Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Vanishing Point

I read Louise Hawes' account of the 16th century Renaissance painter, Lavinia ("Vini") Fontana, and my mind was full of adjectives: colorful, rich, luscious, dramatic, hungry, passionate, and romantic--in every sense of the word. Hawes uses historical facts-- Vini's father (Prospero) being a prestigious portrait artist and her marriage to one of his students--to name two, as the scaffolds upon which she constructs this novel. With imagination, Hawes shows Fontana overcoming emotional, societal, and familial obstacles in order to realize her passion: to study and practice art.

This is not only a story of how a young girl finds her place in the male-dominated art world, but Hawes' attention to historical detail makes this a great book for classroom study of the Renaissance period. The relationship between her parents which shows her father's despair over not having produced a male heir, tarrot cards and superstitious beliefs, the role of the church--each one of these are seamlessly woven into this rich tapestry. And through it all, there are wonderful threads of images about art, music, puppets, appetite, approval, love, secrets, dreams, and the vanishing point itself.

In this section, Vini analyzes her first drawing and thinks,
"Father would have hated the lack of perspective. 'Remember the vanishing point,' he is always telling his students. 'Objects become smaller as they move toward the horizon.'....

"The vanishing point, Vini thinks as her father drones on. The place where things get so small they disappear. Perhaps she and Mama seem that small to Prospero....” (p. 21)

Hawes' expertise in art history and as a young adult author shines in this book that female readers of all ages will enjoy. Notice how she draws from both skills in these descriptions of Vini painting her father and his apprentice, Paolo:

"She has transferred her drawing to one of the canvases Paolo has brought. She needs only to lay in the colors in a few more places. It is almost alive.

She likes the shadow, the tongue of purple she has added behind the pair of walking men, and the mist from the fountain in the foreground, each drop of water like a pearl....

"But something is wrong with the way she has shown Paolo ...
...

"She tries a layer of chalk under Paolo's face and hands, hoping to nurse him to life, to find the gift he can bring to the painting. She adds more linseed oil, as Paolo has taught her to, managing to keep the paint moist, moving. It is like a language she has always known, the play of light and dark." (p.51-52)

I closed the book with chills and tears in my eyes. I felt not unlike Vini when she left her beloved puppet shows, "She turns from the stage, brimming with a sweet, not unpleasant sadness, which she nurses all the way home." (p. 7)

Read this book and savor the words, the textures, and the symbolism. For further information, read an interview with Hawes, or download a study guide, or see some of Fontana's paintings. (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Self-Portrait at the Spinet

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Upcoming Writing Workshops

Writing workshop in San Antonio, Tx

In case you or your children are interested in further developing your writing skills, my schedule this fall includes the following workshops:

Teen Writer's Workshop

Who? 6-10th graders

What? This workshop is for students who have imaginary characters and plots swimming inside their heads just waiting to come out. Students will discover how to bring their stories to life by brainstorming an original character, setting, and plot. They will begin the process of weaving them together into a short story.

 Where? AnAuthor World, Greenville, SC.



When? Oct 2 & 9    9AM-12PM

***********************************************
Stories That Are Out of This World

Who? Tweens and teens - from 11-16 years old

What? Find out how to create a story with an imaginary science fiction or fantasy character and put him/her/it into an extraordinary-yet-believable-setting.

Where? Cornelius Arts Center, Cornelius, NC

When? October 23  9 AM-12 PM


***********************************************

Everyone Has a Story

Who?  Ages 16 and up

What? Discover how to create and weave together the three elements of a story: character, setting and plot. This introductory workshop will get your creative juices going and you will go home itching to write the story that is inside you!

Where? Cornelius Arts Center, Cornelius, NC

When? November 13  9 AM- 12 PM

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Love to Learn

The title of this homeschool conference says it all. Don't all educators-- both home and public-- wish that their students would "love to learn?"

The student and adult participants who came to my two workshops last Saturday demonstrated this desire. I was pleased that several attendees learned how to use muscle words (click on this link and select "download now" for the handout) at my first session, "Jazz Up Your Writing," and then applied these skills when they wrote descriptive paragraphs in the second session, "Learn from the Masters." Time was short but participants wrote FAST and imaginative characters and sensory settings bloomed as a result of quick collaboration.

