Saturday, December 29, 2007

A blog about blogging

Looking for more information about teaching, blogging, & technology? Check out,
Cool Cat Teacher Blog. I stumbled upon Vicki Davis' blog; she has lots to offer and her site is well organized and easy to navigate. Technorati Tags:

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Up the Down Staircase

Why don't you use one of those Barnes & Noble or Borders' gift certificates you just received and treat yourself to a picture of a NY public school circa 1960. I first read Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman (Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1964) as a teenager. Recently, my teenage daughter Lydia, brought the familiar pink and orange book home from the library after reading about it in Now, all we need is a Title. Kaufman's insights into the labyrinth of rules which teachers daily negotiate as well as the voices of the adolescents (who are the reason that teachers keep teaching) are timeless.

Written as an epistolary novel, the office memos, intraschool communications, and students' comments from the class "Suggestion Box," etc., show a novice English teacher's struggles between her desire to reach her students or the pull to accept a more comfortable university position. Here are some snippets to entice you into reading the entire book:

From the Suggestion Box (spelling & grammar are as they appear in the book). These are in answer to the question, "What did you get out of English so far?"

"What I got out of it is Litterature and Books. Also some Potery. And just before a test—a doze of English. Having Boys in class dis-tracks me from my English. Better luck next time." (p.74)

"I hate to think back on all my English years except one teacher I will never forget because when my note book wasn't so good (it was mostly in pencil) instead of telling me to do it over in ink she just told me to put renforcements on the holes and that will be enough. The next day she asked me did I put renforcements in. When I said I did she didn't even look she just said she'd take my word for it. That gave me a warm feeling inside because it was the first time a teacher took a pupil's word without asking to see if it was true. Most the of the time they don't even know your name." (pp 74-75)

"Dribs and Drabs. McBeth one week Moby Dick next, a quotation mark, oral debates on Should Parents be Strict? Should Girls Wear Jeans? The mistakes I made in elementery school I still make. I hope to achieve correction." (p. 80)

"I want to thank you for giving me your time after school, for encouraging me to write, for trying. But with 40 others in the class, whose problems are so different, I realize how little you can do, and I feel we are both wasted."(p. 114)

And on integration (p.212):

1. How stupid can you get?

  1. Bussing kids to school miles away.
    1. Just to juggle it around.
    2. Then got back to the filthy slums.

      (After school)

    3. Can't be juggle like different color marbles.
    4. It takes time.
      1. Lincoln (Slaves)
      2. Rome (Wasn't build in a day)

You'll laugh, you might cry, and if you're a teacher you'll nod your head and wonder along with the author of Ecclesiastes, "Is there nothing new under the sun?"

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I love it when my 16-year-old daughter Lydia, recommends a book to me. As she predicted, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House Inc., 2005) is a compelling, and at times disturbing, story about Chinese women in the 19th century. Unlike other popular young adult novels, this book is written as a personal narrative as the main character, Lily, tells her story directly to the reader. In this way the reader accompanies Lily on her journey as she is paired to another seven-year-old girl who becomes her laotong, her soul mate; undergoes the painful rite of footbinding; learns nushu the secret written language of women; is betrothed, married, and raises children---all within the strict rules of Chinese society.

In the course of the book, the reader learns about the shame, fears, superstitions, and traditions that ruled Chinese families as tightly as a seven-year-olds' bound foot. But it is also a book about love, asking the reader: what is true, unconditional love between friends that accepts without question a beloved's barbs and attacks? At the end, Lily confesses that her pride prevented her from loving rightly and gives the reader much to think about.
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Tuesday, December 18, 2007


"Real reading is reading and thinking at the same time," Ian Carle, fourth grade elementary teacher, Kansas City, Mo.

In a recent letter to the editor in Reading Today, Mr. Carle argued that it is time to invent a new word for reading which engages the reader. "...reading is more than just saying the words correctly. With that in mind, I combined elements of the words reading and thinking and readinking was born…Readinking is the act of specifically thinking while we are reading."

Quoting David Pears, Laura Roehler, Janice Dole, and Gerald Duffy in their chapter "Developing Expertise in Reading Comprehension," which appeared in What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (2nd edition) in 1992, Carle lists five activities vital to reading comprehension:

  • Questioning: What readers are asking before during or while they read.
  • Synthesizing: How readers continually change their mind as they read.
  • Schema: How a reader uses background knowledge to understand the text.
  • Visualizing: The pictures that are formed in a reader's head while reading.
  • Determining importance: How the reader is able to identify what is important.

This list compliments the presuppositions and themes of How to Read a Book, a book which I have blogged about and am still working through. (Some books require a lot of readinking!)

I like Carle's thoughts and new word for another reason. Say readinking aloud and another image comes to mind:


Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Physician who is Passionate about Literacy

Here is a novel idea. At each annual visit for thirty years, Dr. Pete Lemaster of Fayetteville, N.C. has asked his patients to read and write for him. "I start them with a drawing when they are four and continue until they're 18," he explained to me recently. By that time he's asking his high school patients to write about their life aspirations. Passionate about literacy, Dr. Lemaster also speaks to every parent about the importance of training their children as lifelong readers and writers. He sets an example to other pediatricians and physicians: take the time to not only check your patient's physical health, but take their intellectual pulse too.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Gift of Words

"If I could have written any book, I would have been happy to write yours." That was the response I received last night when I introduced myself to a fellow writer and told her about Teaching the Story. "Look at how many kids you'll be able to reach through your book…and middle school students, no less!" she continued. It was an encouragement to see my book through a total stranger's eyes. And I realized she's right: if my book enables students to express themselves creatively and write the stories inside their heads and hearts—then I will have accomplished a significant purpose. And that gift makes me happy.

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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Lunch with Joyce Hostetter

You know you're having lunch with another author when she turns to you and says, "I'm sorry. Can you say that again? I was listening to the conversation at the table behind me." The mark of a true writer—always listening to dialogue, even if it's eavesdropping on a conversation about gastrointestinal clinics!

