Monday, June 27, 2016

Connecting Students with Authors via Social Media

In the school district where I used to work, social media as an instructional tool was forbidden. Facebook and Twitter were blocked on our network. When I set up a blog for my classroom via the district’s Google Drive account, the technology director blocked access to it from school computers and then took down the blog itself. Her explanation: “Blogger is unsafe for students because the “Next Blog” button at the top of the page can take them to any blog at all.”

“Isn’t that what happens when they use Google?” was my counter-argument. She didn’t dignify my question with a response. Blogs were dangerous. Anybody could see that.

It’s ironic because our district constantly held workshops on how teachers should be using more technology. But it was all lip-service. My district was afraid of technology and its ability to link our students with the outside world.

The technology director said that if we wanted a blog we had to use EduBlogs, a clunky, cumbersome, and often malfunctioning service that was self-contained and inaccessible to the outside world. Which defeats the purpose of having a blog -- a purpose she didn’t understand in the first place.

Thankfully, some schools take a more enlightened approach. They realize that the “social” in social media is the perfect hook for getting students invested in real and dynamic learning.

I was thrilled to get this Tweet from a school in Miami last March:

Turns out this fourth grade class has their own review blog (and yes, it’s through the very dangerous Blogger). They post their reviews and use the class Twitter account to promote the blog and tag the author.  Reading their Twitter feed, it’s obvious to see how excited the students are when authors reply and comment on their blog.

Then, there was this Tweet, which alerted me to another clever way some teachers are using Twitter.

Cover recreations! Or in some cases, re-interpretations. The authors are tagged in the Tweets. Here are a few more clever ones from this account.

Here’s a couple more. (I clipped out the Tweets because they had the students’ personal Twitter handle included.)

It’s a brave new world that lets readers reach out so easily to authors, and it’s hard to think of a more authentic way to engage students in dialogue about books.

Teachers should make good use of it. And their administrators should let them.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

What Writing Novels Taught Me About Picture Books by Kell Andrews

I write for children of all ages. Two years ago, when my first middle-grade novel, Deadwood, was released, I wrote a post called what What Writing Picture Books Taught Me About Middle-Grade Novels.

This month, my first picture book, Mira Forecasts the Future (illustrated by Lissy Marlin), hit the shelves. So now I take a look in opposite direction to assess what writing novels taught me about picture books.

Mira Forecasts the Future,
written by Kell Andrews, illustrated by Lissy Marlin,
Sterling Children's

Nobody’s perfect. 

When beginning to write picture books for young children, many writers have a tendency to want to model good behaviors. But good behaviors don’t make good stories.

Writing and reading novels prove that flawed characters are interesting characters. They make mistakes. They grow. They don’t have to be good influences.

Sometimes picture book readers -- agents, teachers, parents, even kids -- will call out characters for the wrong things they do, feel, or are. But the interesting, imperfect characters get your attention, and it’s the interesting, imperfect characters who have room to grow. That leads me to my next point.

Everybody arcs.

In my favorite books, every character wants something. Every character has their own story and growth. Even villains are the heroes of their own stories.

In a novel, there’s plenty of room to infuse each character with their own motivations, narrative, and character arc. This deepens the emotional impact of the plot and characterization, even if minor characters do much of their growing behind the scenes.

There’s not as much room in a picture book, but there also aren’t many characters. If you can make every character vibrate with their own motivations and change in the course of the story, your picture book will pack more resonance into 300 to 800 words.

Know your backstory (but don't tell it all).

One of the biggest temptations when writing a novel -- especially a big, juicy fantasy or historical -- is to put all the worldbuilding and research on the page -- addendums, family trees, glossaries, maps, footnotes with the history of the centuries. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it’s just an info dump.

When writing novels, you make a critical decision about what backstory not to include. Just because you know something doesn’t mean your reader needs to -- the hidden history of your world makes the story more real even if you never put it in the foreground. That’s why it’s called backstory -- you can’t show perspective and dimension unless there’s something in the background.

