Pig Out for Reading

I remember falling in love with reading.

I’ve been reading a lot of middle grade books the past year, because that’s what I want to write. I want to write books like the kind I read from fifth to eighth grade, the kind I re-read and re-re-read. They were the books that really stuck with me as I grew older and looked for new books to read. I loved the books, I loved the writers, I loved reading.

I have trouble remembering authors and titles sometimes, but I can remember how my books looked in my room. I didn’t have a traditional bookshelf in my room, but I had shelves in my closet and I can still picture the books stacked in there. I even remember keeping some books in the open shelf on my night stand.

Remembered Reading

I remember reading Dreams of VictoryA Dog Called KittySasha, My Friend, and Six Months to Live. And of course all of the Little House books. And a book series from the grocery store called Grandma’s Attic.

But I have forgotten the titles of other books I loved reading. I could only remember snippets.  I remembered I read about a woman who gets a young puppy as a companion for her older dog and the older dog dies on an adventure. Or something like that. And I remembered reading a book about a girl who’s mother went vegan in an attempt to be happier.The mom had recently gotten divorced. The daughter hated the new diet and tried to sabotage her mom. The two big scenes I remember reading involved the daughter drinking mustard and milk and finding mice eating the junk food she had hidden in her drawer. The mom and daughter finally come to a truce and a healthy balance of good food.

(I think that book may have influenced my current eating habits more than I realized.)

I wanted to find these books. I searched all over the internet using as many descriptive words as I could. I searched websites like BookFinder for out of print and old books, I searched Amazon for keywords. I searched Goodreads.

Buried Treasure

Goodreads was useful because users create lists like “kids books that were popular in the 80s” and that’s just what I was looking for.

On Goodreads, I was delighted to find some covers of one of my favorites!

reading

Six Months to Live was my first exposure to childhood disease. The main character has leukemia. Funny, maybe this book influenced me more than I realized, too, because I worked for the American Cancer Society for eight years before I moved to writing full time.

On a Goodreads list I also found a book that I know I read, but had forgotten. This was like discovering buried treasure.

But I still couldn’t find the book about the mom going on a health food kick, or the young puppy and old dog. I let my search fade while the rest of life took over, but I didn’t forget about it. Every once in awhile when I visited the library or an old bookstore, I’d poke around and see if a title or cover jogged my memory.

Then I got involved in cleaning out our basement. I wanted to get rid of our excess belongings for several reasons. I abhor hoarding. The thought of it gives me anxiety. Also, I wanted to move our workout equipment into our larger storage room so I could get more done. My cleanup was ruthless. If I had kept something in the basement so long I didn’t go looking for it, I didn’t need it. As a means of farewell, I did do a sweep through all the papers before I recycled them, and that’s when I found my real buried treasure. My Pig Out award.

Pig Out on Reading

reading award

I love to read.

In fifth grade, I wrote 86 book reports to help my class win a reading prize. While it was wonderful to win the prize thirty years ago, it was even better finding these book reports today. I was so, so grateful to my mom (and then me) for saving them until just this moment. (This is not a reason to horde things. Only keep stuff related to your passionate dream.)

I found the titles of those missing, beloved books. Here are some of my favorites:

Behind the Attic Wall

A Wrinkle in Time

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Helen Keller

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great

I wrote reports on tons of Nancy Drew books and way too many Sweet Valley High books. Remember, I was going for quantity.

The Bunnicula series is in here, lots of Beverly Cleary books, some Choose Your Own Adventure and a book that gives me an unsettled feeling called The Twits, by Roald Dahl.

But the one about the mom and daughter and health food? It’s called Fifth Grade Secrets. Did you ever read it? I’ve got to find it.

I didn’t find the new dog/old dog book, but that might have been a story in my classroom SRA box. Did you have one of those?

 

Manuscript Goals

manuscript

Read. Edit. Revise.

Hello, manuscript. Get ready to work. I have some serious December writing goals. Tomorrow, I will start a new post and update it daily, with notes to myself, in order to be accountable and to reach these goals.

