Tag Archives: writing

Feeding the (Young) Artist Within: Books to Help Us Free Ourselves for the Journey

I’m very excited to teach another summer camp this year at the school where I retired two years ago. Last year, we took the students on a science and poetry journey, using the observational tools we honed in the school’s forest to inspire a variety of poems. That was a blast!

This year, I wanted to tailor campers’ experiences to the wider age range – because to be honest, though we had a great time, poetry was a tough thing to focus on for 5 days straight for the youngest kiddos, who really wanted to play all day in the gorgeous weather.

It’s nature art camp this year, and I’m pumped. My campers range from 1st to 5th grade, so I want to challenge those kids the best way possible, and there’s lots of opportunity for fun, sharing and exploration.

But here’s what I’ve learned about art and personal expression. What I’m about to share is true for writing, too, but there is an in-your-face thing that happens with visual arts in particular, and it’s called being afraid to fail. With writing, I can produce a cruddy draft and craft the heck out of it before I show it to anyone.

Visual art is really fun, and it’s messy, and sometimes, we really do have to accept that it’s more about the process than the product. That’s fine when you’re in your own studio, but in a group setting, a visual product is out there for everyone to see from the moment creation begins, and sometimes it’s hard to own the uncertainty of the process.

This means I have to be prepared for disappointment, and I have to help kids of all levels be prepared for mistakes and to help them figure out how to be okay with that.

My goal in our five days together is to expose the campers to several art experiences, and to give them a safe space to explore personal expression. We’ll play with watercolors and go to the splash park. We’ll do some rubbings and sun prints from pieces of nature we find in the woods. We’ll read  SWATCH: The Girl Who Loved Color (Julia Denos), about a girl who loves all the colors and wants to collect them, then play with colors and maybe adopt some for ourselves. We’ll make hand-felted flowers inspired by the school gardens, while we explore textures of natural fibers in the natural world with our eyes and hands.

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On the last day, we’ll work together to create a piece of Andy Goldsworthy -inspired art as a gift to those who come to the next week’s camp. Here is a link to a kid-friendly Andy Goldsworthy-type project, and here is one from the Eric Carle Musem, with a great lesson plan and information about the artist.

Every day of camp we’ll start with a read aloud – because where else can we spark imagination better than between the pages of a book? Here are some titles I’ve found that seem to launch a feeling of safety and support in personal exploration for kids (or adults!) of any age. I enjoy re-visiting these myself when I begin to worry too much about the product and forget about the process.

Beautiful Oops!, by Barney Saltzberg

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This is a board book even the grownups want to play with: torn pages, folded corners, crumpled bits of paper – what if we made even more art from our mistakes?

The Dot and Ish, both by Peter H. Reynolds

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I once read The Dot to my art and design classmates when we were deep in the very stressful process of preparing for an important exhibition – there was a ton of self-doubt making its way around the room, and we were all exhausted. Then we were all freed by my reading of this book, with its advice to “make a mark.”. Ish is another simple picture book created by Peter H. Reynolds, and I have helped students work through difficult feelings of perfectionism by sharing this one as well.

The Most Magnificent Thing, by Ashley Spires

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This book is all about trying, and failing, to make the thing that is in your mind, but embracing the importance of walking away so that you can return to try again with a new perspective.

For all my campers, a feeling of purpose can spark inspiration, as well. I’ll also be sharing Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood, by F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell, and Rafael Lopez as we begin creating our community piece at the end of our week together.

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Have you ever thought of reading picture books to give your imagination some spark, or some creative support? I highly recommend it for any age!

 

 

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.  Both her current work and an upcoming middle grade series are historical fiction set in Washington State. Valerie is Publisher at Homeostasis Press  http://www.homeostasispress.com/index.php, and blogs at Gatherings, the blog of Gather Here: History for Young People https://gather-here-history.squarespace.com/

Finding Writing Inspiration through the Five Senses

I’m starting to think about a new book. It’s hazy now, like shapes in the fog, but it’s getting closer. I am not an outliner, so I have to feel my way through that fog, stumbling in a direction that I hope is right. I find that the more I can immerse myself in the world of the story, the quicker it comes. Here are some of the tricks I’ve used; I would love to hear yours.

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  1. Sight

Like many writers, I gather images to inspire me. I’ve got a framed photo of a giant tree on my writing desk, a remnant of my first book. I have pictures of people who look like the people in my books saved in my Scrivener files, as well as pictures of the settings, animals, even particular pieces of furniture. Pinterest is great for this. For those on Twitter, the hashtag #novelaesthetics is really fun.

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  1. Sound

I know that a book is coming closer when I start gathering songs for a new playlist. Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah instantly transports me to the world of my first book. I don’t listen to the playlist when I’m actually writing (too distracting), but when I’m thinking about the book, on a run or on a drive, it helps me get in the zone.

