Thursday, January 31, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love this little autograph book I had when I was a kid. I got autographs from friends at school, summer camp and the neighborhood.

Here are some of my favorites:

When you get married and you have twins don't come to me for safety pins.

I saw you in the ocean, I saw you in the sea, I saw you in the bathtub. Oops! Pardon me!

You are very cute. You are an angel. Cute as a monkey but sometimes you smell mighty skunky!

You are gold. You will be sold. A boy shall give you a ring, so you will have to sing, and if you do not have twins, you'll have a lot more sins. Roses are red and violets are blue. From your boyfriend I shall sue him 1,000,000 kisses.

Roses are red. Violets are blue. Sugar is sweet and so are you. Barbara is a proper noun. Phrases up, phrases down. Neuter, gender, hopeless case. Object of the monkey race. ~~ Yours till the moon turns blue and yours till the Mississippi has to wear rubbers to keep its little bottom dry.

If I go to heaven before you do, I'll make a hole and pull you through.
Ducks in the pond go quack, quack, quack. And you and Allen H go smack, smack, smack. (Note: I scratched out Allen H and inserted Jerry P)

I climbed up all these stairs to say good-bye.

Roses are red. Violets are blue. Sugar is sweet and so are you. The roses are wilted. The flowers are dead. The sugar is lumpy and so is your head.

Roses are red. Violets are blue. Nobody would like an old maid like you.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lessons from Blondie's University of Experience

Lesson #256:

Don't go to the car wash when it's 16 degrees outside.

But if you do, don't panic when the doors won't open and you are stuck in the car.

After about 20 minutes in the garage, they should thaw out.

(Keep snacks in the car just in case.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

Speaking of action.....'s some food for thought with regard to your story:

Is the character a critical element in the ACTION of the story?

Is she instrumental in driving the story forward?

Does she MAKE the story happen?


Is the story simply happening to her or around her?

Here's the million dollar question:

If you took your main character out of the story, would the story/action/event still happen?

IMHO, it's not enough to have a character simply experiencing the story, relating the story, observing the story, etc. It's not even enough for the character to just participate in the story.


And that means....the character needs to DO something - not just see something, feel something, tell us something, experience something, etc.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Writing Workshops

Here is a group of fifth graders showing me the timelines they made of someone they interviewed. The timelines will help them organize their information in preparation for writing a three-chapter biography.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love my bird nest collection.

This one was given to me by my geeky pal, Sarah Miller.

Baltimore Oriole, PG!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Living Literature Project

Students at McDonald Green Elementary School in Lancaster, South Carolina, are participating in a competition called the Living Literature Project.

They are acting out Greetings from Nowhere

Here is the set they made for the Sleep Time Motel.

And here they are acting out a scene.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Part 2 of discussing There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar:

In addition to creating a lovable bad boy, Sachar uses a unique technique in this book.

He adds a wonderful layer to the main character of Bradley Chalkers by having him live in a fantasy world with his collection of toy animals.

First of all, this fantasy relationship between Bradley and his animals is so dang sweet you just HAVE to root for Bradley, no matter how often he lies or otherwise engages in naughty behavior.

How can you NOT love this kid?

But what I love most about the way Sachar uses this device is the way he does it - by literally switching from realistic fiction mode into fantasy mode - just as smooth as smooth can be.

He was talking to his collection of little animals. He had about twenty of them. There was a brass lion that he had found one day in a garbage can on the way to school. There was an ivory donkey that his parents had brought back from a trip to Mexico. There were two owls that were once used as salt and pepper shakers, a glass unicorn with its horn broken, a family of cocker spaniels, attached around an ashtray, a raccoon, a fox, an elephant, a kangaroo, and some that were so chipped and broken you couldn't tell what they were. And they were all friends.

And they all liked Bradley.
[Note: Can Sachar write a powerful sentence, or what??!!]

"Where's Ronnie?" Bradley asked. "And Bartholomew?"

"I don't know," said the fox.

"They're always going off together," said the kangaroo.

