Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

Practice What I Preach


Don't tell the 8,457 kids I spoke to this year, but I don't practice what I preach.

Here's what I preach:

Don't be afraid to write something that isn't very good.

I then go on to tell them:

You can always make it better.
But you can't fix what you haven't written.

I actually stole that first line from singer/songwriter Paul Simon. I watched a documentary once that showed him teaching a class on songwriting. He told the students: "Don't be afraid to write something that isn't very good."

That has stayed with me ever since.

But the truth of the matter is that I HATE writing something that isn't very good.

It really, really, really bothers me.

In fact, it often paralyzes me. 

Stops me right in my tracks. 

Prevents me from moving forward. 

I have struggled with this miserable phenomenon for a long time.

25 years and 16 books, to be exact.

I like for my writing to be neat and tidy and as nearly perfect as it can be while I'm working on the first draft. I go over and over and over the same sentences, paragraphs, pages without moving forward. But then I get stuck and stay there, spinning my wheels. This can be a bad, bad thing.

Critique partners often tell me to "just move forward" and "you can fix it later." I know that. I really do. But it's still hard to do.

I just don't like those s***ty first drafts that Anne Lamott talks about in her brilliant book on writing, Bird by Bird

But then recently Avi wrote a short blog post that for some reason hammered the concept into my pea brain and made an impact. 

I'm going to read that post a few hundred more times and head on back into my office to work on that s***ty first draft.

Practicing what I preach.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Two Things on Tuesday

Thing One

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this, my hero and idol and inspiration.

Sometimes I'll just find any way at all in the world to avoid writing a book. I think it's because I think every single word is so important; I find it daunting to write. And so I couldn't do it every day. …  Cynthia Rylant (click HERE to read about my obsession)

Thing Two

Dear Barbara O'Connor:

I really really really like your craft move of repeating words three times. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love these little round place mats from Ireland.

Now, if my husband reads this, he'll say, "Whaaa? You never use those!"

And he would be right (for once).

I don't.

But I like having them because they bring back memories of a long ago trip to Ireland.

We stayed in a different place each night for about seven nights.

One night we stayed in a castle.


We were the only three people in the castle.


We had our own private butler named Jackson.

The manager of the castle on the left; Jackson the butler on the right

I mean, how many times in my life am I ever going to stay in a castle with a butler named Jackson? (Um, that would be ONE.)

They used these little round place mats in the dining room.
We were the only three people who ate in the dining room.

A weird and wonderful memory. 

The kitchen garden of the castle

The next night we stayed in a B&B that served us Irish whiskey in Waterford and had this amazing Irish wolfhound.

We hit up a few pubs and threw down a few pints.


My son was into photography. Lots to photograph there!

I love these last two pics because they're so IRISH!

 And so....that's why I love those little round place mats from Ireland.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fourth Grade Writing

Check out this piece of writing from a fourth grade writing workshop I recently taught.

The students were writing paragraphs that show setting (instead of telling the setting).

This one was the back of a crowded school bus on a rainy day.

She ran through puddles and splashed onto the first step of the bus. When she made it to the back, she flopped onto a seat and pulled off her soggy hat.

"I didn't expect it to rain today," she muttered. 

Her friend tromped onto the bus and plopped down next to her. The bus was starting to fill up. The air smelled like wet rubber from the kids' rain boots.

"I can't wait until I can get off!" she said to her friend.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Two Things on Tuesday

Thing One

Dear Barbara O'Connor:

How are you? I’m doing good. Your book The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis was so good. Sometimes it was sad and sometimes happy. 

I really enjoyed your book. 

Thank you for writing it to me. 


Thing Two

Popeye, Starletta and Elvis

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fourth Grade Writing

Check out this writing from a FOURTH GRADE writing workshop

The assignment was to write a paragraph showing a setting. 
This one is summer at the beach.

