Tag Archives | Writing
Back when my kids were little, I started work on a nonfiction SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) series called the “Best Behavior” series. More than a decade later, these board books and paperbacks are still going strong, I’m happy to say. Titles in the series include Teeth Are Not for Biting, Voices Are Not for Yelling, and Worries Are Not Forever. The books are about shaping behavior, but in a deeper sense, they’re designed to help young children express their feelings, get their needs met, and better understand their growing independence. I think of my books as tools in an SEL toolkit. They can help you bring out the best in children during the toddler years, all the way through early elementary school, and beyond.
My goal from the beginning of the series was to use simple words to teach, encourage, and reassure young children. But I realized that my toddler board books—limited to 11 spreads, with one full spread devoted to tips for parents and educators—were too short to fully cover the topics for a wider audience. What a toddler can understand from a book called Germs Are Not for Sharing is much different from what a preschooler or kindergartner can grasp. So, I’ve created more in-depth paperbacks for older children, using the same titles as the board books. I have various versions of, for example, Words Are Not for Hurting: the board book, the expanded paperback, and Spanish/English versions of both. It’s been a joyful challenge for me to adapt my words to the different ages and stages children go through. I love aging down and aging up! The process is great practice for any writer, new or experienced, especially if you want to write for children.
How do you age down your text? First, know that aging down is very different from “writing down to children.” Our goal as children’s writers is not to write to children in babyish language or to lecture our readers, even in books that aim to guide a child’s behavior. Whether you’re aging your text down or up, respect young readers’ intelligence; know that they feel fiercely and they care deeply. E. B. White said it this way:
“Children are … the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.”
Some children’s writers take the approach of getting all their ideas and best lines on the page first, so they don’t get caught up in editing themselves too much, too early. In other words, they write long before writing short. This method feels expansive and freeing; it lets you use the page to explore and brainstorm. Yet, there are some tips to keep in mind so you’ll be on your way to creating work that’s age appropriate. Expert picture-book writer Anne Whitford Paul in her manual Writing Picture Books says there are characteristics of children to keep in mind as you write for them, including:
- Children have had few experiences.
- Children have strong emotions.
- Sometimes childhood is not happy.
- Children long to be independent.
- Children are complicated.
Paul’s list is actually longer, and I highly recommend getting a copy of her helpful manual (recently revised and updated) if you want to write for young kids. Let the children in your own life inform your writing, too. Spend time listening to them closely, soaking in their words and creative turns of phrase. Ask children to read aloud to you—paying close attention to what captures their imaginations and resonates with them emotionally. Invite fellow writers to read and comment on your work: What age group do you think this is for? Is this too wordy? Where might I cut some text?
Suppose you’ve written a manuscript for very young children, but you’re not sure if it’s age appropriate. The easiest place to start is with a word count. General guidelines suggest that manuscripts should be 500 words or less. If you’re writing for toddlers, much less. Think of it this way: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown is only 130 words. For fun, I just counted the words in my toddler board book Voices Are Not for Yelling: 131. Fiction picture books for young children, including Goodnight Moon, are often brief, poetic texts in which every word matters—sometimes described as “Perfect words in perfect places.” Nonfiction books for little ones are similarly short but are often designed to give information or share a message. In my SEL nonfiction, I don’t aim to be poetic but do hope to share simple phrases children can use on their own every day:
“You are bigger than your worries.”
“Teeth are not for biting. Ouch, biting hurts.”
“Warm water, lots of soap, scrub, scrub, scrub. Send those germs down the drain.”
I adore writing short! It’s satisfying for me to pick at my own words like I pick weeds in my garden. I’m an editor at heart, and that’s where I got my start in publishing, helping other writers use language to the best of their abilities. When writing for the very young, revise and then revise again (and again) to boil down your language to its simplest form. If that sounds difficult or boring, remember that illustrations do half the work in books for little ones. A simple tip? Get rid of your adjectives or overly descriptive language. Illustrations can do that job for you.
Whenever I’m starting a new book in the “Best Behavior” series, I tackle the board book first. This helps me simplify the concepts and language for the youngest audience, while also letting me reach the finish line faster. Once I’ve written the board book, I feel like I’ve accomplished something and want to do more. I then think of the ways in which preschoolers, kindergartners, and older children experience behavior issues in school and in the community. As they grow older, children spend more time outside of the home, engaging with a wider variety of people and places. A child’s world gradually expands—and so my books have to expand as well. But not by too much. I try to keep that “500 words or less” rule of thumb firmly in mind as I write.
Recently, I visited a first-grade classroom to share a couple of my picture books, Small Walt (about a little snowplow) and Peep Leap (about a baby wood duck afraid to leave the nest). A theme in each of these works is “small can be mighty” and that we all need encouragement, from ourselves and others. One of my favorite lines in Peep Leap is: “You are braver than you know.” To be honest, I feel scared every time I start a new manuscript. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve written before—each new one feels like a challenge I have no idea how to take on. I give myself little pep talks and reach out to fellow writers who often feel the same way. On that day of the first-grade visit, the teacher pulled me aside and confided that she had a book idea and wanted to write for children and hadn’t started yet because it felt too “big.” Well, I hope she does start writing soon, and I told her to give it a try. If you work with children or are raising them, you have an insider’s view into what makes kids tick, and how much they grow and change as time rolls on. That’s a great start … now you need to put some words on the page.
I’m fussy when it comes to choosing where to sit. The comfy chair or the well-worn red sofa? Lights on high or nicely dimmed? Soft throw blanket? Sometimes even in a restaurant, I ask to sit at a different table than the one the host chooses because it doesn’t feel right. My husband rolls his eyes.
Setting whether in fiction, nonfiction, or my own family room, holds a special place in my heart. I need to experience the place. Its scent, lighting, sounds, and details. Setting is just as much a character in nonfiction as the people or events we write about. Here are a few tips to make the most of that nonfiction setting.
1. Paint your setting with details:
In Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero, the author Patricia McCormick begins the story with a problem. The U.S. Marines fighting in Korea are worn out from hauling heavy ammunition to the cannon named Reckless up the hill. They found a small mare and set out to train her. The reader can’t help but be smack dab in the war with the horse now named Sergeant Reckless.
“One day, the marines spotted enemy troops approaching; instantly, they went into battle mode. Pvt. Monroe Colman saddled up Reckless and led her to the top of the hill. BOOM! Just as they were delivering their load, the cannon went off. A blast of hot air sent dust and gravel flying toward the horse. Reckless jumped straight in the air—even with six shells on her back…BOOM! The cannon roared again. She jumped, but not so high this time. BOOM! This time, Reckless just snorted. By the next time the gun went off, Reckless was busy eating a helmet liner she’d found in the grass.”
The scene got my heart racing, as if I were right there. And after the danger, my heart swelled with admiration for both the marines and Sergeant Reckless.
In my YA nonfiction book, Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs, Dr. Catherine Hamlin arrives in Ethiopia: “The fresh scent of eucalyptus mixed with dust in every breath reminded them of Australia. Someone was supposed to have met them. When no one arrived … they walked along the fragmented road carrying their luggage and seeing nothing but green countryside, loaded-down donkeys, and a few cars.” Details help to provide the backdrop for this setting.
2. Use all five senses:
Smell brings to mind all kinds of places; a zoo, a cup of bleach in a laundromat. Sounds like; a ringing bell, chugging train, or the hum of a crowded market add to the setting. Light; how it brightens a gloomy day. Touch: the soft warm blanket on a cold night, the silkiness of your dog’s coat.
The beginning of An American Plague by Jim Murphy uses the sense of smell combined with other details to draw the reader in. Sight and sound are familiar senses many writers use. But smell is sometimes even more effective.
“Saturday, August 3, 1793. The sun came up, as it had every day since the end of May, bright, hot, and unrelenting. Dead fish and gooey vegetable matter were exposed and rotted, wild swarms of insects droned in the heavy, humid air.”
The book pulls us in immediately with the weight of the air and forces the reader to feel unease. And in the following passage the sensory words he uses such as clattered, squawking, and squealing add to the uncertainty.
“Horse drawn wagons clattered up and down the cobblestone street, bringing in more fresh vegetables, squawking chickens, and squealing pigs. People commented on the stench from Ball’s wharf, but the market’s own ripe blend of odors—of roasting meats, strong cheeses, days-old sheep and cow guts, dried blood and horse manure—tended to overwhelm all others.”
Surrounding your characters with as many senses as you can help to establish a solid setting. When I read this, I wanted to plug my nose and wipe sweat off my forehead. If your nonfiction is historical, of course you were not there. It helps to visit the location of the event or walk the streets of your subject.
