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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Writing

A Science Rookie: Learning to Craft a Science Narrative
When You Know Next to Nothing about Science

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.

ScienceNo 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.

Bold Women of MedicineWhen 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.)

heart doctorOff 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.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

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.

Edna Adan Ismail

Edna Adan Ismail with a class of nursing school graduates at Edna Adan Ismail hospital.

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.
Future bold women of medicine?

Future bold women of medicine?

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?

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Poetry from Stones

Beach

[photo credit: Candice Ransom]

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. 

Candice Ransom

[photo credit: Candice Ransom]

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.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA 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.

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo 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.

Ammonite

Ammonite [photo credit: Candice Ransom]

“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.

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Signal Your Intentions

turn signalIt 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 li‚ttle 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.

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Forgetting How to Drive

Writing Road Trip | Forgetting How to DriveYou 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.

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Revisions Part IV

Page Break

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Stopping by the Diner

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Stopping by the DinerMy 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 writt‚en 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.

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True Story

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.

Christmas Day when I was 11 with my sister and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

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.

Judy ScuppernongThen 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.

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Big Surprise!

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Biography: How to Decide
What Goes into the Soup Pot (and What Doesn’t)

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?

Bold Women of MedicineWhen 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.

Sister Kenny (photo: State Library of Queensland)

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!

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Predictable Pattern

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Art and Words, Words and Art

“Jungle Tales,” by J.J. Shannon, 1895

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.

Sancho, the Homing Steer, by Candice Sylvia Farris

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.

preliminary sketches for Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

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.

Amanda Panda Quits KindergartenA 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.

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A Picture and a Thousand Words

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.

Tommy: the Gun that Changed America (hardcover on the left, paperback on the right)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.

Bonnie Parker

Bonnie Parker (photo: Missouri State Highway Patrol)

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:

Bonnie Parker (from the collections
of the Dallas History and Archives Division
of the Dallas Public Library)

  • 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?

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Pickle Voice

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.

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Revision Letter

Lynn Jonell's Page Break

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The Sameness of Sheep

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.

Charlotte's WebSupposedly, 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?

The Year of Billy MillerMore 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.”

Tru and NelleAuthor 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.

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A Vehicle for Change

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

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

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

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

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Roadblocks

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Why Young Writers Need an Authentic Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shifting Gears

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

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

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

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

And they say that size doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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Skinny Dip with Patti Lapp

Patti Lapp

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

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

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

When did you first start reading books?

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

Your favorite daydream?

I daydream of having time to write!

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

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

A Tale of Two CitiesAll-time favorite book?

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

Favorite breakfast or lunch as a kid?

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

What’s your least favorite chore?

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

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

Inspiration.

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

Barefoot or socks—season dependent.

When are you your most creative?

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

Your best memory of your school library?

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

Favorite flavor of ice cream?

Cherry Garcia.

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

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

What’s your hidden talent?

I can weave.

jacksYour favorite toy as a child …

Jacks—Anyone remember that game?

Best invention in the last 200 years?

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

Favorite artist? Why?

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

Which is worse: spiders or snakes?

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

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

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

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

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

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The Book Box

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

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

The Book Box

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

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

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

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

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

Gazing Globe

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

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

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

Book Box Interior

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License Plate 007

Writing Road Trip: License Plate 007

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.

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Next Exit: Adventure

Writing Road Trip | Next Exit: AdventureSometimes 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….

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Swerving Over the Line

St. Peters Church in Rome, Ave Maria Grotto, Cullman

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

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.

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Watch Where You’re Going

Writing Road Trip | Watch Where You're GoingRiding along with my dad was like going on a Midwestern safari. Even while driving, he had an amazing knack for spotting critters as they peeked out from behind trees, perched on phone poles, or slid along the roadside.

He didn’t seem to pay any attention to the makes of other cars, or billboard messages, or what other drivers were wearing. His focus (with the exception of safe driving itself) was wildlife-centric.

That kind of exclusive focus can be key to successful story-writing. Many stories center around a core focus, a central idea or message. Many characters are built around a core motivation or driving emotion. Anything that pops up during the writing process—even good stuff—that doesn’t support that focus, may have to go. It’s not as easy as it sounds: even experienced writers are sometimes seduced by an intriguing side story, a brilliantly written description, a charismatic secondary character. But however brilliant or charismatic, if those things don’t help develop the core story or illuminate the main character for the reader, they need to be sent packing.

