The Magic of YouTube

I’m working on a new middle grade novel that I absolutely love, but recently, I hit one of those rough spots.

I’ve been putting off Chapter 7 for about a week.  How come?  It involves my main character, a figure skater, trying to do something she hasn’t mastered yet — a double toe loop.  She falls a bunch.  I knew that much.  And then there’s an interaction with her coach and the other skaters that’s important to the plot.  I was fine with all that, and ready to write it. 

What I didn’t know — and can’t research properly until an appointment in Lake Placid comes through — is what it looks like when you try to land a double toe loop and miss.  How do you do one successfully?  And what might she be doing wrong?

I couldn’t bring myself to just skip that scene and keep writing, but I really wanted to move forward, so last night, I had an interesting thought.  Might there be video of someone doing a double toe loop on YouTube?  Might there even be video of someone trying one and falling?

There were, in fact, numerous videos of people landing toe loops, bobbling toe loops, and completing messing up toe loops.  This one was especially helpful.

Not only did the girl in the pink shirt attempt a double toe loop and fall in slow motion, allowing me to see what went wrong, she did it over and over again. (And the people who responded to the video clip with comments, letting her know what she was doing wrong were pretty darn helpful, too.)

Obviously, watching a video — even a bunch of videos — isn’t the same as being there.  When I take my research trip to Lake Placid, I’ll be able to ask questions, see things, hear things…even smell things about the rink that a video can’t provide.  I’ll use all that in my revision of this chapter, but last night,  I needed to keep moving forward. 

So just in case the girl in the pink shirt stumbles across this blog entry…

I know I’m not the reason you shared your skating video, but you should know that you inadvertently helped me through Chapter 7.  Even beyond the research, I have to tell you that I admire the way you kept trying over and over and over again.  (Writing is like that sometimes, too, only with fewer visible bruises.)

Anyway, I hope you’ve got that double toe loop down by now.  And thanks.

Historical Fiction & Revision at the NYSEC Conference

I spent Thursday at the NYS English Council Conference in Albany, giving presentations on historical fiction and revision, chatting with other writers on a children’s literature panel, and signing copies of Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One.  The fabulous Merritt Bookstore handled book sales for the conference & took terrific care of the authors – Thanks, Scott &  Alison!

When I first arrived, Scott sent me to pick up my paperwork, including this name tag that helped me to introduce myself to the teachers. 

Hello, I’m Kate Messner. I’m  a presenter and…er….a fish

There were apparently two stickers printed out for each presenter – one with his or her name and the word presenter.  That one was supposed to go on the name tag.  The second sticker, which also included the speaker’s choice of dinner entrees, went on the envelope with the meal ticket, but apparently my stickers got switched, which amused me to no end.  It could have been worse, though, as one of my colleagues pointed out.  What if I had ordered the chicken?  Or the ham?

After a morning of book signing, I gave two workshops.

At this one, we talked about recently released historical novels like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, a National Book Award Finalist, and ideas for using historical fiction in the classroom.  Teachers were excited to learn about some upcoming 2009 releases in historical fiction, too.  My second presentation, Walking the Walk: How Teacher-Writers Encourage Student Revision led to some great conversations about how we choose to model what we teach and how sometimes that means taking risks. 

The afternoon panel discussion with fellow children’s writers & illustrators was fun for me, too.  I was on a panel with talented people like Ann Burg, Jack Rightmyer, James Ransome and Will Moses. The teacher-writers who came to fire questions at us were enthusiastic and thoughtful, and no matter how long I write, it’s always fascinating for me to hear about other people’s processes.

I’m reveling in a pile of new books tonight and have already dipped into a couple of them.  I’m loving Jack Rightmyer’s  A Funny Thing About Teaching, a must-read for anyone who values a sense of humor in the classroom.  I’m also devouring an early copy of Ann Burg’s April 2009 novel-in-verse with Scholastic, called All the Broken Pieces, which tells an incredibly moving story set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  Readers who know my blog know that I never shut up about books that I love, so rest assured I’ll be posting a full review of this one when we get closer to its release date. For now, though…just….wow.  Ann sat next to me at the bookstore tables, where she signed copies of her beautiful picture books with Sleeping Bear Press, and is not only an incredible writer but a kind, friendly, funny person, too. 