When I wasn't teaching, I spoke with parents about Maupin House books,
and shared table space with Triangle Education Assessments.
Debbie Thompson, founder


If you are a home educator in need of testing materials, I would encourage you to check out their resources.

Carolyn Justice, tester

One of their books is A Concise Guide for Homeschool Families Planning For High School, which Carolyn wrote.

By the end of the day young entrepreneurs had set up space next to us and demonstrated innovative uses of duct tape. With colorful and designed tape they made and sold wallets purses, tiaras, and flip-flops. Now, here are two creative kids showing their love for learning--on the spot!

 


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Island Sting

What better way to hook your readers than have your main character almost drown as she rescues an endangered Key deer and is fished out by a cute guy--all in the first 10 pages of your book? Those are the ingredients that author Bonnie Doerr uses to keep 5th-8th grade readers from putting down this illustrated eco-mystery.


Kenzie Ryan and her newly-divorced mother (Maggie) have just arrived in the Florida Keys. While Maggie is starting her job as a nurse, Kenzie is supposed to be unpacking boxes and setting up housekeeping in their grandmother’s cottage. Instead, she is quickly consumed by an obsession to discover the poacher who is killing the miniature Key deer who make the Big Pine Key their home. Kenzie’s anger towards the unknown poacher is joined with a desire to clean up the litter-strewn island. These two themes intertwine and constitute the backbone of this entertaining and informative book—and become the focal point for the Keys Teens Care group which Kenzie helps form.

Science and language arts teachers will be excited to find a contemporary mystery that can be used across the curriculum. Teachers and students will both be happy with the end notes which provide more history and information about the Key deer and their fragile island environment.

Bonnie Doerr lives in North Carolina but her intimate knowledge of the picturesque Florida Keys comes through on every page. When I wrote to her and complimented her on how well she described this extraordinarily unique setting she said: “I actually consider the setting to be a character in my work. Since I have an environmental theme, I need readers to care about the environment before they will care about any wrong or crime associated with it. I often say I hope readers feel like they're on vacation in the Florida Keys when they read my work. A free vacation with no bugs, no sun burn, and no crowds!”

In my book, Teaching the Story, I discuss how setting should answer the question, "What can happen here?" This example of a well-honed description, prompts the reader to ask that question:

 “Cars poured out of the shopping center under an ever-threatening sky. Clouds darkened and billowed
 upward. Armies of great mushrooms, brewing thunderous time bombs.” (p. 192.)

Whether you read this as an adult or recommend it to your students, I have a challenge for you. How many ways can you find that Ms. Doerr uses the word “sting?” I found two. She told me of a third. Is there a fourth hidden in these pages? Read the book to find out! (Leap Books, 2010)

Island Sting

What better way to hook your readers than have your main character almost drown as she rescues an endangered Key deer and is fished out by a cute guy--all in the first 10 pages of your book? Those are the ingredients that author Bonnie Doerr uses to keep 5th-8th grade girl readers from putting down this illustrated eco-mystery.


Kenzie Ryan and her newly-divorced mother (Maggie) have just arrived in the Florida Keys. While Maggie is starting her job as a nurse, Kenzie is supposed to be unpacking boxes and setting up housekeeping in their grandmother’s cottage. Instead, she is quickly consumed by an obsession to discover the poacher who is killing the miniature Key deer who make the Big Pine Key their home. Kenzie’s anger towards the unknown poacher is joined with a desire to clean up the litter-strewn island. These two themes intertwine and constitute the backbone of this entertaining and informative book—and become the focal point for the Keys Teens Care group which Kenzie helps form.

Science and language arts teachers will be excited to find a contemporary mystery that can be used across the curriculum. Teachers and students will both be happy with the end notes which provide more history and information about the Key deer and their fragile island environment.

