Category Archives: For Teachers

The Young Presidents

It can stretch the imagination to picture powder-wigged George Washington and chisel-faced Abraham Lincoln as preteen boys, but don’t you wonder what kind of boys they were?

This President’s Day, let’s explore books that take us back into the boyhoods of the extraordinary men we honor today.

Abraham Lincoln, George Washington: Young Presidents by Augusta Stevenson from Aladdin.

The Education of George Washington by Austin Washington from Regnery History. (Note: This book is written by President Washington’s great-nephew and is geared toward adult readers.)

Young George Washington America’s First President  by Andrew Woods, illustrated by John Himmelman from Scholastic.

George Washington, Young Leader (Easy Biographies) by Laurence Santrey from Troll Communications.

Abe Lincoln: The Young Years (Easy Biographies) by Keith Brandt, illustrated by John Lawn from Troll Communications.

Abe Lincoln Grows Up by Carl Sandburg, illustrated by James Daugherty from Scholastic.

Abraham Lincoln by Ingri D’Aulaire, illustrated by Edgar Parin D’Aulaire from Yearling Books.

Do you have any good books to add to our list? How are you and your students and children celebrating President’s Day?

Another Pair of Shoes

On a recent gray afternoon, during a desultory spin through the Twitter-verse, I came across a tweet that perked me up. It was from Sara Grochowski. To say Sara loves reading is to say flowers lift their faces to the sun. She and I have met at a few book events, and it’s been a deep pleasure to talk with her about my work, and to keep up with what she’s reading and thinking. (You can meet her yourself, at thehidingspot.blogspot.com or @thehidingspot)

The tweet I read the other afternoon said something like, “I always thought it was my parents who taught me empathy, but I’ve come to realize it was books.” This caught my attention for lots of reasons. One is that the need to see through someone else’s eyes, to walk in another’s shoes―lies at the heart of all my work.

Childhood is a self-centered time. Kids have an entire world to learn and process, so it’s no wonder that at first they put themselves at the center of it. Yet a baby gets upset when she hears another baby cry. The capacity for empathy exists from the very beginning, and in my books, that wondrous capacity is what makes characters grow and change, as they come to understand they’re not the center of the world, but are instead an essential, powerful part of it.

There’s another reason I loved Sara’s tweet. Even the best intentioned parents can’t do everything. Neither can teachers. A lot is up to our children themselves. For empathy to grow, they need experience. And next to real-life, a close second to actual experience, is reading.

A 2013 study published in the journal Science proved what most of us already know: reading good fiction increases sensitivity and empathy. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/i-know-how-youre-feeling-i-read-chekhov/

To read we need to understand motivation, make connections, note nuances, seek what’s beneath the surface. Picture books, where illustrations and text sometimes complement, sometimes contradict each other, introduce this. And middle grade fiction? Over the last years it’s been growing ever more wonderfully, deeply diverse. A reader, safe in her own familiar world, can have lead many lives vastly different from her own. We’ve all had the experience of feeling as if a writer had x-rayed our hearts, eavesdropped on our thoughts. Reading makes us feel less alone, yes, but more than that. I love the phrase “lost in a book”. When we read about others different from us, boundaries fall. We lose ourselves to become those others.

These days, lots of people are fretting we need empathy more than ever before. I don’t think we need to worry. Empathy and compassion are essential parts of us all, seeds waiting to be nurtured. This spring middle grade writer Shelley Pearsall and I are lucky enough to be doing a workshop at the beloved Virginia Hamilton Conference.  http://www.kent.edu/virginiahamiltonconference We are calling it “Seeking a Wider Window”, and we’ll discuss the challenges and rewards of being white, middle class writers creating characters with lives very different from ours. I’ll be sure to report back!

Tricia’s most recent middle grade novel is Every Single Second. The third book in her CODY series, Cody and the Rules of Life, will publish this April (and yes, one of those rules is to always ask yourself, How would you feel if it happened to you??)

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.