Here we are at dinner…That’s Ann on the left and me on the right, looking even sleepier than I felt after a day that started at 5:30am.

If you were at the conference and stopped by to say hello at the book signing or panel discussion or one of my workshops – thanks.  It was truly an inspiration to spend the day with people who are so passionate about reading and writing with kids.

The Amazing Boomerang Manuscripts

What sounds like a circus act is actually the reality of having several different projects going on at once, all at different stages.  Out on submission, revising, copy editing, Lately, when I sit down for my writing time at night, I have to ask myself… What’s on my desk right now, and what’s off it?

Tonight’s status report…

On my desk:

  • Two presentations for the NYS English Council Conference in Albany on Thursday.  I’ll be giving two workshops: Historical Fiction as a Bridge to Content Area Literacy and Walking the Walk: How Teacher/Writers Encourage Student Revision. My PowerPoint presentations are updated and ready to go, but I need to get my materials packed AND I need to finish reading a pile of fantastic ARCs from some fellow 2009 debut authors so I can talk them up to the teachers and then give them away.
  • My second MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book for Scholastic.  I’m wrapping up a first round of revisions before I send Marty off to some critique partners.
  • SUGAR ON SNOW, the middle grade novel that’s my current WIP.  I finished Chapter 6 tonight.  I’m really excited about this one, but I think I need to make a trip to Lake Placid for research before I write too much more.

(Truth be told, there’s also a whole bunch of other stuff on my desk, including a few newspaper clippings, some books, a pen holder made of popsicle sticks, index cards, rocks, notebooks, photographs, bookmarks, a kid’s homework that I hope is not due tomorrow, and an orange Tootsie Pop.  There used to be a chocolate one, too, but I ate that while I was writing the end of Chapter 6.)

Off my desk for right now:

  • THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, my Fall ’09 middle grade novel with Walker Books.  Gianna is spending some time in NYC for copy editing.  (Do you think she’ll get to see a show while she’s there?) I expect her home around the end of the month.
  • MARTY MCGUIRE, FROG PRINCESS, my first Marty chapter book for Scholastic.  My latest Marty revision went back to my editor last week.
  • OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW, my picture book with Chronicle Books.  I’m waiting for a decision on an illustrator.  I’ve heard bits and pieces of some very exciting possibilities, but nothing definite yet.
  • A new picture book that’s out there in the world right now.  Think good thoughts for it, okay?  I’m very fond of it and have high hopes that I’ll be able to make it what it needs to be to find a home.

Off my desk for good:

  • Son’s leaf collection project (which wasn’t on my desk, exactly, but it meant that the boy was hogging my computer and dripping pine needles all over the living room floor, so it still counts.)  He is turning it in tomorrow, and we will both rejoice.

What about you? What’s on your desk right now?  What’s off your desk for now and could use some good thoughts from the rest of us?

The Truth About Leaf Collections

As a middle school teacher in a school where the huge 7th grade leaf collection project is downright infamous, I thought I’d done my research for THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z (Walker Books, Fall ’09).   It’s a funny, contemporary novel about a girl whose 7th grade leaf collection project is ruining her life.  I’d heard the horror stories of kids getting caught in mean neighbors’ yards, stealing leaves off their trees.  I’d heard tales of the all-nighters kids pulled, securing the last few sets of leaves into their binders.  But until this fall, I’d never watched my very own 7th grader complete a leaf project of his own. 

To be sure, it’s meant some beautiful autumn hikes for leaf collecting…

Point Au Roche State Park on Lake Champlain

But the leaf project also has a dark side. This is what my living room looked like last weekend, when son and his two friends were working…

My manuscript is in copy edits right now.  Do you supposed I’ll have a chance to go back and add a few more details about the impact Gianna’s leaf project had on the rest of her household?  We’re still vacuuming pine needles here (Or are they spruce needles…? I’ll have to check the key…)

Detour for the Snow Geese

A Columbus Day author visit this week meant a sunny day drive through some of the most beautiful October scenery in the Northeast.  I enjoyed every minute of the mountains and the maples.  Helen wasn’t as appreciative of the scenery, though.  This is Helen…

…my GPS unit.