Over soup and sandwiches at Panera Bread, Joyce and I finished planning our week workshop at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching on "Is There a Children's Book in You?" With her experience as a novelist (her third book Healing Water is coming out soon!) and mine teaching teachers about writing fiction, we're expecting this week to be a great marriage of our talents.

I met Joyce last summer at the Mid-South Reading and Writing Institute in Birmingham. We both agree that our working relationship and friendship is one of the unexpected blessings of attending that conference.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

"Reading a book is a kind of conversation"

This quote, from Mortimer Adler's book, How to Read a Book, requires a little more explanation. In his chapter entitled "Criticizing a Book Fairly" he comments:

"A good book deserves an active reading. The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging. The undemanding reader fails to satisfy this requirement, probably even more than he fails to anyalyze and interpret. He not only makes no effort to understand; he also dismisses a book simply by putting it aside and forgetting it. Worse than faintly praising it, he damns it by giving it no critical consideration whatever." (p. 139)

Further along he points out that,

"Cervantes may or may not have been right in saying, 'There is no book so bad but something good may be found in it.' It is more certain that there is no book so good that no fault can find with it."

As an author I find that last comment to be simultaneously intimidating and liberating. But then since Adler was an author himself, I assume I am in good company--his own work was probably critiqued many times!

This is a point that I encourage teachers to make with their students: to learn to read novels, their own work, and their peer's work critically and analytically. Those skills help us as readers and as writers.

Friday, November 23, 2007


What happens when a 13-year-old girl who invents a non-existent father and lives with a palm-reading wacky mother befriends a 9-year-old boy who is mourning his mother's death? You end up with a sometimes explosive, rocky friendship that bonds two lonely children together in their need for love and acceptance. In this another "I-read-this-because-I love-the-author" book, Jerry Spinnelli's new book, Eggs, will not disappoint readers from 4th grade through middle school. Teachers can use Eggs to begin a discussion of how these young characters say "I hate you" to one another, but just like people in real life, their actions really say, "I want to be your friend." I am impressed with Spinnelli's consistent ability to paint a visual image and show characters through their dialogue and actions. I regularly use Misha from Milkweed in seminars where I show teachers how an author "shows" rather than "tells about" a character—another way in which teachers can also use this book. I may just have to add Primrose, a main character in Eggs, to my teaching repertoire. (Little, Brown, and Young Readers, 2007)

The Castle Corona

I have to admit it. I began listening Sharon Creech's new book, The Castle Corona with skepticism. Not another mistaken-identity-orphan book, I thought. But Creech's power as a "wordsmith" (yes, you have to read the book to find out exactly who that is) won me over and I happily recommend this humorous book to upper elementary students. The short tale that takes place "long ago and far away" has similar themes to other books I have recently reviewed. Like Enter Three Witches: A Story Of Macbeth, the reader discovers the consequences of misunderstood actions. More gently than Carolyn Cooney's rendition of the Shakespeare tragedy (and appropriate to a younger audience) the reader also sees how wanting what one cannot have can shape a person's thoughts, dreams, and actions. And like Keturah and Lord Death, The Castle Corona skillfully weaves together several stories within a story. It makes me hopeful that storytelling is not a lost medieval art!

I hope that the girls and boys who read this book will think about the simple words of wisdom sprinkled throughout the book and consider pearls such as "When one has nothing, then nothing can disappear" and "A thief steals to get what he does not have." Teachers could use this book as an example of how to infuse a story with a moral without hammering the reader over the head with it. (Harper Collins, 2007)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Teacher Appreciation

While I was in San Antonio, I had the opportunity to visit with a VISTA volunteer who works to in drop-out prevention among the Hispanic population. Partnering with College for all Texans, Communities in Schools, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, her mission is to educate students about career and college options. Over lunch, I asked this extremely motivated young woman who had been instrumental in her own life. Without hesitation, she said that her high school teachers had high expectations for the student body; their encouragement inspired her to succeed. This made me realize once again, the pivotal job which teachers share: our supportive words that come alongside students and say, "Come on, you can do it!" may mean the difference between a student staying in school or dropping out.

At Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the millions of teachers who embrace this task.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Everyone has a story

Just as I love playing with words, I also love stories; those that are written as well as ones told to me. Yesterday when I was riding to the Houston International Airport after the Texas Gifted and Talented conference, I heard my driver's story. Born in South Africa, educated in Great Britain, and now a 20+ year-resident of Houston, my driver had a degree in mass communications and was also a computer analyst. When I asked him why he was driving a shuttle he laughed and said that everyone asked him that! He explained that he was the owner of the SuperShuttle franchise in Houston and this job allowed him to be home with his family and be more involved with his children than his previous employment. He was delighted to find out I was an author because when I asked him what his dream job would be he answered, "I'd be a writer!" He has two novels written and is working on his third. Afraid to send his work out for fear that it would be stolen (a common fear, but rare occurrence), his books have remained private and unpublished. I encouraged him to find a local critique group, look at the publishers who publish work in the genre in which he is writing, and work on getting it out there!

These are key pieces of advice for any aspiring writer. To "birth" a piece of writing, writers must put time and energy into writing, revising, and perfecting it; risk the trauma of potential rejection, and then send it out into the world.

Everyone has a story. What's yours?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A day at Harlandale Middle School

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit my first middle school outside of North Carolina. The warm San Antonio sun matched the welcome I received from the students, staff, and administration of Harlandale Middle. The 100 7th and 8th grade students enjoyed thinking about "Stories that are out of this world" as together we brainstormed a science fiction character. Although a little shy in the beginning, soon they were involved in the creative process. Afterwards, representatives of each small group read their descriptive paragraphs as the rest of the group enjoyed hearing about a variety of original characters: the man who was made out of soup cans who worked as a spy in the local grocery store, the 12' butterfly who could destroy her enemies with tornadoes produced by her powerful wings, a 4-eyed creature whose two eyes could see into the future, and several 10'+ giants with powers to match their size.