Bradley leaned across the bed and reached under his pillow. He pulled out Ronnie the Rabbit and Bartholomew the Bear....
"What were you two doing back there?" he demanded.

Ronnie giggled. She was a little red rabbit with tiny blue eyes glued on her face...

"Nothing, Bradley," she said. "I was just taking a walk."
I love this! It takes the reader right into Bradley's fantasy world and it's just so much fun.

Oh, and remember that language test he cut up into a gazillion little pieces earlier in the story?

Bradley reached into his pocket and took out a handful of cut-up bits of paper, his language test.

"Look, everybody," he said. "I brought you some food!"

He dropped the bits of paper onto the bed, then scooped all his animals into it.

"Not so fast," he said. "There's plenty for everybody."

"Thank you, Bradley," said Ronnie. "It's delicious."

"Don't play with your food," the mother cocker spaniel told her three children.

"Pass the salt," said the pepper owl.

"Pass the pepper," said the salt owl.

"Let's hear it for Bradley!" called the lion.

They all cheered, "Yay, Bradley!"

Ronnie finished eating, then hopped off by herself, singing, "doo de-doo de-doo."

Then she said, "I think I'll go swimming in the pond."

The pond was a purple stain on Bradley's bedspread where he had once spilled grape juice.

And so it goes - Sachar using this fantasy world to help the reader love Bradley.

And it totally works.

And then.... when Bradley's sister barges into his room while he's chatting with his animals:

"Get out of here!" he snapped at her. "Or I'll punch your face in!"

I love that kid.

What's my tip here, you might be wondering?

My tip is:

Don't be afraid to try something new. Wanna intersperse some fantasy with some reality? Wanna take us inside your main character's world, even if it means leaving your realistic setting?

Break a rule or two.

Go ahead.

Try it.

I dare you.

Quoted from There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar; Alfred Knopf; 1987

Monday, January 21, 2013

Teaching Revision

I teach a lot of writing workshops with elementary school students.

One of the best ways to teach revision is by modeling. To teach the writing technique of "show, don't tell," I read the students before and after versions. A LOT of them.

After hearing the before and after versions, the students absorb the technique like sponges.

Over the years, I've collected some impressive examples of Show, Don't Tell revisions that were done after I had read the students oodles of before and after examples. 

I shared some of them a while back.

 Click here to have a look.

This week, I collected a few more from fifth graders. (Note: These students were writing biographies of someone they had interviewed.)

Before:  Her favorite subject was history.

After: She especially loved hearing stories about the past and how places were discovered.

Before: His favorite subject was English.

After: He was never late for English class.

Before: He and his best friend, Wes, got in trouble a lot.

After: He and his best friend, Wes, often spent time together in the principal's office.

Before: The kids in her neighborhood were close.

After: The kids in her neighborhood were like brothers and sisters.

Before: He loved football.

After: He loved the feeling of making tackles and running for touchdowns.

Before: He was shy.

After: He didn't start conversations and tried to stay unnoticed.

Before: Linda was shy and quiet but a good student.

After: Linda didn't talk much but her hand was always up for the answer.

Before: She loved algebra.

After: She counted the minutes until algebra class.

And my favorite:

Before: John's favorite teacher at boarding school was Mr. Logan. His least favorite teacher was Mr. Willis.

After: John groaned to himself when he had to go to biology class with grumpy, frowning Mr. Willis. But he had a bounce in his step when he was heading for the class of silly, fun, creative Mr. Logan.      

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

My friend and mentor, Ann Cameron (who is brilliant and has many years experience over me) once told me that she thinks There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar is one of the best children's books ever written.

That book was published over 21 years ago.

I recently pulled it out of my teetering pile of books and started reading it again.

I was struck by a couple of thoughts.

One: Louis Sachar is a brilliant writer.

But the second thought that struck me was what a great character Bradley Chalkers is.

I am sure that kids adore him.

And here's my theory as to why: He's a lovable bad kid.

He says naughty things.

He does naughty things.

But he has a good heart.

