Friday, May 31, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: No Bears

Since I’m inescapably drawn to writing picture books when I'm not working on my middle grade novels, I decided I’d better start reading more of them and figuring out what makes them work. So every other Friday, I'm posting "Learning from Picture Books" to share what I've learned.
No Bears
written by Meg McKinlay

illustrated by Leila Rudge

US edition published by Candlewick Press

From Amazon:

Ella is in charge of this book, and she will tell you something right now. There are NO BEARS in it. Not even one.

My thoughts as a writer:
The concept catches my attention – it’s simple and well-defined. The book appeared to have a lot of text, but it’s actually under 500 words. It has a story within a story, which is interesting, but I think it’s a difficult one to learn from in terms of structuring a picture book. The key learning for me was that a strong concept gives you room to build an interesting story.

My thoughts as a teacher:
I love the way this book models writing and using your imagination, as well as the key words that signal you’re reading a fairy tale. It paves the way for a discussion and possibly some list-making about what kids would like to write about themselves.  It also gives an opportunity for talking about how the pictures tell part of the story. Some children might be confused by the ending if they aren’t careful to pay attention to the pictures.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Small as an Elephant

Today’s Pick: Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Published by Candlewick Press

From Amazon:

Ever since Jack can remember, his mom has been unpredictable, sometimes loving and fun, other times caught in a whirlwind of energy and "spinning" wildly until it’s over. But Jack never thought his mom would take off during the night and leave him at a campground in Acadia National Park, with no way to reach her and barely enough money for food. Any other kid would report his mom gone, but Jack knows by now that he needs to figure things out for himself - starting with how to get from the backwoods of Maine to his home in Boston before DSS catches on. With nothing but a small toy elephant to keep him company, Jack begins the long journey south, a journey that will test his wits and his loyalties - and his trust that he may be part of a larger herd after all.

Jack’s mom is gone, leaving him all alone on a campsite in Maine. Can he find his way back to Boston before the authorities realize what happened?

My Take:

The premise of this story caught my attention and I was intrigued. I read through this story quickly because I wanted to find out why Jack was alone and whether he’d find his mom. It was an interesting twist on a survival story, since Jack wasn’t totally out in the wilderness. Jack’s character and reactions were believable, although at times he seemed a little young for his age.

As a writer, I loved the way the author used details to show Jack’s anxiety and tension, as well as to create a sense of his surroundings.

Favourite Quotes:

“Song rose up, and even though he was too tired to concentrate on the words, it tucked in around him like a soft blanket.”

“He missed his mom so much at that moment, that moment of cloud watching, that he could almost feel his thoughts traveling to her, and finding her, and making her pick up her phone.”

Other Info:

Jennifer Richard Jacobson is a writer, teacher and educational consultant. She Boston and in New York. She loves to travel and used to be a competitive swimmer. She knew she wanted to be a writer when she was in fourth grade.
On her website she talks about writing that creates mental pictures: “I don’t rush moments, I try to help the reader feel as if he or she is right there with the main character.

She also discusses one of the reasons she writes: “I love that books can help us to realize that we’re not alone — that others share the same interests and problems.”

Other Books:

Andy Shane, Hero At Last
Andy Shane and the Barn Sale Mystery
Andy Shane is Not In Love
Andy Shane and the Queen of Egypt

Winnie at her Best

Andy Shane and the Pumpkin Trick

Andy Shane and the Very Bossy Delores Starbuckle

Truly Winnie

Winnie Dancing on Her Own

Moon Sandwich Mom

A Net of Stars

For more info, visit Jennifer Jacobson’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!



Friday, May 24, 2013

Podcasts for Writers: On Writer's Block and On Revision

1) A quote from a useful discussion about the myth of writer's block:
“When your fingers are moving, your brain is working.”

Shirley Bahlmann, The Myth of Writer’sBlock with Shirley Bahlmann and Heather Ostler, Author’s Think Tank, Episode #11

The idea behind this quote is brilliant.  Even if you start out writing junk, your brain is working and is going to kick in and start producing something useful (and then you can go back and delete the gibberish). So to get past a place where you’re stuck, you just start writing anything, even something unrelated to what you want to work on.