It’s not like I haven’t been writing. I did write in November, I just didn’t do NaNoWriMo. But that’s fine. Honestly, it’s about whether I am writing, not about what or how much. I did NaNo for a few years for confidence and practice and quantity, but I think I need to focus on quality now.

I have three completed novel manuscripts. I’ve submitted one for agent feedback several times, but I’d like to have two others ready to submit. I feel like these two others have good legs when it comes to having strong premises (not just ideas) and interesting, unique characters. They are all middle grade and I feel that’s my sweet spot.

Manuscript #1

So, let’s start with Dare Club.

It has 24 chapters. If I can read, edit and revise 2 chapters a day, that would take me 12 days. I’m already done 5 chapters, so that leaves 19 and I believe I could complete this in 10 days.

Manuscript #2

I don’t have a good title for this manuscript. But the premise is: what happens if a boy who always says the wrong thing finds an iPod that lets him read people’s thoughts?

My pitch is weak. But it’s a start.

“Jace is really good at always saying the wrong thing. When he finds a magical iPod at a flea market, he thinks he has the key to his dreams, starting on the soccer team and getting his first girlfriend. But his life turns into a nightmare when the iPod – and knowing people’s secrets – causes more problems than it solves. Will Jace figure out the real power of the iPod before it’s too late?”

I’d like to 1. write the outline and synopsis. 2. Read, edit and revise. 3. Submit in January.

Also, I need a title. Maybe “iSecrets.” No, that’s dumb. Maybe “Open Mouth, Insert Foot.” That’s my working title. Maybe “Shuffle.” Ha.

Outline should take a day, reading and revising 2 chapters a day means at least 2 weeks. And so just this manuscript plus Dare Club takes up all of December.

Manuscript #3

This manuscript also lacks a title. But the premise here is: What happens if the girl who never finishes anything decides she’s going to run a marathon?

The pitch goes something like: “Nobody ever takes twelve-year-old Whitney seriously, mostly because Whitney doesn’t take life seriously. But when Whitney decides to run a marathon, no one believes her. Will Whitney change who she is in the eyes of others or learn who she really is?”

I’d like to 1. write the outline and synopsis. 2. Read, edit and revise. 3. Submit in February.

Also I need a title. I’m thinking “Finisher.” Or “DNF” (that stands for Did Not Finish).

Probably the same timeline as Manuscript 2. Can I do three manuscripts in two months? Maybe if I give myself a clear accomplishment goal like “two chapters a day.” That feels defined and manageable.

Short Story Manuscripts

I also need to finish revising “Will Call” and “The Hunter Case” and send them in to the ghost story competition before January 2017.

Picture Book Manuscripts

I want to draft the text for “I Really Love You, Mom, and I Mean It” and bring that to critique group. I also want to craft the dummy for “Digit” and send that on to my selected publisher.

Can I get those short stories and picture books done by February?

Only if I don’t do anything else.

Let’s Close the Word Gap

Ready to learn about the Word Gap?

I love to sneak learning into all parts of life. I’m a curious person, I can’t help it! My son asked if we could go on one vacation without learning things, and I answered with a maniacal laugh and a deep, sonorous NO. In this family, we love to learn!! And we talk about what we learn!!

Seriously, learning does not have to be boring. Learning can be fun if you do it the right way. And the right way is to make it into a game.

On car trips, when our kids were very little, we played rhyming games. They are all now school age so we will often play ‘Spelling Bee’ and give our kids funny words to spell at their grade level. We also keep a small but mighty trivia book tucked in a seat pocket and take turns passing it around and answering questions.

But let’s say you’re not on vacation and want some fun learning games for young kids. My first recommendation is BINGO. Yes, the classic game of Bingo is perfect to start playing with young kids (and older kids).

