Friday, November 29, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: Chopsticks


written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

illustrated by Scott Magoon

published by Disney Hyperion Books, 2012

ages 4- 8

From Amazon:

Meet Chopsticks! They've been best friends forever. But one day, this inseparable pair comes to a fork in the road. And for the very first time, they have to figure out how to function apart. From New York Times best-selling author Amy Krouse Rosenthal and rising artistic talent Scott Magoon, this witty and inventive tale celebrates both independence and the unbreakable bonds of friendship.

 My Thoughts as a Writer:
Chopsticks is a wonderful example of a fun, playful story with a word count well under 500 words. I’d read this book again to study the structure of the story and how it leads the reader on to the next page. This is another great example of how a simple idea can turn into an entertaining story. The word play was a lot of fun and added another level to the story. I also admired how the illustrations were integral to the story, creating emotion that just wouldn’t be there in the text alone.   

My Thoughts as a Teacher:
Young children often don’t understand that it’s okay for a friend to do something else or play with someone else sometimes, and this book would be a good one for beginning that discussion. I would also use this to talk about “chopsticks”, what they are and maybe do a graph on how many kids have used chopsticks. It would be fun to bring in real chopsticks and have students try using them. They could write their own stories or writing journal entries about other things chopsticks could do—either alone or together, or create a chopsticks poster with pictures of chopsticks together and chopsticks apart.

**If you're looking for more good picture books to read or to use in your classroom, check out Susanna Leonard Hill’s wonderful list of resources, Perfect Picture Books as well as her blog feature Perfect Picture Book Fridays.**

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tidbits from CANSCAIP's Packaging Your Imagination Conference

I recently attended the Packaging Your Imagination Conference put on by CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Childrens Authors, Illustrators and Performers). I’m so grateful to my Debbie Ridpath Ohi of MiG Writers, who suggested I attend.

Some tidbits:
  • Jennifer Maruno, author of Cherry Blossom Winter and many other historical fiction novels, reminded us that the big idea for a story comes from “what we carry in our hearts.”

  • Author Barbara Greenwood discussed revising or “re-visioning” a novel and said, “Decide what you want the scene to do and leave in only what makes it stronger.”
  • She also said it's important to listen to the sound of your story, by reading it aloud, preferably to a writing group

I also attended an industry panel moderated by Evan Munday, author of The Dead Kid Detective Agency, featuring executive editor Hadley Dyer from Harper Collins Canada, agent Monica Pacheco of Anne McDermid & Associates, Yvette Ghione, editorial director at Kids Can Press, and bookseller Heather Kuipers of Ella Minnow Books in Toronto (YoYoMama has a great review of Ella Minnow Books if you want to know more about it). 

  • They all emphasized how important it is to submit the best work you can to editors or agents. A big mistake people make is submitting too soon.

  • Another tip they had was about social media. If you are engaging in social media, on Twitter, blogging or whatever, make sure you do it well by updating content frequently -- or don’t do it at all. For example, a bad book trailer can be worse than not having one.
  • Heather Kuipers reminded us that the length of a read aloud for younger kids is about 8 - 12 minutes and some picture books are just too long 

The keynote address by Linda Bailey, author of Stanley’s Party and the recent Toads on Toast as well as many other books, reminded me how important it is to take risks in writing and in the process of getting published. You need to be open to change (especially because of the way the industry is changing so quickly) and not be afraid to try something new.
I'd be leaving out something really important if I didn't mention how much I enjoyed the illustrators exhibit that was also part of this conference.
I loved the opportunity to see original artwork from picture books, including work by Barbara Reid, an original illustration from Phoebe Gilman's Something From Nothing, work by Bill Slavin, process illustrations from Debbie Ridpath Ohi's work on I'm Bored and many more. The exhibit is on display at the Humber College L-Space gallery until December 10th, so I'm going to try to take my daughter to see it before it closes. I really wish the gallery had some evening or weekend hours (M-F, 12-5)!
The best part of going to a conference is how I always come home charged up and excited about writing, ready to get back to work. I really enjoyed meeting some new people and hearing about their writing or illustrating experiences. I’ll definitely be going back next year!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Eldritch Manor

Today’s Pick: Eldritch Manor by Kim Thompson

Dundurn Press, 2012

From the Publisher:
Twelve-year-old Willa Fuller is convinced that the old folks in the shabby boarding house down the street are prisoners of their sinister landlady, Miss Trang. Only when Willa is hired on as housekeeper does she discover the truth, which is far more fascinating.