Author’s Think Tank describes themselves as:  A think tank of authors helping each other reach their potential. Their site has a blog with writing tips and information, as well as a series of podcasts. I only discovered this site recently and have been enjoying catching up on their podcasts.

2) Here's a podcast about revision that has given me a lot to think about, especially in terms of my goals for my story and characters.

“It’s often useful to write out what you want the reader to feel about the character…that doesn’t always come through on the page.”
Cheryl Klein, Revision Techniques I by Cheryl Klein and James Monohan, The Narrative Breakdown.

Cheryl and James discuss some of Cheryl's strategies for helping writers revise, including writing "intention" letter about the story, making a book map and using character charts. I've heard about some of these techniques before and they are also in Cheryl's book, Second Sight, but it was great to think about how they apply to what I'm currently writing. This is a podcast episode I'd probably listen to again from time to time.



Monday, May 20, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Eight Keys

Today’s Pick: Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

Published by Wendy Lamb Books

From Amazon:

Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise's parents died when she was too young to remember them. There's always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.

When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the barn . .

My Take:

This was a touching story about that challenging time when you start middle school and your friendships and family life is changing. The characters in this story felt very alive to me, including Elise’s aunt and uncle (instead of being absent or fading into the background as in many middle grade novels).

Elise wasn’t always kind to her best friend, but the story seemed a realistic portrayal of how Elise tried to find her place in the social sphere, and the problem of bullying and whether to talk about it to anyone or not. The mystery of the keys to the locked rooms in the barn was unique story element that kept me wanting to read more.

As a writer, I’d study this book more closely to see how author created a full picture of the main character’s life, showing both her time at home and her time at school. There were careful details about the setting that created a strong sense of place. I really admired how the way Suzanne LaFleur layered in deeper emotions and thoughts.

Favourite Quotes:

“I didn’t know how to explain how lately I had had more thoughts than ever before whirring through my head and sometimes when I stopped to think about them I lost track of time.”

“I thought all my questions would be answered, but instead I found a million more.”

“We have plenty of room for our lives, I mean. Especially the ones who make us be the people we want to be.”

“A good friend is one of the hardest things to keep in this life. Don't forget that sometimes you have to work at it.”

Other Info:

Suzanne LaFleur lives near Boston and in New York. She loves to travel and used to be a competitive swimmer. She knew she wanted to be a writer when she was in fourth grade.

On her website she says, “I find that the writing process goes so much more smoothly when I hold my ideas in my imagination for a long time before I sit down in front of the blank paper or computer screen.”

She also suggests that exercise is a good way to keep writing flowing: “The more I work out, the more I find myself writing.”

Other Books:
Love, Aubrey

For more info, visit Suzanne LaFleur’s website.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger, author of Keeper of the Lost Cities. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: Rocket Writes a Story

Since I’m inescapably drawn to writing picture books when I'm not working on my middle grade novels, I decided I’d better start reading more of them and figuring out what makes them work. So every other Friday, I'll post "Learning from Picture Books" to share what I'm learning.

Rocket Writes a Story
written and illustrated by Tad Hills
published by Schwartz & Wade, 2012

From Amazon:
Rocket loves books and he wants to make his own, but he can't think of a story. Encouraged by the little yellow bird to look closely at the world around him for inspiration, Rocket sets out on a journey. Along the way he discovers small details that he has never noticed before, a timid baby owl who becomes his friend, and an idea for a story.
My thoughts as a writer:
I liked the way the story brought out some of the realities of the writing process, but I found the story itself a little slow paced and wondered whether it would hold a child’s interest. A little bit of mystery about a nest in a tree helped to carry the story forward and I could study how the illustrations and words worked together to make this effective. Overall, this book seemed best suited for educational purposes, rather than for entertainment.
My thoughts as a teacher:
This would be a good book to support a discussion of the process of writing. I appreciated the way the story showed how much hard work goes into writing and how a story can continue to change as the writer thinks of new ideas or re-reads what is written.
This story also showed how we can be inspired by nature, which fits with the Reggio Emilia philosophy of teaching. However, the story itself was a little quiet for me and could have benefited from a bit more action or conflict. This book would be suitable for grades K-2, but in a kindergarten class, I might break up the reading into a couple of sessions, since it’s long for a picture book.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: How My Private, Personal Journal Became a Bestseller