Here’s an example: in the novel I’m working on, my teenage character looks out over the water and speculates that perhaps the person he is searching for has “planted” himself in the lake. The image fits the rural setting and the moment of the story. But it doesn’t fit my character, who’s an urban kid. As one of my critique partners pointed out, my kid would never think in terms of an agricultural metaphor. However deft that description—and I’d received compliments on it from other readers—I had to acknowledge that it didn’t belong to the story I was telling.

Sometimes I think these things are hints of future stories or future characters, playing peek-a-boo from the depths of our subconscious. But it’s better to admit that they don’t belong in the spot they’ve popped up, and save them in a “great ideas file” for later.

Point out these peek-a-boo moments in your young writers’ stories. Encourage them to take another look at what’s at the heart of their story—at the heart of their character—and judge by that whether that great idea belongs to their current story, or needs to be set aside for another writing day.

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Driving in the Dark

A while back I was at my parents’ lake cabin with my extended family. My brother’s teenagers had all brought along friends, and on Saturday we packed everyone who fell into the “thirteen to fifteen” age range off to the late movie. As the resident night owl, I volunteered to pick up the kids when the movie was over so that the other grown-ups could make it an early night.

By davidsonlentz. AdobeStock 91080377Which is how it turns out that the first time ever in my life I was pulled over by the cops, I was driving someone else’s minivan full of McDonald’s wrappers and dog hair.

Those flashing red lights in my rearview mirror instantly had me feeling all Bonnie-and-Clydish, despite the fact that I had no idea what I had been doing wrong. Driving too fast? Nope, I’d just checked my speed. Driving under the influence? Not unless they’d added iced coffee to the list.

What was I missing?

It turns out that one of the van’s headlights was out. Once I knew that, I realized that the road had seemed a lit- tle poorly lit—but then again, I was in a tiny town with no streetlights. It never occurred to me that I might be missing a headlight. The very pleasant sheriff’s deputy ran my license and, as he promised, had me back on the road within five minutes. I arrived to find the kids running around like maniacs in the dark parking lot of the small-town movie theater, and my “street cred” as the cool aunt only seems to have been heightened by my harrowing run-in with the law.

Sometimes it helps to have somebody pull us over and point out what we’ve overlooked in our writing, too. When it’s time to begin the revision process, ask your students to exchange their writing, and then to ask each other, “What’s missing from my piece?” It’s a great all-purpose peer-review question. Often, it turns out, the missing element is something that the writer already has in their head—but that hasn’t yet made it onto the page.

Asking a reader “What’s missing?” often sheds some much-needed light on a writer’s up-to-then shadowy problem.

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I Know It’s Weird

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Tunnel Vision

Writing Road Trip - Tunnel VisionDriving through a tunnel effectively narrows our field of vision. The walls and ceiling restrict our view to only that which is inside the tunnel. It doesn’t matter if there’s a mountain parked on top of the roof, or an ocean of water being held back by the walls: when we’re inside the tunnel, those things are outside our view.

This concept of tunnel vision provides a good way to talk with your writing students about using first person point of view. This viewpoint is distressingly easy to mess up. When we’ve chosen to tell a story using the “I” voice, it’s all too simple to slip into another character’s head. But it’s a no-no to wander into a landscape that is beyond the “view” of the perspective character.

Sometimes it happens because the writer has been tempted to bring in information that the character doesn’t know, perhaps to increase tension or suspense (Will the snake the author has told us is hiding under the bed strike a fatal bite? Will she ever realize that he’s secretly attracted to her, as the reader knows because the writer snuck into his innermost thoughts?).

And sometimes it happens just as a slip: suddenly the writer has entered another character’s thoughts, or introduced action, that is outside the field of vision of the perspective character.

There’s a simple line I use to remind students that they can’t deviate from their character’s “tunnel vision” this way: in first person, the action has to stop whenever that character falls asleep, slips into a coma, or leaves the room.