Carly shut her eyes and let a light breeze whistle past her ears, caressing her lightly. She picked up a beautiful conch shell, then listened to the unique song it sang when she pressed it to her ear. She felt the yellow-white sand grind beneach her feet as she stepped lightly across the beach.

She looked at the beautiful white-capped waves. The smell of the salty, clear-blue water wafted into her nose as she rushed into the ocean. Oh, how the cold water lapped against her ankles! Beautiful refractions threaded across the bottom of the sea like a constantly shifting spider web.

Fourth grade!!!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love this little needlepoint sign made by my husband's grandmother.

It's to hang on the fireplace so you know if the flue is open or shut.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Two Things on Tuesday

Thing One

Received from a teacher:

My 3rd grade students made cards for you after we finished reading aloud your fabulous book, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis...  

I admire your writing very much and thank you so much for hooking my reluctant boy readers. That Spit and Swear Club was their favorite!   

Love that!!!

Thing Two

Word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page....it's growing

Sunday, December 1, 2013

For Dolores

[recycled from August 2008]

Dolores and I watched a Shirley Temple movie together yesterday

(Curly Top).

So, here's the plot:

Shirley is an orphan.

She lives in a beautiful orphanage owned by a handsome rich man.

She has an older sister who is beautiful and who works in the kitchen of the orphanage.

Their parents were actors who died in a car crash.

Shirley has a pony and a duck that her parents used to use in their vaudeville show.

She is so dang cute that the handsome rich man adopts her and buys her a pony cart for her pony and gives her hula lessons.

Shirley wants to raise money for the poor orphans who are not as cute as she is and didn't get adopted, so she puts on a musical and sings Animal Crackers in My Soup and her beautiful sister plays the ukelele.

The handsome rich man falls in love with the beautiful sister and marries her.

Now that is a plot!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

On this Thanksgiving Day:
 I love my family.

I love my friends.

I love my dogs.

I love my health.

I love writing.

I love reading.

I love teachers.

I love librarians.

I love kids.

I love gardening.

I love tap dancing.

I love Cafe Francais.

I love Pinwheel cookies.

I love champagne.

I love oysters.

I love the Smoky Mountains.

I love boiled peanuts.

I love circus peanuts.

I love trains.

I love Cynthia Rylant.

I love sushi.

I love malted milk balls.

I love walking.

I love Randy Travis.

I love Judge Judy.

I love crossword puzzles.

I love Wild Turkey Manhattans - stirred, not shaken.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Two Things on Tuesday

Thing One

I love this.

Good Morning, Wonderful Writers! Today we will not have Morning Meeting. Instead we will go to a presentation by Barbara O'Connor. This will be from 8:40-9:40. She will also come to our classroom from 11:10-12:10. From, Your Teachers. Are you excited to meet a real published author? Yes, Kind of, Not sure (I'm glad they didn't get the choice of "No". haha

Thing Two

Alas, the weather is getting cooler and I'm having to abandon my outdoor office.

So I'm moving indoors.

I read a great interview with Roald Dahl's daughter. She described  his lap desk. 

So I decided I should use a lap desk, too. Maybe I'll write books as great as his. (Or maybe not)

Monday, November 25, 2013

NCTE Recap

Only one word to say about the NCTE conference in Boston: wow!

I met so many teachers, Twitter friends, Facebook friends, authors, etc. 

I'll let the pictures do most of the talking.

 Kirby Larson, Karen Cushman and I presented a program on Creating Story Worlds. We were so psyched to see such a great group of teachers who came to listen.

It was so nice to see some of our favorite Nerdy Book Club friends right there in the front row. Thanks, pals.)

Afterwards, we celebrated.

(l to r) Karen Cushman, Kirby Larson, Miriam Martinez (panel moderator), Nancy Roser (panel moderator)

 Throughout the conference, I ran into so many teacher friends and had lunch with my pal, Patrick Allen.