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Learning Numbers

When my oldest started kindergarten, I couldn’t wait to volunteer and help out. So as we neared Halloween, his wonderfully patient and experienced teacher invited me in to play a game with the class. I brought in our Bingo game set, complete with rolling ball and playing cards and red plastic markers. I started calling out letters and numbers and my son (and maybe a few other students) marked their cards. But most of the kids didn’t know what I meant when I called out double-digit numbers.

I felt embarrassed, but I also knew these kids could learn these numbers and that a game like Bingo was the perfect way to help them. We had been playing Bingo with our kids for a long time. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I could have written the numbers on the board and helping the kids look at their cards and match them up. I also could have done peer teaching and paired kids up.

Learning Words

It’s really important that kids learn their numbers, but it’s also important that they master our language and learn the parts of speech. Having a strong and varied vocabulary increases our ability to explain ourselves and understand others, to express complex thoughts and build connections between concepts and create new ideas. And that’s where Mad Libs comes in.

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Yes, Mad Libs. That old school paper book (not an e-device) that asks players to write in verbs, adjectives and nouns. The one where you couldn’t resist writing “butt” and “poop” at least a few times. It works.

My friend took a Mad Libs story into her son’s fourth grade class as a part of a holiday party and she was surprised how few kids could provide suggestions for the parts of speech. Standards in third grade already covered adjectives, adverbs and proper nouns! By fourth grade, students should be able to provide appropriate suggestions for those parts of speech. But even if they struggle, Mad Libs is a fun, non-academic way to encourage them to think about what kind of word is both grammatically logical but also hilariously out of place.

The Word Gap

Thinking about Mad Libs brings me back to the Word Gap. Simply put, kids from low income families are hearing and learning fewer words than kids from high income families. By age 3, kids from low income families are hearing 30 million fewer words. 30 million. And the discrepancy only increases as the kids age. It impacts these kids in terms of school success, which in turn impacts their chances of continuing education, job readiness, and the cycle of poverty.

A lack of words? It’s totally unfair.

It seems so bitterly unjust to me, someone who loves to talk and learn, that these children are already behind due to a lack of words. I try never to talk ‘down’ to children (or adults). But lots of people aren’t aware of this and say they aren’t sure what to say to kids. And sometimes when I take my children’s writing to more general critique groups, I get comments that my vocabulary is too high and I need to ‘dumb it down’ or ‘make it more kid friendly.’

But now you and I know being kid friendly means offering them more words, not less.

There are some amazing ideas out there. People are working to increase the number of words kids see, hear, read, learn and say. I’d love to contribute in some way to reduce the Word Gap. I’m going to keep thinking about it and I’m going to ask my kids what they think would work.

How would you reduce the Word Gap?

 

Advice for Writers from an Agent

In May, I attended the SCBWI Western PA Agent Workshop. I learned a lot and got some excellent advice for writers on pitches, storytelling, and revision and I wanted to share it with you!

Pitching Advice for Writers

While they need to be short, they still need to include the main character, the obstacle and some sense of resolution.

This was my pitch and it was well-received.

Short and sweet!

Short and sweet!

Storytelling Advice for Writers

  • Mirror, Mirror. Please don’t use the tired device of describing your character’s physical appearance by having your your character look into a mirror.
  • Too Much Telling takes away from action.
  • Why Should I Care? This is the feeling that readers get when they confront too much backstory. Weave it in, don’t dump it.
  • Bubble Boy or Girl. Or Alien. Make sure your characters don’t exist in a bubble. Describe the setting and use all five senses!

Revision Advice for Writers

More advice for writers covered how to revise your manuscript. Envision your manuscript as a road that your readers will travel on a wondrous journey. The first draft is like that rocky, dirty, bumpy path carved out by construction equipment. Each stage of renovation makes it smoother, easier, more pleasant to travel.

As you read your manuscript, look for places where you’ve left out setting details, where you’ve used passive voice and -ly words, and if your main character is changing. If not, go back and call in that construction crew.

Advice for Writers of Picture Books

Did you know 60% of the story should be told through illustration? That means for non-illustrating writers like myself, I should only write 40% of the tale in the text. This is an interesting way for me to examine my texts, even though I never considered myself particularly mathematical. I like the idea of making sure the larger part of the tale comes through in the art, even if that does make writing harder.