The character can certainly come back into the room (or wake up from the coma) and guess that something has happened: they might read someone’s face and guess they’ve been crying, or see a broken vase and interpret that somebody threw it in a rage. But what happened inside that room after the character left is officially “outside the tunnel,” and therefore out of bounds of the character’s direct experience for storytelling purposes. If the writer wants what happened to be part of the story’s action, they have to find a clever way for the point of view character to discern what has gone on; they can’t simply sneak into somebody else’s head.

What happens outside the tunnel, stays outside the tunnel.

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I Need a Grant

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Just Another Roadside Abstraction

For this week’s writing road trip, I offer you texture.

I aim for an abstract element of a realistic subject and use texture to add interest and suggest depth.

—a quote that to the best of my research abilities I find attributable to artist Margaret Roseman.

I liked the way the above quote spoke to how texture can be used in visual art. But what role does texture play in writing? How can your students use texture to add interest and suggest depth in their written work?

As writers we talk about multiple layers of meaning. That’s a kind of texture. Ask your students, “How many different ways do you hope your piece speaks to an audience? How many layers deep have you gone down into multiple meanings?”

Words themselves have texture for me, especially when read out loud. Remind your students not to overlook the simple trick of speaking out their writing. For instance, does describing a character’s voice as “gravelly” rather than “harsh” add more texture when you say them both out loud? Or is it just a different kind of texture? What does your ear hear?

Words of various lengths, sentences of various lengths, all the way up through paragraphs or stanzas of varying lengths—when effectively piecing together the threads at hand, a writer becomes a fabric artist, weaving together strands that have different heft and weight to create a unique texture that is suited to the piece, to the writer, and to the reader. Encourage your students to play with synonyms, to differ their sentence length to see how doing so creates different effects for their readers.

Remember, we often experience texture through our fingertips—the same part of our anatomy that pounds out words on a keyboard.

For today, that’s my take on “just another roadside abstraction.”

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A Paralyzing Lethargy

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Racing to Catch a Plane

Photo By Nino Andonis

Photo By Nino Andonis

I was working the last day of a book conference in Chicago when I came down with a horrible case of what I later learned was strep throat. My one clear memory of that day is blinking alert long enough to recognize that I was seated in the front seat of a cab that was being driven down the shoulder of a Chicago highway at 70 MPH so that we could make it to the airport on time.

I’ve had other work experiences from the dark side, but that day ranks high on the list of “please, just let it be over” times.

We can experience an urgency around reaching the endpoint when we’re on a trip that’s going badly, or we can experience it when we’re writing—even if the writing is going well. It’s something that I see over and over again, in fact, when I review student writing. I’ll be reading along, feeling like the student’s story is well-paced and engaging, and then suddenly the writing changes. It begins racing towards the finish line, as if the writer has suddenly remembered that they have a plane to catch. Sometimes very young writers I work with literally stop the story mid-thought and write “The End.”

If you ask, they’ll probably tell you that they’ve run out of ideas. But the truth is, they’ve probably run out of creative energy. I find that my own writing is very energy-based; when the energy is gone, the writing stops cold. When this happens, your best bet is to allow your students to take a short break. For a shorter classroom writing setting, that might be as simple as a jumping jacks interruption. For a longer piece of writing, I find I sometimes need to put the project in a drawer for a week or more, to allow new energy to generate.

When the break is over, I sit down with the student (or myself), and find the point in the story where it’s clear that the writer switched over to a mentality of “racing to catch a plane.” I read the paragraph before that, and then I ask a simple question: “What happens next?”

More often than not, the break will have done the trick. Erasers get busy and rub out “The End.” The writer has discovered that after all, “the story must go on.”

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Creekfinding with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

A stewardship for our one and only Earth are an abiding concern for many of our planet’s inhabitants. When an author finds an opportunity to share with the world of readers her own passion for conserving our ecosystems, the book Creekfinding: A True Story is created. We hope you’ll find inspiration for your own exploration and conservation in this interview with Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Don’t miss reading the book … it’s a treasure.

Do you remember when you first had the idea to write this story?

I had been wanting to collaborate on a story with Claudia because I love her art so much. So, I was noodling about what we might do. On November 30, 2011, the Cedar Rapids Gazette published a story on Mike Osterholm’s creek restoration project. As soon as I read it I knew that was the story I wanted to tell and I hoped Claudia would want to do the illustrations.

