Author Archives: Valerie Stein

Summer Reads = Summer Fun!

Summer is a time when I feel energized and creative, basking in the longer daylight hours and a different kind of vibe, even though I work at home and the actual calendar doesn’t change that much around here.

If your kid is the kind who likes to make and do in summer, as mine was (she’s grown now, but this is how I remember her middle grade summers, and my own), here is a post to scratch your kiddos’ summer activity itch. Of course, you might like to join in the fun, too.

I have to say right up front that this was not my (fantastic!) idea – here’s a big shout out to our own Annabelle Fisher for the inspiration, and to many of our members for chiming in with great ideas to share with you.

Like to cook? These reads might also make you hungry to make food.

Lisa Schroeder’s cupcake books, including It’s Raining Cupcakes, might inspire you to make some…

The Truth About Twinkie Pie, by Kat Yeh, is full of recipes.

A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff, is also filled with things I want to cook. 

Pixie Piper and the Matter of the Batter, by our own Annabelle Fisher (including a recipe for magical “reversing cake” and other fun things!).

How about writing to authors?

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary gave adult me the push to write a favorite author, actually.

Love that Dog, by Sharon Creech is another that inspires action in the form of writing.

Want to play with paper engineering?

Origami Yoda and Tom Angleberger’s other Origami books result in lots of paper play.

Richard Merrill’s Fantastic Press-Out Flying Birds  is a blast (I’m giving this one an extra shout-out – this fellow SCBWI member and Dover Publications author is also my big brother!).

Books about science and nature and those that get us out of doors can also spark inspiration for projects and action.

Mixed Up Files member Jacqueline Houtman pointed me to Elaine Vickers’ blog, which features a ton of great activities for middle graders. Jacqueline’s own book, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas was featured there, and reading this book about a science geek might prompt a visit to find something to do, too.

Nature sketching and birdwatching are featured in The Someday Birds, by Sally Pia.

One Mixed Up Files member described Laurel Snyder’s Orphan Island as being ”sort of about a group of kids camping on their very own island.”

The Phineas MacGuire books by Francis O’Roark Dowell feature science activities in the back matter, and a website to visit for more at: http://gophineas.com/. My students loved our read aloud of Phineas in the library.

Roseanne Parry, still another Mixed Up Files member, wrote Turn of the Tide, which features geocaching.

And Explore Forces and Motion, by Jen Swanson (still another Mixed Up Filer), includes 25 fun activities for kids to do with science.

Community service as summertime action?

Our own Michele Weber Hurwitz says, “My book, The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, doesn’t exactly feature a craft project, but the main character, Nina, does a project involving 65 good things she does for her neighbors and family, one for each day of her summer vacation. It’s been a popular summer read for students who then do a community service project when they return to school.

Lisa Graff’s The Great Treehouse War Is about a bunch of kids who stage a sit-in, and then some…

Plus, there are always mysteries to solve and other fun things to do!

I’m intrigued by Annabelle Fisher’s recommendation of The Puzzler’s Mansion, by Eric Berlin, which she describes as having brainteasers and interactive puzzles in it.

Chasing Vermeer and the others in Blue Balliet’s architectural mystery series feature tangrams and puzzles to solve. I had several students who made their own tangrams after reading these books.

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, by Chris Grabenstein, is another that is jam-packed with stuff to do and try.

A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd is filled with oodles of stuff to do, too…

What books inspire you to dive in and then get out to have some fun in summer?

Wet and Windy: Books about Boats and the Water

“The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat…” Ogden Nash

My husband and I have been rather fixated on boats lately; we’ve spent the past several weeks shopping for what is very likely our last step up, to a 30-foot sailboat. It’s not big as sailboats go, but it’s big to us.

Since we met more than 30 years ago, we’ve spent much of our time on or near the water, first in a homebuilt kayak he brought into the relationship, then a series of other small boats. About 14 years ago, he asked if he was being hasty by investing in a “real” sailboat. Hasty? You’ve got to be kidding. Just get the darned thing! He did. We’ve been enjoying real sailboats since.

There is something about the water. I grew up in arid central Oregon wandering the banks of rivers that became trickles in some places in summer. We lived six hours from the coast. When I was a middle grader, my family moved East, and I had my first view of an ocean.

It’s been a love affair ever since, between me and the water. When I met my husband, that love affair extended to boats.

It’s about more than transportation, as Ratty and Mole demonstrate in The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. “Messing about in boats” is a lifestyle that for us includes wandering the docks of any coastal town we visit, from Greece to Monterey to Halifax. It also includes binoculars for spotting sea birds (and whales!), water shoes for tide-pooling, and every wildlife and plant guide we can carry.

Pacific Intertidal Life: A Guide to the Organisms of Rocky Reefs and Tidepools of the Pacific Coast, by Ron Russo and Pam Olhausen fits in a pocket. We also carry laminated sea bird and saltwater fish guides, the better to explore the many layers of the ecosystem around us.

And we read books about boats, about people who use the water as livelihood, about people who weather storms and find courage in facing the unknown.

My Dad introduced me to the allure of the sea-going story when I was 9 or 10 by sharing some of his childhood favorites, like Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling.

Over the years, I’ve found others as well, like Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, a swashbuckling story of murder and the integrity of a young girl.

The Wanderer, by Sharon Creech, told through the travel logs of two young sailors, stuck with me a long time.

Boston Jane: An Adventure, the first in Jennifer Holm’s “Boston Jane” series, has the main character, refined young Jane Peck, traveling aboard ship from Philadelphia to a new life in the Northwest.