Read All the Newbery Medal Books, March 2016 Update

We’re into March of 2016 and I feel like I’m finally starting to tackle my “read all the Newbery Medal Books” project. I was stalled at the beginning of the year because I wanted to finish Ulysses. While that book is an excellent but very long read. Then in the process of researching the biology of the Sargasso Sea, as well as the migration of eels and monarchs, I stumbled across an amazing book of Rachel Caron’s writing called Lost Woods.

If you’re interested at all in nature, science writing, or the power of the written word to influence public policy, I highly recommend this book. There are passages in there that are still relevant today, even though they were written half a century ago.

But then I finally started those Newbery Medal books I’ve been collecting! So far this month I read King of the Wind, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and I’m almost finished with Julie of the Wolves.

I enjoyed King of the Wind for its sensory details and historical and cultural information. I started with this book because I am working on an animal story myself and because I’ve read Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and have fond memories of that book.

I knew I’d love Julie of the Wolves because I loved Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. I recently re-read that book last year and still love the idea of leaving civilization for the wilderness and living off the land and in tune with the natural world. I don’t think it’s quite the lifestyle for me, but I love the escapism offered by these books. Julie of the Wolves offers even more as she lives in the tundra. It’s a world so foreign made so real by Craighead George.

Picking up The Witch of Blackbird Pond was an emotional moment for me. This book represents some tough coming of age experiences for me. Like a lot of kids, I struggled in my sixth grade year. I went to a small school and unfortunately my sixth grade teacher was the mom of a girl in my class with whom I didn’t quite get along with at the time. We had been friends in second grade, but by sixth we weren’t. Anyway, for some reason or another I was put in the lowest reading group that year. Me! I wasn’t good at a lot of things in middle school, but I was really, really good at reading. I have no memory of what book my group read, but I know the highest reading group read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was very bitter about this unfair grouping. I held a grudge against this teacher and this book. Now that I’m 40, I decided it was time to read this book and move on with my life!! I did enjoy it and now I want to visit the town of Wethersfield in Connecticut.

newbery books

I miss the Book It program! (But books are their own reward.)

More Newbery Award books to come!

Reading Newbery Award Books

So I’m going to try and read as many Newbery Award books as possible this year! What is the Newbery? It is an award given to children’s literature by the American Library Association. Here’s the blurb from the website:

“The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

The website also has a list of books that have won, but it’s a pdf and not very handy for online use and checking things off.

After a bit of searching, I found a Buzzfeed quiz (of course) that allows you to see how many winners you’ve read. I’ve read a paltry 16 out of 93. That makes me feel so unread. On the plus side, though, I’ve read a fair share of Honors books, so that’s a good point in my favor.

17% of Newbery Award Books

Only 17% of Newbery Award Books

It looks like I’ll turn to Goodreads to ‘collect them all.’ There’s a good list there that shares both winners and honor books, dates of publication, and records for me when I’ve read something so I don’t have to worry about duplication.

On a side note, I’ll be working hard to only get these books from only the library and not buying them. If I must, I’ll try and buy them from used book dealers if I can’t get them from the library. If I’m going to read a lot of books then I might as well do it on a budget.

Right now, my favorite Newbery Award Book might be When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery). It’s based on Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet). Who knows what new favorite I will discover as I read through this huge list?

How many Newbery Award books have you read?

New healthy food activity book for kids!

Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an activity book that helped kids eat healthy foods? Parenting can get so stressful. We want the best for our kids, but we can’t control everything we do. We can’t force feed them healthy food! Remember the old saying, you get more flies with honey than vinegar? When I do talks at parenting workshops and at schools, I always encourage people to add some fun to the dinner time!