Have you met Dr. Michael Osterholm? How did that meeting add to your story?

Shortly after reading the article I contacted the reporter, Orlan Love. He said I should talk with Mike and gave me his email address. I emailed him. Within a half hour I received an answer, “Call me. Mike.” That was the first of many conversations. About a month after that conversation my husband and I drove to Northfield, Minnesota to St. Olaf College where Mike was giving a talk on creek restoration.

The Creekfinding team

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Jacqueline Briggs Martin,
and Claudia McGehee, the Creekfinding team

Have you visited Brook Creek?

I have now visited Brook Creek. When I was writing the story, I read many articles about Mike’s restoration project and watched several videos. I visited Brook Creek in my imagination.

Your word choices are often evocative in a way another word would not be.

“Years later, a man named Mike
bought that field and the hillside.
Mike wanted to grow a prairie in
the old cornfield,
to partner with the sun and soil,
grow tall grasses and flowers.

The word “partner” evokes a sense of working with the land, as though the land were a conscious entity. Do words like this come naturally from your mind or do you find yourself hunting for them? 

Author Jacqueline Briggs Martin getting to know Brook Creek

Mike had told me a story about the oak savannah that he also restored: once they cleaned out the weed trees so sunlight could get down to the forest floor, seeds germinated that had been waiting for a hundred years. It just seemed like he was partnering with the earth. And that word came to me as I was thinking about his work on the prairie.

There are ribbons of text woven into the illustrations, often highlighting a factual statement. Were these statements an original part of your manuscript?

The statements were originally just sidebars. It was Claudia’s decision to include them on a blade of grass or a ripple in the trout stream and I love the way the information looks and works. It’s there if readers want to find it, but it’s unobtrusive if they just want to read the text.

illustration from Creekfinding: A True Story
by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by and copyright Claudia McGehee

Did you discuss the illustrations for the book with Claudia McGehee, the illustrator?

Claudia lives only 19 miles from me so we talked together with an Iowa geologist about the Driftless. Claudia showed me her early sketches (and I loved them). And I went to her house to see her later sketches arranged on her dining room table. Once I saw them I realized I needed to do some editing—so that was a great part about working so closely. We even removed a sidebar or two that were just getting in the way of the story.

CreekfindingThere are a number of joyful words in this book, “laughter” and “chuckle.” Why did you choose these words?

The sound of water has always been joyous to me. When I was growing up there was a seasonal “stream,” maybe a ditch, across the street from our house. I loved waiting next to that stream for the schoolbus. Also, this is a joyful story of restoration. There is also a hint of anthropomorphizing in the notion of “partnering” with the earth. I guess in my head it seemed as if the natural world can be a partner maybe it can also have or express joy.

In recent years, you’ve been working on books about people who are changing our world. Will Allen, Alice Waters, Dr. Michael Osterholm, and your newest book about Chef Roy Choi. Are these stories you feel compelled to tell? 

I do. I love these stories of people who act out of passion (and that goes back to Wilson Bentley), do what they must do to make our world whole—restore creeks, grow good food in school yards or urban lots, serve good food in food deserts. I think I do this for myself, to remind myself that, though we have many problems in our world, many things to be worried about, there are people who are working out of love and conviction to make a better world for all.

As a writer, how do you see your role in creating a better world?

I want to write books that children will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I will never know if I succeed. But if one of my stories remained with children as part of “the furniture of their minds” I would feel good. I hope children will mix that memory with whatever else they have stored up and do something for this world that I cannot even imagine.

Don’t miss the companion interview with illustrator Claudia McGehee or the Bookstorm for Creekfinding: A True Story offering companion books and websites for further exploration or incorporation into lesson plans.

The restored Brook Creek

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Destination

Copyright Adobe Stock. Rome Map Detail; selective focus By Jules_KitanoIn college I was fortunate enough to travel with a school-sponsored group to Europe. I saw many amazing things, but Rome was the place I couldn’t stop talking about afterwards.

When I described my love for Rome to my parents, I focused on one particular episode: Wanting to escape the afternoon heat, a group of us ducked inside one of the churches that crop up everywhere in that city. Inside this unremarkable building, I discovered the original of a painting that had been my favorite out of my entire art history textbook. It was just hanging there on the wall, not even worthy of a locked door in a city that is crammed full of exquisite artworks.