(clockwise from top left) Donalyn Miller, Patrick Allen, Colby Sharp, Katherine Sokolowski, Paul Hankins)

(top row l to r) Cindy Minnich, Cynthia Alaniz (bottom l to r) Megan Ginther, Holly Mueller

Karen Terlecky, Kirby Larson and I got to recreate our selfie from NCTE in Orlando in 2010. We haven't changed a bit!

Here we are again:


 There was lots of fan girl time with some of my favorite authors.

Karen Cushman

Kirby Larson

Tanya Lee Stone

Deborah Wiles

Linda Urban (and Loree Griffin Burns was there, too. Where'd she go?)

Laurie Halse Anderson

 AND, I scored an Advanced Reader Copy of Laurie's new book. Look what she wrote! Sweet? SWEET! (I'm not sure everyone would agree with that, but I'll take it.)

Special thanks to Colby Sharp and Jenni Holm for hosting the super fun Nerdy Book Club party!

P.S. The only negative: My Cafe Francais (aka according to Kirby: "That evil concoction") spilled into my suitcase. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Two Things on Tuesday

Thing One

Great advice to writers from Anne Lamott:

Don't bog down on transitions. They're hard. Mark with "TR" and move to next passage. Do parts you can do without strain first, like Pick Up Sticks

Thing Two 

I already have New Jersey.

But I just couldn't resist this one.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Things I Love Thursday

I love great school visits!

Caution: The advice contained herein is intended for a perfect world. This is not a perfect world. I know that schools have schedule issues, space issues, budget issues, curriculum issues, etc. etc. etc. We all just do the best we can in our imperfect world, right?

Dear School That is Planning an Author Visit:

So, you've decided to invite an author to your school. Good for you!

Now, I know you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, right? I mean, money is tight. The PTO had a great fundraiser and you want to use it to best advantage.

I've done a lot of school visits.

Some were great. Some were not so great.

What makes an author visit great?

Based on my experience, here are some of the things that will help make your author visit great:

1. If using a local author, try to assemble a team of volunteers ready and willing to research and, if possible, preview visiting authors in your area.

2. That team of volunteers should communicate with school faculty to learn what is most important about the author visit: appeal to the children; curriculum tie-ins; writing workshops; a body of work; an author who can present to the whole school or to just one or two grades, etc.

In addition, are you looking for an author to simply entertain and be interesting (and there's nothing wrong with that!) - or do you also want an author who can give the students something they can take back to their classrooms (i.e., writing tips; curriculum tie-ins, etc.)?

3. Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Bring enough volunteers on board (if possible) so that one person can handle book sales, one person can liaison with teachers and handle scheduling, one person can take care of technical equipment, one person can be in charge of greeting and escorting the author, one person can bring in a small sack lunch and a bottle of water, etc.

4. Plan ahead! Some authors book a year or more in advance. It also takes time to carry out all the other stages of the author visit, like book-ordering (discussed below).

5. Prepare the students.

Let me repeat that:

5. Prepare the students. This is the single most important ingredient for a successful author visit. Hands down.

What is involved in preparing the students, you ask?

Make sure they are familiar with the author's work.

Let me repeat that.

Make sure they are familiar with the author's work.

They should have the author's books in the classrooms.
They should have read the books - or...
They should have had the books read to them.
They should see the books displayed in the library or classroom.

Nothing generates excitement and enthusiasm for an author's visit more than this. 


And when the students are excited and enthusiastic, they get 400% more out of the author visit.

6. Give the author's schedule of presentations careful consideration.
Have you checked with the author about the timing of her presentation? Don't plan on an hour-long program if the author has a 45-minute program. It doesn't sound like much, but it makes a difference when there are 3 or 4 presentations in a day with breaks in between.

Speaking of which, have you allowed for small breaks between sessions?

Have you taken into consideration the amount of time it will take the students to arrive and get settled? (For instance, large groups coming into an auditorium require more time than smaller groups sitting on the floor in the library.)

