where I don’t have to get up “early,” my bedtime slips to a later and later time—until I am regularly staying up until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. The very early morning hours (before I have been to bed) are a very creative time for me. But very early morning hours AFTER I have been to bed—on days I have to get up super-early—are a nightmare!

What is your proudest career moment?

Seeing my name on the cover of a book for the first time (it was my picture book Not Enough Beds!) still ranks as one of the biggest thrills of my life. I determined in 5th grade that someday I would become a published author, and I was really proud to have made that dream come true.

Describe  your favorite pair of pajamas ever

When I was a little girl, my grandma gave me a light-blue nightgown that had light-blue fake fur around the neck and the bottom of the sleeves. I thought it was the most glamorous thing I had ever owned, and I wore it until it was in tatters.

In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?

I grew up in the northern part of Minnesota, where I took figure skating lessons and skated in ice shows. I would love to win a gold medal in figure skating—it’s such a beautiful and athletic sport!

What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

I don’t know if it was brave or stupid, but I did scare off a bad guy when I was in college. I was on a trip to Europe with classmates, and some of us were walking through the London subway system late at night when a guy started in our direction in a menacing fashion. Rather than running away, which probably would have been the smart thing to do, I threw myself in front of my companions, lifted my chin, and growled at him. He took one look at me making my “Dude, I’m scarier than you are” face and ran off. I’ve since figured out that I can be very brave when I’m protecting other people, but not necessarily when it’s just about me!

What’s the first book you remember reading?

I think it might have been Snow by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman, one of Dr. Seuss’ Beginner Books. It was definitely from that series. I was really proud that I could read the entire book to my mom, but my teacher secretly told her that rather than actually reading, I had memorized the whole book and was reciting it back.

What TV show can’t you turn off?

I like goofy things, so I am a huge fan of Fnding Bigfoot—nothing makes me laugh harder than watching those true believers (and one skeptic) roaming through the woods, howling and knocking on trees in the hopes of attracting the attention of Bigfoots (and yes, that is a correct plural usage). There is something about the seekers’ wide-eyed certainty that someday Bigfoot will show up for the cameras that I can’t resist.



A Writing GPS

GPS_clipFor a couple of years running I was hired for two-week “writing road trips” across the southwestern Minnesota prairie. On my daily journeys I often passed within a few miles of the banks of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Plum Creek. But I didn’t have time to stop and visit Famous Author Landmarks. I had been hired on as a “Famous Author” myself, to visit a series of schools and talk to students about writing. I would spend the morning in a school with hundreds of kids packed into the gym, and then charge down country highways to another school so small that the entire 3rd grade was made up of six little boys.

I was on display in these out-of-the-way places as proof that there are real people behind those names on books. But I also wanted to inspire the kids I met to be more enthusiastic writers. I wanted them to see writing as a chance to reach into their deepest hidden selves, and then to reach back out to others with whatever stories they found squirreled away inside. But that’s not always an easy thing to do when you only have 45 minutes and a big group of kids. I had to come up with a lot of attention-grabbing activities—activities that truly taught something about writing, but were also “fun” enough to stick.

Now that it’s many thousands of words, kids, and teens later, I’ve figured out a bit more about teaching kids how to write, and I’m going to share what I’ve discovered—here, on a regular basis. If you’re acting as a “writing GPS,” hoping to guide kids towards writing with more confidence, more imagination, and more finesse—but especially more fun!—I’d love to have you come along for the ride.



Traveling In-Word

For this week’s writing road trip, I journeyed to the Alphabet Forest. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, the Alphabet Forest is the remarkable creation of author/illustrator/innovator Debra Frasier, who through pure passion and persistence, managed to carve out an oasis for words in the midst of the consumable craziness that is the Minnesota State Fair.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the State Fair. I just don’t think of it as a place to sit quietly and muse deeply. And yet, Debra’s love of fair lettering started her on a journey that led to creating this enchanted place: in the midst of sunburn, sore feet, and stomach aches, here is a corner where there’s shade and plenty of places to sit down and people who offer you fun for free. But better yet, there are words enough to stuff your imagination even more than those mini donuts have already stuffed your stomach.

Lisa Bullard

Last year, I watched as my niece ignored every other fair offering (okay, with the exception of that giant brownie) as she obsessively filled out her Fabulous Fair Alphabet Game Card. This year, I had the pleasure of serving as author-in-residence at the Alphabet Forest for a day. I worked with oodles of kids who settled in at my table and promptly became utterly absorbed in writing or drawing. It didn’t matter that the parade was passing them by (literally!) and that there were still corndogs and cotton candy to be eaten: when given the option, their number one priority was to lose themselves in the creative act.

It reminded me, all over again, why I do what I do: giving kids the gift of words and story is like handing them the magic key to life. Even kids who think they hate reading and writing can be won over easily once you find the right key for them. A forest full of words can beat a clutch of corndogs any day.

If you’re near Minnesota, and you’re going to the fair, you can be inspired with ideas for how to create an Alphabet Forest in your own classroom or dining room. If not, there are a myriad of amazing downloadable resources to help you, starting at this link and moving on from there to Debra Frasier’s website.

You’ll be mighty glad you made the journey.


Gifted: Up All Night

My mother had the knack of giving me a book every Christmas that kept me up all night … after I had opened it on Christmas Eve. I particularly remember the “oh-boy-it’s-dark-outside” year that I received The Lord of the Rings and accompanied the hobbits into Woody End where they first meet the Nazgul, the […]


No need to be bored!

Although I remember my puffy pink diary with the curious brass clasp, I don’t recall writing in it much. Age nine, I may have experimented with writing on the first page. Something like, “Today was my birthday. I had a party. Nothing else happened.” If only I’d had books about writing stories … I loved […]