I used a different anecdote when talking to my friends. I described the multi-hour dinner a group of us enjoyed, complete with a different wine for every course, and how we followed it up with a long midnight stroll through what seemed like the entire city of Rome, becoming completely lost, and probably by pure luck managing to eventually make it back to our hotel in one piece.

Here’s an important reminder for your writing students: when they are telling a story using a character speaking in first-person voice (the “I” voice), the character/narrator’s intended audience will play a key role. In other words, at some point the writer should ask, “What ‘audience destination’ does the narrator intend? Who does my character imagine will read their story?” That awareness of audience will shape many things, particularly how honest the narrator chooses to be, and what kind of private details they choose to share.

Do they imagine that there will be no outside readers (such as in a “Dear Diary” format)? Or does the narrator imagine they are telling their story to complete strangers? Knowing the answer to that question, in combination with the personality the writer has established for the narrator, will affect how the story is told.

Case in point: when I knew my parents were the audience, I chose a Rome story set at midday, in a church, featuring a Great Work of Art. I DIDN’T choose the Rome story set at midnight, on dark streets, featuring a group of wine-sloppy college students.

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Convincing Details!

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Guess What’s in My Glove Compartment?

stuffed duckLet’s play a little game. I’ll tell you some things about the inside of my car, and you tell me what you can discern about me from those details.

There’s an ice scraper on the floor and a foldable camp chair in the back.

There’s a copy of a 200-page unpublished novel with my name listed as the author.

CD selections range from the Carpenters to Queen Latifah to the soundtrack from “Shrek.” The backseat carpet is heavily stained. The backseat itself is covered in scuff marks.

There’s a brightly colored, handmade God’s eye hanging off the gear shift. There’s a stuffed duck dressed in a sailor’s outfit in the map pocket.

The glove compartment holds binoculars, mints, a prescription bottle full of quarters, and fast food coupons.

Okay, you get the picture.  My guess is that while you might misinterpret some of those details, there are actually several things you’d guess correctly about me based on knowing them.

You can turn this game into a fun character-building activity for student writers.  Ask them to describe one of the following settings connected to one of their own story characters: their character’s bedroom, locker at school, closet, or (for older characters), their car. Once they’ve created the description, have them trade with another student. Then the other student will try to guess something about the personality of their partner’s character, based on the description of that personal space. That tells the writer which details best reveal their character’s personality and circumstances, and therefore would make the best details to include in their actual story.

Students could also do this as a compare/contrast activity by describing the bedroom or locker of two or more key characters in their story.

Young writers will find that they can convey a whole lot about a character by giving readers a chance to peek into their characters’ personal spaces.

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What’s Best for the Story?

Page Break

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Seeing the Signs

Ice Cream!Fast food signs taught my twin nephews to read when they were only two.

They couldn’t whip out the dictionary and rattle off definitions. But they could spot a familiar logo and correctly assign language and context to it. The big golden “M” meant a possible lunch break; “DQ” meant ice cream; “SA” was for bathroom breaks. In my book, they were reading, if only on a rudimentary level.

Drivers tend to stop noticing how frequently those same signs appear along the roadside. But if you’ve told the backseat duo that you’ll buy them some ice cream, trust me—there’s no way you’ll be allowed to overlook the next “DQ.”

There are a couple of “bad” writing habits that work something the same way. These habits tend to be scattered all over our writing, but we often overlook them—until we make it our specific mission to notice how often they pop up.

The first habit is overusing some form of the verb “feel”: “felt,” “feeling,” etc. Examples are: “He felt angry.” “She’s feeling sad.” There’s a stronger way to convey that emotion—in writers’ lingo, you want to “show” instead of “tell” your reader how the character is feeling. Instead of saying he felt angry, have him kick the wall. Instead of telling us she’s sad, have her weep. The emotions will be more intense, and the writing will be stronger.

The second habit is overusing adverbs. Look for any words ending in “ly.” Then work to reduce these adverbs while also fortifying the verbs they modify. An example? Instead of saying, “He ran quickly,” say “He raced.”