Our own Rosanne Parry’s Turn of the Tide delivers the excitement and magical allure of sailing as well as the dangers of ignoring the power of our environment. I was really taken with another water-related story line in this contemporary novel, and that was learning more about the Columbia River bar pilots who navigate this unique waterway in the United States. These professionals are trained specifically to navigate the Columbia’s treacherous bars and tricky currents.

Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord, is an obvious choice, set as it is on an island. This gentle and heartwarming book is filled with the essence of what I love most about the water, and the special attachment one can form for living a life near it.

For older middle grade readers (or grownups), Clare Vanderpool’s Printz-Award winning Navigating Early is a beautiful read for just the right kid, and those who love archaic language and history might also enjoy Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, a favorite among sailors everywhere.

My Mixed Up Files friends shared many other titles with me, and goodness, how my own TBR list has grown! Here are some they mentioned:

Windcatcher, by Avi

Beyond the Bright Sea, by Lauren Wolk

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt

Flutter, by Erin Moulton

Heart of a Samurai and The Bamboo Sword, by Margi Preus

I’ve got one on hold and the rest in my library wish list now.

Do you have a favorite book about sailing, boats, or the sea? I’d love to add even more to my list.

 

Prompting Writing: Re-energizing a Draft

At some point in the middle of a piece of writing, whether it’s a short story or a full-length manuscript, I invariably hit a slump. Given the number of publications, workshops, tools, and challenges out there, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone!

Here are some tools that might be useful to you in moving a recalcitrant manuscript forward.

Books

Of course we all read books about writing. Every writer has their favorite dog-eared copy of certain books.

One that continues to inspire me to create writing that is filled with my own spirit is Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, by Ursula K LeGuin. How could LeGuin NOT write a really great book about writing? Working through the exercises in this book has taught me how powerful a change in point of view, length of sentence, or approach to paragraph structure can be in “waking up” a manuscript that has become predictable. More than one of my Mixed Up Files buddies recommended exercise just like these when I asked for help. I’m listening!

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, helps simply because I can open it and find something to inspire me, to reassure me, or even to push me to try something with more abandon.

A friend just pulled this lovely little book off her shelf, remembered how helpful it has been for her, and got me my own copy for my birthday. I can’t wait to dive in to Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, as I work and re-work this manuscript to make it even better.

Workshops and other in-person learning opportunities

Shortly after I inherited my father’s publishing company, I attended Write on the Sound, a local writing conference, after years of wishful thinking. It was just right for me – small and welcoming and not too scary as I dove headlong into the world of writing and publishing.

What I discovered was the gift of deep inspiration and commitment that can be found when you encounter a really good instructor. The lessons I learned about historical fiction from the lecturer were powerful tools I share with students today.

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Another favorite workshop introduced me to exercises based on author and creativity coach Deb Lund’s  fun deck of cards called “Fiction Magic.” These provocative questions, prompts, orders, magic tricks can be used in a variety of ways. It was really fun to play with them in person with their creator and a room full of enthusiastic writers.

Of course there is my local SCBWI chapter to turn to for inspiration and help – amazing meetings, drink nights (which are often sketching/noodling/doodling and writing nights, too), and also the meet ups with other authors that have come about because we discover like interests or common writing hangouts. I learn much from doing exercises on the page, but I learn even more for getting together with other people and talking about the process, the ideas, the struggles…

Challenges

I love deadlines, too. They motivate me. At least, they usually do!

I have participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) several years running, which for the uninitiated is a month-long sprint challenge in which writers all over the world attempt to finish a manuscript draft of at least 50,000 words. This challenge is not for the faint of heart, and requires a huge commitment. For getting the bones of a new book onto the page, it’s fantastic. And the fancy certificate you get at the end (along with discounts from a wide variety of writing-related vendors.

For the most part, I prefer my challenges in more manageable chunks; though NaNo is something I look forward to each year, I can’t always give up the month of November to hide in my writing cave.

Here are two shorter ones I’ve used with good success in the revision stages of my work, when it’s easy to put other things first (since I edit for others as well, I often put my writing at the bottom of the list. Small challenges help me to put it in the spotlight in reasonable ways).

WFMAD- Write Fifteen Minutes a Day, by Laurie Halse Anderson

WFMAD – Day 1 – Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

All you need to do is read these posts from 2013 and you will be able to create your own challenge. Invite your friends to join you. This series comes with great stuff to do beyond writing for 15 minutes- it really is an invitation to examine your writing and get over being afraid to just DO it.

Write Daily 30 – Linda Urban

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Middle Grade author Linda Urban has offered this challenge/support several times, where you sign up on a shared spreadsheet and post your progress. You create your own goal and the others in the challenge prod you and hold your hand. I’ve presented my own a couple of times since, without the spreadsheet, just daily tweets with the hashtag #WriteDaily30 for 30 days. I’ve made tremendous progress on projects by having the accountability to check in frequently and cheer for others.

I happen to be subbing in Middle School writing lab as I put finishing touches this post (I’ve been encouraged to use my own writing practice to set a good example for students). They are calling on their classmates for inspiration and using images to jump start ideas, and I’m watching.

What tools do you use to move your writing forward?

 

In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, THE BEST OF IT: A JOURNAL OF LIFE, LOVE AND DYING, was published in 2009. Her current work focuses on historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is proprietor of Homeostasis Press, and blogs at The Best of It. She manages Gather Herean online history site for middle grade readers and teachers.