Usually, Helen and I get along, even though we’re very different.  I daydream and look out the window a lot.  Helen is very responsible and never gets lost.  I like that in a travel companion, so I generally put up with her bossiness in the interest of arriving places on time.  This week, though, we had it out while I was driving home from my school visit.

Helen: Turn left in one mile.

Me:  Yeah…only I think I’m going to go straight and turn later on because then we can see the snow geese at that wildlife management area up by Route 17.  I’d really like to see the snow geese.  Wouldn’t you?

Helen:  Turn left in point two miles.

Me:  I’m going the snow geese way.  (passes turn)  It’s not that far.

Helen: Make a U-turn.

Me:  They’re really pretty, and it’s just the right time of year.  You can hear them honking and everything.

Helen: Make a U-turn.

Me: No. I haven’t seen the snow geese since I lived in Vermont, more than ten years ago, and it’s October. I’m never in this part of Vermont in October.  We’re going this way.

Helen:  Turn left in point two miles.

Me:  I’m turning left on the snow geese road.  Not before.  (passes left turn)  You’ll like this…you’ll see.

Helen:  Make a U-turn.

Me:  Oh come on… It’s going to take us nine minutes out of our way.  Nine minutes. That’s it. You said so yourself.  What’s nine minutes when we’re talking about thousands of amazing migratory birds?  Where’s your sense of adventure?  Where’s your sense of wonder?

Helen:  Make a U-turn.

Eventually, Helen gave up on me and we arrived at the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area to join the dozen or so bird watchers taking in the spectacle of the Snow Geese. 

Every fall, huge flocks of Greater Snow Geese stop here to rest and feed on their way to the Chesapeake Bay for the winter.   I loved listening to their honking and the rush of their wings when they took off.  It was worth the extra nine minutes, no matter what Helen says.

Note for Vermont friends… I’ll be doing a presentation and signing books this Saturday from 11-12 at the fabulous Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, and I’d love to see you there!  

Encounters of 1609…
Native Americans had lived along the waterways of the Northeast for generations when French explorers and fur traders began arriving in the late 16th century. What must the two groups have thought of one another?  In this interactive presentation, Kate shares images, artifacts,  and excerpts from her historical novel Champlain and the Silent One as we travel through time to explore the Champlain Valley of 1609.


The National Book Award finalists have been announced, and some of my favorite books of 2008 made the list!

Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains (Simon & Schuster)
Kathi Appelt, The Underneath (Atheneum)
Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic)
E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion)
Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now (Alfred A. Knopf)

I was lucky enough to read an advance reader copy of CHAINS last spring, and I already have 30 copies on order for my 7th grade classroom.  You can read my full review here; it’s an incredible, incredible book. (Way to go, halseanderson !)

I read THE UNDERNEATH during our family trip to Washington this summer and stayed up way too late one night to finish.  It’s a powerful, beautifully written American fantasy.  THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU BANKS was one of my summer-on-the-back-deck books. I laughed out loud and loved every minute of that one, too.  I’m off to the library now to pick up the two titles I haven’t read yet.

Congratulations to all of the finalists.  Let the reading begin!

An Author Visit in Vermont

It’s been a long day, but I’ve promised some new friends that I’d post blog photos tonight, so here are some highlights of my author visit to Lothrop Elementary School in Pittsford, Vermont.

A town hall full of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders greeted me as soon as I arrived.  We talked about Spitfire and the American Revolution on Lake Champlain.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a room of kids with more questions!  Good ones, too – those Lothrop readers are astute.

After a quick break, I met up with the 5th graders again in their classroom for a second presentation: Encounters of 1609.  I read from my new historical novel, Champlain and the Silent One, and we talked about the Champlain Valley as it existed 400 years ago, when French and Native Peoples were meeting one another and encountering one another’s cultures for the first time. 