So here’s a quick revision tip: Have your students scan their documents, circling or highlighting any form of “feel,” and any “ly” endings (or if it’s computerized document, they can use the “find and replace” function). Then have them follow the advice above to strengthen their writing.

Once they see how much difference these quick fixes can make, you won’t even have to bribe them with ice cream.

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Miles to Go

Page Break Lynne Jonell

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The End

Page Break Lynne Jonell

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Anti-Tailgating Measures

Writing Road Trip | Anti-Tailgating MeasuresA few years ago, a country highway I regularly drive in the summer became part of a pilot program to stop tailgating. Large white dots were painted on the road, and new signs instruct drivers to keep a minimum of two dots between them and the car they’re following. Rear-end collisions are a danger on this roadway, and the program hopes to encourage drivers to leave enough room between cars so they can take corrective action if something goes wrong.

It occurs to me that this hints at an enormously helpful piece of advice you can share with your students about their writing road trips, as well: double-spacing their first draft is one of the easiest tools they have for simplifying their later revisions.

Revising is chaotic work. When I visit classrooms, I often bring along proof of this: the first handwritten draft of one of my stories, complete with dozens of cross-outs, margin notes, arrows, and additional brainstormed ideas spilling onto the back. This “sloppy copy” eventually turned into a finished book that is only 224 words long, but my messy piece of paper must contain thousands of words, all combating to see which of them will make my final cut.

In other words, revising is not merely tidying up your manuscript; it’s an “empty out the back of the closets” type of spring cleaning.

Double-spacing is one simple way for students to make this revision process slightly less messy and slightly more manageable. Unlike the relatively low probability of a rear-end collision on any given day of driving, something always goes wrong when writing a first draft. Encourage your students to think of the blank lines left by double-spacing as the room they’ll undoubtedly need for later corrective action.

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Magical

Page Break by Lynne Jonell

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(E)motion Sickness

Wrong Way signMost of my many school visits have been amazing, positive adventures (see my post titled “Traveling Like a Rock Star”). A few of my visits have featured minor bumps in the road. And one school visit—thank goodness, one only!—might be better described as a major traffic incident.

It happened when I was still a “newbie” to school visits. I was visiting this particular school for a week. On Day 1, a student came up front to read his story, got overexcited, and threw up all over my shoes. Unfortunately I didn’t heed that case of carsickness for the foreshadowing that it was.

It turns out that having my shoes soiled paled in comparison to what happened next: I found out that one of the teachers I was working with thought that my approach to teaching writing was completely wrong. At first I assumed this was a “fixable” difference. The teacher and I talked at length several times over the remainder of the week. I modified my approach in many ways.

But I never managed to get it “right.” I left the school feeling like a failure. It remains the most emotionally difficult experience of the twelve or so years I’ve worked as a writing instructor.

In some ways, it’s too bad that this experience happened during my early years of classroom visits. If it happened now, I’d be better able to navigate the unsettled waters and come up with a way to salvage the week for everybody involved.

But it might also be seen as one of the most important things I’ve ever learned: I now know what it feels like to be told by a teacher that I’m bad at something writing-related. As Overachiever Kid, that was never part of my own school experience. But because of that week, I gained a new level of understanding for those students who struggle—and continue to fail—at writing. It was (e)motion sickness inducing for me, but from that day forward I’ve made it a practice to find something positive to say about every student’s writing, to soften whatever less-than-happy news has to follow.

Those of you who have more training as educators than I do probably know other tactics to help motivate the kids who “just can’t seem to get writing right.” Maybe some of you will share your ideas as comments below?

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Momentum

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Focus Your Trip

ButterheadEvery year my mom and I took my nephews and niece to the Minnesota State Fair. We have certain faithful family rituals that we always repeat: mini-donuts as soon as we’re through the front gates. The big slide. Vigilant avoidance of the giant walking French fry man because he terrifies my niece. The butter head renditions of the dairy princesses.

Imagine my bemusement at the fact that there are MN State Fair visitors who never bother with the butter heads. But the butter head haters are actually following a sound principle: when you’re in the middle of an overwhelming experience, you’re often better off choosing to focus on only a few key things.

That explains why traveling to the fair with a grown-up friend one year felt like a completely different experience to me. We focused on entirely different things than I do when I’m herding the kids, and I actually got to spend some quality time in the Creative Arts building. I experienced the fair in a whole new way.