Take full advantage of the weather. A blinding blizzard sets the story. A humid day, we feel the sluggishness of the characters. Crisp fall weather gives us a chill, gets us ready to settle in for the winter. Aimée Bissonette writes about one turbulent night in her picture book biography, Miss Colfax’s Light.
“One stormy night in 1886, when Harriet was more than 60 years old, she set out for the west pier. The wind raged. Driving sleet covered her coat with ice. Sand from the dunes along the lake pelted Harriet’s face, stinging her cheeks. She struggled with her lantern and her bucket…The beacon tower swayed in the wind as Harriet struck her match and lit the light. Teeth chattering from the cold, she hurried back across the catwalk. When she stepped off the catwalk, a deafening screech filled the air. Crash!”
Aimee highlights weather details that incite danger as we move through the scene with Miss Colfax. We feel the ice on our face and the slipperiness under our feet. What will happen, will she slip? This scene gives me both the chills and a shaky stomach.
Back here in Minnesota, it’s getting cold. All the more reason for me to settle in my snug chair lamps dimmed, next to a toasty fire. Steaming cup of tea anyone?
If you dropped into Room 212 for a visit between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. you might wonder what kind of “Writer’s Workshop” was underway. It’s not that you wouldn’t find evidence of writing … the questions raised might center on the genres of writing you would be hard pressed to detect. No persuasive essays. Not a single five-paragraph essay. Zero personal narratives. And where are the friendly letters?
What you would discover in Room 212 is a refreshing approach to Writer’s Workshop that is intent on cultivating JOY among the two dozen aspiring writers spread around the room. What you would also discover is a celebration of individuality, creativity, choice and voice …
Ralph Fletcher’s latest contribution to the world of teaching writing, Joy Write, is one of the loveliest approaches to Writer’s Workshop I’ve ever encountered. It’s about setting aside the formal, common core, standards-based, often energy-draining ways we stifle kids in the Writer’s Workshop. Instead, teachers are encouraged to be intentional about creating a “greenbelt” space (an analogy related to community planning and land management) that allows kids the freedom to make writing “personal, passionate, joyful, whimsical, playful, infused with choice, humor, and voice” and best of all, “reflective of the quirkiness of childhood.”
In addition to extending an abundance of ideas on what to do to during Writer’s Workshop, Fletcher cautions teachers on what NOT to do, such as correct, grade, assess, quantify pages or critique messy handwriting.
If this peek into the Writer’s Workshop in Room 212 leaves you wondering just what the teacher could and should be doing to promote the beauty of joy, you must get your hands on a copy of Joy Write, by Ralph Fletcher, published by Heinemann (download a free chapter of the book).
As my wise 3rd grade friend Will points out, “Joy Write means to write frealy. you don’t haft to write perfectley. it doesn’t matter now matter what!”
Where do successful nonfiction writers get their ideas? So many places! The topics a nonfiction writer can write about are limitless. Sure, some ideas have been written about before, but nonfiction writers take that as a challenge. They ask what unusual angle they might take or if there is a different (or better) format in which to deliver the information. Is there a way to add mystery or intrigue? Is there a little known fact beyond that’s not commonly known?
Yes, nonfiction topics are limitless. Truth be told, though, it can be hard for nonfiction writers to settle on a particular idea even when they’re swimming in a sea of them. This is particularly true for young writers who are trying their hand at writing nonfiction for the first time. Young writers not only have to come up with engaging ideas, but they have to master a bevy of other skills in their early writing assignments: how to write a rough draft, choose rich words and phrases, order events, use proper punctuation, and more. Choosing a topic sometimes only adds to the anguish.
So how can we help young writers see that good nonfiction ideas are all around them? How can we help them discover a topic that excites them and makes their writing more enjoyable? We need to teach them to do what other nonfiction writers do: dive deep!
Here are some suggestions—tried and true—from someone who swims in that sea and is on the hunt for new ideas every day:
Expand your social network. Befriend people of different ages, backgrounds, regions of the country or professions. Talk to them about what interests them and what is happening where they live. Friends and family members often have great suggestions for nonfiction topics based on things they’ve experienced that you have not.
Read broadly. Read regional newspapers with stories that have not broken nationally or specialized publications for people with specific interests (e.g. dog magazines, travel magazines). Read about current and historical events, other countries, music, books, food, culture, and traditions. I got the idea for Miss Colfax’s Light from a small excerpt I read in another book about women of the Great Lakes. I wrote Aim for the Skies after reading Jerrie Mock’s obituary in an Ohio newspaper.
Spend time in nature. Do you know there are scientific studies that prove that our creativity is boosted when we spend time outdoors? It’s true. And when we get outdoors, we also see that nature provides an endless supply of things to write about—like the animals, plants, and changing seasons depicted in my book North Woods Girl. I have several works in progress that focus on the natural world—all of which are the result of hiking, canoeing, and taking photographs in the great outdoors. When I am stumped for ideas, I put on my walking shoes and head out.
Talk with experts. Experts are chock-full of information and most of them love to share it. Just ask! And if you are thinking you don’t know any real experts, keep in mind there are “everyday experts” all around us who know about all sorts of things. Have you ever toured a fire station with a firefighter? I have. And I learned lots of cool stuff when I did. For instance, did you know that firefighters have to use special washers and dryers to clean their gear to remove carcinogens? Or that they have to hang their fire hoses after fighting fires so the hoses can dry out? (Which—fun fact—also means they need more than one set of hoses for their trucks!) Talking to an expert helps you learn uncommon and interesting facts you can share in your nonfiction work.
Visit websites that report on fun facts and oddities. There are a number of websites that specialize in investigating and reporting all sorts of fun facts—facts that make great nonfiction topics. Here are a few of my favorites:
Now I Know email newsletter (and website with archives) by Dan Lewis
When reading material on these sites, I try to keep an eye out for “tip of the iceberg” fragments or “unturned stones.” There are always bits of unmined material there—ideas that lie buried or hidden under other information. That information is perfect for a nonfiction piece.
Be sure to choose an idea you love. Once you settle on an idea, the research and writing begins. That takes time and energy—so don’t choose a topic you’re only mildly interested in or your work might start to feel like just another assignment. You want the excitement you feel for your topic to show in your work. You want your readers to feel that excitement, too. The best way to do this is to choose a topic you truly enjoy—perhaps one you always wished someone else had written about so you could read it.
In her lesson plan “Calling all Nonfiction Writers,” Maggie Knutson suggests a number of questions teachers can ask students when selecting nonfiction topics for their writing. I’ve included a few of her proposed questions below. You can find her whole lesson plan here. Questions like these help guide writers, young and old, in their search for good nonfiction ideas. They help writers choose ideas they care about—and that contributes to writing success.
So tell your young writers to put on their flippers, snorkels, and masks and dive in! Tell them to swim around in a big sea of ideas—one they’ve generated themselves using some of the suggestions above. They are sure to find one that is a good fit. Then, let the writing begin.
Questions for Students
Brainstorm a list of all the possible topics about which you might write. Don’t judge them or exclude anything that pops into your mind.
- Think about each topic with your eyes closed. Notice how you feel. Does the topic excite you? Does your body get warm, cold, or feel something else, such as energized, heavy, sad, happy, or excited? Do ideas begin to come to mind?
- Do a two-minute quick write on your topics—use notes, keywords, or bullet points, not full sentences.
- Based on your quick write, choose the topic that most appeals to you.
A well-known journalist in a local bagel joint, after not seeing me for a few weeks, would always greet me with, “Welcome back, Pete.” It wasn’t because he knew where I’d been, but he knew I traveled a lot to write my children’s adventure books. Since I’d seen him last, I’d probably been out climbing Aztec or Mayan temples, paddling a river, accompanying biologists studying polar bears, whales, or manatees. What I love about my job as a children’s adventure writer is research. I tell students, “to research is to explore.”
Recently I traveled to the very top of Norway, near Russia, to learn what a 19th-century polar explorer felt when he returned from a harrowing three-year Arctic sojourn. I’ve been writing a new adventure biography for Henry Holt, my second in a series, after Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s a Shackleton-sort of story before Shackleton, a story few in this country know anything about.