That’s why I created Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids! This new electronic activity book is designed to change dinnertime from a food fight into a fun event. There are lots of ways to make healthy eating fun. This new book that I’ve created makes it easy for parents to encourage their kids to try new foods in a friendly, not scary, way. In this activity book, I share some silly jokes, interesting facts, easy activities and even some of our favorite fresh food recipes.

Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids is available as a pdf and includes six unique activities. Once you buy the activity book for only 5.99, you can print out as many sheets and copies as you need. Use the sheets and re-use the sheets.

My kids have tried the jokes and challenges in this activity book and find them to be fun, too, but I’d love to hear what your kids think. Which are their favorites? Did they try a new food or devour their first Monster Salad?

How do you make eating fresh food fun and healthy? Share your ideas and they might end up in the second edition of Fresh Fun Food Ideas for Kids!

12×12 Picture Book Writing

It’s November and like many writers, I’m at the early stages of NaNoWriMo. I love NaNoWriMo because it helps me produce one big project, a 50,000 word novel in a specific period of time. But I’m not only writing novels. I write magazine articles throughout the year and try my hand at short stories here and there. But I also have a goal of writing a publishable picture book, fiction or non-fiction.

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To work on achieving that goal, I was really excited to learn about Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 project. This website encourages writers to produce 12 picture book drafts over the course of the year, one per month. The drafts do not have to be perfect and you don’t even have to show the draft to anyone (but I always take mine to critique groups). But for each draft you complete, you can earn a badge on your profile on the website. Writers can also earn a badge for revising a picture book manuscript in each month. Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 4.09.10 PM

I love the gamification aspect of this site. I also enjoy the forums as a place where writers can discuss questions and Shel SILVERstein members (my level) can also share the first 250 words of their manuscripts in the forums and request feedback from other members. For good karma, members are encouraged to leave feedback on two or three manuscripts for every one we submit for feedback.

Gold members pay a higher fee and have the chance to submit their manuscripts to agents or editors. There is a bronze level that doesn’t allow you to post 250 words but does give you access to the forums and chance to participate in webinars.

Thanks to 12×12, I’ve been really productive on my picture book manuscripts this year. I have a decent one I plan to bring to an intensive critique at my local SCWBI conference this month. I produced at least one throw away (The Snow Fort) and one possible magazine story (Santa’s Best Friend). I also revised a story that was purchased by a magazine and that feels like a great success! And for three months in a row I drafted completely different stories based on one basic idea.

It doesn’t take long to produce a picture book draft. Mine are typically under 1000 words so that’s less than an hour of work a month! Get those vague ideas into words and see how they feel. Then for the rest of the month massage the words, revise the words, adjust and alter the words. If it’s not feeling great, let it go at the end of the month because you know you will produce something new.

I’m thinking I will renew my membership next year because I like the accountability that comes with knowing I’ve paid for a membership and I should use it. It’s interesting that I don’t have a lot of trouble generating queries for non-fiction magazine articles. But there’s usually a deadline associated with non-fiction query ideas, so that is my accountability!

What helps you be productive when it comes to picture book writing? Do you set goals and work to fulfill them? Do you need some kind of external structure to keep you focused?

 

 

Make a Picture Book Draft

I’ve been trying to make a picture book draft once a month, every month, this year. I’m a member of Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 and the focus on productivity and creativity – the art of creating – has been really useful. I know I can come up with an idea once a month and it doesn’t take long to make a picture book draft. These drafts are typically less than 1000 words so it doesn’t take more than an hour to sketch out the first version.

The drafts that seem to work, that could possibly morph into a story for a children’s magazine or perhaps something to bring to critique group and then later to a writer’s intensive at a conference get revised.

As part of the revision process and to test the strength of the story I’ll make a dummy. A dummy is a more detailed draft of the picture book story, laid out with illustrations. Dummies help you see if there are page turning moments, if each set of words can be illustrated, if your story is droning on or getting repetitive.

I’ll also bring my drafts to children to read and critique. My kids are used to being honest about what they like and what they don’t. My kids are also used to seeing picture book drafts that don’t have pictures. But other children aren’t. That’s another good reason to make a dummy.