The same concept holds true for me when I set out to revise a piece of writing. If I try to see and do everything in one visit, the task quickly becomes overwhelming. But if I make several different revision trips, picking something different to focus on each time, then I can revise quite effectively. One time through, I might focus exclusively on my overall organization. Another trip, I might keep my attention riveted on strengthening my verbs. Still another trip, I might watch specifically for ways to add atmosphere.

Tell your students this: When they set out to revise, a whole lot of different things will all try to grab their attention at once. They’re probably going to get more out of the experience if they break down the revising task into several different trips. Encourage them to focus their attention on a few key things each time. They can always make the trip again to focus on something different; after all, the fairgrounds are open for twelve long days.

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Coffee Will Be My Downfall

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To Each Maker, Their Model

many, many carsDespite my appreciation for cars as a transportation mode, I was always hopeless at telling one make and model from another. Then I took on an assignment to write about some high-profile vehicles, and I had to learn about their distinguishing characteristics.

Even with all that extra study, I still can’t authoritatively identify those cars if I see them from the front. But a split-second glance at the shape of one from behind now tells me if it’s a Corvette or a Mustang. I guess I’m just better at naming something when I view it from the backside.

Written pieces are the same for me: I can rarely come up with the right name for them until I’ve seen them through to the end. I have all sorts of titling tactics that are useful after the piece is written. I share those with students who are having trouble coming up with a title: Is there something attention-grabbing that also reflects the tone of the piece? Is there something quirky about the contents, or some great one-liner within, that could command attention at the top of the page? Is it meant to be informative, so the title should make that clear? Does the writer need to hint that it’s a mystery or an adventure or a fantasy, so that the piece attracts the right readers?

But here’s the funny thing: as often as I tell students that I prefer to wait until I can see the entire shape of a piece before I title it, there are always those who ask me—beg me, really—for permission to write their title first. I’ve come to recognize that for some of them, writing out the title is an important first step. A blank piece of paper is scary to them. But allow them to slap a title up top—and presto, they’ve claimed that piece of paper. They’ve told it, “Watch out—I have something to say. It’s just going to take me a little while to get it all down.”

In other words, some writers find it helpful to title a piece when they’re staring into its headlights, while others find it better to wait until after they’ve watched its taillights speed by. Both approaches can have their merits; to each maker their model.

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I Have Some Bad News

Page Break Lynne Jonell

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Writing around Roadblocks

Mutzi and Lisa Bullard's deskI’ve tried to create a stimulating atmosphere in my home office. Works of art by the illustrators of my picture books adorn the walls. I have a Rainbow Maker in the window. There are blooming plants and inspiring sayings and a basket of toys to play with. There are birds chirping outside the window (even an occasional owl when I’m working at midnight). My desk chair is large and comfy. Mutzi the tailless cat perches next to my keyboard and purrs. Everything in my writing space is meant to help me transition quickly and happily to a creative and productive writing frame of mind.

Which works great, some days. Other days, I sit here like a dud. I’ve found that the only answer on those days is to take a writing road trip.

It doesn’t have to take me far, or to a particularly fancy destination. One time I had about given up on finding the right words for a particular picture book concept, despite weeks (maybe even months?) of battling to pin it down. Finally I grabbed my notes and headed off to a coffee shop, without even my trusty laptop as a token of the familiar. Suddenly, in this different environment, I was able to crank out an entire rough draft in about an hour and a half.

Of course, all of those unproductive attempts in my home office also fed this creative burst. But I’m convinced the story might never have come out if I hadn’t broken through that writing roadblock by taking my pen-and-notebook show on the road.

Here’s a simple way to give your students a creative kick start when you sense their writing energy is flagging: allow them to move to a different writing spot. Do you have a long writing session planned for the day? When you have ten minutes left, allow students to stretch out on the floor or curl up in a corner of the room with their notebooks. Or initiate a “musical chairs” type of desk exchange, where everyone at least ends up with a different perspective of the room.

The combination of movement and a change of scenery can work wonders for our brains when they’ve become too complacent to remain creative.

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The Contract, It Arrives!!

Lynne Jonell's Page Break

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