These students certainly got the idea that there are, "No CARS in Middle School!" That is, C-copying, A- adding on, and R-rewriting are prohibited when it comes to producing original fiction.

If you are interested in fun writers workshops for your students or teachers, please contact me at the e-mail address listed below.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

On the way to San Antonio

Not only am I addicted to writing and blogging, but apparently I have a growing hobby of talking about literacy with the person sitting next to me on an airplane. Today, as I flew to San Antonio to visit family, I met a professor who formerly taught business management and business statistics at Northeastern Oklahoma State. When she discovered my passion for writing she said that she always told her students that, "When you leave here you'll have to be a writer and a reader or else you won't succeed in business." Quizzes regularly included questions based on their reading of the Wall Street Journal. When she taught college Algebra at Texas Lutheran, she always asked her students to write a research paper on a famous mathematician-- despite their groans and complaints.

Three cheers for writing across the curriculum--on the college level no less!

National Middle School Conference Report

9000 middle school teachers and administrators. Hundreds of workshops stuffed into 2 1/2 days. Ten enormous rows of vendors selling everything from excellent writing lessons plans Maupin House to interactive maps Rand McNally, to spicy popcorn used for fundraising, to worldwide travel experiences for students. Add several roving reporters for The Conference Insider who desipte being dwarfed by the adults swarming around them navigated the exhibit halls as if they were in middle school....and you have the 2007 National Middle School Conference in Houston.

Was I overwhelmed? Slightly.
Stimulated? Without a doubt.
Excited to be a part of an event that drew educators from as far away as Seoul and as close as Louisiana? You bet.

Hands down this was the largest conference I have participated in and was rewarded by the opportunity to speak with dozens of educators about Teaching the Story. The response to my question, "Do you have time to teach creative writing?" was mixed. Many shook their heads sadly and admitted that preparing for standardized testing and or district mandated curriculum precluded time for creative writing. Others were excited about finding a book like mine and commented that they'd never seen anything like it (always heartening for an author to hear!) and were looking forward to using it. One teacher declared that she didn't care about the test: she taught what her she thought was important and her students consistently performed well. A seventh grade teacher said that in an exit poll her students invariably wished they had written a short story. A school outside Wilmington, NC offers creative writing in the 9th block; although the instructor admitted that gothic poetry was the frequent genre of choice.

I discovered that 7th graders in Kentucky and 9th graders in Canada had to write short stories. (Frankfort and Alberta here I come!)

I was tutored throughout the conference by my roommate and fellow Maupin House author, Jane Kiester (pictured above). Random gleanings from her 30+ years of experience:

  • Middle school teachers love to have fun by working together. They love to laugh, giggle, sing, and do calisthenics while they're learning. It's important they do some type of activity every 10 minutes. No wonder they are so high energy!
  • Make back-up overhead transparencies of all powerpoint presentations. Glad I listened!
  • I have a found a way to make revision (usually a boring and dreaded chore) fun.

What can I say? I'm addicted to wordplay and now to blogging and sharing this experience with all of you!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

On my way to Houston

One of the fun things about traveling is that you never know who you'll sit next to on the plane and what your conversation will include. On my way to Houston for the National Middle School conference yesterday, I sat next to a vice-president of a manufacturing company. After finding out the reason I was visiting Texas and my interest in literacy, he began talking about the problems his company has when it comes to hiring high school graduates. He is deeply concerned that many high school graduates lack basic reading, writing, and math skills and are therefore eliminated from the pool of applicants. At entry level positions that begin at $85,000, jobs at his company are job market plums.

When I asked my seat partner (who served on his local school board for 12 years and made academic issues his priority) why he thought so many high school graduate were under-perfomers he listed 3 reasons:

  1. Parents weren't setting high enough expectations for their children.
  2. Parents are not adequately encouraging their children and not involved enough in their lives. "Kids can quickly be sucked into an 'underworld" type environment," he said. Parents need to know what is going on with their kids and care about their academic performance.
  3. On the state level, he felt that although he believes that "life is a test" there is too much stress on high-stakes assessment testing.

My new acquaintance believes that the answer to this dilemma is that all of those who have a stake in the education process-the students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the "customers" (as he termed others in the industrial sector like himself) -- need to be working together.

And that's what I'm seeing here, at the National Middle School Conference. Teachers and administrators who take seriously the challenge to educate young people. My new friend would be impressed.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Enter Three Witches: A Story of Macbeth

Usually I pick a book by reading the blurb on the back; sometimes I find the title is intriguing. In this case, I knew I have never been disappointed with YA novels written by Caroline Cooney, and found her latest book to be no exception.

Interweaving quotes from Shakespeare's original play, Cooney crafted her own version of the Macbeth story. In the process, she created a new character, Lady Mary, through whose eyes much of the story is seen. By the way, this book is a masterpiece of multiple points-of-view which is not an easy task for a writer. But by writing it in this manner, Cooney allows the reader to see the misunderstandings between the characters as each perceives events based upon their own bias. The resulting miscommunication can provide many teachable moments for family or classroom discussion.

The themes of lust for power, deception, and greed are summarized at the very end when Lady Mary notes, "Macbeth is a great man gone bad." The cunning which she and Fleance use to defeat a castle full of soldiers is amusing and gratifying to the reader and provides a happy ending to an otherwise tragic story. Having just traveled to Scotland last spring, I could more easily picture the castles and countryside; that added another dimension to this attention-grabbing book.

I recommend this book for students who might be reluctant to read Macbeth in the full Shakespearean English, and think it is suitable for middle school students and above. There is plenty of blood and warfare to satisfy boys, and enough romance and court intrigue to keep female readers turning the pages (or, like me, hooked to their CD-player or iPod!) (Scholastic, 2007)

Friday, October 26, 2007

An Evening with Kent Brown

I guess this has got to have been one of those "happened to be in the right place at the right time" moments. This week when I was in Pennsylvania presenting a workshop for the Keystone Reading Association, a smiling gentleman strolled by and I noticed his name tag read, "Kent Brown, Boyds Mill Press." What children's writer hasn't seen Kent's name as he is was editor of Highlights for 22 years and now heads up the Highlights Foundation and is the publisher for Boyds Mill Press? I introduced myself to Kent (of course mentioning my connection to SCBWI and that I had won the June Author Award from Highlights) and he graciously invited me to join him and several other friends for dinner that evening.

