The Book in my Mind: A Poem for Writers

I’m working on a new novel right now,  and while this stage in the writing process always feels exciting and full of possibility, I also have mixed emotions when I finally begin writing a book that’s been living in my mind for months.

I think it’s because the book that I imagined all those months was so brilliant and amazing. So perfect. And when I start writing, that vision has to mend ways with the writer I am today, flaws and all.


The Book in My Mind

The book in my mind
Is in excellent taste,
Original, thoughtful
And perfectly paced.

Its language is vivid
Its theme clear and deep
Its emotions are poignant
It’ll make readers weep.

This book in my head
Is exquisite. It’s stellar.
It’ll win big awards.
It’ll be a best seller.

I just need to write it.
But that’s what gets tricky.
In my mind it was brilliant
On paper it’s…icky.

The verbs are all tired.
The nouns are all vague.
I think I’ve come down
With a writerly plague.

The book in my head
Wasn’t sickly this way.
It sparkled and glowed
Like a bright spring bouquet.

This book that I’m writing
Smells more like manure.
Where, oh where is my dream-book?
It had such allure!

But I’ll keep on writing
Though I feel like a fraud
Though my book is inelegant,
Clunky, and flawed.

Because the trouble with dream books
Is nobody can read ‘em.
And that in itself
Brings a writer some freedom.

While the book in my mind
May have had more appeal.
This book on my page
Is imperfect…and real.

(And besides, that’s what revision is for, right?!)

Want a MARTY MCGUIRE discussion guide & bookmarks?

Are you a teacher, librarian, or book club leader who wants to share MARTY MCGUIRE with young readers?

The folks at Scholastic would love to send  you a free copy of the full-color discussion guide we created for the book. It has discussion questions, some fun writing prompts and classroom/library club activities, author & illustrator bios, related web sites for kids who like frogs and other Marty-things, and a Q and A with me.  Here’s how to request a copy (and terrific editorial assistant Jen tells me she’ll throw in a few Marty bookmarks, too!):

Send an email to

Put “Marty Guide” in the subject line.

Include your full name and mailing address, and Jen will get a discussion guide and a few bookmarks in the mail to you. The offer stands until the end of July or until she runs out of guides & bookmarks, whichever comes first, so email as soon as possible if you’d like one!


Two narrators.

Both are teenagers, and both are hurting.

But Jill and Mandy come from different worlds. Mandy’s spent her life with a mom who drinks too much and always seems to end up with the wrong man. Now, Mandy is pregnant, has dropped out of school, and looks to a woman she met online to adopt and save her baby from that same kind of life.

That woman is Jill’s mom, recently widowed and looking to prove there’s still hope, still love in the world. Jill hasn’t been the same since her father died. She’s shut out her best friends and alienated her boyfriend, and when Mandy shows up to move in as she waits for her baby to be born…the baby that’s going to be part of Jill’s family soon…well, it’s all just too much.

But sometimes, “too much” turns out to be just what we need. And this is a story about two girls who need each other, even though they can’t find much common ground at first.

I’m a big fan of Sara Zarr’s work, so truth be told…I read this book very, very slowly. I didn’t want my time with these characters to end. Sara Zarr is one of two YA authors (the other is Jo Knowles) whose books I can never read without thinking, “How does she DO that? How can those characters be so, so real?” And HOW TO SAVE A LIFE is no exception. The teens feel like kids I’ve taught in middle school…like I might run into them at the mall or coffee shop. And I’d like that. Though I loved the ending of this book – really, truly loved it – I was sad when I turned the last page and had to say goodbye to Mandy and Jill.

HOW TO SAVE A LIFE is beautiful and honest and real. Highly recommended for older middle school (maybe 8th grade and up?) & high school readers who are fans of contemporary fiction.


I’ll confess: I was already smitten by the beautiful cover of this book when a friendly Harper Collins publicist handed me a copy at IRA a couple weeks ago. She promised me the inside was just as lovely as the cover…and she was right.

INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhaa Lai is a gorgeous novel-in-verse about a young girl who flees Vietnam as Saigon is falling and makes a new home with her mother and brothers in Alabama. Based on the author’s own experiences as a child immigrant, the poems are spare and lovely, and they manage to capture both the sense of wonder and the feeling of isolation of a newcomer in a world where everything seems different. As a teacher, one thing I found especially interesting and heartbreaking was Ha’s feeling of suddenly not being smart any more when she enrolled in her new school in America – such a common experience for gifted kids who encounter a language and culture barrier in a new home.

I really enjoyed this book and think readers in grades 4-7 will love it, too. It’d be great as a classroom read-aloud or for literature circles. Consider recommending it along with CRACKER: THE BEST DOG IN VIETNAM by Cynthia Kadohata and ALL THE BROKEN PIECES, an equally beautiful novel in verse by Ann Burg,as a way to explore Vietnam from different perspectives. It would also be fantastic paired with Katherine Applegate’s HOME OF THE BRAVE, which is also an immigrant story in verse, from the point of view of a boy from Africa who flees violence in his homeland and settles in Minnesota. Both books are short and poignant, and readers will come away with a much better understanding of what it feels like to land in a strange, new world and try to make that place home.

A Good Day for Ernest the Sea Monster…

This has been a most exciting day for a certain Sea Monster I know…

I woke up this morning to find Publisher’s Weekly had reviewed SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY, which comes out from Chronicle Books next month. This was big news at our house because a) the reviewer liked it, and b) this is the first time PW has reviewed one of my books.  Here’s an excerpt:

By heeding his mother’s advice to use his imagination and maintaining a positive attitude, Ernest rides out the ups and downs of his first day. With ample aquatic puns and boisterous, mixed-media artwork, it’s a splashy story about fitting in. Read the full review here.

I love that the reviewer used the word “splashy” because when I sign this book for kids, I always write “Make a SPLASH!” along with the dedication and my signature.

At around lunchtime, I realized that Kirkus had also posted its review of SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY:

The cartoon sea monster exudes positivity, and the other species of fish have personalities all their own.Presents kids with some great advice and solid solutions to the most common first-day what-ifs. You can read the rest of the review here.

Later on, I came home to find a letter from my Chronicle editor in the mailbox…letting me know that SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY is also going to be published in Korea!

This is only my second foreign sale for a book (OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW is being published in France), and it still seems so amazing and impossible that kids in another country will be cuddled up with someone looking at those same illustrations and reading my words in a language they know. Folks who have been writing longer than I have can let me know in comments if it’s true…but I suspect this is one of those things about writing that will feel like a little miracle no matter how many times it happens.

EYE OF THE STORM: A Book Cover Story

Call me a process geek… I love hearing the stories behind books.  What sparked the idea…how many times the point-of-view changed in revisions…which characters got left on the cutting room floor. Titles and covers, too… so I thought it would be fun to share the cover for my new Walker/Bloomsbury novel along with the story of how it came to be.

My first two novels, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and SUGAR AND ICE were similar kinds of books, and they look somewhat alike in terms of cover design.

Artist Joe Cepeda created the paintings for both covers.  I love them and feel like they reflect the stories inside perfectly.

But this new book is different from my first two. EYE OF THE STORM is a dystopian thriller with tornadoes and weather manipulation. My editor and the team at Walker/Bloomsbury knew it needed to have a different look.  Back in December, my editor sent me an email with a link to the online portfolio of Vincent Chong, a talented illustrator who lives in the U.K. and asked if I felt like this was the right look/feel for EYE OF THE STORM.  I looked through the art samples…

…and knew right away this was a perfect cover artist for the new book.  I wrote back to editor Mary Kate to let her know, and I sent her a link to one piece in particular…

I told her how much I loved the colors and the energy of this piece, the way it was dark and bright at the same time, and that I thought something with a similar mood would be great.

