Category Archives: For Teachers

Book Fairs: Forging Connections Between Authors and Readers

As an author and as a parent, one of the school activities I love most is the book fair. This chance to watch our readers as they browse books and talk about what they’re connecting to is invaluable; it provides a unique peek into what they love about books and characters that I don’t get anywhere else. Obviously, there are other tools and even metrics to measure what’s resonating with our middle grade readers, but book fairs are just special.

Recently, in an effort to enhance the book fair at my children’s school, I piloted a new program called “Meet the Author.” I stole the idea from another book fair I had worked with in Oro Valley, AZ, where their week-long event included two full days of classroom visits from authors whose books were being sold at the fair.

It was a wonderful way to immerse the students in the whole process of publishing—from the crafting and editing of a book to the actual purchase. The visits also offered readers who were able to purchase the authors’ books a tangible reminder of the visit—personally autographed books! The difference between these and the typical author school visit was that it all happened in the classrooms, which provided a more intimate visit than is usually manageable when you pack an entire grade level into a large room.

The event took a lot of heavy-lifting: months of organization and two long days of managing a roster of authors and parent volunteers who could escort our visitors around the school. But oh, the results. Kids were excited and energized; brand new authors were born in every classroom. It was truly wonderful to watch.

When I imported the idea to our school here in northern Virginia, I started small: no budget and only one author for one grade level presentation. I had to depend on the kindness of an author who would be willing to speak for free and still be willing to sign books afterward. That author was Leah Henderson, author of ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL.

Leah was fabulous. Her presentation was interesting, engaging, and interactive. The children loved her slide show, which included photos of Senegal, where her novel is set. They really plugged into her questions, competing with each other to identify which of her geographically diverse photo slides were in Africa.

Even better? Our 6th graders gained a valuable and exciting connection between the book they saw on the shelves at the book fair and the in-person visit from the actual author—the face of the artistry behind the pages.

“Whenever someone can build a connection with a book they’re more apt to pick it up the next time they see it—often curious what other connections they may make. Having a ‘Meet the author’ event before or during a book fair is a wonderful way for students to hear the behind the scenes in an author’s book journey.”

                                                     –Leah Henderson, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL

It’s important to note here that the experience itself—an author visit—wasn’t new for us, nor would it be for most schools that want to try this. Our school in particular is very fortunate in that we have an active librarian who schedules author visits as often as her budget allows: we’ve met some pretty amazing, well-known writers. But this was unique in that the author’s work was on sale at the book fair, so everything happened in real time: students saw the book on the shelves at the fair and heard about it in person. They got to interact with the author. Many bought the book and got it signed, much like bookstore signings, which not all children get to attend.

One student said afterward, “It was very interesting to hear how she was inspired to write the book and I liked that she focused on that instead of giving spoilers about what the book was about. That was really good.”

Another said, “I was interested to find out what it takes to get a book published. It takes a lot longer than I thought, and I didn’t know that before we listened to Ms. Henderson. She was a great speaker.”

What motivated me to share this with all of you is twofold: 1) I wanted to encourage all of you who get to work with school book fairs to consider this idea (if you haven’t already); 2) I wanted to thank all the authors who are willing to cut or eliminate their speaking fees entirely when they are being courted by a local school or a speaker program with no budget. I understand that for many of us, speaking fees are a vital part of our income and we can’t make ends meet without them, certainly not when it involves travel outside our region. But the fees can also be prohibitive. I was so grateful to Leah for her generosity because I had no budget at all; any speaker fee would have come from my own pocket, which I couldn’t do. But the value of Leah’s visit was priceless for our kids, and, I can confirm, gained her some new fans. And if we’re lucky? A few new authors were born that day.

Happy Holidays to all of you, and here’s to a 2018 full of great books and good cheer.

Sparking the Imagination with Written Imagery

As a classroom teacher of upper MG readers, I’ve been wondering lately on the constant technological pummeling we get from images—gaming, TV, movies, computers, tablets, phones. Screened devices have a powerful attention-grabbing effect on kids, and with so many stimulating colors, photos, Snapchat animations, and videos to look at, the modern-day imagination is contending with a very different ball of yarn than in decades past. It’s great that we can Google-Machine “Roman Empire ruins” and see hundreds of pictures, and it’s fun to test our eye-hand coordination by slashing air-borne fruit, chopping ropes, or helping a chicken across a road. But for many readers, after all that color and movement and music, the imagination may balk a bit when given black words on a white page.

For that reason, it might be pretty difficult for a middle grade teacher, parent, librarian, or writer to hook readers on books with descriptive passages, figurative language, or a generally more literary bent. But instead of avoiding imagery, it may be more important than ever to give readers an opportunity to envision and imagine through the words on the page. We should strive to provide work-out routines and fitness centers for the imagination in our stories through language and description. Inclusion of imagery in MG stories will complement the reader’s experience and ultimately improve and enhance the reader’s imagination. And imagination is important in any setting, as it drives flexible thinking and creative problem solving.

So, in order to spark readers’ imaginations, how do you recognize good imagery in MG works, and how do you write your own? Here are some qualities typically associated with imagery:

  • Imagery is language that employs a mental use of the five senses.
  • It can use certain figurative language devices like similes and metaphors, personification, and hyperbole, but it can exist without any other lit devices being present, too.
  • Good imagery isn’t fluffy or fancy or filled with words you’d find on the SAT. Sometimes, in fact, incredibly simple syntax and short phrases make up excellent imagery.
  • Imagery lets you see, touch, taste, hear, and smell the surroundings  in the character’s world, and it draws the reader in with those experiences.
  • Most importantly, good imagery leads the imagination off-leash—it guides, but never forces. The imagination has to be allowed to run free, if it’s to grow strong.