Eldritch Manor is a retirement home for some very strange beings indeed. All have stories to tell — and petty grievances with one another and the world at large.

Storm clouds are on the horizon, however, and when Miss Trang departs on urgent business, Willa is left to babysit the cantankerous bunch. Can she keep the oldsters in line, stitch up unraveling time, and repel an all-out attack from the forces of darkness ... all while keeping the nosy neighbours out of their business and uncovering a startling secret about her own past?

My Take:
The uniqueness of this story drew me in. I really liked the premise of the house full of older, fantastical creatures and the way elements of magic were woven into the story. I also liked the writing style and the way Willa’s curiosity led her to a job working inside the house.

The characters all had interesting and different personalities and the story moved along at a good pace. I wished that Willa’s relationship with her mother was developed a little more, but maybe that will happen in the sequel. Overall, this charming but scary book was an entertaining read, especially if you like imaginary creatures (and battles with the dark side).

Opening Line:

“As she tumbled over the handlebars of her bike, twelve-year-old Willa Fuller decided that this had to be the absolute worst day of her life so far.”


“You want to know if there is magic out there in the world. Well…that depends on who is doing the looking.”

“As they turned the final corner Willa’s thoughts were interrupted by the sight of the house blanketed in heavy fog and darkness, a cloud of black birds floating overhead.”

Other Info:

Kim Thompson lives on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada. She is also a film-maker and television writer.

Eldritch Manor is Kim Thompson’s first published book.

This book is nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading for 2014 in the Silver Birch (Fiction) category. 

For more info, visit Kim Thompson’s website.

You can find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books by checking out Shannon Messenger’s blog! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).

Monday, November 18, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library

Today’s Pick: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

From Amazon:
Kyle Keeley is the class clown, popular with most kids, (if not the teachers), and an ardent fan of all games: board games, word games, and particularly video games. His hero, Luigi Lemoncello, the most notorious and creative gamemaker in the world, just so happens to be the genius behind the building of the new town library.

Lucky Kyle wins a coveted spot to be one of the first 12 kids in the library for an overnight of fun, food, and lots and lots of games. But when morning comes, the doors remain locked. Kyle and the other winners must solve every clue and every secret puzzle to find the hidden escape route. And the stakes are very high.
In this cross between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and A Night in the Museum, Agatha Award winner Chris Grabenstein uses rib-tickling humor to create the perfect tale for his quirky characters. Old fans and new readers will become enthralled with the crafty twists and turns of this ultimate library experience.

My Take:
I love libraries and playing all kinds of games so I was excited to read this book. I enjoyed all the references to books and television shows, and the mystery and the clues to finding the way out were a lot of fun to try to solve. The library in this book was full of interesting details, like star maps in the ceiling, sofas designed to look like Scrabble trays and holographic statues. This book explained some aspects of how to use a library in a fun way; for example, using the Dewey decimal system to find books and asking librarians for help. It was a fast-paced story with several different characters.

As a writer, I’d look at this novel again to see how the author created the cool setting and dropped in details about it. But mostly, I’d read it again to revisit all the clever references to other books.

Opening Line:

“This is how Kyle Keeley got grounded for a week.”


“This door serves as a reminder to us all: Our thoughts are safe when they are inside a library.”

“Apparently, watching a real live person risk his real live life by doing something really, really, scary was one thing more exciting than reading.”

“Something Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson early in the story really stuck with Kyle: “You see, but you do not observe.”

Other Info:

Chris Grabenstein lives in New York City. He has several pets, including his amazing dog Fred, who starred in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There is a game to go with this book called Mr. Lemoncello's Great Library Escape Game which is available for school libraries on his website.