In 1893 the Norwegian zoologist and polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen sailed for the North Pole with a crew of 12 in a special ship he had built called the Fram (meaning “forward” in Norwegian). His object was to collect valuable scientific data on the unknown Arctic and maybe to reach the North Pole, a feat unaccomplished in 400 years of trying. Nansen had the crazy idea that if he could build a ship strong enough, with the right proportions to withstand the forces of crushing ice, he could lock his ship into the Arctic ice pack above Siberia and just drift toward the pole. The ice would pick his boat up just like a cork. Traveling on an Arctic current at one or two miles a day (Arctic ice is in constant motion), he’d “float” for a number of years (he had provisions for five years) right up to the top of the world and over to the other side near Greenland.
Veteran Arctic travelers thought he was crazy, that he would jeopardize his and his crew’s lives. It was obviously a fool’s mission. Yet Nansen had already become famous for his daring. In 1888 he was the first to cross Greenland on skis. Unlike Admiral Peary and others who attempted the trek, Nansen traveled from the uninhabited eastern side of the ice cap to a town in the west, later saying, “I demolish my bridges behind me, then there is no choice but to move forward.” After his Greenland success he set his compass for the region of the North Pole, where ships on previous expeditions were inevitably crushed, all hands diving for lifeboats or trudging on foot over ice back to Siberia, many dying along the way.
Nevertheless, Nansen and the Fram set out from Oslo in 1893, sailed the 1600 miles around the top of the country to Vardø, the last little fishing port in Norway, and then hunted for the pack ice above the Siberian coast to try out the Fram’s ice-worthiness. When the ship was locked in for the first time, the whine and roar of ice scraping against the hull sent shivers of horror into the men’s hearts. But the Fram did what its shipwright designed it to do. With a super wide, thick hull, it was lifted right up on top of that deadly frozen mass, slipping “like an eel out of the embraces of the ice” as its builder said, and was carried creaking and moaning toward its goal.
After nearly a year and a half trapped in ice, Nansen realized Fram would miss the pole by 300 miles. So he and fellow crewmember Hjalmar Johansen prepared to make a dash for it. They took 28 sled dogs, three sleds, two small canvas-covered kayaks and 1500 lbs of food and supplies, and headed into the white world knowing they’d never find their ship again. They couldn’t bring enough food for the dogs, so they planned to feed the weak and failing dogs to stronger dogs to keep them going. For 15 months the men dragged their sleds over pressure ridges and jumbled blocks of ice. They jumped the lanes of water that opened beneath them. They fell into the water so many times they walked with clothes like armors of ice. When they finally found land after five months, they survived the long polar winter on walrus and polar bear meat in a crude hut hardly wide enough to sleep stretched out.
When all their dogs had died, and they were reduced to their tiny, fragile kayaks about to paddle hundreds of miles of open water to Spitsbergen, Nansen heard the bark of a dog somewhere on the edge of the ice. He scrambled to investigate. Amazingly he saw the figure of a man, who turned out to be another polar explorer, a Brit named Frederick Jackson, whom Nansen had actually met in London years ago.
Jackson took the two men into this camp. They shaved and washed and ate well until Jackson’s supply ship returned the Norwegians to Vardø almost three years after leaving the small fishing village. A year later Nansen penned a bestseller called Farthest North, an account of one of the greatest polar adventure tales ever told.
I needed to go to Vardø to understand Nansen’s feelings when he left Norway, and when he returned to Norway. So I rented a car in Tromsø, a beautiful city above the Arctic Circle and drove across the top of the country, a region called Finnmark, practically to Siberia. I drove through bounding reindeer, around massive fjords and past mountains aflame with yellow birch trees to reach that town where the famous Norwegian explorer had bought his last supplies in July 1893, wondering if he’d ever return.
When I pulled into Vardø, I found a gem of a fishing village, with Russian signage in the harbor. Fisherman in small boats sorted through their night’s catch. The autumn Arctic Sea wind on my face helped me imagine Nansen and his small crew heading out to sea in 1893. I pictured the famous Norwegian on the Fram gazing back at the sleepy town, feeling this silent exit was just the right way to leave his beloved country, no crowds and shouts of good luck and farewell. (He and his crew had been feted for weeks in towns up and down the coast of Norway.) Now everything was silent.
“The masts in the harbor, the house-roofs, and chimneys stood out against the cool morning sky. Just then the sun broke through the mist and smiled over the shore—rugged, bare, and weather-worn in the hazy morning, but still lovely—dotted here and there with tiny houses and boats, and all Norway lay behind it….”
I strolled around the village for a few hours to imagine the scene of Nansen’s and Johansen’s return after three ice-bound years. On that early June morning in 1896, no one spotted Jackson’s sloop gliding into the peaceful harbor at Vardø. The two survivors jumped ashore and raced to the telegraph station. They stamped their feet on the ground to feel their native soil. They were laughing and smiling. A fisherman walked by them staring at Johansen’s odd jacket he’d made from a blanket back in their tiny stone hut, where for nine winter months they had lived like cavemen.
A cow in the Vardø street gazed at them. Just a few hours before the whole world would discover they were still alive, before Nansen would become the most famous man in Europe, Nansen reached out to pet the cow because, as he said, it looked so “summery.”
Truth is, I had to go to all the way to Vardø to understand what Nansen meant by the word “summery.”
Reports about animals are boring, and they usually go like this: Honeybees are insects. Honeybees eat nectar. Honeybees live in a hive. See? BORING!
What if we do a little research, find the most interesting facts about honeybees and use them in a story about one honeybee? Here is something I learned while researching honeybees. They dance. Like really dance.
Okay now we have something to work with. Why do bees dance? Where do they dance? Which bees dance? We can answer all those questions in the story.
When I work with kids on writing their own narrative nonfiction stories about animals, I send them a list of questions to research and answer before I get to school. My favorite question on the list? What is the coolest most interesting fact you learned about your animal?
One boy learned that Daddy Longlegs are the most poisonous spiders on earth, but their mouths are too small to ever bite a human. Awesome! A story started forming in my mind as I learned that.
One girl learned that a whale can hold its breathe underwater for 30 minutes! 30 minutes—wow! I can’t wait to read the story about that whale at the bottom of the ocean, swooshing around in the darkness looking for food.
The most interesting fact about an animal is a great fulcrum for a story.
My book Bee Dance took nine years to write. I know that sounds crazy. And it is. But I just couldn’t get the story right. First I wrote the text in rhyme. It was fine, but some of my rhymes felt forced.
Then I tried to make the topic more visually interesting. The illustrations started out in black and white, then moved to color after the scout bee tasted the nectar of a flower. It made it seem like the bee was tripping on psychedelic drugs! AND it completely stepped on the cool fact of the bee dance itself. Feeling defeated, I put the book in a drawer.
After working on several other books, I pulled out my old Bee Dance script and realized that it needed to be a straightforward read about how the bee dance works. The fact that bees dance specific directions to a food source, so all the other bees know exactly where to find it, is such a cool fact on its own. It was enough to hold the whole story together.
So now, when writing stories with kids I tell them, focus on the coolest fact you learned. Let that guide your story.
There’s an old Elton John song titled, Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word. Well, I wonder if he’d mind if I changed the title to, Structure Seems to be the Hardest Word.
Structure is a lot like voice; it needs to be present, yet it must be invisible and unforced. Without it, the writing may fall down just like a kindergartner’s block tower. My current nonfiction project has great material with plenty of primary and secondary sources for me to search, but that’s not enough. It needs a solid structure to support it, or it will tip over.
There are a few basic questions I am asking myself to uncover a structure:
- What is the story I want to tell?
- How does this story move along chronologically?
- What are the themes in the story?
- Why does this story matter?
With Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs, Chicago Review Press, 2017, the structure and theme were inherently in place. Themes of perseverance and education as well as having a good mentor aided the medical women in their successful careers. The narrative made sense to me, probably because I was writing individual chronological stories about lives well-lived.
Recently I dove into Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee. He says, “The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.” One structure he writes about is the ABC/D structure, where he pits the stories of three similar people against someone dissimilar. And that fourth element the “D” appears throughout the whole story. By profiling people in this way, he adds a new dimension or conflict to the piece. And according to McPhee, theme plays a larger role. Hmmm, okay so there’s one way to go.
One of my favorite works of adult nonfiction is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. If you’re not familiar with it, pick it up and read it soon. In this book Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman stricken with cervical cancer. As Lacks was being treated in 1951, her cells were taken without her consent. Ultimately, HeLa cells, as they have become known, have transformed medicine as we know it today.
In structuring her book, Skloot uses a braided story structure—a different approach from McPhee’s. During her research, she discovered countless moving parts to Henrietta’s story, and the question was how best to unify them into a single narrative. What she figured out was to take all the important narratives and weave them through like a braid, jumping back and forth in time. Similar to the structure of the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. And because Skloot’s research was embedded in the story, she included her story with Deborah, (Henrietta’s daughter) as one of the strands. That central narrative carries through the whole book.