The dinner party that Kent put together included a teacher and her boyfriend, two other authors (Suzanne Bloom who one the PA "One Book for Every Young Child" award for her book, "A Splendid Friend Indeed") and Sneed Collard, who has written a TON of nonfiction for kids), and two university professors from East Strousburg University. Interesting man, Kent Brown. Although he has his Masters in English Education he taught 7th grade for only one year and then was basically fired because it was 1969 and he didn't want to use a 1939 grammar book! He went from there to farming and ended up in publishing. He knows so many people in children's publishing but is just about the most unassuming person Santa Claus-without-the-beard type person you'd ever meet. His take on agents: you don't need them. His take on the Chautauqua Writer's Workshop: every writer should go. My take on him: a generous man.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ebby turned one!

For those of you who have faithfully read this blog and knew about our first grandaughter's 3-month early arrival last year...I'm happy to share that she turned one on Saturday, October 20th. As you can see from this picture of her with her Mommy, she is doing very well! We are very thankful. From under 2 lbs to over 20...she's a healthy and happy girl!

Advice from the Archives of Writer's Digest

In the October issue of Writer's Digest, Phil Sexton, offered some nuggets from old Writer's Digest issues which he uncovered and has included in his forthcoming book, Legends of Literature. I thought these were amusing and worth passing along to all of you:

In September 1961, the following authors answered the question: "What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?"

"Sorry if I had any advice to give I'd take it myself." John Steinbeck

"The new writer should observe, listen, look...and then write. Nothing begets better writing than the simple process of writing." Rod Sterling.

"The beginning writers need talent, application and asprin. If he wants to write just to make money, he is not a writer." James Thurber

"Beware of advice--even this." Carl Sandburg

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Word from Lydia Baldwin

Lydia is my youngest daughter and is currently taking AP Language and Composition in her junior year at Covenant Day School. In response to a recent assignment she wrote:

has always been a source of entertaining escape for me. I was fed books growing up and developed an insatiable addiction. Literature presents the adventures of fascinating worlds full of mysterious characters. I have plotted with slow deliberation as Edmond Dantes, laughed mockingly at the world as Elizabeth Bennet, and have wandered the smoky streets of London as Sherlock Holmes. Books will always hold an eager anticipation and a satisfying fulfillment."

I don't believe I could have said it better myself.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You Know You're a Writer When...'re asked to write an endorsement for another book. Check out my endorsement of Paul Stankard's new book, No Green Berries or Leaves.
Scroll down and you'll find it... last but not least! And if you're interested in finding out more about this fascinating glass artist, search my blog for other references to him.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dialogue, Voice, and Autobiographies, oh my!

It's been over two weeks since the SCBWI-Carolinas conference, but not to late to share what I learned that weekend.

I was one of the lucky few to have registered early enough to come to the Speaker's Café on Friday night to hear Julie Strauss-Gabel, Joy Neaves, and Caitlyn Dloughy share their thoughts on what makes a good book. In one word, they all agreed it was a character's distinctive VOICE.

I sat there thinking. What is this elusive thing called 'voice'? Everyone talks about it, but how does a writer capture it?

After a thought provoking critique from Eileen Heyes, a few breakout sessions, and a challenge from my daughter Lori who is a Chapel Hill freshman communications major, I think I'm beginning to have some answers.

Eileen read the fifth chapter of my work-in-progress, a historical middle grade novel. After commenting on several sections she turned to me and said, "Have you written an autobiography for each character?" Ashamed, I admitted that I hadn't. Sure I had the birthdates, (some!) physical description of each along with their likes, dislikes, and some particular mannerisms. But I had never bothered to sit down and write in a character's own words about his life. With Eileen's prompting under my belt, I started doing that- in longhand since I had forgotten to bring the power cord for my laptop- and it was interesting to see how each character started to "sound" and talk different. Their words. Their sentences. I had to flip from one to another as their ideas about my story came popping out of their mouths.

In Julie Strauss-Gabel's session "If I wasn't an editor, I'd be a therapist" the next day, she handed out a worksheet entitled "Character Resiliency Interview." This long list of questions like, "Talk about something that has troubled you over time," and "Who should have helped you but didn't?" will be great ones for me to ask my characters and listen to their answers. I have a sneaky suspicion that if I take the time to do this, my characters' whining, despair, or anger will get voiced.

Lin Oliver's session on dialogue underscored all of the above. Oliver said that every character should sound entirely, exclusively like herself and should be distinguishable from the other. She suggested keeping information books for each character in which you record their unique language including key words and phrases. She is an unabashed eavesdropper and highly recommended the practice. Finally, we all wrote a line of dialogue for a character that we brainstormed starting with a physical characteristic, a mood or one word description of the person, and what type of person we were picturing (ie., pms'ing teenager, elderly grandfather).

I left the conference to take my daughter, Lori, (pictured above on moving-in day) out to dinner.
Excited about what I had just learned, I told her about writing my character's autobiographies out long hand. She upped the ante. "That's a great idea, Mom. You should also try changing their handwriting while you do it to really get a feeling for them." Great…more work! Then I upped the ante myself. My main character is dyslexic. What would it be like for me to write her autobiography out in longhand and struggle with spelling as she would have experienced?