Here are the first two paragraphs of There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom:

Bradley Chalkers sat at his desk in the back of the room - last seat, last row. No one sat at the desk next to him or at the one in front of him. He was an island.

If he could have, he would have sat in the closet. Then he could shut the door so he wouldn't have to listen to Mrs. Ebbel. He didn't think she'd mind. She'd probably like it better that way too. So would the rest of the class. All in all, he thought everyone would be much happier if he sat in the closet, but, unfortunately, his desk didn't fit.

Now, I don't know about you, but I love this kid already.

As the school day progresses, Bradley spends a lot of time scribbling, "sometimes on the paper and sometimes on his desk."

The pencil point breaks.

He tapes the broken pencil point to "one of the gobs of junk in his desk."

His desk was full of little wads of torn paper, pencil points, chewed erasers, and other unrecognizable stuff, all taped together.

[Is anybody else thinking Joey Pigza besides me?]

When the teacher hands back the language tests, Bradley has the only F in the class. He cuts his test paper into tiny squares. [Note: Remember comes in again next week when I discuss this book again.]

I love that.

In the meantime, a new kid is introduced to the class. The new kid tries to make make friends with Bradley.

Bradley thought a moment, then said, "Give me a dollar or I'll spit on you."

End of chapter one.

Now, first of all, that is a killer chapter ending.

Tell me there is one kid on the face of the earth who would STOP reading at that point.

And tell me there is one kid on the face of the earth who isn't intrigued by Bradley Chalkers.

I'd bet my bottom dollar, most kids LOVE Bradley Chalkers.

He is a lovable bad kid.

I'm going to talk more about Bradley Chalkers next week, but my point for today is: take a good look at your main character.

Is he perfect?

Is he always nice? Always good? Always right?

If so.....come on, give the kid some BAD.

It doesn't have to be a lot - just enough to make him human (and lovable).

Quoted from There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar; Alfred Knopf; 1987

Friday, January 11, 2013

Stephanie Blake is in the house!

Stephanie Blake
Today I'm delighted that my friend, author Stephanie Blake, has stopped by to chat.

Her first middle grade novel, The Marble Queen, has just been published and is getting great reviews. 

Kirkus says, "This one is for keepsies, and it would be perfect paired with a how-to book on marble games."

School Library Journal says, "Hopefully this engaging first novel won’t be the only book about Freedom Jane McKenzie, because she is one likable gal." 

From the jacket flap:

Freedom Jane McKenzie isn't good at following the rules. She's good at getting into trouble--playing marbles. All she wants is to enter the marble competition at the Autumn Jubilee and show the boys in the neighborhood that she's the best player. First, Freedom has to convince her mother to let her enter. But there's a new baby on the way, Freedom's daddy is drinking too much, her little brother is a handful, and her mother is even more difficult than usual. Freedom learns that when it comes to love, friendship, and family, sometimes there are no rules. Set in 1959, The Marble Queen is a timeless story about growing up.

Now let's chat with Stephanie:

Can you tell us a bit about your road to publication?

The road to publication was long and painful. It took 6 years and about 13 rejections. Just like having a baby, you forget the pain and agony once the book is out. Now, I'm struggling with another book. What do you mean I have to write something else?

Little Stephanie roller skating
I loved the storyline of marble playing. Did you play marbles as a kid? Any particular experience you had that you might have drawn on for the story?

I didn't play marbles as a kid, but I did love baseball and played it every day. I was an amazing 2nd baseman. I had to play softball with the girls and always resented it. My grandfather is the one who told me that girls can do anything! I live by that rule. 

The idea for The Marble Queen story came to me one Sunday while I was reading the paper. I was fascinated by an article about a group of old men who were reminiscing about their time as mibsters when they were children in the 1940s and 50s. Back then, marble competitions were sponsored by newspapers and children could win scholarships and cash prizes for becoming The Marble King. There weren’t many girls playing back then. I did some research and the story grew from there.

You handle less-than-perfect family life with the perfect blend of honesty, yet age-appropriate restraint. Did you find that tricky? Was there anything you found yourself toning down or even censoring?