Skloot used three different colored index cards, one for each of the three central narratives. She arranged them on a large table and moved them around in time. She introduced all three strands in the beginning, so the readers knew what to expect. What she figured out was that she was spending too much time on each narrative and not jumping around in time fast enough, thus bogging down the story. As soon as she moved more quickly from narrative to narrative, the book began to take shape.
My nonfiction story takes place within several months, so I don’t have the luxury of jumping back and forth between decades as Skloot was able to do. But, there are multiple characters: steamboat captains, Native Americans, explorers, naturalists and botanists, and of course settlers and farmers all telling their own stories. So perhaps I can braid these narratives together.
Since only a few interacted during the historical event and cannot be pitted against each other directly, I need a way to connect them. So back I go to John McPhee’s ABC/D structure, and it dawns on me that all of my characters confront the Mississippi River. Perhaps I should pit the story around the river. A central narrative to carry the reader through the book. A eureka moment? I hope.
Finally, in rereading You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between by Lee Gutkind, I found an additional way to look at structure.
Gutkind writes about the Creative Nonfiction Dance where you create a rhythm for the story:
“So here’s the dance that is diagrammed. The scene gets the reader interested, (okay I have many good scenes) and involved, so you can then provide information, nonfiction, to the reader. (I have good information as well.) But sooner or later, a reader will get distracted or overloaded with information, and you will lose him. But before you allow that to happen you go back to the scene—or introduce a new scene—and reengage.”
It’s even better, he says, if you can embed information in the scene then you can travel from scene to scene without stopping.
I may need a combination of these structure ideas, or maybe a different structure altogether, we shall see. Am I overthinking it? Probably, but structure, for sure, seems to be the hardest word.
I wonder if Elton has any words of wisdom for me.
 McPhee, John. Draft No. 4 On the Writing Process. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017, p. 20.
 Gutkind, Lee. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. Boston: DiCapo Press, 2013, p. 139.
When I worked as a publishing professional, I got to visit New York twice a year as part of my job. I loved it: the people, the pace, the movie-set landscapes. So I gawked. I meandered. I stopped and stared up at the skyscrapers. I was a stranger in a strange land.
All that seemed to make New Yorkers unhappy. Finally a kind magazine editor explained to me what was going on.
“They seem…irritated,” I said.
He looked me up and down and shook his head. “You’re walking slowly, right? You’re stopping to look at things? They’re not mad, they’re in a hurry.”
Then he leaned way forward and whispered so no one else could hear. “Trust me. I’m from Michigan. They can tell you’re a Midwesterner, and you’re in their way.”
I did fine in New York once I learned to stay out of the way. But here’s the thing: I would never want to shut down that “country yokel in the big city” side of myself, because in many ways, it’s my single most valuable trait as a writer. Nothing has come in more useful than my pleasure at wandering aimlessly—whether it’s through city streets or a long conversation or the Internet—the whole time collecting the shiny bits of life as if I were a magpie.
Sometimes I pick up somebody’s life story. Sometimes I collect trivia. Sometimes it’s an odd expression. They pile up in my crow’s nest of a brain, and then seemingly out of nowhere, pop up and insert themselves into my writing. They suggest stories. They combine and mutate in strange and wonderful ways.
So despite the fact that it’s probably the most common question young writers ask me, I’m always a little surprised when I hear, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas are everywhere, I tell them: you just have to wander and gawk long enough to notice them.
As a brainstorming activity for your student writers, I encourage you to offer them meandering time. Take a nature walk. Go to the media center and tell them to grab nonﬁction books on any topics that catch their fancy. Allow them to browse Internet sites from museums or zoos. Ask them to bring in three curious facts about their own family’s history.
Information I discovered while researching one of my nonﬁction titles, about the walking catfish, turned out to provide the entire thematic basis for my mystery novel. You really never do know where a great story idea might come from.
Maybe even from the streets of New York.
I’ve found there’s an alarmingly close correlation between the topsy-turvy emotions of a high school crush and a writer’s feelings during the process of submitting a manuscript to publishers.
As the writer waiting for an answer from The Perfect Publisher, you go through the same hopeful highs and “why doesn’t anyone love me?” lows. The manuscript that just last week looked pretty darn good has somehow overnight developed a hideous zit. Rejections begin arriving, and you drive your family crazy with your obsessive speculation about whether The One will ever call.
For the past few years I’ve been working on a manuscript that’s a whole new kind of writing for me, and more recently I’ve been living all of these emotions throughout the submission process. One night in a restaurant, I actually found myself wailing to my good and patient friends, “All I want is for somebody to ask me to the prom!”
Guess what? The limo’s arrived! I had plenty of time to buy the right dress, but in Fall 2013 the limo appeared to take me and my middle grade mystery novel to the Big Dance.
Getting published is great; there’s no way I’ll pretend to you it isn’t. I’ve had a whole week of flowers and cupcakes, and this isn’t even my first dance! But the pursuit of getting published can also be tougher and more humbling than new writers imagine. So when kids approach me with that hopeful gleam in their eye and ask, “How do I get my story published?” I always feel a little ping of protective worry for them.
Then I work hard to instill in them a love of writing for the sake of writing, not just for the joy of seeing their name on the cover of a book.
And then I remember that having an audience for my work matters to me, too, and I come up with ways for students to share their writing. After all, part of the urge to see one’s name on a book cover is the fact that on the other side of the writing seesaw, there’s a reader who will find you—and your words—remarkable.
I’ll be describing the importance of giving students a chance to share their work out loud in an upcoming post titled “Driven to Write Better.” But there are also practical ways to allow students to “publish” their work. You can find affordable blank books in educational supply stores and online. You can have students choose for themselves the role of either “writer” or “illustrator,” and then pair them off to create their own picture books together. One school I visited arranged for older students to pair off with first-graders, and then the older kids interviewed the younger students about their personal preferences and created a book designed especially for them.
When the hard work of writing is done, everybody’s ready to dance!
Some of the best advice you can give student writers is also some of the easiest for them to carry through on: to write better, they should read better.
Read better, as in: Read more. Read widely. Read outside their usual reading “type.” Read carefully. Read for fun.
Read ﬁrst for story, and then read as backseat writers.
I’ll warn you that there is a risk in “backseat writing,” in second-guessing the author’s decisions without ﬁrst allowing ourselves to savor their story. If we read only to analyze every decision the author made, it can strip all the pleasure out of the reading experience. So I encourage students to put the story ﬁrst, simply asking themselves if the book worked for them on the most elementary level: did the act of reading it bring them a payoff of some kind? Did reading the book give them an adrenaline rush or warm fuzzy feelings or make them cry or fall in love? Did it cause them to examine their world in a whole new way, or illuminate something about their life?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then after savoring for a while, I challenge them to think as a backseat writer. What tricks do they think the author used to accomplish those reactions? Are they tricks they could try in their own writing? How would the story be different if the writer had made different choices? Changed point of view? Used a different setting? Given the character a different motivation? Pointed the plot in a different direction?
It’s that time of year when “best of the year” book lists and children’s and young adult book awards are dissected and debated and detailed on blogs far and wide. In other words, it’s the perfect time to easily steer your young writers towards a whole year full of great reading. Ask them to pick up books—any good books will do—and then read them like backseat writers.
Before they know it, they’ll be teaching themselves how to drive.
I came down with the flu. After weeks of dragging myself to the computer, I finally listened to the doctor and let myself be sick. One afternoon I pulled out my old journals. I haven’t kept a journal in the last few years, instead a planner dictates my days. My composition notebooks are a mishmash of thoughts, memories, observations, scribblings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s conferences. I’ve never been a dedicated diary keeper, but carrying around a handmade journal felt less like “being a writer” and more like staying in touch with the world.
Back then, I didn’t frequent Starbucks or museums or university libraries. My observations were made in diners where the first course for the special is cole slaw with Saltines, in general stores that carry weekly newspapers reporting a man was shot and became dead, and along back roads where people live in abandoned gas stations. I captured scenes like this:
In Goodwill today, a mother and daughter came in talking sixty to the minute. Naturally I eavesdropped. Mother: Look, they got Dale Earnhart glasses. Daughter: No, I seen ‘em before. I remembered shopping trips with my mother and sister, how we’d “find” stuff for each other.