7. Give the students the opportunity to buy the author's books in advance of the visit. Assign a volunteer to be in charge of this. Most authors have information about ordering on their web site or can give it to you in advance. You should allow six weeks for this! Many publishers can get you books right away, but some need lead time.

Better yet, use your local independent bookseller to help with book sales.

8. Sometimes students aren't motivated to buy a book until after he has seen the author. If possible, order extra books to meet demands of late orders. Most publishers allow unsold books to be returned, so you won't be out the money if you order too many.

9. Choose the location of the presentation carefully. (I totally understand that sometimes your choices are limited.) Libraries are ideal - they have that "book atmosphere" and usually have nice acoustics and lighting. Cafeterias can be deadly - lousy sound, uncomfortable floors for students to sit on, pots and pans clanging, terrible lighting for projector presentations, disruptions and scheduling issues.

10. Be very clear what the equipment needs of the author are. Make sure all the necessary equipment is ready - that means set up and ready to go when the author arrives.

11. Have someone on hand to help the author with technical equipment set-up. It's unfair to expect the author to know how to use unfamiliar projectors or to hustle around looking for extensions cords, outlets, etc.

12. Arrange for someone to greet the author. (Even better, choose a small group of students to greet the author.) This is just common courtesy and will be appreciated. Show the author where the restrooms are, where the teachers' lounge is, etc.

13. Make sure the folks working in the front office know the author is coming and who is expected to escort her to her presentation spot.

14. Have the students prepare signs, banners, or other displays for the author. This adds an air of excitement to the school and makes the author feel welcome. This also helps involve the students in the author visit.

Be sure to show the author the students' handiwork. She will love it!

15. Assign someone to introduce the author to the students. While the author is certainly capable of doing this, having an "official introducer" sends a signal to the students that this is a special presentation and someone worth listening to.

16. Ask that the teachers stay with the students throughout the entire presentation. The author should not have to deal with discipline issues.

17. Don't change the pre-arranged schedule without letting the author know prior to the day of the visit. The author has planned accordingly and shouldn't have to make adjustments after arrival.

18. Let the author know ahead of time if lunch will be provided. 

Most authors come prepared with something for lunch. But if something is being prepared by the school, let her know in advance so she doesn't pack her own. Authors will appreciate choosing something from a take-out menu or a simple lunch prepared by a volunteer. Or let the author know what is available to her in the school cafeteria or from a nearby deli (if time allows).

20. Show the author some appropriate places for her to eat. Some authors will appreciate some quiet time during lunch. You might ask if she would prefer to eat alone in a quiet corner of the library or some other quiet spot. 

21. Some schools arrange for the author to have lunch with a group of students. This is a fun opportunity for both author and students. However, if the students are coming armed with questions, consider allowing time for the author to eat on her own beforehand. It's sometimes difficult to eat and chat at the same time.

22. For booksigning times, have the students write their names on a post-it note so that the author won't have to ask about spelling. An additional bonus is to place the post-it note on the title page. Sounds like a little thing, but it does make things go more smoothly and quickly.

23. Don't allow students to rush up in hoards, thrusting small scraps of paper at the author for her to sign. It's hard for authors to say no to these requests, but signing one usually turns into signing 50. There's just no time for this. (And the author will feel terrible having to say "no.")

24. Have the author's check ready on the day of the visit.

25. Have one of the volunteers write down each process involved in arranging the visit. Then next year, when those volunteers are gone, you won't be reinventing the wheel. You'll have an "owner's manual" for your future school visits.

26. Have the students write thank-you notes or make drawings to send to the author after the visit. That is just one more extension of the program; gives the students a chance to reflect on the visit and what they got out of it, what they liked best, what they learned, etc. This reinforces common manners and will be enjoyed and appreciated by the author.

27. Pat yourself on the back. You've enriched the curriculum, nudged the students a step farther toward better reading and writing, and made an author feel great about her day. Win win!!