In early drafts, Mama was a lot tougher on Freedom. There were spanks, pinches, and smacks and such that my editor felt were too harsh. In retrospect, she was right! 

Stephanie with her brother
I also wasn't allowed to have the characters smoking with the children around. That was hard because everyone in the 50s smoked. Uncle Mort is the kind of smoker who has a cigarette in his mouth all of the time and smokes while he eats. I think we handled Daddy's alcohol abuse well. We also showed the affection and love between Mama and Daddy without getting gross.

I know that like most authors, you've put bits and pieces of your real life into your story. Can you give us an example of how you've tweaked one of those real life bits to fictionalize it?

There are many little things in The Marble Queen that might have happened in my life. I fed my annoying little brother a worm once. He'll never let me forget it. We used to spend a lot of time together playing outside. I skated everywhere. I always wanted fancy white leather skates with pink pom poms. (Never got them!) I didn't care for Barbies, much.

My stepmother used to make this terribly mushy zuccini slaw, and I just hated it. She'd get out this giant crank shredder and shred about a million pounds of zucchini all at once, and I knew that the big bowl of slaw would be in the fridge for a week.

I insisted that Stephanie include this photo. It's my favorite.
Also, church was a big thing in our family. It felt like the sermons went on and on. I used to people-watch during church, count things, pinch my brother, fall asleep. And my grandpa always needed a mint when he sang!

I knew I wanted fishing to be something that Freedom does with her dad. I actually started fishing so I could really capture the details for that chapter. Now, I love taking my boys to the pond--or even going alone. A bad day fishing beats a good day of writing!

What bad writing habit annoys your copy editor the most?

I really like starting sentences with And and But. I also do not use commas correctly no matter how many rules are taped on the wall above my computer. Comma rules are a lot like math. I hate math.

It's always fun to hear where other writers do their work. Tell us about your workspace.

I have a writing area on the main floor of our house. It's very sunny. My best work is done while I'm sleeping. I have terrible insomnia, and I am often up scribbling at one a.m.

Thanks so much, Stephanie.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

What's not to love about kids who write letters like these:
  • You're the best author in the universe. P.S. You made my whole year
  • You are the best writer in the world.
  • Thank you so much for writing Popeye and Elvis. It is my favorite book of all time and always will be.
I love kids!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Writing Tip Tuesday

One word.....


Children's books need action, action, action.

You know how "everyone" says you should be able to describe your book in one or two sentences?

I'd go a step further and say that you should also be able to describe what your book is about in terms of ACTION.

"This book is about a girl who ______."

The blank should contain action.

"This book is about a girl who DOES SOMETHING."

Not just....

"This book is about a girl who grows/wishes/longs for/hopes/realizes/decides to, etc."

Sure - the girl can (and should) grow/wish/long for/hope/realize and decide.

But she should also DO something active while she's growing, wishing, longing for, hoping, realizing and deciding. (In fact, it's the doing that should lead to the growing.)


This book is about a girl who steals a dog in order to make money so her family can get a place to live.


This book is about a girl who struggles with her conscience when circumstances drive her to make a wrong decision for all the right reasons.

The first example is the action of the story.

The second example is the underlying theme of the story.

Both are important elements for children's books.

But the character must do something (usually to solve a problem) - and along the way, she can grow, long for, hope, decide, yada yada yada.

So don't forget.




Thursday, January 3, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love receiving letters like this:

Hello (: My name's Autumn. I'm thirteen years old and live in North Carolina.  I just wanted to tell you that your book "How to Steal a Dog" is the best book ever!! I read it last year in sixth grade and was inspired. 

I've been writing for a while now and I absolutely love it. The details and plot of that book is amazing. I love the relationship of her and her brother. When she takes the dog and goes to the old house and when her, her brother and her mother  are living in the car having trouble, I could really relate and picture the setting in my mind. 

I just wanted to say thank you :)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


They sent me a Yoohoo package!

Ruby wondered what was in it.


Yoohoo boats with secret messages inside them

 Thank you, Mrs. Maiese's class!