The daughter was ahead of me in the check-out line. One of her items, a NASCAR throw, wasn’t priced. Her mother—a large woman in an ill-fitting dress—squeezed past me to stand behind her daughter. “Pardon me, sweetie,” she said. The clerk allowed the NASCAR throw was $14.99. Too much, the daughter said and paid for her other things.
Her mother set down two glasses, the Dale Earnhart ones. She pulled two dollars folded into tiny squares from her wallet. I wondered if she purchased the Earnhart glasses for her daughter, knowing she wanted them but didn’t have enough money. She thanked me again for letting her cut in front. The women talked all the way out the door. I wondered where they were headed next. I longed to go with them.
I know families like that. They’re everywhere, but most of us living our busy, forward-focused lives don’t notice the margin-dwellers. I see them because I once existed on the periphery. Deep inside, I still do. People at the ragged edge will give you their time and anything else, even if they can’t spare it. When they speak, in what Anne Tyler calls “pure metaphor,” I come home.
Reading my journals made me wonder where I’ve been lately and why my recent work feels so … safe. I was once on track to tell the stories of kids who have fallen through the cracks. Not in a poor-me-we-live-in-a-trailer-and-Daddy-chews-Red-Man way, but with dignity and even humor. After several failed attempts, I quit because I knew the stories I wanted to write would hardly be a top pick in an editor’s inbox.
Oct. 3, 2014: Some days—weeks—it feels as if I haven’t written a word. Not my words. I’m reminded how much I want to say, how little time I have to do it.
So I stopped keeping a journal. Stopped driving down back roads to get lost on purpose. Worse, I faced forward and ignored the edges where the lovely, important things are.
I found advice from Jack Gantos’s opening speech at the 2014 SCBWI Mid-winter conference. The slide on the screen showed the cover of his Newbery award-winner, Dead End in Norvelt, with the title written on a road sign and a boy standing behind it.
Feb. 22: “Always go behind the sign,” Gantos said. “It’s where the real stories are.” I already do that.
When I finished reading, I stacked the notebooks, reluctant to put them back on the dusty shelf. If I did, I’d bury a treasure trove of stories, sketches, places, names, scenes, and rare glimpses of my own true self. I moved them to the bedroom to dip into, hoping my dreams will urge me to record once more the soft cadence of forgotten voices.
I’m the only one standing in the way. No one will beg me to tell the stories I’ve already shot and declared dead without writing a syllable, hearing an editor say, No, I have seen this before. It’s up to me to find the edges, to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my confidence. To get lost on purpose and slip behind the sign. To see what I’m really part of.
Enter the freshman chemistry tutor dressed in torn jeans and a flannel shirt. His job? To get me through entry level chemistry at Iowa State University. My first college plan was to major in Hotel and Restaurant Management because my father owned a company that did business with these types of institutions. So, what the heck, I didn’t know what else to study so I declared that my major way back in the fall of 1977.
No one told me that since these kinds of institutions serve food, I had to take courses in food and nutrition. And since food and nutrition were science based, I must take chemistry. Three quarters of chemistry! Ugh. Back to the tutor’s and my results; C+, and that was after a lot of hard work. My new major; journalism and mass communications, and forty years later the stars have aligned. Science is drawing me in now.
When I wrote the proposal for Bold Women of Medicine, it did not occur to me that I would have to write about science. Well … what did you think, Susan? Write about these courageous doctors, nurses, midwives, and physical therapists, and there wouldn’t be any science? Oh, dear. I flashed back to freshman chemistry and biology, and suspected I was in big trouble.
Along the way I discovered that not having this knowledge was a good thing, and in my case, it almost helped me. I could write from a position of innocence and explain the women’s medical careers without a condescending tone to my readers: I was one of those readers.
Take for example one of the women in my book, Helen Taussig and her part in treating the blue baby syndrome. I barely knew how the human heart worked when it was healthy, and now I’d have to explain how brilliant medical researcher Mr. Vivien Thomas, and Drs. Taussig and Blalock, discovered how to fix the defect. (Hint: Vivien Thomas practiced on hundreds of dogs, the most famous of which is Anna, whose portrait hangs at Johns Hopkins Hospital.)
Off to the library I went to check out books on the human heart—first adult books, then books for children. I studied the healthy heart and heart defect jargon and tried to explain it to myself first, and then write it down. Fortunately, I have medical professionals in my life so, after a few drafts, I had them read it to see if I had explained it correctly and without intense medical language. Did you know the normal child’s heart is about the size of their fist? I didn’t know that.
The tiny babies were not getting enough oxygen and in Dr. Taussig’s mind the fix seemed to be a simple case of improved plumbing. The narrative tension was built right into the story. Specifics always work better so I wrote about the first operation on one of the babies, little Eileen Saxon, and later another operation on a six-year-old boy.
In the profiles of Dr. Catherine Hamlin and Edna Adan Ismail, the science writing was more challenging knowing my audience was young adult (12 and up). Writing about medicine automatically lends itself to topics we don’t want to hear about—in this case, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and Obstetric Fistula. One young woman came to Dr. Hamlin for help by walking almost 280 miles. Ten years earlier, because of a prolonged labor, she had suffered two holes in her bladder (an obstetric fistula) and lost all control. At first Dr. Hamlin did not know how to help her, but she talked to other physicians and studied up on procedures. After the successful surgery, Dr. Hamlin presented the young woman with a new dress in which to go home. The woman waved good-bye with hope and said “God will reward you for all you have done for me.” Presenting the image of an optimistic woman with a new dress helps readers understand Dr. Hamlin’s important work.
As I wrote about science for the first time, I learned a few things along the way:
- Every famous surgery or discovery or treatment has a story. Find that story, find the human part of that story.
- Character, setting, and the five senses can help science dribble into the story.
- Keep your wonder and gross-out mindset alive. Kids possess this mindset naturally and many appreciate the guts (no pun intended) of the details.
- There are no stupid questions when interviewing experts. Be curious, and if you can, experience the science first-hand.
- Know that your audience is smart, just inexperienced in the subject.
- Double (and triple) check your science writing with the experts. The last thing you want to do is send out incorrect information.
Because the women of medicine were accomplished, it was easy to assume they knew all the answers. They did not … but they were curious and that curiosity led them to answers. Science often comes up with negative results, people just trying to understand how something works. This doesn’t always make the news. Building on these negative results leads scientists to the flashy news and the successes.
I built on my (limited) knowledge, and learned right along with my audience. I had a lot of false starts, not really knowing what I was writing about. Fortunately, for the patients, I never had to actually perform the difficult procedures and surgeries.
And to that chemistry tutor in the flannel shirt, wherever you are: thanks for the help. I probably did learn something. Next up: seismology. Know any good tutors?
Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating.
In November, I taught writing workshops at a school in a largely rural county. I was shocked to discover most students couldn’t name objects in their bedrooms, much less the surrounding countryside. Without specific details, writing is lifeless. More important, if children can’t call up words, can’t distinguish between things, they will remain locked in wintry indifference. Some blame falls on us.
A recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary swapped nature words for modern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dandelion, nectar, and otter. In went blog, bullet-point, attachment, chatroom, and voicemail. Updating dictionaries isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as relevant as database, but it’s certainly more musical. If we treat language like paper towels, it’s no wonder many kids can’t name common backyard birds.
When I was nine, my stepfather taught me the names of the trees in our woods, particularly the oaks. I learned to identify red, white, black, pin, post, and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Labeling trees, birds, and wildflowers didn’t give me a sense of ownership. Instead, I felt connected to the planet. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.
That same year we fourth graders were issued Thorndyke-Barnhart’s Junior Dictionary. I fell on mine like a duck on a June bug, enchanted by new words. My parlor trick was spelling antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest word in the dictionary. Kids can Google the longest word in the English language, but the experience isn’t the same as browsing through a big book of words.
Emerson wrote, “… the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker … The poets made all the words, naming things after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another’s.” I believe young children are poets, assigning names and making up words to mark new discoveries. After they become tethered to technology, they parrot words from commercials, programs, and video games. That fresh language is lost.
So imagine my delight when I found a new book for children, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert MacFarlane paired with artist Jackie Morris to rescue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like newt and kingfisher are showcased as “spells,” rather than straight definitions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the creature sink deep, while Morris’s watercolors create their own magic.
On their joint book tour throughout England, MacFarlane and Morris introduced children to words—and animals. On her blog Morris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the booksellers stopped me. ‘Ask the children if they know what a wren is, first, Jackie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had never seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so perhaps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”
The Lost Words makes me want to take children by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illustrate our winter landscape. By giving kids specific names, they can then spin a thread from themselves to the planet.