Today’s Pick: How My Private, Personal Journal Became a Bestseller by Julia DeVillers

Published by Puffin Books, 2004

From the Publisher:

Formerly ordinary fourteen-year-old Jamie Bartlett isn't so ordinary anymore. Ever since she wrote a story about Isabella (aka IS), the stereotype-defying, popular-girl-crushing super teen, Jamie's life hasn't been the same. Suddenly she's doing interviews and book signings, flying to L.A. to hang out with celebrities, and dating Marco Vega, the hottest guy in school! But will all of this attention go to Jamie's head? Or will she take a lesson from IS and remember that there's more to life than popularity?

Show less My Take:
Another book I really enjoyed! The character of Jameson is what drew me into the story and kept me hooked. Reading this book was almost like hanging out with a really good friend. I could relate to Jamie’s ups and downs and dream of becoming a “famous writer”. And I could relate to all the times she did or said something embarrassing. This was a fun read.

From a writing perspective, I’d definitely read this again to study how the author created the voice of the character. 

Favourite Quotes:

“When you’re popular, you don’t have to worry about what anyone thinks of you. Because you know they think you’re cool, right?”

“I journal almost every day. And that’s the kind of writing I love to do. When it’s for myself.”

Other Info:

Julia DeVillers has an identical twin sister, Jennifer Roy, who is also a writer. They collaborate together on a book series featuring identical twins.
How My Private, Personal Journal Became a Bestseller was made into a Disney Channel Original movie in 2006, called Read It and Weep.

This book was inspired by a list Julia DeVillers made in high school. It included things she wanted to do when she was older, like "be published", "have a really cute boyfriend", and “help the world”.

Other Books by This Author Include:
Triple Trouble (with Jennifer Roy)
Double Feature (with Jennifer Roy)
Cleared for Takeoff (Part of Liberty Porter, First Daughter)
Times Squared (with Jennifer Roy)
New Girl in Town (Part of Liberty Porter, First Daughter)
Take Two (with Jennifer Roy)
Liberty Porter, First Daughter (Part of Liberty Porter, First Daughter)
Trading Faces (with Jennifer Roy)
Princess of Gossip (with Sabrina Bryan)
Lynn Visible
GirlWise: How to Be Confident, Capable, Cool, and in Control
The Tuned In series, exclusively at Limited Too! stores

The TUNED IN series - exclusively at Limited TOO stores The TUNED IN series - exclusively at Limited TOO stores
For more info, visit the website for the book  or check out Julia DeVillers facebook page


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cool Blog Quote: Emotional Hide and Seek

I've been thinking a lot lately about creating emotions in my writing, since I think that's one of the big reasons why we read. I love this quote from Becca Puglisi over at The Bookshelf Muse:

"...we hide our emotions all the time. And this means our characters should, too."

Becca Puglisi, Hiding Emotions: Just Act Normal, The Bookshelf Muse, May 8, 2013

This is so tricky to capture in a story.

I sometimes show my characters trying act normal (see Becca's discussion of the Just Act Normal technique) but with tiny physical cues that hint at their underlying emotional state. (Thank you, Emotion Thesaurus.)

In the past, I've left it at that and assumed the reader would somehow interpret what I was trying to do. But the more I learn, the more I realize how important it is to make it obvious to the reader what emotion the character is feeling and trying to hide.

This underlines again why it's so important to let the reader in on the character's thoughts and feelings (what literary agent Mary Kole describes as interiority). Of course, this is tricky too, because it has to be done a subtle, polished way to avoid the blatant "She felt..." or "He thought..."

Monday, May 6, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Spindlers

Today’s pick:  The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver

HarperCollins, 2012

From the Publisher:

When Liza’s brother, Patrick, changes overnight, Liza knows exactly what has happened: The spindlers have gotten to him and stolen his soul.