After lunch, I spent some more time with the 6th graders for my historical fiction writing workshop. The kids tried out 18th century games, foods, and tools and brainstormed sensory details about their experiences that they’ll use in writing their own stories later on. After spending the afternoon with these kids, I can assure you that the future of historical fiction is in very good  hands.

Before I hit the road, I stopped by one last classroom — this one in the home of a fifth grader whose health concerns have prevented him from attending school lately.  Jamee had read Spitfire with his mom and was waiting with it in his lap when I arrived.  After we talked about the Revolutionary War and the fur trade in New France, we took time out for a photo with our favorite historical hats — one that I promised Jamee I’d post tonight.

Thanks, Jamee and family, and everyone at Lothrop Elementary, for a fantastic day of reading, writing, history, and learning!

best tracker

Collecting Leaves on Mount Jo

What do you do when your middle grade novel about a 7th grade kid whose leaf collection is ruining her life is off in New York City being edited?  You head for the mountains to collect leaves, of course!

THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z won’t need my attention until copy edits are complete, and the Adirondacks were postcard-perfect this morning, so we headed out for a morning hike so my own 7th grader could work on his school leaf collection project.

An American Beech greeted us at the trailhead to Mount Jo.

With almost no wind, Heart Lake was a perfect mirror for the foliage.

I kept tripping over roots because I couldn’t stop staring up at the leaves against the blue sky.

When we hiked Mount Jo a few weeks ago, this view from the summit was shrouded in fog, but today made up for it.

Our leaf collector came home with six new specimens — Mountain Maple, Striped Maple, Bigtooth Aspen, American Mountain Ash, American Beech, and Balsam Fir.  The rest of us came home with pockets full of rocks and pine cones, tired legs, and lighter hearts. 

Friday Five

1. I got an ARC in the mail this week that made me very, very happy.

This one is for older readers (12+) than Lisa Yee’s earlier books, and it’s terrific so far. More when I finish…

2. Sarah Miller, author of Miss Spitfire, posted a video-blog about her use of Darcy Pattison’s shrunken manuscript revision technique this week.  If you’re looking for a way to see the big picture on a finished draft of a novel, you’ll want to check it out.

3. My 7th graders are doing a literature circles unit this month, and there have been some great moments in their discussions.  Their selections this time include The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin, Cracker by Cynthia Kadohata, and The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, among others.  I had to deliver Kleenex to the table reading Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson yesterday.  If you’ve read it, you know why.

4. I am plugging away on my new MG novel, Sugar on Snow.  I was stuck last night but got on the treadmill for about twenty minutes, and that managed to shake loose an idea for Chapter 6.  My goal is a finished draft by the end of November.

5. And finally, in what I can only appreciate as a brilliant twist of irony on the part of the universe… 

I have very recently finished revisions on my Fall ’09 middle grade novel for  Walker Books, The Brilliant Fall of  Gianna Z.  It’s about a 7th grade girl whose school leaf collection project is ruining her life.  I have been eating, breathing, and sleeping leaves since I started writing this book two and a half years ago.  The day after sent in my line edits, my 7th grade son came home with a packet for me to sign from school… the requirements for a ginormous leaf collection project, due at the end of October. 

October Guests

I keep talking about cutting back the asters that grow along the front walkway.  They’re enormous and overgrown, and when it rains, they droop over the sidewalk so you can’t get inside without your pant legs brushing through them and getting soaked.  I haven’t cut them back, though, because butterflies and bees love them, especially this time of year when not much else is in bloom. 

Today, I was so glad that I’m all talk and no garden scissors.  When I got out of the car after school, six Monarch butterflies were swarming around the asters.  I tiptoed past them to find E and a camera, and for half an hour, we watched them, leaning in so close we could hear their wings fluttering.


If you look closely, you’ll see this Monarch sharing his flower with a bumblebee!

One by one, they flew off over the lake, heading south on a long, long journey. We were happy to have shared a bit of it with them.

And if you’re planning to visit me any time soon… I’ll apologize in advance.  The asters flopped all over the front walk are staying right where they are.