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  1. Smell

Much of my first book takes place in the woods, so when I was hiking, I would try to note and hold onto the smells—the pine, the earth, the dew. I also, though, am an inveterate gum chewer, and I have assigned a different type of gum to my different works in progress. I’m chewing a lot of Big Red these days. If I open a pack anywhere in the world, I immediately think about my work in progress.

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  1. Taste

The taste of the gum also helps me. The fiery, cinnamon taste of Big Red puts me in the right frame of mind for the quick and snappy soccer players I’m writing. The inspiration goes the other way, too. I remember writing one biscuit-baking scene and getting so hungry that I had to go bake some myself. The kids were thrilled to wake up to fresh biscuits on a school day.

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  1. Touch

Going to the woods also helped me get into the tactile nature of the woods. I would feel the bumpy bark, shuffle through the pine needles, note the hot sun on the back of my neck. For the book that is coming, I recently brought an oyster shell home from a canoeing trip. Something about the sleek, iridescent ridges spoke to me. It feels right in my hands, though I don’t know yet how it fits in with my forming story. I can’t wait to find out.

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer. Her books are fueled by cherry blow pops, as well as Big Red. She had six cavities the first time she went to the dentist, but has since learned much better dental hygiene. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com or through her book blog, www.kidbooklist.com. On Twitter, she’s @SuperKate.

 

 

Face to Face with an Author or Illustrator: Why School Visits are So Important

Not too long ago, I was speaking to a diverse group of 7th graders.  They were diverse in every way – ethnicity, size, and even their desire to be in the room. Some entered smiling at me, obviously anticipating this day, the day when the author of the book they’d all read together would visit their  school.  Other shuffled in silently, eyes down, way too cool to care.

The body language of one girl caught my attention. She entered laughing and swinging her long hair. She had the attention of those around her. She was pretty, wearing more makeup than most of the other girls, and she looked more like a high school freshman than a 7th grader. She seemed more interested in laughing with the boys at her table than listening to a visiting author.

I’ve done enough author visits in the last seven years to know that middle schoolers can be a tough crowd. I knew I could engage the ones who were excited about my visit and, hopefully, win over those who were indifferent.

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About half way through my presentation, the girl pulled out a blank piece of white notebook paper. I hoped she was so inspired by my talk of writing that she was moved to compose a poem or short story right there on the spot. But as moved around the room, I could see she was writing a note to someone. Probably to one of the boys. I sighed and  thought, “I can’t reach them all, I guess.”

When the presentation was over, she came right up to me and, to my surprise, handed me the note. She smiled, and then hurried to catch up with the boys.

Here’s what it said, in part:

Dear Mrs.House, (close enough for me!)

Thank you making me feel confident about my writing. Hopefully you know how much this writer’s workshop meant to me. When I came to the writer’s workshop I thought it was going to be just like the other workshops I went to. I had so many questions that had no answers. I cherished all your words. I really appreciate you coming to our school. You answered my questions.

I bet you get a lot of letters but I want to tell you that you make me want to be a writer or at least get started. You probably won’t remember this letter in 2 days but you showed me skills that I will continue to use.

We’ve all heard the many reasons author visits are important:  They promote interest in reading, they inspire young writers, they provide firsthand explanation of how publishing works, they encourage students to become better editors of their own work, they’re just plain FUN!

These are all great reasons for authors and schools to connect. But, I can tell you that at every school I’ve visited, at least one student has expressed in some way a profound connection with either me or my work.  It’s often a student who stands out socially, is awkward, or very quiet.  Sometimes, it’s the one I least expect.  Those connections makes every hurdle schools must leap to get that author standing before that student in that particular moment worthwhile. Those face to face connections cannot happen anywhere else.

Earlier this week, author Matt de la Peña won the Newbery Medal for Last Stop on Market Street.  A couple of years ago, he spoke to NPR about connecting with a particular student a school visit and about how reading changes young (and old) lives. It’s a piece worth reading. Click here.

Many authors’ websites and blogs tout the benefits of school visits. But, I thought perhaps I’d leave you with some links from others who have seen the magic happen when a student and author connect face to face.

From a librarian: https://youthserviceslibrarianship.wikispaces.com/Author+Visits

From a teacher:   http://wonderteacher.com/authorvisitsinspireyoungwriters/

And, perhaps best of all, from the students: http://reederama.blogspot.com/2014/10/author-visits-are-important-because-you.html

And, to my friend at the school I visited not too long ago, I sent a personal reply via her librarian. I had to tell her she was wrong. I do remember her letter. More than two days, more than two months after my visit. I will always remember her. And, I hope she does become a writer. At least, anyway, she got started.

Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She has just completed renovations on a one-room schoolhouse which she’ll soon use as her writing studio. She loves to visit bigger schools, too. She’s happy because she’s just booked her first school visit in sunny Florida, and this is the view from her window today:

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