Tag Archives: How to Survive Middle School

Avid Writing Kids

Although I’m relatively new to being a published author, I’ve done dozens of school visits already. They are often long days, but I find them energizing and they really motivate me to finish the next book. Often a teacher catches my eye during a visit and wants to have a word with me about a student. Almost every time it’s an avid writer who produces volumes of stories or poems—finished, unfinished, skillfully written or simple, wildly creative or somewhat familiar. And what they want to know is what to do with all that writing.  Because teachers are great at teaching children who can’t write or won’t write or need lots of support to write; I am routinely impressed by the dedication of teachers I meet. They can see that the avid writer needs guidance, too, but they are often at a loss about where to begin. Parents of these kids are often equally in the dark—proud, but unsure of how to best support a budding author. I have four school-aged children myself, some of whom are avid writers so it’s a topic I’ve given a lot of thought. Here are three things you can do to nurture the young writer in your life.

avid writer

1. Help them save and safely store their work.

I’m bad at this myself. I love my stories but I don’t take very good care of them.  One of the most helpful things a teacher or parent can do is set up a file to keep stories both those finished and those abandoned. Most working writers begin as many as a dozen stories for every story they finish. So it isn’t important for your avid writer to finish every project they begin. Learning when to set aside a story that isn’t working is an important skill, too. But many times a writer will return to an old idea with a fresh insight and make a new story from one that wasn’t working before. Sometimes a character that didn’t work on a first try is exactly what you need in a different story. So having those files accessible is a gold mine. If your students write on a computer, getting them in the habit of a daily back up to a disc or thumb drive helps. Because thumb drives are easily lost, it’s also good to email a file and store it at the email account.

2. Help them find with a time and place for writing.

When writers get together, one of the most common topics of conversation is the struggle of finding a time and place to write. Some young writers are great at tuning out their surroundings and writing wherever they are—school bus, dinner table, math class. This of course has problems of it’s own.  But students who need a little privacy to write may need help finding a quiet corner of the classroom or an undisturbed nook in the house, and a few free afternoons a week.

I know a 4th grader who came to school one day on fire with a great idea for a screenplay. She begged her teacher for time to write it and he agreed, letting her use the class computer through all the lessons, recess and even lunch that day. In five hours this girl wrote the first three and a half acts of a screenplay. In the last half an hour of the day the teacher asked her if she could show at least a part of her work to the class so they could see what a screenplay looks like. She chose a scene she wanted feedback on and got the class to read the roles out loud. As a result a half dozen other kids got the screenwriting bug for a few weeks. A gift of time like that is a rare and precious gift for a young writer and went a long way to helping this child believe she could be a professional writer some day.

Instructional time is precious and extra curricular activities are valuable, too, but for the avid writing child nothing is so enriching as simply the time and place to create something new.

writing space

3. Help them find a writing community.

I don’t know a single author who works alone. Most of us have critique groups or at least a writing partner. They are people who help us work out all the many details of writing well. It means the world to me that if I’m stuck I can call on my neighbors Heather Vogel-Frederick, author of the Mother Daughter Book Club series, or Susan Blackaby, author of Nest, Nook and Cranny, and go out for coffee and just talk through a writing problem.

For young people community can be hard to find. A teacher who is aware of two or more avid writers might encourage them to join the newspaper staff or school literary magazine. Younger students might find kindred spirits in a Newbery Club or on a Battle of the Books team.

The connection need not be formal and organized. I met two eighth grade cousins on a school visit who have an ice cream date every Sunday after church to work on the YA novel they are writing together. Some kids enjoy fan fiction websites because they create a sense of community and offer a place to share work.

Some communities are wonderful about offering writing opportunities for children and teens. I’m going to list three of the best children’s writing communities here in Portland, Oregon and I hope you will add your local resources in the comments.

Young Writers Workshop at Powells.

Every Second Friday from 4:30 to 5:30 at the Powells Bookstore on Cedar Hills Blvd. in Beaverton.

Come meet your fellow writers, learn the craft of writing from amazingly talented and friendly authors, bring your own work to share and get feedback. Anyone ages 10-18 is welcome.