She knows, too, that she is the only one that can save him.

To rescue Patrick, Liza must go Below, armed with little more than her wits and a broom. There, she uncovers a vast world populated with talking rats, music-loving moles, greedy troglods, and overexcitable nids . . . as well as terrible dangers. But she will face her greatest challenge at the spindlers’ nests, where she encounters the evil queen and must pass a series of deadly tests — or else her soul, too, will remain Below forever.

 From author Lauren Oliver comes a bewitching story about the reaches of loyalty, the meaning of love, and the enduring power of hope.

My Take:

I thought The Spindlers was creepy – a book I know would’ve both scared and hooked my daughter when she was younger. It reminded me a lot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, since Liza went underground and met a number of fantastical creatures on her way to rescue her brother (including a three-headed dog, which reminded me of the Harry Potter books). I liked Liza’s strong devotion to her brother, and the idea that she could tell something about him wasn’t right, when the adults couldn’t.
From a writer’s perspective, I’d study the way the author carefully chose words and phrases to create powerful and vivid images. The writing style was definitely stood out for me.

Favourite Quotes:

“She drew her mouth into a thin white line, and this reminded Liza of many things, none of them pleasant: of ruled notepaper, on which she was expected to write boring things at school; of rulers and long marches through endless hallways, and walls everywhere she looked.”
“Thousands of shadows were swooping and flirting through the air above their heads, until the court was dark with them.”

Other info:

Lauren Oliver lives in Brooklyn, NY and grew up in a house “full of art and towers and towers of books.” As a child, her parents, who were both literature professors, encouraged her to draw, paint, dance and write stories.

On her website, she gives this advice for writers: “First of all—write! Then write, write, write, and write some more. Also, read as much as you can.”
The book’s website has a video about the story behind The Spindlers.

Other books written by this author include:

Liesel and Po (MG)
Before I Fall (YA)
Delirium (YA)
Pandemonium (YA)
Requiem (YA)

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday was dreamed up by the incredible Shannon Messenger. Visit her blog for an up-to-date list of all the bloggers who are participating and posting about middle grade books today!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Writing Smarter by Writing Different

Although I’ve been putting my writing energy into middle grade fiction for the last couple of years, it’s hard for me to stay away from thinking about picture books too. In my job as a kindergarten teacher, I’m surrounded by little voices with big ideas. Parts of stories creep into my mind, since I can’t help thinking what if…

Or, if only I had a story to show my students about ___________.
The interesting thing I've found about starting to write picture books again is that it has increased my productivity with my middle grade novel. You'd think it'd be the opposite, since I spend less time working on the novel. But I find that writing picture books is great when I need a break from my novel or when I get stuck. It often gets my creative brain in gear again.

I can conceptualize an entire picture book in short space of time, something that's a bit more difficult with a middle grade novel and all the different pieces to weave together. And it helps to bring some fun back into writing when the novel is dragging me down a little. 
Just for fun, this week I've been trying to participate in NaPiBoWriWee - National Picture Book
Writing Week. It's a challenge where you write a picture book a day each day from May 1 - 7. 

I figure if I complete four I'm doing well, but I have a secret hope that I'll get a chance to catch up on the weekend.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What Inspires You to Write Better?

Last week, two teen sisters, Julia and Emma Mogus, came to my school to tell us about an amazing project they started to bring books to aboriginal youth in the 49 communities of the Nishnawabe Aski Nation in Northern Ontario. In 2012, these girls collected and organized a way to send over 10, 000 books to these fly-in communties. They are also sending supplies like warm clothing, baby items, crafts and teacher resources.  

Never underestimate teens! I was so inspired, hearing about their goals and dreams and what they have accomplished at the ages of 13 and 14. It makes me want to work even harder to achieve my own goals and to write better books.

If you want to know more about Julia and Emma and their accomplishments, visit them at the Books with No Bounds website or Books with No Bounds on Facebook.

You can also read more about them in this article about Books With No Bounds from The National Post.

What inspires you to keep on writing?