Of course, the few hundred words of text in a picture book don’t allow foreground backstory. The lesson from novels is to know the backstory even if you don’t tell it. If you understand your characters outside of those 300 to 800 words, if they live for you as people (or bunnies or sentient shovels), you’ll have a richer story.

Trust your reader.

One reason novel writers leave out backstory is that they trust their readers to pick up allusions and make connections. But can you do that when writing for very young children?

Yes. Your child readers may have only few years behind them, but they’ve accomplished hugely impressive cognitive growth before listening to or reading your story. They understand more than you think they do, and they are capable of understanding so much more than that if you give them a chance. So give them a chance.

Be in it for the long haul.

Writing a novel takes stamina. Even a short middle grade novel is 30,000 words. Adult novels are 80,000 and more, and don’t even think about the number of words in a multibook series. You have to write a lot of words, many days in a row or over the course of months or years until you reach the end. Then you revise, again and again. It’s a long haul.

A picture book is shorter than 1000 words, the amount many writers strive to draft in a single day. A picture book manuscript often doesn’t take long to write compared to a novel. But it’s still a long haul.

The individual manuscripts may be short, but shorter isn’t easier. Every word counts. You’ll probably rewrite each one. You may start from a blank page sometimes. You’ll workshop. Revise again.

And still, that first book you write probably won’t be published. Probably not the second. Maybe even your 10th manucript still won’t interest an agent. Maybe it will take your 15th or 20th to get published. And then maybe you’ll write 10 more before you get published again.

Picture books may be short, but they’re not a short cut. Every road in the writing business is a long one. Shorter isn’t easier. Younger isn’t lesser.

Writing is hard for every age. When it works, the writer finds the story, and the story finds the reader. And novel or picture book, that's what makes it worthwhile.

You can also find me at or Twitter @kellandrewsPA.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reading and Writing Should Be Dangerous, and other things Stephen King said

Few things compare to the feeling of meeting a person we admire, and last Friday I had the chance to attend an event in Stephen King’s END OF WATCH national tour. I purchased tickets months in advance, and when I arrived to the venue hours before the event, the line already snaked around the building. That day temperatures hit the 90s for the first time of the summer, but I was undeterred. Melting under the scorching sun, I spoke with friends and strangers about when we’d discovered King’s books. His books hardly qualify as middle grade or young adult (with the exception of CARRIE, which in my opinion is fully YA), but the vast majority of us, his fans, confessed to finding his words in our tween and early teen years, 
Although I arrived early, I was still kind of far from the stage.  