“Language is fossil poetry,” Emerson continues in his essay, “as the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”
Rock rasps, what are you?
I am Raven! Of the blue-black jacket and the boxer’s swagger,
Stronger and older than peak and than boulder, raps Raven in reply.
From The Lost Words
Let’s dig up lost words before they become buried beneath the rubble of STEM-worthy terms. Feel the shape of them, polish their shells, let them shine.
It wasn’t so unusual that my teenage nephews were sending me signals that translated to: “Will you take us to the store right now so we can spend these Christmas gift cards from Grandma?”
What was new this year was that they also wanted to do the driving. Brand-new permits in their pockets, I agreed to let one twin drive us there, and the other drive us home. And one of the things that most struck me was how careful they were to use their turn signals, even with no other cars for seemingly miles around.
It made me realize that as a seasoned driver I am sometimes a little lax about using my blinker—but that signaling one’s intentions is a really good habit to develop in student writers as well as in student drivers.
When kicking oﬀ a story, or titling it, sending the reader a signal about what to expect promises them a payoff. For example: “Hey, reader, do you love fantasy? Do you see how in Chapter One I’ve snuck in this bizarre detail? It’s a little hint that the world of this book is going to hold a lot more surprises than the everyday ‘real’ world that you’re used to.”
Foreshadowing is another eﬀective use of signaling: a shadow (metaphorical or not) falling across the character’s sunny day can send a little shiver down the spine of a reader as they anticipate that as-yet-unidentified trouble is coming.
And when I review the work of writers at all stages and ages, one of the most common things I see is that there are obvious holes in the information presented to the reader. Not intentional holes, meant to build tension. But unintentional holes, because the writer has things clear in their own head and doesn’t see that the reader isn’t being told enough. This is why peer review can be so valuable a part of your classroom’s writing process. You don’t even need to ask students to oﬀer each other full-ﬂedged critiques; simply encourage them to ask each other questions about their stories, and to point out where they are confused in their reading. These are great signals to the writer about where they might have unintentionally left holes in their story.
Flipping that blinker on is so easy—I ﬁnd myself doing it much more often now that I’ve seen the student drivers in action.
You always hear it around the time of the first fall snowstorm in Minnesota: “It’s like people have forgotten how to drive!” It refers to the fact that even drivers who are diehard Minnesotans—as evidenced by the Minnesota Vikings flags flying from their pickup antennas—don’t seem to have the tiniest clue how to drive on snow-packed roads. It’s as if they’ve never seen winter before.
I guess we just get spoiled during the other six months of the year, when the driving is “easy.”
I find that writing can be like that, too. No matter how many years I’ve flown the “writer” flag from my antenna, there are times when the writing comes easy, and times when it feels like I’ve “forgotten how to write.”
It’s true for me as a longtime writer, and I’ve found it’s true for young writers who are just starting out as well. So what can help to steer a writer out of a creative season that’s forecasting blizzard conditions? Sometimes a simple writing warm-up can melt the creative brain-freeze!
I’ve shared several writing warm-ups that work well for students and classrooms in past posts; you might want to check some of them out. Another of my favorites helps jumpstart the writing process by putting actual words into the hands of young writers. It’s super-simple and fun: I share out words from Magnetic Poetry Kits, hand around old cookie sheets, and ask students to “cook up” a poem to warm things up. I’ll often remind them about some of the poetry-writing basics that we’ve covered in past sessions (this varies based on the age of the students, but might include concepts such as using all five senses, alliteration, figurative language, and paying attention to the sound of the words).
Having preprinted words in hand, added to the simple fun of playing with magnets, works as a kind of anti-freeze. Before you know it, the writing forecast is for clear and sunny.
My dad has a passionate hatred of olives on, in, or even in the general vicinity of his food. He’s convinced their mere presence contaminates anything else on his plate. So when he eats at his favorite small-town diner, he’s always careful to tell the server that he wants his dinner salad without the black olives they usually include. Except this time the brand-new teenage server plopped it down in front of him complete with a generous helping of his much-loathed food.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I asked for the salad without olives.”
She thought a moment, said, “No problem,” reached out to scoop the olives out with her bare hand, and walked away holding them.
Here are the answers to the three questions you’re now asking: No, he didn’t eat the salad.
No, we haven’t stopped laughing yet.
No, he didn’t call over the manager to rat her out. But the next time he went in, he pulled aside one of the more seasoned servers and asked her to make sure the young woman understood there might be a different way to handle the situation.
There are different ways to handle a writing revision as well. Revision is the least favorite part of the writing process for most young writers. So having different approaches on hand is a good way to keep students coming back to this all-important process.
The common approach is to simply work one’s way through the ﬁrst draft, making corrections and taking out the “olives” as you go. But this isn’t always the best tactic. Some seasoned writers recommend that for a second draft, you go back and start fresh, rather than merely ﬁx what’s already on paper. It sounds counter-intuitive—don’t you lose what was good about the original, along with what wasn’t working? But the truth is, this more radical approach can give young writers permission to “color outside the lines” of their original drafts. Having written the ﬁrst draft still informs the new version in an important way, but it doesn’t limit it. Sometimes this approach can elevate the writing to a whole new level.
As my dad might say, once his food has been touched by olives (not to mention someone else’s ﬁngers), he simply can’t eat it. The only answer is to start with a whole new salad.
Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker. His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature. When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.
At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty. My pen slowed. Something about those words bothered me. The crux of his speech was that as writers for children, we are tasked to be honest and not withhold the truth.
After the applause pattered away, the air in the ballroom seemed charged. Everyone was eager to march, unfurling the banner of truth for young readers! If we had been given paper, we would have started brilliant, authentic novels on the spot.
The keynote’s message carried over into break-out sessions. Panelists admitted to craving the truth when they were kids, things parents wouldn’t tell them. Participants agreed. We should show kids the world as it really is! The implication being that children leading “normal” lives should be aware of harsher realities and develop empathy. Kids living outside the pale would find themselves, maybe learn how to cope with their situations.
I stopped taking notes.
Here’s my truth: I was born into a broken world. By age four, I’d experienced scores of harsher realities. At seven, I learned the hardest truth of all: that parents aren’t required to want or love their children. I spent most of my childhood fielding one real-world challenge after the other. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alcoholism, homelessness, and domestic violence.
I read to escape, delving into stories where the character’s biggest challenge was finding grandmother’s hidden jewels, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek normal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane families weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Henry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tumbled from her spaceship, lived a normal life with her family on Asra, climbing trees on that faraway planet like I did on Earth.
In a family of non-readers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read constantly, but decided to be a writer at an early age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried treasure, not things I had to keep quiet about; books where kids felt protected enough to embark on adventures.
My mother and stepfather regarded me with odd respect, as if unsure what planet this kid had come from. So long as “story-writing” didn’t interfere with schoolwork (it did), my mother excused me from chores. Only once did she declare reading material inappropriate.
I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Story magazine and was deep into story about an abused boy when my mother caught me. She thought I was learning about sex. I was outraged by the injustice: punished for reading about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.
Then I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fiction was light and humorous. Yet some brave writers tackled serious subjects. My colleague Brenda Seabrooke wrote a slender, elegant verse novel called Judy Scuppernong. This coming-of-age story touches on family secrets and alcoholism. The format was perfect for navigating difficult subjects.
I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More followed, until I’d told my own story. My agent submitted my book Nobody’s Child. One editor asked me to rewrite it as a YA novel. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some people said that by telling my story, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I never will.
The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I wanted to know why. But by then everyone involved was gone, taking their reasons with them. If I were to fictionalize my story to help another child in the same situation, I couldn’t make the ending turn out any better.
In the fantasies and mysteries and books about animals I read as a kid, I figured out I’d probably be okay. When I looked up from whatever library book I was reading, or whatever story I was writing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was broken. There were woods and gardens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, people who cared about me.
Author Peter Altenberg said, “I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror …one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”
Valiant children’s writers will flash the great mirror of truth in bolder works than mine. I’m content to shine my little pocket mirror at small truths, no bigger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.
It is cold up here in the north country, so lately my thoughts have turned to creating a steaming pot of soup. For soup, you have to hit the highlights; the chicken, onions, a carrot or two. If you toss in too many ingredients, nothing will stand out and the result will be a muddled mess. You must also have a special ingredient. The quick taste that says, mmm, what is that? A dash of nutmeg? A spoonful of caraway seed?