Happily, Vincent was interested in the job, and sketches were emailed back and forth for a couple months.  Details were added to fit the near-future setting and make the characters more true to their descriptions in the book.  Fast-forward to this week…when the final cover arrived in my in-box!

And here’s the story-blurb to go with it.

In the not-too-distant future, huge tornadoes and monster storms are a part of everyday life. Sent to spend the summer in the heart of storm country with her father in the special StormSafe community his company has developed, Jaden Meggs is excited to reconnect with her dad after he spent years researching storm technology in Russia. She’ll also be attending the exclusive summer science camp, Eye On Tomorrow, that her dad founded. There, Jaden meets Alex, a boy whose passion for science matches hers, and together they discover a horrible truth about her dad’s research that is putting countless lives at risk. As a massive tornado approaches, threatening to destroy everything in its path, Jaden is torn between loyalty to her dad and revealing his secret. Can she find the courage to confront her dad and save everyone from the biggest storm yet?

Coming in March 2012 (and I can’t wait!)

I’m especially excited for this book because while I hope it will still appeal to kids who love my other books,  it has more action than either of my first two titles, and that could bring in a whole new world of readers. Truth be told…whenever I worked on this book, I thought about Patrick, a Vermont boy who read Gianna Z. with his class and wrote me a lovely note thanking me for visiting his school and explaining very kindly why he didn’t like my book.  Patrick, it turns out, likes books with a lot more action. It wasn’t personal…it just wasn’t his kind of book.  The letter – you can read it here – is one of my all-time favorite pieces of reader mail because it’s such a lovely, sweet reminder that all books are not for all people, and that’s okay.

But not long after I got that letter, I started playing around with new ideas for a new story…something a little different.  With action and adventure…and tornadoes. And you know what? I found out that I really love writing that kind of book, too.

So thanks, Patrick.

This one’s for you.

10+1 – Ten Good Ways to Evaluate a Teacher (and one misguided one)

Normally, this blog is a place where I talk about books and writing and research…and other things that I think are important. But today, I’m going to talk about something that I think is incredibly and dangerously wrong.

The NYS Board of Regents this week voted to ignore its earlier discussions with educators and instead base up to 40% of teacher evaluations in the state on state standardized tests, starting next year. That means teachers can be given tenure or not, dismissed or not, based on how well their students fill in bubbles on a state test that is written by people who may never have spent a day in a classroom in their lives.

For the record, I’m in favor of good teachers. In 2006, I obtained National Board Certification– a rigorous and reflective process that took hundreds of hours and was the best thing I’ve ever done for my teaching.  I recommend this evaluation process to anyone who will listen, and I think everyone working in classrooms with kids should be held to the highest standards.

But relying on standardized test scores isn’t the way to do it. In fact, it’s a way to make the profession intolerable for many people who care about kids too much to be part of a system so broken. 

So what’s the alternative? How can we make sure the people teaching our students are competent, capable, committed, enthusiastic, and caring?

Ten Good Ways to Evaluate a Teacher

1. Have teachers create portfolios that include student work samples throughout the year. One or two case studies not only allow teachers to demonstrate student growth but also to reflect on their own classroom practices.

2. Have teachers submit video evidence of best practices in the classroom. When I completed my work for National Board Certification, I sent two such videos – one showing my work with a full classroom group and one showing my facilitation of small group learning.

3. Have teachers write reflective essays or journal entries on their practice. This provides evidence not only of good teaching but also of ongoing growth.

4. Ask teachers to provide evidence (emails, phone logs) of interaction with students’ families to demonstrate collaboration to promote learning and a home-school connection.

5. Have teachers keep a log of their personal professional development activities (conferences attended, books read, online seminars, etc.) to show ongoing growth.

6. Give teachers written content-area tests so they can demonstrate mastery of subject areas and best practices in teaching. This too was part of the National Board Certification process I went through. It was rigorous and led me to read – and grow – more than I would have otherwise.

7. Ask a teacher’s students in June, “How many books did you read this year?”  There’s plenty of research to support this one, including direct correlations between SAT scores and number of pages read per year.