 Growing up, I never chose books according to grade-reading level. I read whatever was available. The newspaper. Nutritional information behind the saltbox. I read even graffiti-ed poems on the front of the building where I lived.
 A novel was a special kind of treasure, but I knew even at a young age what I was ready to read then, and what could wait.
 Sometime in tenth grade, I read my first Stephen King: DIFFERENT SEASONS, a collection of novellas among which is Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption. I read it in Spanish, and although I know so many things are lost in translation, King’s trademark voice and mood stayed with me forever. When I read it again in college (this time in English), once again I fell into the reading trance I crave and that I look for in every book I read.
      Friday night in Salt Lake, King said that the Stephen in front of the audience wasn’t the one readers probably expected to find. Scary Stephen/Writer Stephen stays at home, waiting for Popular Stephen/Book-touring Stephen to return to the page for a new work-in-progress. He claims he hardly knows what goes on in Scary/Writer Stephen’s mind when creating a story, but that he knows that Writer Stephen has two things in mind when creating his worlds: verisimilitude and a character the reader will care about and follow to the end of the story.
 An author achieves verisimilitude when the story contains vivid, specific details that bring the world to life. A successful character needs to want something and yearn to achieve it, and the reader should identify with the wanting so much, she will not put the book down until she knows how the story ends. The reader should see a part of herself in the story.
 Maybe that’s why when I was younger I intuitively knew what things I was ready to read then, and what I should leave for later in life. That’s why even now sometimes I don’t connect with the character of a highly acclaimed book, but a few months from now, or even years, that book becomes one of my favorite ones ever (hello, Melina Marchetta’s JELLICOE ROAD). For every book, there's a time and a season, don't you think?
I’m currently in my final year of a MFA program at the Vermont College of FineArts, and I’ve been writing for a long time, so the advice to both write believable worlds and creating characters with a strong desire line was familiar to me. But the statement that struck me the most was when King said that reading should always be dangerous.
    I’ve been pondering on those words this weekend.
    Reading, everything and anything, changes me in some way, even if small, and that’s what makes it magical. It doesn’t mean that I, or any of us for that matter, should only read literary horror or edgy books. It means that we should be aware that everything we read leaves a mark upon us. Stephen King doesn’t throw those words—“reading should be dangerous”—in vain. Besides being a super-prolific writer, he’s a voracious reader, and has reviewed HARRY POTTER, TWILIGHT, and even FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY. As with writing, he knows what he’s talking about when he talks about reading.
     We read dangerously when we read outside of our comfort zone, about experiences vastly different from ours, in formats that we haven’t tried before.
For children, who are experiencing the world for the first time, reading is always a dangerous endeavor, so dangerous that sometimes well-meaning adults prevent them from reading books that are sorely needed, like Kate Messner’s THE SEVENTH WISH, Walter Dean Myer’s MONSTER, Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, or Judy Blume’s ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET.
     King’s words inspire me to write dangerously too, to try formats and genres that I haven’t tried before, experiences and situations that make me curious, excited, or even afraid.
     This summer, I pledge to read and write dangerously:
I’m stretching myself to read more non-fiction and graphic novels. I’ll even dive into some “adult” books (gasp!).
With my son, 15, who's eager for his first Stephen King
 and a summer of reading dangerously
I’m double-dog daring myself to write the draft of that picture book I’ve been fantasizing with for months.
I’m challenging myself to write more poetry, even if it’s amateurish and still such a mystery to me.
I’m bribing myself with chocolate and a binge-watch-worthy show on Netflix if I finish revising the middle grade that’s been very hard emotionally for me and send it to my agent once and for all.

Tell me friend, how will you read and write more dangerously this summer?


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Takeaways from Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC and my favorite books on craft by Joanna Roddy

I'm forever reading books from other writers about the craft of writing. Writing is solitary in many ways. I'm always looking for coyotes of the borderlands to show my wandering writer's soul the way into the land of plenty. 

This spring I read Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC. I never read EAT, PRAY, LOVE, but I fell utterly in love with Gilbert's TED talk on creative genius, in which she argues for the classical idea of the muse. She says that the modern concept of artistic genius is too much pressure and is silently killing off our artists through addiction, self-destruction, and despair. She offers instead the ancient idea of having a genius: a creative entity that brings inspiration to collaborate with the artist. Today we typically think of this as a muse. The artist is the servant of the muse, offering the grunt labor to bring the idea into being. As a co-collaborator, the artist is only partially responsible for the success or failure of the work.  

The video is 20 minutes long, but if you can give yourself a learning/ inspiration break today, it's worth the watch.

BIG MAGIC expands on the TED talk, and it is a rich, nurturing baptism into the good news of creative living free from fear. It may be the psychologically healthiest thing I've ever read about being an artist. A lot of writers on craft focus on all the barriers to creativity--resistance, apathy, difficulty, fear. I think this can sometimes lead to the paradigm of the tortured artist who believes that their creative work requires brutal sacrifice and torture. Gilbert reminds us that ideas want to be brought to life by artists and that our creativity chose us and is dependent on us to produce anything in the world. So why would we think it hates us and is trying to punish us? One line from BIG MAGIC I quite like on this theme is this:
“I’ve always had the sense that the muse of the tormented artist—while the artist himself is throwing temper tantrums—is sitting quietly in a corner of the studio, buffing its fingernails, patiently waiting for the guy to calm down and sober up so everyone can get back to work.”