Whoever said that writing a children's novel was easy, certainly didn't have a believable VOICE.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Launch Pad

Launch Pad: Where Young Authors and Illustrators Take Off! is a new magazine which will be publishing book reviews, nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and artwork created by 6-12 year olds. The first magazine will be coming out in January/February 2008. If you have used my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Middle School, and held a writing contest in your classroom, your winners might seek publication in this online magazine. Elementary students and homeschool students can also go online and view the submission guidelines at


Whoever said that there aren't any good boy books hasn't been to a library recently. Roland Smith's new novel Peak is another excellent "story within a story" (see my recent blog on "Keturah and Lord Death") but told in a totally different manner. The story about Peak's (the main character) Mt. Everest climb will appeal to readers of both sexes from 6th grade up, and is a great example of plot conflicts. Peak faces internal struggles over his relationship with his father (which is believably resolved at the end); physical struggles as he attempts to climb the mountain; struggles with nature, conflicts with the Chinese government, resentment from other climbers, and discord with a new friend. I doubt that Smith could have "upped the ante" more -- read the book and see how that expression fits this story!

As a writer and story lover, I loved Vincent (Peak's English teacher) and the film crew's comments about stories. At one point Vincent tells Peak to "hold the story inside you until you're ready to burst" and another time he suggest that a "story is built like a stone wall. Not all the words will fit. Some will have to be discarded." One member of the film crew responds to Peak's question, "What's the story?" with the answer, "Chances are we don't know what the story is about until we know how the story ends." Great words!

I recommend this book for reading pleasure, as well as a great book to discuss a character's conflicts and the concepts of climax and denouement. (Harcourt Children's Books, 2007)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Keturah and Lord Death

Can someone love death? This is one of my questions as I listened to this skillfully-written medieval fantasy.

Within a picture frame of the quintessential struggle of a young woman searching for her "true love" and the universal conflict of good vs. evil (or in this case, love vs. death), author Martine Leavitt has created a story that is worthy of Scheherezade. Like Crispin: At the Edge of the World, this book also demonstrates how superstitions governed life in the Middle Ages. But Leavitt has successfully woven humor into this book so the reader laughs when Keturah realizes that after all, she really doesn't need a charmed eye rolling around in her apron pocket to show who she truly loves.

Leavitt's use of personification in the person of Lord Death is outstanding, and I loved her use of the "story within a story" theme. Language arts students can learn a lot by looking at these literary elements as well as characterization, setting, and plot. Although the book starts out with Keturah promising her male listeners a story that is full of death and adventure, I think that adolescent girls will gravitate to this book more than boys.

Can someone love death? Leavitt makes an interesting argument for it. Keturah and Lord Death could lead to some interesting theological debates as well as discussions about love and self-sacrifice. (Front Street Books, 2006)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Crispin at the Edge of the World

I have never been disappointed by a book by Avi, and Crispin: At the Edge of the World is no exception. Appealing to boys and girls from middle school and higher, this book shows the reader a no-holds-barred description of the poverty, warfare, and superstition that governed life in the Middle Ages. If you are looking for a book that shows the themes of forgiveness, sacrifice, and love through the actions of strongly portrayed characters, I would highly recommend this book. Make sure that you pay attention to the stories that Bear, Crispin's adopted father, tells about a trained bear. The symbolism of those stories plays out at the latter end of the book. Troth, the third person in this unlikely trio, inadvertently teaches her friend Crispin what it means to love unconditionally. This is the second book in the Crispin triology; the first, Crispin: The Cross of Lead won the Newberry Award in 2003. Now, I'll have to pester my local librarians to get the first one on CD also! (Hyperion, 2006)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Evidence Not Seen

This remarkable first person account of Darlene's Diebler's life as a missionary to New Guinea and then the four years she spent as a Japanese POW is a worthwhile read for young adults and adults. I moved from skepticism (no one can really have faith like that) to being deeply moved by her profound trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. I highly recommend Evidence Not Seen for mature readers; parts are explicit and parents need to discern when it is appropriate for their children to read this graphic portrayal of the effects of sin. At the same time, Diebler's remarkable ability to forgive and pray for her enemies is a challenge all Christians.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Peter Pan in Scarlet

Read Peter Pan in Scarlet and you will be reassured that the realm of imagination is alive and well-despite the onslaught of TV, videos, and computer games that is poised to zap creativity from the next generation. This book, that will be enjoyed as a read-aloud at home or in the classroom, pulls readers into Neverland in a manner that is rivaled only by Peter Pan's own power to imagine food for his hungry compatriots, or to banish them into "Nowhereland". The reader has an "ah ha!" moment towards the end of the book when Peter's valet-turned-nemesis Ravello croons to Peter, "How willingly you allow me to comb the imagination out of your hair." A warning to all of us.

I first saw this book when Tracy Adams and her husband Josh, owners of Adams Literary were excitedly looking at the cover design at the 2006 SCBWI-Carolinas conference. They had a right to be excited about their client, Geraldine McCaughrean's new book. As they pointed out, the cover does pop-out, but the title's real meaning is revealed about two-thirds of the way through the book. I was hooked on the book when I was invited to read the first few pages at Covenant Day's "Readers are Leaders" event last spring. Although I enjoyed listening to this on CD, it is worth checking the book out of the library or buying your own copy—the illustrations by Scott Fischer in front of every chapter are terrific.

Used in the classroom, the book can be a treasure chest (sorry, I can't help my own allusions!) of characterization, setting, imaginative language, and personification. Consider this description of the sea:

  • Even the ocean felt the surge of excitement—TREASURE!—for it fairly rushed into the bay. The tide came in much faster than it does on unremarkable days. It refloated the Jolly Roger and spun her ground so that her bowsprit pointed out to sea—en garde!

Having just heard a great talk on symbols in literature by Mark Johnston at the EMRYS/SCBWI conference, I was very aware of such truisms as this comment by Ravello, "If you put on another's clothes you become that man." The comments about treasure being whatever the League of Pan wanted the most, will spark great classroom discussions.

It is hard to pick, but one of my favorite lines in the entire book is this description of Wendy:

  • Deep in her child heart she was still a grown-up; just as in the heart of every grown-up there is a child.