In an interview with Chris Grabenstein at The Boy Reader, he talks about his writing process: “A former improvisational comedian, I tend to make my scenes up as I go.  Like Robert Frost said, no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Other Books by this Author Include:

I, Funny with James Patterson
The Crossroads (Haunted Mystery Series)

The Hanging Hill (Haunted Mystery Series)

The Smoky Corridor (Haunted Mystery Series)

The Black Heart Crypt (Haunted Mystery Series)

For more info, visit Chris Grabenstein’swebsite.

You can find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books by checking out Shannon Messenger’s blog! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).

Friday, November 15, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: I Dare You Not to Yawn!

I Dare You Not to Yawn!

written by Helene Boudreau
illustrated by Serge Bloch

published by Candlewick, 2013

From the Publisher:

A yawn can land you in your pj’s and under the covers before you can blink and say "Baa baa black sheep." So clamp your mouth shut and look away from your sleepy dog, stay away from your cuddly blanket, and whatever you do, don’t think of baby orangutans stretching their long arms out for a snuggly hug. Otherwise, you might find your mouth opening wide and letting out a great big yawny yaaaaaawn -- hey, you were supposed hold it in! A hilarious read-aloud that is so much fun, kids will beg for it again and again, whatever the consequences.

Just try to resist this comical -- and infectious -- cautionary fable that will have even bedtime-avoiders gladly snuggling up for a nightly challenge.

My Thoughts as a Writer:
This is perfect to read at bedtime. The comic-style illustrations in this story are a lot of fun. I enjoyed how the writer took a simple idea and drew it out into a story full of tips for how not to yawn. The carefully-chosen sounds words add to the enjoyment of the story.    

This book would be a good one for studying pacing and page turns. For more information on Helene Boudreau’s process for writing this book, check out this interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi -- Picture Book Writing Process: How Hélène Boudreau Wrote I DARE YOU NOT TO YAWN (Candlewick Press).  

My Thoughts as a Teacher:
This book would be a nice one to read to preschoolers or kindergarten students to promote a love of reading. It gives you that wonderful cozy feeling of a shared experience. I can also imagine reading this to my class during an inquiry on the human body...or to spark an inquiry, since it so easily lends itself to questions about why we need to sleep or why we yawn.

This book is one of the nominees for The Blue Spruce Award in the Canadian Library Association's Forest of Reading 2014.

If you're looking for more good picture books to read or to use in your classroom, check out Susanna Leonard Hill’s wonderful list of resources, Perfect Picture Books as well as her blog feature Perfect Picture Book Fridays.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Getting Ready for the Packaging Your Imagination Conference

This weekend I'll be attending the Packaging Your Imagination, a conference for writers, illustrators and performers taking place here in the Toronto area.

This one-day conference is organized by The Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP). Although I've been a member of CANSCAIP in the past, I've never been to one of their conferences before. But my awesome critique partner, fellow MiG Writer Debbie Ridpath Ohi, reminded me about it and I've always wanted to go, so this is the year I'm going to start!

This conference also has an online streaming option (how cool is that!) but I'm going to be attending in person. I'm looking forward to learning more about writing and connecting with other local writers and people who are interested in writing and promoting children's literature.

Although meeting new people makes me a little nervous, I like going to writing workshops and conferences because they always inspire me with new ideas or perspectives on my latest writing projects. Since I've recently finished a big novel revision, I'm starting a new project, so this is a perfect time to kick start my imagination.

What will inspire your writing this weekend?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Making Bombs for Hitler

Today is Remembrance Day. It's a day to think about the past and those who fought, the present and those who continue to fight, and the future and our dreams for peace.

I wanted to feature a book fitting the occasion, so I am reposting my thoughts on Making Bombs for Hitler by Canadian author, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. I also recommend these compelling middle grade stories related to war and how it affects families:

A Diamond in the Desert by Kathryn Fitzmaurice
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Septys
Cherry Blossom Winter by Jennifer Maruno

Today’s pick:  Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Scholastic Canada, 2012

Summary from Good Reads:
In this companion book to the award-winning Stolen Child, a young girl is forced into slave labour in a munitions factory in Nazi Germany.

In Stolen Child, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch introduced readers to Larissa, a victim of Hitler’s largely unknown Lebensborn program. In this companion novel, readers will learn the fate of Lida, her sister, who was also kidnapped by the Germans and forced into slave labour — an Osterbeiter.