Young Willamette Writers

First Tuesdays of the month from 6:30 to 7:30, the young Willamette Writers meet in their own space during the meeting of the adult Willamette Writers. They practice the craft of writing in the company of great writers from all over the region. The meeting is held in the Old Church on SW 11th and Clay in Portland.

Oregon Writers Festival

For more than 20 years the Oregon Council of Teachers of English have sponsored a day-long writing festival in the spring for students from all over the state. The festival is held at Portland State University. The next one is Saturday, May 7, 2011.

How about you? What are your favorite events for young writers? Put them in the comments and I will compile a state-by-state resource page and keep it in our own Mixed Up Files

Rosanne Parry is the author of the up-coming Second Fiddle, a story about an avid violin player who finds friendship and adventure in some unexpected places as she travels with her friends from Berlin to Paris.

Interview and Book Giveaway with Donna Gephart, Award Winning Author

You couldn’t have picked a better day to visit From the Mixed-Up Files! Donna Gephart’s debut middle-grade novel, As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President! won numerous awards, including the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Her sophomore novel, How to Survive Middle School, which came out early this May, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. I ask you, does it get any better?

Why,YES—yes, it does!

Donna is here today to answer questions for the inquiring middle-grade minds. And if that isn’t good enough, Donna’s going to give a brand new hardcover of How to Survive Middle School to one lucky commenter.

But first, a little more about Donna! I explored her website, and I found a question in her Q & A section that was oh, so appropriate to introduce Donna with and to explain what middle-grade means to her. The question posed was, “Why did you decide to write How to Survive Middle School?”

Here’s Donna’s answer:  Middle school (also called Junior High in some places) was very hard for me . . . and for our sons . . . and for most people. When I was about thirteen and fourteen, I went from feeling deliriously happy to miserably depressed often in the same day . . . even in the same hour!  I wish someone had explained that it was just my hormones going a little crazy and they would calm down again.  I wish someone told me that I didn’t really “hate” my mother, but it was a normal part of adolescence to push away from her.  I wish someone had told me I’d survive the acne, the braces and the crush on a cute guy who didn’t like me.   I want young people to know they are not the only ones having a hard time.  I also want young people to know that they can get through middle school.  So hang in there.  It gets better.  Much better.

Thanks for the good words, Donna. Middle-graders, take heart!

And now for THE INTERVIEW!

Your first book won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Has winning for humor affected your writing and confidence?

It was a thrill to hear Lin Oliver’s and Steve Mooser’s voice on my answering machine, telling me I’d won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award.  The award allowed me to give a workshop about writing humor at the national SCBWI conference in L.A., which led to other speaking engagements, like The Erma Bombeck Humor Writer’s Workshop in Dayton, OH .  After writing humor for over twenty years, it was an honor to win an award named after such a kind, generous and hard-working man.

You’ve woven sad and scary threads into your books, yet your stories are funny. How do humor and grief fit into the same book?

I strive to create books that combine humor and heartbreak, which mirror life.  Funny without substance gets boring quickly, so I try to create characters with whom young readers can relate and connect.  Of course, there will be problems—big problems—or else why write the book, right?  It’s just that the heartbreak is handled with humor to cushion the blows.

When I picked up my copy of How to Survive Middle School (available everywhere!), I spotted the toilet on the back jacket flap! My first thought: What on earth? But I thought this with a smile on my face, and it set my expectations for the book—I knew it would be funny. What was your reaction when you saw the jacket design?

My first thought was:  There can’t be another book with a singing hamster on the front and a toilet on the inside flap!  The jacket design captures what the book is about in a fun, funny way.

Readers, it’s true—the toilet picture is not random. In fact, the combination of the cool singing hamster on the cover  and the toilet photo on the jacket flap mirrors the dissimilar parallel lives of David Greenberg, the main character in How to Survive Middle School.

David is a celebrity in the cyberworld but a regular kid—sometimes overlooked—in the real world. I felt this was a good commentary on the social world in which today’s children are involved. What do you think of our lives online—are they real? Are cyber-friends true friends? Are children losing anything with or do they benefit by interacting online?