Bonnie Doerr lives in North Carolina but her intimate knowledge of the picturesque Florida Keys comes through on every page. When I wrote to her and complimented her on how well she described this extraordinarily unique setting she said: “I actually consider the setting to be a character in my work. Since I have an environmental theme, I need readers to care about the environment before they will care about any wrong or crime associated with it. I often say I hope readers feel like they're on vacation in the Florida Keys when they read my work. A free vacation with no bugs, no sun burn, and no crowds!” Here is one example of that well-honed description: “Cars poured out of the shopping center under an ever-threatening sky. Clouds darkened and billowed upward. Armies of great mushrooms, brewing thunderous time bombs.” (p. 192.)

Whether you read this as an adult or recommend it to your students, I have a challenge for you. How many ways can you find that Ms. Doerr uses the word “sting?” I found two. She told me of a third. Is there a fourth hidden in these pages? Read the book to find out! (Leap Books, 2009)








Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Kindred Spirits

L.M. Montgomery inscribed those two words in the minds of every reader who devoured the Anne of Green Gables books. I am fortunate to have several friends who fit into that category (you know who you are!) and today I connected with two organizations that also fit that description.

The first group is Literacyhead, an online magazine that is committed to encouraging creativity in the classroom by joining together writing, reading, and art. The team who publishes the magazine define a Literacyhead as "someone who is intensely serious about exercising creative literacy, making connections across multiple literacies, pursuing thoughtful literacy as an individual and as a teacher, and constantly searching for ideas. Literacyheads may have expertise in different areas of literacy, but all are committed to children's literacy, passionate about the arts, incessant thinkers, and display a propensity for having fun." (http://www.literacyhead.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=162&Itemid=55)

Page through their website and you'll find writing, reading, art prompts, essays, comics, coaching ideas, tools for your classroom, and titles of books related to the issue's theme. Look at this (partial) list of why this team created this magazine, and you will see why I am thrilled to find this resource:

  • Because we wanted to help teachers nurture their creative lives while they meet the demands of high accountability to which they are subject.
  • Because we love children's books and art, and the connections between the two make us positively giddy.
  • Because we believe that the arts are a basic component of a healthy life, not an afterthought or a bonus if there is time or funding.
  • Because we wanted to help teachers take care of themselves by lightening their lesson planning load a bit.
  • Because we enjoy the challenge of camouflaging solid literacy research in lessons that appear to be just looking at and talking about art and literature.
  • Because we want children to begin to think that they need and deserve beauty in their lives.
  • Because we want to give teachers a springboard for extending their own creativity.
The second organization I connected to today was one I've blogged about before, National Novel Writing Month (or as participants fondly call it: NaNoWriMo). Today, the Young Writer's Program's new director, Chris Angotti, asked me if I would write a short advice article for the "Writer's Block" column.

Chris, a former middle school and high school English teacher, understands my concern that the testing environment which permeates schools squeezes out creativity. He believes that NaNoWriMo can help teachers who want to teach their students more than just how to be good test takers.  "I definitely believe in the NaNoWriMo program for young writers. Our surveys and anecdotes indicate, almost without deviation, that it has positive effects in writing fluency, time management, risk taking, and self-esteem. But these things aren't as easily measured on a standardized test. My goal is to think about how objective results CAN be seen, so creative writing programs like ours (and books like yours) aren't lost in the bureaucratic shuffle."

                         Kindred Spirits--Unite!



Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Entertainer and the Dybbuk

Full Cast Audio does a nice job of providing voices for this humorous yet serious story of a post WWII ex-GI turned ventriloquist. Freddie T. Birch is a ventriloquist without an act-- until he is possessed by a dybbuk, a Jewish ghost, with an agenda of his own. Even if you don’t listen to this as an audio book, the clever story will entertain and inform readers from ages 10 and up.

The author, Sid Fleischman, uses humor to tell the painful story of a 12-year-old Jewish boy, Avrom Amos, who was shot six times by a German SS officer. Avrom has returned to earth to seek revenge for his and his sister’s cold-blooded murders. He inhabits the body of the mediocre ventriloquist in order to find his antagonist and in the process, saves Freddie from showbiz failure. Despite Freddie’s initial hostility and disdain towards his new Jewish “friend," the ventriloquist grows in empathy for the orphaned boy and comes to love and depend upon him.

Clearly fantasy, home school families will have a lot of historical and religious material to chew on in this short, yet memorable, novel. (Harper Collins, 2007)