Here are my main takeaways from the book:

  • Ideas are seekers of human collaboration and we have the freedom to say yes or no to them. If you say no, someone else will get that idea and run with it. If you say yes, but don't show up to do the work, eventually the power of that idea will leave you, looking for another collaborator.
  • You're never too old to begin.
  • Take the long view of failure and rejection: I plan to do this for the rest of my life. Many years of rejection is only short-term. 
  • Do not pressure your creative work to succeed or provide for you financially. That's the quickest way to kill it off. You provide for both yourself and your creative work. (Don't quit your day job.)
  • Stop complaining. Complaining about your creative life is bad juju and ideas will not want to collaborate with you. Treat your work with respect, approach it with love, and see how that alters your experience of doing the work.
  • Create because you love to do it. There may be no other reward.
  • Your work is not your baby. Cut, change, adapt if you must. Your creative power is precious, but your projects will never find their way in the world if you feel that you must forever hover over them protectively. 
  •  You are unlikely to get the outcome in the world that you desire from your work. Not that you will never succeed. But even success takes longer and comes in unexpected ways. You cannot control the outcome. Create anyway.
  • Put fierce trust in the love you bear for your creativity, trust for which the qualifiers of success or failure effectively lose their meaning.

This mantra toward the end of the book brought me to tears:
"Fierce trust asks you to stand strong within this truth: You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. And you will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don't understand the outcome."

I can't recommend this book more. It's a gem, unlike anything in its class.

Here are a list of other books I've enjoyed as creative inspiration and writing craft:

On Writing, Stephen King: The most practical and helpful book on writing and craft I've read. The memoir portion feels erroneous to the reader looking for writing advice, until you realize it's integral. Try not to feel as though you too must produce 2000 words a day after reading it. 

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott: This was the first book of writing advice I ever read. It's hilarious and honest and focuses on getting past our own hang-ups in order to do the work. 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle: A Christian spiritual reflection on writing by the author of A WRINKLE IN TIME. Deep and moving, abstract but inspiring. 

The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron: A twelve week creative recovery workbook, not unlike a twelve step program. Great for digging deep into oneself and mining out the reasons for blockage and reconnecting with your creative dreams.

Reflections on the Magic of Writing, Diana Wynne Jones: A hodge-podge of lectures and essays by the great children's fantasy writer who studied under Lewis and Tolkein at Oxford and authored many books, including HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. The latest edition has an introduction by Neil Gaiman. 

The Writing Life, Annie Dillard: A soulful memoir by the Pulitzer Prize winning Dillard, reflecting on the experience of her own writing life. 

Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg: This is a book filled with practical exercises and the exhortation to keep the pen moving! A huge proponent of free writing, Goldberg, a Zen Buddhist, approaches writing as a practice, much like yoga or meditation.

Question for you: What are your favorite books of writing advice? (I'm always adding to my reading list.) If you've read BIG MAGIC, what was your number one takeaway?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Noteworthy Middle-Grade Verse Novels of 2016 by Caroline Starr Rose

Last year my Project Mayhem posts were about new books I was excited to read, which I arranged according to release date. This year I'll be sharing new releases by genre, starting with the verse novel.

Technically, verse is not a genre but a form. In its simplest definition, a verse novel is a story told through poetry. Some purists like to argue that verse novels aren't true poetry but some sort of hybrid between poetry and prose -- a "lesser" form called verse. As a verse novelist myself, this used to get my angsty juices flowing: Was I a poet? Was I a novelist? Was I something in between?

It no longer matters to me how others define the verse novel. What's most important is finding the best, most honest and effective way to tell a particular story.

While there are as many styles as there are verse novels, these books share some things in common: 

  • spare language
  • individual poems that stand in for chapters and stanzas that stand in for paragraphs
  • vivid imagery
  • rhythm
  • language that evokes emotion
  • line breaks used to communicate beyond the words on the page
Some verse novelists, such as Laura Shovan (see below!), use specific forms of poetry to tell their stories. Others rely on free verse alone. As an author who writes both verse and prose, one striking difference is how I experience the writing itself: Prose feels to me like a movie. Verse feels like a collection of related photographs grouped together in an album. Both tell stories, but in different ways. 

Here are new middle-grade verse novels for 2016. Some are straight verse, some are a mix of poetry and prose. I hope you enjoy!