I highly recommend this book for boys and girls of all ages and I guarantee that you'll close the book with a smile on your face. (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

How to Read a Book-5

OK guys, this is my last post on this book for awhile. Promise.

Adler's fifth chapter of How to Read a Book
is about being a demanding reader. I liked it the best because he discusses how to train analytical readers—which will in turn make them better writers. His four questions for readers to ask themselves as they read are:

  1. What is this book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

I love the last question the best. Basically the reader is asking the author, "So what?"

These thought-provoking questions can be raised when reading newspaper articles, advertisements, an historical novel, or a children's book.

Since I believe that reading is writing's kissing cousin, I would add more questions to the list:

  1. How did the author communicate his points to the reader?
  2. Was he effective?
  3. Why or why not?

Now, back to reading the book…

How to Read a Book-4

Inspectional Reading, according to Adler, is a systematic skimming of a book to figure out what it's all about. How many kids do you see rifling through a book's pages before they decide to read it? This is a form of inspectional reading. He also recommends thoroughly reading a Table of Contents, Index (I have seen teachers do this to Teaching the Story!),
and stopping to read pages here and there.

Counter-intuitively, he also recommends a first-time superficial read through of a book:

"In tackling a book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away….understanding half of a really tough book is much better than not understanding it at all, which will be the case if you allow yourself to be stopped by the first difficult passage you come to." (p. 36, 37)

Interesting thought….I don't think I read like this, do you?

How to Read a Book- Part 3

Here are some nuggets that explain the Elementary Level of Reading:

  • There are four stages at this level:
  1. reading readiness
  2. reading simple materials (some by sight)
  3. vocabulary building through working to understand new words
  4. refining and enhancing reading skills (an ongoing process).
  • In Adler's words: "The discovery of meaning in symbols [referring to letters and words on a page] may be the most astounding intellectual feat that any human being ever performs—and most humans perform it before they are seven years of old!"

How to Read a Book- Part 2

Adler introduces the second chapter of this useful book with the of-course-why-didn't-I-think-of-this but pithy statement that our goal of reading will determine the way in which we read. In that light, he goes on to relay four different levels of reading which will be expanded upon in this book:

  1. Elementary Reading. A child (or adult's) first problem is to recognize the individual words on the page and to answer the question, "What does this sentence say?" This is the same process an individual goes through when learning a foreign language. This basic level of understanding lays the foundation for subsequent reading.
  2. Inspectional Reading. The goal of this type of reading is to get as much as possible out of a section within a short period of time. This is often referred to as skimming or pre-reading and can be as simple as picking up a book and reading the table of contents or flipping through its pages.
  3. Analytical Reading. This thorough thinking-about-the-material reading engages the reader with questions. The reader works at making book her own or as Francis Bacon said "some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." Adler writes, "Reading a book analytically is chewing and digesting it." This is what I'm doing as I write this blog to all of you!
  4. Syntopical Reading. In this type of reading the reader not only compares what he is reading to other books but may also come up with a new analysis of the subject. Needless to say, this is the toughest type of reading and since Adler doesn't deal with it for another 250 pages—you'll have to wait to find out more about this—or buy How to Read a Book yourself!!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Alabama Moon

Conventional wisdom among children's writers is that the protagonist of your novel should be older than your intended reader's age. That's at least one rule that Alabama Moon successfully breaks. Right from the beginning of this poignant, survival/adventure story, 10-year-old Moon faces the death of his father from whom he has learned everything he "needs" to survive in the Alabama forest. Moon discovers that although his Vietnam veteran father may have chosen to live alone with his wife and son, a life of loneliness is not what he wants to choose for himself.

This is author Watt Key's first novel and he generously uses memories from his own childhood growing up in the swamps and forests of Alabama. The interview on his website is eye-opening for both young adult readers as well as for writers who want to learn how to mine their own life experiences. With the strong survival theme, this book will appeal to middle school boys, but I believe girls (who often read books with boys as the main character) will also appreciate it.

I believe Key did an excellent job of weaving the themes of death, friendship, and family, into this well-written book. Parents should be advised that there is rough language—which is true to the character of a child raised in a forest by an angry father—but some readers may find that objectionable. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2006)

Monday, September 10, 2007

How to Read a Book

I am in the process of reading How to Read a Book
which was first published in 1940 with a second, updated edition published in 1972. I hope to share snippets of what appears to be an excellent resource for language arts teachers, homeschool parents, and high school students who are preparing for college (although the latter category might flip through the table of contents and read selectively what interests them).

One of the first points that the author, Mortimer Adler, makes is that reading needs to be active. He compares reading to the game of baseball: the reader, like the baseball player, must work at "catching" every type of written communication. A reader will be successful to the extent that he receives what the writer has communicated.

What happens when the reader doesn't "catch" the ball and doesn't understand what he has read? He must go back and work at understanding the passage. Adler believes that this work is vital to the process of growing as an active, analytical learner. He says:

  • "The act of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery; keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection. The reason for this is that reading in this sense is discovery, too- although with help instead of without it" (p. 14).

To show how important this task of discovery is, Adler writes:

  • "If you ask a living teacher a question, he will probably answer you. If you are puzzled by what he says, you can save yourself the trouble of thinking by asking him what he means. If, however, you ask a book a question, you must answer it yourself. In this respect a book is like nature or the world. When you question it, it answers you only to the extent that you do the work of thinking and analysis yourself" (p. 15).

Adler concludes the first chapter with the goal of this book: "…to know how to make books teach us well." Stick with me and I'll share more tidbits from this well thought through book. Click here to read an overview of How to Read a Book.