When I wrote the short profiles in Bold Women of Medicine: 21 Stories of Astounding Discoveries, Daring Surgeries, and Healing Breakthroughs, I realized they required a similar focus. I needed the highlights; birth, family, education. The profiles also needed that special something to stand out.
Other than biographical assignments in school, I hadn’t written many biographies. But often it is in the doing that we learn. When I researched and wrote my (looking for a home) picture book biography Step by Step: The Story of Elizabeth Kenny’s Fight to Treat Polio, I learned a few lessons.
I had been fascinated by Sister Kenny ever since my father’s stay at the Sister Kenny Institute after his stroke. Who was this brash woman who had founded the institute famous in Minneapolis? Not just Minneapolis, for in fact, she was once voted the most influential woman in America, beating out Eleanor Roosevelt.
Researching and writing the life of someone famous can be daunting. I didn’t have the space to write about everything in her life, and I didn’t want to bore young readers with uninteresting facts.
The Minnesota Historical Center’s Gale Family Library held her secrets in the form of letters, cards, and photographs packed into boxes. Seeing Sister Kenny’s handwriting helped me to imagine her sitting at a desk composing a letter. The photographs let me look into her simultaneously kind and determined eyes. It was an odd sense of the past, her past, coming to life. And yet, since she died in 1952, I knew more about her fate (and legacy) than she did.
Sister Kenny eventually became the sample chapter I included in my proposal for Bold Women of Medicine. The Chicago Review Press Women of Action Series introduces young adults to women and girls of courage and conviction.
As I sifted through these lives I wondered, what spurred these women on to a life in medicine?
Within the framework of the women’s lives (birth, education, career, and family), I began to see patterns leading them to medicine. My goal was to keep the story moving forward.
For example, Sister Kenny realized success with one patient inflicted with cerebral palsy, causing paralysis. She said, “Although my special life’s work had not yet really begun, I always think of this period as my starting point.” Discovering each woman’s motivation helped me to create a tighter focus. In other words, I limited the ingredients I placed into my soup pot and at the same time found that special something.
What factors influenced Sister Kenny to practice medicine? Was it an event, a person, or a need to be helpful? I am a linear thinker (sometimes a hindrance) but in this case, point A of a woman in medicine’s life often led to point B. Sometimes I had to backtrack much like you do when following a hiking trail, and often when I backtracked I discovered another, more intriguing part of her story.
Research is a tricky beast no matter what the subject is, and the most difficult part of research is knowing when to quit. Not everything from your fridge must be a part of your dinner.
I searched for anecdotes that would interest a young reader. What happened in Sister Kenny’s childhood that shaped her interest in science? What character traits did she possess that led to success or failure? What impact did she have on history? Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough says, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface. You have to know enough to know what to leave out.”
I read as much as I could on each woman, until I found the story and pattern with which to begin. Each of these women lived full lives, and in the cutting of some of their life events I strengthened the flavors, highlighting their powers of hope, education, and perseverance. And as I write this on a cold day, it’s time to pull out the pot and figure out the best ingredients for my soup!
Thirty years ago, I bought a poster of “Jungle Tales” by J.J. Shannon (1895) at the Met in New York City. I took it to my favorite framer, but when it was ready, I was horrified to see they’d cut off Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Children’s Bookshop at the bottom, framing just the image. No one thought the words were important. The framer ordered a new poster and framed it intact. “Jungle Tales” has been hanging over our den sofa ever since. I love the painting, but I also love the place names. In my mind, the two can’t be separated—art and words, words and art.
Like most kids, I wrote stories and drew pictures. I enjoyed words with illustrations—magazines with photographs and cartoons, comic books, middle grade fiction with inside line drawings. The experience was never hurried—I pored over the images and made connections between the art and the words. This was a world I never wanted to leave.
I planned to be both a writer and an artist, but after high school I realized I’d need formal art training. College of any kind was out of the question. I could teach myself to write and that was the path I chose.
Still, art remained a large part of my life. I watch children’s book illustrators work, envying those who can draw and paint and see results at the end of the day. In a writing session, I may produce one decent sentence, if that. To improve my craft—a daily struggle even after all these years—I start journals, but falter in the practice. New projects seem wrenched from me. Words, words, where are the words?
Two years ago, I was asked to write a picture book based on a character created by an illustrator. I agreed to try, though I was uncertain and nervous. I hadn’t written a picture book in more than ten years. And I’d never written a picture book based on a character. The editor sent me the illustrator’s sample sketches. I studied them, just as I’d once pored over the art in comics or mystery books. I photocopied the samples and carried them around with me.
Instead of having to visualize a character in my head, the way I usually wrote picture books (or anything), I could see the panda girl and her range of emotions, and appreciate Christine Grove’s sense of humor. I knew the kind of story this character needed. And I wrote it, Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten (2017). When I was asked to write a sequel, the illustrations from the first book inspired me. Amanda Panda and the Bigger, Better Birthday will be out next summer.
A few weeks ago, Christine Grove sent me a new character. “What do you think?” she wrote. I printed out the character and carried it around with me. A month later, I had a new story. Art came to my rescue. It gave me the words I hadn’t been able to pull out of my head.
I don’t know if this new story will become a published picture book, but I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t stray from art again. I’ll collect magazine photos, doodle, photocopy books (Pinterest doesn’t cut it for me), and paste the images into those fallow journals. Visuals will help me find the words. Art and words, words and art.
As a reporter and editor for decades, I often heard people accuse my colleagues and me of “bias,” of having a particular slant on a story—usually a point of view that the accuser disputed. It was a common charge, especially if the issue was controversial.
But in truth, reporters are no different than anyone else. Everyone comes to a subject with some kind of bias. If you know what a certain beach is like, then you are likely to associate other beaches with that experience; if you’ve never been to the beach, then you can only imagine what the smells, the sand, or the sea is like.
If you are pro-candy, you will read about candy differently than someone who doesn’t like it.
When you write nonfiction, these different reader perspectives matter. If we want to be thoughtful about a subject or apply those all-important critical thinking skills, it helps to acknowledge our natural biases—not to judge, but simply to understand that our experiences affect how we see things.
When I speak to junior high students, I often hold up a copy of my book Tommy: The Gun that Changed America and ask them what they think it is about.
“Why would I write this,” I go on, “and why, especially, for young people?” Then I might show them the paperback version, which has the same title, of course, but no gun on the cover. “What do you make of that?”
From there, we can actually start talking about guns—what role they play in our society, what makes them interesting to readers and how they generate strong feelings—without having to debate the Second Amendment.
Because we live in such a visual world, I spend hours tracking down the right photos, cartoons, and documents to help tell a story. And even if these images don’t make it into the book, they influence my writing by reminding me what the world looked like and how people felt in that time period.
The images that do make it into my books can change the reader’s experience, challenging the biases they bring to the story.
Consider this photo of Bonnie Parker, a key image in my next book, Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend, due out in August 2018. It’s a crucial picture, the first time she became known to the public. What do you think about her when you see this? What do you think she’s like?
Now compare it to the glamour shot below, taken just a few years before. Does it change your perspective at all?
Maybe one way to make student research and nonfiction more engaging is to consider our assumptions and biases by bringing images into the process. Some ideas:
- Ask students to make assumptions about a book from the cover. Then compare to what the story is inside. Did their perspective change?
- Pull out a single image and try to guess what it means to the story. Then, read that chapter (or picture book) and test it.
- Ask students to search for a photo separately from their research on a subject. Did the photo enforce or change their point of view?
What other ways can you address how a reader’s experiences can impact understanding?
When I was a kid I got lost while participating in a summer recreation program. I was terrified. So the ﬁrst thing I did when the group leaders found me was to laugh.
I was laughing out of pure relief at being found. And because even as a kid, my emotional stress relief valve was set to “humor.” I’m hardwired in such a way that I often laugh even while I’m crying.
I got in big trouble that day for laughing, and I continued to get in trouble whenever other people thought humor was an inappropriate response. Which led me to believe that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I needed to use a serious tone. Humor, I had learned, would likely get me into trouble.
Guess what? None of those oh-so-serious things I used to write got published. The writing felt lifeless and artificial; it wasn’t reﬂective of who I really am. It wasn’t until an editor encouraged me to pursue the “hidden funny story” that she found buried in a manuscript of mine that I let humor back into my work.
That reworked story, complete with lots of “funny,” went on to become my ﬁrst published book.