In addition to her other tasks, Lida's small hands make her the perfect candidate to handle delicate munitions work, so she is sent to a factory that makes bombs. The gruelling work and conditions leave her severely malnourished and emotionally traumatized, but overriding all of this is her concern and determination to find out what happened to her vulnerable younger sister.

With rumours of the Allies turning the tide in the war, Lida and her friends conspire to sabotage the bombs to help block the Nazis’ war effort. When her work camp is finally liberated, she is able to begin her search to learn the fate of her sister.

In this exceptional novel Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch delivers a powerful story of hope and courage in the face of incredible odds.Lida and her younger sister are caught by the Nazis and separated. Lida is sent to a slave labour camp, where she works from dawn to dusk on only bread and soup. clad in one thin dress and no shoes. Even if she manages to survive the war, how will she find her sister again?

My Take: 
I couldn’t put this book down! Whenever I read about life in a work or concentration camp, I am shocked and saddened that people could ever treat other people in such a cruel and inhumane way. At times, this book made me feel very emotional. I was rooting for the main character, Lida, and her friends to survive. The author did a great job of creating a character that I cared about. I liked the way her research blended seamlessly into the story to create a compelling read. Now I want to read her other book about Lida’s sister, called Stolen Child.

As a writer, I would study this novel to see how every detail was portrayed through the main character's perspective. There is nothing unnecessary to the story here.

Other Info:

Marsha Skrypuch didn’t learn how to read until she was in grade 4, when she taught herself by reading the fat book, Oliver Twist.

Her book, Stolen Child, won the 2011 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for the Americas.

In an interesting interview with Debbie Spring for the Canscaip IBBY Interview Spotlight in September, 2012, Marsha says, “My own learning challenges made me the kind of writer that I am. I write the kinds of books that I would have liked to be able to read when I was a kid – complex and lots of action and not talking down to the reader.”
I recommend reading this fascinating interview for more about how Marsha does her research and her thoughts on the differences between books for adults and books for children. She says: “In children’s fiction, the reader steps into the shoes of the person who is experiencing the mistreatment, and that builds compassion.”

Other books by this author include:
Silver Threads - 1996
The Best Gifts - 1998
The Hunger - 1999
Enough - 2000
Hope's War - 2001
Nobody's Child - 2003
Aram's Choice - 2006
Dear Canada: Prisoners in the Promised Land: The Ukrainian Internment Diary of Anya Soloniuk, Spirit Lake, Quebec, 1914 - 2007
Daughter of War - 2008
Call Me Aram - 2009
Stolen Child - 2010
Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan's Rescue from War - 2011
One Step At A Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way – 2012

You can find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books by checking out Shannon Messenger’s blog! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2). 


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Podcasts for Writers: Insecurities and Managing the Writing Process

I haven't done a post about podcasts in while, but that doesn't mean I've stopped listening! I've been struggling to get past a difficult place in my writing, which I think is mostly due to interference from my own insecurities. So it was great to hear other writers talking about these and how they manage to carry on with their writing in spite of them.

The Creative Penn - How to Get in the Zone and Stay In It - with Tom Evans

Even though I don't usually think too much about how I get into the "creative zone" when I'm writing (I just cross my fingers that I somehow manage to get there in the hour or two I have before work), I found it useful to think about my work patterns and when I'm most productive. I was interested in the idea that everyone has times of the day and times of the year when they are more creative or more stressed, and the thought of planning around that made a lot of sense.

Author Sarah Dessen - speaking with Sara Zarr on This Creative Life

I love hearing popular authors of YA and MG fiction talk about their work, and this conversation was so interesting! It really does help to hear that well-known published authors struggle with their insecurities too.

If you haven't heard Sara Zarr's podcasts, they are worth checking out. She asks good questions that invite a lot of discussion in a low-key, conversational format.