More Greenville Gems

Jo Hackl, the coordinator of the SCBWI/Emrys conference in Greenville, SC, has generously made her handouts available to whoever can use them. These materials would be very helpful if you are a new writer or considering writing for children. I can send the following to you (as attachments) if you are interested:

  • Attending a Conference for Children's Writers and Illustrators
  • Story Ideas
  • Starting a Critique Group
  • Submission Research
  • Query and Cover Letters
  • Sample Cover Letter to an Editor
  • Sample Cover Letter to an Agent

E-mail me at and I'll forward them to you.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Word Play

I wish I could take credit for the following, but a friend e-mailed it to me today and I thought it was too good not to pass along. Hope many of you can use these in your classrooms:

  • Ratio of an igloo's circumference to its diameter = Eskimo Pi

  • 2000 pounds of Chinese soup = Won ton

  • 1 millionth of a mouthwash = 1 microscope

  • Time between slipping on a peel and smacking the pavement = 1 bananosecond

  • Weight an evangelist carries with God = 1 billigram

  • Time it takes to sail 220 yards at 1 nautical mile per hour = Knotfurlong

  • 16.5 feet in the Twilight Zone = 1 Rod Serling

  • Half of a large intestine = 1 semicolon

  • 1,000,000 aches = 1 megahurtz

  • Basic unit of laryngitis = 1 hoarsepower

  • Shortest distance between two jokes = A straight line

  • 453.6 graham crackers = 1 pound cake

  • 1 million- microphones = 1 megaphone

Oh, how we love words. These are some... strange definitions. Read them
slowly... some may take a second or two to sink in.

  • EYEDROPPER: A clumsy ophthalmologist.

  • HEROES: What a guy in a boat does.

  • LEFT BANK: What the robber did when his bag was full of money.

  • MISTY: How golfers create divots.

  • PARADOX: Two physicians.

  • PARASITES: What you see from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

  • PHARMACIST: A helper on the farm.

  • POLARIZE: What penguins see with.

  • PRIMATE: Removing your spouse from the couch in front of the TV.

  • RELIEF: What trees do in the spring.

  • RUBBERNECK: What you do to relax your wife.

  • SELFISH: What the owner of a seafood store does.

And our (the anonymous writer's) favorite:

  • SUDAFED: Litigation brought against a government official.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Things that make a writer excited- part 2

This has been a fantastic day! I just received word that my proposal, "Learn from the Masters: How Creating a Fictional Character Enhances Reading Instruction" was accepted for the 2008 IRA convention in Atlanta, next May. This is quite an honor, particularly for a new author like me. On top of that, my article "Show, Don't Tell: Classroom Activities for Image Driven Writing" was accepted for a forthcoming issues of Middle Ground. As if that wasn't enough, my editor told me that my blog (the one you guys are helping to make popular) was rated 42 out of 150 useful, educational, and inspirational blogs for writers.

I'd include a video of myself jumping up and down in celebration (a la' my first attempt at Zumba yesterday) but I'll spare you that unnecessary visual litter!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Things that make a writer excited

My new brochure just arrived and it looks superb! If any of you are looking to have brochures printed, I'd highly recommend Willy Walt Printing services. They were fast, economical, and very professional. How fun!

Gems from Greenville

For those of you who were unable to attend the SCBWI/Emrys conference this past weekend in Greenville, I thought I would share some highlights. It is impossible to recreate the jam-packed Saturday, but here are a few gems:

  • From Melinda Long, author of How I Became a Pirate and Pirates Don't Change Diapers: Use your childhood memories. Keep a running list of memories for possible story ideas.
  • From Stephanie Greene, author of Queen Sophie Hartley and many, many other books: The beginning of your book is the writer's promise to the reader. (Will there be excitement? Humor? Pathos?) The opening is the point at which the character's life is changing.
  • From Eleanora Tate, author of Celeste's Harlem Renaissance, Thank You Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and tons of other books. When editing, pull out "weedy" words.
  • From Lindsay Davis, junior agent with Writer's House: Make sure that your cover letter shows you are familiar with the agent's work. Look at their website for a client list. They also are attracted to books in which the character has a unique voice and which jump from the page and effect the reader. Make sure that you as the author believe in your character.
  • From Donna German, publisher of Sylvan Dell Publishing: Read her website totally before submitting. She can always tell if someone has followed submission guidelines or not.
  • From Mark Johnston, author of I Love to Smell my Daddy's Socks and The Secret Agent: When you write, be aware that some things (like bodies of water, time, fire, color, buildings, clothes) are symbols. There are no right or wrong symbols, but they must ring true in your story. Pick the details that will matter to you; from specifics move to more specifics.
  • The efficient coordinator of the conference, Jo Hackl, has agreed to make available several resources which she assembled for this conference. E-mail me at if you are interested in receiving either a sample cover letter or sample letter to an agent. I will let you know as more become available.
  • Amy Thomas has an excellent handout "Fun Tips for Manuscripts" on her website at:
  • One further clarification from Stephanie Greene (who is also the regional advisor for SCBWI-Carolinas) about picture book length. She notes that the current accepted length for a picture book is between 300-500 words. She states, "Shorter is better in the picture book world."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Audio Books

Since I am such a fan of books on CD, I was happy to read local teacher and columnist, Kay McSpadden, tout the merits of audio-books in the Charlotte Observer on August 11. As readers of this blog know, I'm a big advocate of reading books this way—since (unfortunately!) my time seems too limited to be able to sit down and read--as much as I love books. After McSpadden heard Jim Dale, the actor who has read all seven of the Harry Potter books for audio-books read, she wrote:

"…Before they are readers, all children learn by listening, and audio-books such as the ones narrated by Jim Dale can be a gateway to literacy. Granted, Jim Dale is a talented impersonator and mimic who has spent great care making each character's voice in the Harry Potter books distinct, and the Harry Potter books are so compelling that most fans read them more than once. But even an average parent reading a simple bedtime story aloud is giving her child practice in listening, memory, vocabulary, and imagination--skills that lead to fluency in reading later on."

Her column went on to discuss how TV watching has replaced reading and imaginary play—both so necessary to creative childhood development. She quoted a University of Washington study which indicated that, "For every hour per day spent watching videos targeted to them, babies had six to eight fewer words than babies who did not watch the videos."