Little Cat’s Luck — Marion Dane Bauer (February 9)

When an indoor calico cat named Patches spots a golden autumn leaf fluttering past her window, she can’t help but venture outside to chase it. But soon, Patches feels something tugging at her, telling her to find a special place—one she won’t know until she sees it. Why must she go on this search? She doesn’t know yet.

Along the way, Patches finds herself in dire circumstances, but with the help of the other neighborhood animals, she faces off against the scariest dog in town and continues on her journey to her special place.

Beautifully told in verse and accompanied by adorable illustrations by Jennifer A. Bell, this heartwarming novel from Newberry Honor­–winner, Marion Dane Bauer, is a timeless, touching, and fulfilling story about finding your way home.

Booked -- Kwame Alexander (April 5)

Like lightning/you strike/fast and free/legs zoom/down field/eyes fixed/on the checkered ball/on the goal/ten yards to go/can’t nobody stop you/
can’t nobody cop you…

In this follow-up to the Newbery-winning novel THE CROSSOVER,  soccer, family, love, and friendship, take center stage as twelve-year-old Nick learns the power of words as he wrestles with problems at home, stands up to a bully, and tries to impress the girl of his dreams. Helping him along are his best friend and sometimes teammate Coby, and The Mac, a rapping librarian who gives Nick inspiring books to read.  
This electric and heartfelt novel-in-verse by poet Kwame Alexander bends and breaks as it captures all the thrills and setbacks, action and emotion of a World Cup match!

Falling Into the Dragon’s Mouth — Holly Thompson (April 12)

In a Japanese seaside neighborhood lives Jason Parker:
a sixth grader
one year older than his classmates
a stinking foreigner to some classmates
an orange belt in aikido
a big brother
Jason Parker is just a boy trying to get through his days with calm and courage. If only everyone around him would let him.

This is a beautifully spare novel in verse about one boy's life-a story that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in.

The Lonely Ones — Kelsey Sutton (April 26)

When your only friend is your own endless imagination, how do you escape your mind and connect to the world around you?
With parents too busy to pay her attention, an older brother and sister who would rather spend their time with friends, and peers who oscillate between picking on her and simply ignoring her, it's no wonder that Fain spends most of her time in a world of her own making. During the day, Fain takes solace in crafting her own fantastical adventures in writing, but in the darkness of night, these adventures come to life as Fain lives and breathes alongside a legion of imaginary creatures. Whether floating through space or under the sea, climbing mountains or traipsing through forests, Fain becomes queen beyond--and in spite of--the walls of her bedroom.

In time, Fain begins to see possibilities and friendships emerge in her day-to-day reality . . . yet when she is let down by the one relationship she thought she could trust, Fain must decide: remain queen of the imaginary creatures, or risk the pain that comes with opening herself up to the fragile connections that exist only in the real world? Told in breathless and visual verse, THE LONELY ONES takes readers through the intricate inner workings of a girl who struggles to navigate isolation and finds friendship where she least expects it.

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary — Laura Shovan (April 26)

Laura Shovan’s engaging, big-hearted debut is a time capsule of one class’s poems during a transformative school year. Families change and new friendships form as these terrific kids grow up and move on in this whimsical novel-in-verse about finding your voice and making sure others hear it.
Eighteen kids,
one year of poems,
one school set to close.
Two yellow bulldozers
crouched outside,
ready to eat the building
in one greedy gulp.
But look out, bulldozers.
Ms. Hill’s fifth-grade class
has plans for you.
They’re going to speak up 
and work together
to save their school.

Moo — Sharon Creech (August 30)

When Reena, her little brother, Luke, and their parents first move to Maine, Reena doesn’t know what to expect. She’s ready for beaches, blueberries, and all the lobster she can eat. Instead, her parents “volunteer” Reena and Luke to work for an eccentric neighbor named Mrs. Falala, who has a pig named Paulie, a cat named China, a snake named Edna—and that stubborn cow, Zora.
This heartwarming story, told in a blend of poetry and prose, reveals the bonds that emerge when we let others into our lives.

What verse novels are you looking forward to this year?