What a great question.  The answer to this could fill a book.  With two teenage sons, I’ve watched our kids sit next to a friend, each with an electronic device in hand.  “Hello,” I want to say.  “You are sitting next to an actual friend; you don’t need to text/IM/chat with your virtual friend right now.”  The Internet is a great means of connecting to the wider world. It’s a wonderful way to share information and ideas and create communities.  But it must not replace actual interaction with human beings, connecting with communities in the real world and being part of nature.  As with all things, there must be a healthy balance.

I reread As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! in preparation for this interview, and I enjoyed it even more upon this reading. The voice rang true. It had a loneliness to it, a slight melancholy that I liked. And in both books, the MCs feel like losers even after hurdling major accomplishments. What’s your take on this aspect of your books?

My parents divorced when I was young, and I lived with my mom.  She worked full-time and I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I spent a lot of time alone.  Sometimes, I was quite lonely.  Other times, I found companionship in the pages of a book, borrowed from our local library.  Oh, I loved that library!  As an author, I want to provide those books that provide companionship, that may keep a lonely child company.

Good books do become good friends! When children read your books, they’re left unattended in the playground of imagination–their parents are trusting you, Donna Gephart, alone with their kids. With that in mind, what responsibility do you feel you have to parents and your readers?

I love your phrase:  “In the playground of imagination.”  Of course, there is a big responsibility in creating books for young people.  And my responsibility, I feel, is to be honest and true in my writing.  I just got an e-mail from a young reader, thanking me for being real in my books and including things that might not make people happy, but are the way it really happens.  I loved that e-mail.  I try to be true to my characters and therefore, true to my young readers.  It’s a wonderful thing that young people can explore some of life’s challenges through the safety of books.  They can experience things on the page instead of in real life.  Parents who try to “protect” their children by limiting their reading choices are often simply not allowing them to “prepare” for challenges they might face in the real world.

That’s a perfect lead to my next question: When you write for middle-grade audiences, what experience do you hope to deliver? By this, I mean aside of the plot, what do you want your readers to take from your books?

It’s my hope that young readers of my books will feel like they’ve made a new friend.  It’s my hope they will understand that all people have flaws and faults and it’s okay that they do, too.  It’s my hope that they will realize they have power to affect changes in their lives and in the lives of others.  And it’s my hope they will learn a bit of compassion and empathy for themselves and for others.

Nice goals, Donna! I think you deliver that sense of flaws and self-acceptance because, as I mentioned before, your main characters, especially Vanessa, engage in the kind of critical internal dialog common to that age. Middle-graders don’t always realize how much they have to offer or how wonderful they really are (and that not just their mothers think that!).

If you could choose one book to be made into a movie, which novel would it be and whom would you cast for the main roles?

AS IF BEING 12 ¾ ISN’T BAD ENOUGH, MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT . . . would be a fun movie because of the spelling bees, the political process, life in the governor’s mansion and the mystery element of the threatening notes and the assassination attempt.  Meryl Streep would make a great potential president, don’t you think?

Oh, my gosh, Meryl Streep would be perfect for that role!

HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL might make a fun TV series because of its connection to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and the main character, David Greenberg’s love of creating funny videos.  I hope the book inspires young readers to create their own shows/videos.  I’d love Jon Stewart to have a guest appearance, if this ever were made into a TV show or movie.  Wouldn’t that be fun?

Okay, Hollywood, are you listening? You never know! But one thing I do know is you’re not sitting around with your feet up–what’s next for you, Donna Gephart?

The next book down the lane is OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, about a twelve-year-old trivia geek, who will do anything to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy!

That sounds like a winner! (Haha! Okay, that was lame.) Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful answers, Donna.  It was fun!

Folks, if you have questions for Donna or would like to jump into the conversation, post a few words in the comment box. Remember, one lucky poster will be selected by a random number generator to win a hardcover of Donna’s new book, How To Survive Middle School.

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Danette Haworth is the author of The Summer of Moonlight Secrets and Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning. Danette stays up past her bedtime to read and write into the wee hours; she swears the next morning that she will go to bed on time the next night. It never happens.

Visit Danette at www.danettehaworth.com