Make a Picture Book Draft

When you make a picture book draft or dummy, you are working on storyboarding. I have experimented with three different ways of making picture book dummies and storyboarding my tales.

The first is very visual, a traditional storyboard approach. I used this format a lot when planning out the text and illustrations for Dinosaur Boogie.

make a picture book draft

Just needs a story.

 

The second way is a bit more traditional. The instructions come from Ann Whitford Paul’s book Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication. She advises you take four pieces of paper and cut them into quarters. Staple them together and you have the pages you need to lay the text and illustrations for a traditional 32 page picture book.

Make a picture book draft

Long and short stories.

Following Whitford Paul’s advice I created books of different sizes and orientations to accommodate different amounts of text. But I innovated a little with this method and used scrap paper. Yes, that means I can’t write directly on these pages, but I can write text on post-it notes and move them around inside the book pages easily. I can also scribble something on a post-it regarding illustration and move that around, too, and experiment with a little bit of graphic design. Do I want the text above the art? Below? Around the side?

Which leads me to my third method that I use to make a picture book draft or dummy: InDesign. I’m no expert, but I can get around in InDesign. So I will create a document with lots of pages, put my text in and then search on Google for free images. I’m not going to use these images for a profit so I could probably use images that aren’t free, but I like to keep things honest. Then I print out a simple version of an illustrated dummy. These are the versions I take into my favorite test classrooms and try out on kids that aren’t mine.

picture book draft

Ready to read.

Not too shabby! And I find bringing illustrated dummies to classrooms helps me get a sense of the kids’ real reaction to story instead of them being confused about where the pictures are. And they love learning the phrase “picture book dummy.”

So how do you go about making a picture book draft or dummy? Do you have a favorite method? Are you hi-tech or old school?

Brain Food: SCBWI and SWPFSP

summer reading with kids

Food for Thought

 

I hate being hungry. I can’t concentrate and I’m really grouchy. Imagine if you were a kid who was hungry all summer.  But here in Pittsburgh, that’s not an imaginary thing. It’s real. In fact, there are more than 45,000 children in Allegheny County that are considered to be food insecure, and 73,500 children are eligible for free or reduced-rate school lunches or breakfasts.

So when Chris from the Southwest PA Food Security Partnership approached me and my friend Kathy about helping more kids take advantage of the summer food programs in our area, both of us said YES.

Kathy and I had tables next to each other at the 2015 Farm to Table conference, but we’re also both members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Chris loved the activities we were offering for children that centered around healthy eating but also had a literary and storytelling component. We met in early summer 2015 and he asked us if we could come to summer food sites and provide fun activities for the kids. He hoped that by advertising visits from local authors kids would be more interested in attending. Kathy and I loved the idea and both realized this was a chance to interact with children (something kids’ authors love) and a chance to feed their minds and their bodies.

But we like to think big. So Kathy and I invited all the members of SCWBI Western PA to join us. We had 14 volunteers sign up and they conducted over 10 visits in Allegheny, Somerset and Cambria counties. SCBWI volunteers read books, played games, and told stories while children enjoyed healthy, free meals.

I took my youngest son with me to two of my visits to my old home library, Carnegie Library Woods Run. I used to walk to that library with my young children and we spent many happy afternoons in the children’s section. When my son and I visited in August we found a welcoming staff and adorable kids with incredible imaginations.

For my visit, I brought copies of my book The Bumpy, Grumpy Road to share with the kids. I wanted give them something, a small gift to spark their imaginations. They gave me gifts, too, because in addition to reading stories we played StoryCubes and made up our own stories. And these kids were AMAZING! The little girl in the photo above and another little boy came up with an incredible tale about a boy who had the shadow of a beetle and a beetle who had the shadow of a boy. They traveled together to a castle where they discovered human king…but a beetle queen. You’ll have to use your imagination to find out what happens next.

We definitely plan to continue this partnership next summer so if you’re a local Pittsburgh author or illustrator get in touch and help us feed imaginations while kids get fed.