I think that what we mean when we talk about “writer’s voice” is a writer’s personality showing up on the page. It emerges through many diverse writing choices, ranging from word usage to tone to rhythm. It’s a tough concept for students to grapple with. Yet editors say it’s a major factor in what they look for in a publishable piece, and writing programs include it as a key component. We can’t ignore voice just because it’s hard to teach and learn. So how do we help students ﬁnd their voice, especially given that some of them may have been told that the voice that comes naturally to them should stay lost?
I use an activity that encourages students to play with voice. I ﬁrst choose a group of things that exist as a collective, within which the different components have “personality” without being controversial. Examples are the four seasons—winter and summer have different personalities; or it might be colors—we can assign personalities to green and pink without coming to blows over it; or you could even use food ﬂavors. Then I have students write about a simple topic using contrasting choices from the group. In other words, I might ask them to describe the town they live in, ﬁrst using a dark chocolate voice, and then using a pickle voice.
It sounds odd, but I’ve seen it have surprising results. Somehow playing with voice in this way can set students on a path to ﬁnding the writer’s voice that was lost inside them all along.
Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress, middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested. “Those are different ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insisted. “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”
I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either). The age argument took the wind out of my sails. I understood the reasoning—create older characters to get the most bang for the middle-grade buck by snaring younger readers. Better yet, stick the character in middle school.
The true middle-grade novel is for readers eight to twelve with some overlap. Chapter books for seven- to ten-year-olds bisect the lower end of middle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, straddle the gap between MG and YA. If my characters are twelve, I hit the middle grade and tween target and everybody wins. Maybe not.
At our public library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG novels off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main character. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turning twelve in the next chapter. While the characters and stories were all different, there was a sheeplike sameness reading about twelve-year-olds.
It worries me. Publishers contribute to pushing elementary school children as quickly as possible into middle school. Where are the middle-grade books about a ten-year-old character? An eight-year-old character? Ah, now we’ve backed into chapter book territory.
Supposedly, kids prefer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Reading about a character who is two or three years older might generate anxiety in some readers. And they may disdain shorter, simpler chapter books.
In the past, before publisher and bookstore classifications, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main character in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern saving him. Fern is eight, a fact mentioned on the first page. Does anyone care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s richly-depicted barnyard?
More recently, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” barrier with his terrific middle grade novel, The Year of Billy Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Betsy Bird compared it to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Billy is seven and starting second grade, a character normally found in a briskly-written, lower-end chapter book. Yet Billy Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird praises Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Billy a second grader because that’s what Billy is. His mind is that of a second grader … To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake.”
Author G. Neri took on a bigger challenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the characters are seven and six. This hefty MG explores the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Neri chose fiction rather than biography because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] story was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writing a lengthy, layered book about a first and second grader.
We need more books featuring eight-, nine-, ten-year-old characters that are true middle grade novels and not chapter books. Children grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “middle” stage, find themselves in books with characters their own age.
Let them enjoy the cycle of seasons, “the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barnyard and into middle school.
I’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.
For 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:
- 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.
- 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.
The 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.
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.
All-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?
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?
Book 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.
Your 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.
What’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.
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.
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.
I 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.
The 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.
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.
When I was a kid, my career ambitions wavered between detective, mad scientist, shoe salesperson, teacher, and spy. Fortuitously, most of them have become critical facets of my grown-up job as a writer.
My practice as a spy came in handy just recently when I needed to create authentic-sounding dialogue for characters who are young teenagers. In other words, I eavesdropped like crazy on my teenage nephews and their friends— volunteering to drive carpool for a few outings proved to be a goldmine—but I also lurked via social media and positioned myself strategically near random teenagers in public. It may be that their Adult Detection Systems alerted them to my interest, and therefore skewed my results. But seriously, dude, I doubt it: I’m like, 1 gr8 spy.
Eavesdropping was a great reminder of the way that all of us, not just teenagers, really talk: there are different rhythms to different people’s speech, we use current slang and off-color terms, we prefer contractions and other shortcuts. I was reminded all over again how much less formal spoken language is. Real conversations are composed more of interruptions, fragmented speech, repetitions for emphasis, grunts of acknowledgment, body language, and silences than they are of formally structured sentences.
You can rarely, on the other hand, just recreate an actual word-for-word chat in a story: your writing would too quickly be weighed down by the outright jibber-jabber and the sheer number of conversational “dudes” (or whatever term is currently in vogue in middle schools near you). Making your characters sound authentic is important, but the way I explain it to my adult writing students is, if you’re trying to establish that a character has a Scottish brogue, you get only one “Nay, Lassie,” per 25,000 words.
And remember that dialogue is also charged with the large task of helping to tell the story: it reveals characterization, advances the plot, and provides action. That’s a lot for those lassies and dudes to have to carry—no wonder it’s a struggle for young writers to write good dialogue!
Reminding your students to ration out their slang and eliminate excess is critical, but more important, I’ve found, is to remember to give them permission to make their dialogue informal. If you don’t, they too often end up writing stilted conversations where everyone sounds like a nineteenth-century British butler or a walking research paper.
Effective dialogue lands somewhere in the middle between the way people really talk and the way we’ve all been taught to write prose. Effective dialogue is less redundant and more expressive than real speech; it’s less formal and more fragmented than the rest of the story text surrounding it.
A page of well-written dialogue isn’t exactly what you might hear from the back of the van while you’re carpooling—but it’s close enough that any good spy could decode it.
Sometimes just a town’s name is enough to entice you. Who could drive past the exit for Last Chance, Idaho—or Hell, Michigan—or Happyland, Oklahoma—without at least contemplating how your life might be changed if you took that unexpected detour?
All on their own, names tell a story. That’s why I often do an online search to learn as much as I can about a character name that I’m considering for my writing—looking up ethnicity, variations, meaning—because many times, it opens up new insights into that character for me (or proves to be the wrong choice). Have your students try an online search into the names of the characters in the current story they’re either reading or writing—it’s a fun little research side trip.
The “naming” that I struggle with is in coming up with a title. This is usually a labored effort for me, as it is for some students. Here are the suggestions I share with those who struggle to find a good “name” for their story:
- Remember that the reader will look at the title first. You want it to grab the reader’s attention.
- Think about the kind of story you have written. The title can tell the reader what kind of story it is: mystery, adventure, romance.
- Look at all your story ingredients. Which ones do you think are the most interesting? How could you use them in a title?
- Think about the most unexpected or surprising thing in your story. Can you hint at that in the title, making the reader feel like they need to read the story to figure out a riddle?
- Consider slang, word play, and if appropriate to the book, humorous possibilities.
- What is the book about? What theme, or message, is at its heart? Is there a title that hints at that?
Finally, for a fun writing warm-up for your classroom, ask your students to spend a couple of minutes coming up with an intriguing title for a story they have not yet written. Then when they’re ready, have them trade titles with somebody nearby, and begin the story that fits the new title they have now been handed. When writing time is up, they can share what they have so far with the student who originally created the title.
An evocative name (or title) is just the start of a grand adventure….
During one of my visits to see my Alabama brother’s family, we took a road trip to the Ave Maria Grotto. That’s where a Benedictine Monk named Brother Joseph Zoettl built over 125 Mini-Me versions of some of the greatest buildings of the world.
Artists are often inspired by someone else’s masterpieces. But in working with young writers, I’ve found that it’s easy to mistakenly swerve over the center line from the safety of inspiration into the danger of plagiarism (or trade- mark infringement). Not to mention the questions that arise when you’re teaching “creative” writing and the student in front of you has borrowed from another writer’s creativeness.
I’m not talking about sneaky kids trying to get out of doing their work. I’m talking about kids who are innocently inspired by their favorite books, movies, or video games, and who are excited to extend these adventures. And kids aren’t the only ones to do this. Writers of all ages have posted hundreds of thousands of “fan fiction” stories online. But where does “paying homage” end and “taking someone else’s ideas” begin?
I don’t have a “one size fits all” answer about how to handle this situation in the classroom. When the question comes up as part of a group discussion, I take the opportunity to address the issue of plagiarism.
When the question comes up when I’m reading an individual student’s story, I try to personalize my approach. Some kids, I know, are ready to be challenged to invent characters and a setting “from scratch.” Others struggle mightily to come up with their own ideas. Sometimes giving them permission to borrow a familiar character is the very thing that allows them to truly engage in the act of writing for the first time—rather than freezing up completely. In those cases, I have a little chat with them about how important it is that they don’t just “steal” somebody else’s work. But I do sometimes allow them to take inspiration or even characters from their favorite stories and then write their own adventure using them. My hope is that in doing so, they’ll learn how to do it completely on their own the next time around.
I think Brother Joseph would see the whole thing as an act of homage rather than a case of outright theft.