Here are some scenes in three works of MG fiction with imagery to consider:

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The description of Camazotz is brilliantly creepy in its simplicity. L’Engle’s choice of short, clipped words and phrases reflect the vision concocted in the reader’s imagination of this austere town where anomalies are forbidden:

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small, rectangular plot of land in front, with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door.

Things get more eerie with the rhythmical description of the kids outside all those houses, girls jumping rope and boys bouncing balls:

Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.

The imagery prompts our imaginations to not only see Camazotz but to hear and feel its driving beat, too.

Sarah Jean Horwitz’s Carmer and Grit, Book One: The Wingsnatchers. Big, immediate conflicts or surprised exclamations from characters can work beautifully as openers in MG fiction and nonfiction. But atmospheric imagery can be used just as masterfully to hook the reader into the story. In this book, the two-and-a-half-page opener has no dialogue and no loud clatter of forces. But the tone of mystery, the discordant sounds, and the symbolic light/darkness imagery all work together to pull the reader in:

At the South Gate, just outside the winding iron bars, the Autocat waits. Its jeweled eyes gleam in the darkness. It watches as each golden lantern on the pathway blinks out, one by one, and it growls–a rough, scraping sound like metal on metal, a sound never heard in the garden before. The creature slinks off into Skemantis’s black night, its mission accomplished.

Karen Hesse’s Letters from Rivka. Good imagery keeps firmly in the voice of the 1st person character, in this case, a young Russian refugee fleeing to America in 1919 and seeing Poland for the first time:

The same crooked cottages, the same patchy roads, the same bony fences leaning in to the dust. Looking out from the train, we see people dressed like us, in browns and blacks; people wrapped in layers of clothes.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share thoughts you have on imagery in MG writing, or name some writers you enjoy who do a great job at sparking readers’ imaginations.

STEM Tuesday Science in Fiction Books– In the Classroom

We’ve taken a few of the titles from last week’s book list – Science in Fiction Books – and found some fantastic ways to use them in the classroom. There are lots of links and places for teachers, students, and parents to go from here!  Have fun!

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas   by Jacqueline Houtman

Science comes easily to Eddy (Edison) Thomas. Social relationships? Not so much. On her website, Houtman shares a number of classroom activities which will prod middle-grade readers toward deeper discovery and understanding. Here are a couple.  See more cross-curricular classroom activities here. 

Design an experiment to test Fact Number 28 (p. 73): Listening to slow music can lower your heart rate, while music with a faster tempo can increase your heart rate. Who would be your subjects? How would you measure heart rate? What other factors might affect your experiment? How would you make sure that you are only measuring the effect of the music?

Find out how the special effects in your favorite science fiction or fantasy movie were done. (Many DVDs come with special feature discs that explain how the effects were achieved, or you can use the Internet.) How have special effects in movies changed in the last 10 years? 30 years? 50 years? How did they do special effects before there were computers and computer animation?

Eye of the Storm  by Kate Messner

A summer at science camp turns into a life-or-death situation for Jaden and her new friends Risha and Alex in this thrilling science-packed middle-grade novel.  Teachers can find a thorough Eye of the Storm Discussion Guide on author Kate Messner’s website as well as a link to a gallery of Eye of the Storm Resources on Pinterest. 

Is there a Placid Meadows in your state?  Use data from the national weather service to look at where tornados or super storms have occurred in your state in the past year. Map locations and decide if there is a spot that, like the fictional Placid Meadows, seems immune from such disasters. Or, is there a “tornado alley” or path that seems to attract severe weather time and time again?

Using gripping fiction like  Eye of the Storm in conjunction with nonfiction books about climate change and super storms can add a personal element to research and discussion of these topics.

The Same Stuff as Stars by Katherine Paterson

Truly a story of discovery, this novel takes readers along with Angel, the 11-year-old main character, on a journey in which she’ll find out things about herself and about the universe that she never believed possible.

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA) has created a wonderful teacher’s resource for The Same Stuff as Stars here.  (Scroll past the resources for one of Paterson’s other books, but tuck those away for another day!)

As Angel learns more about the constellations, teachers and parents can help young readers do the same with websites such as KidsAstronomy.com and NASA Kids Club.

The Great Hibernation by Tara Dairman

Every great story and every great scientific discovery have started with the same question:  “What if?” So, what if every adult in the whole town of St. Polonius fell asleep and the children were left to run the town?

There’s so much fun to be had with a story that mixes science and problem-solving with  politics and mystery.

The Investigative Process and Premise –  Scientists begin their investigative process by asking questions.  Authors create a premise before drafting a novel. They are both asking and answering the “What if” question. Take a look at the books your class had read this year. What is the “what if” question posed by the author. Now, take a look the science topics you’ve discussed this year. What questions did the scientists ask for their investigations?  Now ask your students the following questions:   Can your science topics lead to new fictional story ideas?  Can fiction stories lead you to further investigate a science topic?

What is hibernation? Using the unexpected hibernation of the adults in St. Polonius to launch a study of real hibernation. Which animals hibernate and why? Where and when do animals hibernate?  Use facts found at How Stuff Works  to chart your findings on graphs or maps.

Add to the list!  If you have a classroom activity to accompany a sciencey-fiction book you’ve read, post it in the comments below. We love sharing your ideas!

Michelle Houts is the author of ten books for young readers. Her Lucy’s Lab series is another example of science-filled fiction. Find Lucy’s Pinterest page with classroom activities and experiments here.