She went on to say that many students who are considered reluctant readers might be hooked into reading by first listening to a story. Storytelling has been around since time began and well told stories, as McFadden concludes, speak to us all.

And speaking of audio-books…I look forward to telling you all about my latest great read: Peter Pan in Scarlet.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky

What child doesn't fantasize about running away in order to get the attention that he or she deserves? And what child hasn't worried that their mother/father/guardian/caretaker is considering leaving because of something the child fears he has done wrong? These themes, like the beautiful knots that Lucky's best friend, Lincoln ties, are intertwined throughout this 2007 Newberry Award winning book by Susan Patron. Through the course of this short book, 10-year-old Lucky also comes to grips with her mother's death and her father's abandonment. I found the description of Lucky hiding new thoughts and observations into different "crevices of her brain" to be poignant and true-to-life. Which one of us hasn't been confronted with a new reality without filing it in our mind to "think about later?" This would be a good book to use in a classroom to show how an author shows not tells characters and setting; the picture of this tiny town at the edge of the desert is outstanding.

I would recommend this book for readers 10 and up, although some parents may object to the use of the word "scrotum" on the first page. The word within the context of the story is just another part of adult life that Lucky is learning about. For comments about the book, you might want to read the review written by the New York Times which presents some interesting thoughts on authors and censorship. (Simon and Schuster, 2006)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Books on CD

For those of you who like me, can never find enough time to read, a friend recommended that I label the books which I review here that I have found on CD's. I went back and added that as appropriate and so now you can search for them under "Recorded Books." Hope this helps.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Reaching for Sun

I recommended this book to a friend who is writing a story through poetry and she recommended it back to me; now I'll recommend it to all of you. This is Tracie Vaughn Zimmer's second book of poetry (Sketches from a Spy Tree is for a younger audience) and both show a great grasp of language through terrific imagery and word choice. I can't help it. I'm a sucker for word pictures and this book is full of them! Savor this segment from the final poem, "reaching:"

"Even after summer

packs her bags,

the garden blooms:

holly drips berries

for the birds;

the river birch

peels back

to show its pale heart."

Although this is a story of a young teen coming to grips with cerebral palsy, Zimmer doesn't hit the reader over the head with that theme. Instead, the main character grapples with all of the normal angst which middle school students face: acceptance (or the lack thereof) from peers, gaining and then feeling like she has lost a new best friend, disappointment in a mother who doesn't seem to understand her, and fear over losing her beloved grandmother, to name a few. I highly recommend this book for readers in 5-7th grade.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Harlem Summer

Since I'm in the middle of working the kinks out of writing a juvenile historical fiction novel, I'm impressed with Walter Dean Myers' ability to convey a sense of history and place, through a believable character living in Harlem in 1925. Both boys and girls will enjoy reading about the "life of crime" that Mark Purvis inadvertently slips into—and will cheer along with him when he finds his way out. I would recommend this Newberry Honor Winner for students in grades 5-8. Check out this interview with him for background information on where he gets ideas for his stories, his feelings about poetry, his relationship to his family, and more. (Scholastic, 2007)

P.S. The back of the book includes a pictorial directory to the "real" people and places in Harlem Summer. This is an added bonus for kids (like mine) who always want to know what "really" happened.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Betcha Didn't Know...

Call me a nerd, but I find word origins pretty fascinating. At the Atkins Library UNC Charlotte while researching my juvenile novel that will take place in Charlotte, NC in 1951, I experienced two word origins “hands on.”
We all take the term “cut and paste” pretty much for granted. You double click on the correct icon with your mouse and you move text in less time than it took to write this sentence. Well, in the “olden days” that wasn’t quite so easy. Today I ran my hand over the surface of a Sanborn map that was first printed in 1929 and continually updated until 1952. These GIGANTIC maps (we’re talking the size of a small end table) were used by fire insurance companies to determine the degree of fire hazard associated with a particular property. They include such details as the construction of the buildings, type of roofs, and the size, shapes and types of the building. These are handy to get a picture of a town or city during a particular time period but also demonstrated this whole “cut and paste” principal. As buildings were added or changed, the map makers literally re-typed the information, cut it out, and pasted it onto the old map. At first glance, the surface of these maps looked smooth, but on closer inspection (and feeling) you could see where new information had been placed over the old. Pretty cool.

How about a horn book? Besides being the name of the magazine that every children’s author strives to get a positive review in, do you know what it is? ( I didn’t!) At Atkins, I saw one. The original hornbooks were smaller than a sheet of notebook paper and were made from metal with a wooden paddle for a child to hold. Often the “lesson sheet” was covered by cow's horn and held in place with a metal frame. The lesson sheet had the alphabet (both upper- and lowercase), at times included numerals 1-10, and the Lord's Prayer. The one at the Atkins Library is from the 18th century, appears to have little nails holding the horn on the wood, and displays the alphabet and then a few words or letter combinations at the bottom.

So, now you know!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Here, Bullet

Poet and soldier. Those two nouns usually don't march down the road hand in hand. But in the case of Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet, (Alice James Books, 2005) both are apt descriptions. If you want a book that vividly paints a word picture of the Iraq war, then I highly recommend this collection of poems. In the classroom I would use it as a read- aloud so that I could pick the poems appropriate to my group of students. The poems are intense and require maturity in the reading audience. Here is a sample from the poem, "Iraqi Policemen":

The explosion left a hole in the roadbed

Large enough to fit a mid-sized car.

It shattered concrete, twisted metal,

busted storefront windows in sheets

and lifted a BMW chassis up onto a rooftop.

The shocking blood of the men

forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone

on a sidewalk, a blistered hand's gold ring

still shining, while a medic, Doc Lopez,

pauses to catch his breath, to blow it out

hard, so he might cup the left side of a girl's face

in one hand, gently, before bandaging

the half gone missing.

This book would be a great supplement for a high school language arts class on the importance of word choice, or for those of you who teach history, social studies, or government and need to supplement your curriculum with reading activities.


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