Writing Excuses 8.42 - The Internal Editor vs. the Internal Heckler

I hadn't thought much about this distinction before. I especially liked their discussion about editing-while-writing because this is something I tend to do a lot of, and at times it can lead me totally rewrite a large section before I move on because I just don't like it and can't continue with the story until it's better.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Nobody's Dog

Today’s Pick: Nobody’s Dog by Ria Voros

From the Publisher:

For thirteen-year-old Jakob, the summer is looking pretty bleak. His only friend has moved away and no one else seems to have any time for him — except the girl who lives downstairs. But she's a little weird. Then again, so is Jakob. A few months ago, he was in a car accident that killed both his parents, and though he can't remember exactly what happened, he can't stop turning it over in his mind. No wonder people leave him alone.  

Then out of nowhere, a stray dog befriends Jakob. Together they begin to roam the city streets by night, discovering an exhilarating secret world where they can both taste a new kind of freedom. But as their nocturnal adventures take Jakob farther and farther away from the safety of home, the truth of that awful night begins to emerge.
Will he be strong enough to face it — and who will be there for him when he does?

My Take:

This was an emotional story filled with realistic characters. I could really connect with Jakob and how the dog helped him through his grief and sadness over losing his parents. I was rooting for Jakob to get through his difficulties and find out who he could care about and rely on. At the same time, I was glad that the book didn’t have a totally wrapped up ending with everything resolved. I had a sense that the characters live on and continue to work on their problems. I think both boys and girls would enjoy this book.

As a writer, I’d look at this novel again to see how the author created a strong first person voice for Jakob. Jakob's adventures with the dog kept the story from feeling too sad, but at the same time worked well to show how Jakob learned to deal with his feelings.

Opening Line:

“The car turns over three times. Hits the curb, goes up on its side like a stunt in a movie.”


“The dog trots back up the pier. I’ve never had so many questions for something that can’t answer me.”

“Suddenly the world seems like such an unfair place where everyone I care about ends up leaving.”

“I reach over and rub his ears and he grins at me. I’m connected to him in a way no one else is.”


Other Info:

Ria Voros lives in British Columbia in Canada. She decided she wanted to be a writer when she was little “because there wasn’t much else she liked to do as much as tell stories.”

According to Ria’s website, one of the best things about being a writer for her is: “Being inspired by new ideas for stories and seeing them come to life on the page.”

This book is nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading for 2014 in the Silver Birch (Fiction) category. 

Other Books by this Author Include:

The Opposite of Geek

For more info, visit Ria Voros’ website.

You can find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books by checking out Shannon Messenger’s blog! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).


Friday, November 1, 2013

Learning from Picture Books: Crankenstein!


written by Samantha Berger
illustrated by Dan Santat

published by Little Brown and Company, 2013
ages 3 - 7

From the Publisher:

Who is Crankenstein?

He may look like any ordinary boy, but when faced with a rainy day, a melting popsicle, or an early bedtime, one little boy transforms into a mumbling, grumbling Crankenstein. When Crankenstein meets his match in a fellow Crankenstein, the results could be catastrophic--or they could be just what he needs to brighten his day!

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The concept of this book is one all kids can connect with! I loved the voice in this story and admired how so much was conveyed in just a few words. The illustrations complement the story so well – I loved the expressions on Crankenstein’s face.

I also liked the way the book was structured, with repetition in sets of 3s, just enough to entertain without being monotonous for an adult during a read aloud. The ending was cute. This is another example of how a good concept is important in creating a picture book.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

This book would be a nice one to read around Hallowe’en or in comparison with other monster books. I’d use it to start a discussion about feelings and what makes you feel grumpy, and expand the discussion to talk about what to do when you feel grumpy. You could also encourage students to write about their own “Crankenstein” stories or moments.
The edition I borrowed from my public library had funny labeled diagrams of Crankenstein on the front and back covers. These would be a great model for a fun activity where students draw themselves as a Crankenstein and make up their own labels.

For other great picture books to read, check out Perfect Picture Book Friday, using #PPBF on Twitter, or visit Susanna Leonard Hill's blog for a list of bloggers who are blogging about picture books today!

Did you know it's Picture Book Month? Every day in November, a picture book champion explains why he/she thinks picture books are important. 

It's also PiBoIdMo (aka Picture Book Idea Month), where picture book writers try to come up with 30 ideas in 30 days. I'm excited to try the challenge!