8. Ask teachers to provide evidence of collaboration with colleagues (help sessions, study groups, book clubs, team projects, etc.) All of these are documented ways to increase learning.

9. Invite teachers to set measurable, quarterly goals for their students and for their own professional development. Set aside time for teachers to meet in small groups with one another and/or administration to discuss these goals, problem-solve, and collaborate on new ideas.

10. Invite principals, superintendents, other administrators, school board members, and families into the classroom on a regular basis – not just for special occasions. People need to see – and spend enough time to understand – the real work being done in classrooms.  It doesn’t take long to recognize a place where students are excited to learn – and teachers are, too.  Really. Just come on in.

One misguided way to evaluate teachers?

1.  Place a large emphasis on student standardized test scores, which were never designed or intended as teacher evaluation tools, are deemed by testing experts to be invalid measures, lead to generally poor, uninspired, test-directed teaching,  are inequitable in terms of subject areas (Art? Music?), often show socioeconomic and racial biases,  may lead to some groups of students getting disproportionately more teacher attention than others, require teachers to be out of the classroom to administer and grade, and cost states millions of dollars a year (but have great financial benefits for testing & test prep companies).

Pretty easy math…if you’re still able to step back from the bubbles and think for yourself.

NYS Board of Regents member Roger Tilles also spoke out against the vote this week.  His ideas are here .

Please note: This ideas I’ve expressed here are my thoughts on this topic and my thoughts only; they do not represent the opinions of my employer or anybody else.

Having said that,  I might as well link to this poem I wrote a while ago, too… “Revolution for the Tested.” It fits today.

St. James Cathedral School Visit & #IRAOrlando Part II

I was really excited about the Wednesday morning workshop I presented at IRA — talented authors Lindsey Leavitt, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, and Cynthea Liu invited me to join them on a panel called “Plugged In,” all about using Web 2.0 tools to promote literacy.  I love panel presentations like this because in addition to sharing what I know as a teacher and author, I always end up with great ideas to take back to my classroom.

See Gbemi way up there in front? She created a wiki for the presentation, showing how different tech-teachers are using tools like wikis, VoiceThread, & Glogster to engage students. Our audience also got to see a live Skype author visit, with John Schumacher’s students in Oak Brook, Illinois.  @MrSchuReads is a real leader in using technology to motivate readers in his school library, so it was great to connect with him. His enthusiastic students were a serious hit with our workshop audience – they’d read MARTY MCGUIRE and SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY before the visit had amazingly thoughtful questions about everything from my writing process to my reaction to Brian Floca’s illustrations.  (Question: Did the characters look the way you’d envisioned them?  My answer: Yes…but better. I can’t get over how well Brian Floca captured the spirit of Marty and her friends and brought more life to them than I’d even imagined!)

After our presentation, I made a quick trip to the Chronicle booth to hug my editor and pick up my suitcase, and then it was off to St. James Cathedral School in Orlando for an author visit with their K-6 students before I caught my plane home.

This was my first official school visit for MARTY MCGUIRE and SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY, and I couldn’t stop smiling.  The kids & teachers were amazing. Thanks, everyone, for making me feel so welcome!

Marty McGuire Contest Winners!

Thanks to all who shared your third grade memories to help me celebrate the launch of my new chapter book series, starring third grader Marty McGuire! You can check out the memory collection here on the contest post or here on the MARTY MCGUIRE Facebook page.  Contest winners who will receive a signed hardcover are:

Blog: Laura Pauling

Twitter: @MsHoughton

Facebook: Jen Petro-Roy

Congrats! Winners, please email me (kmessner at kate messner dot com) with your mailing address so I can send out your books!)

If you didn’t win but still want to get to know Marty, just ask at your favorite bookstore. MARTY MCGUIRE was just listed on the Summer 2011 Kids Indie Next List as a recommendation by indie booksellers (so please check at your locatl indie first!)

Hudson Children’s Book Festival & #IRAOrlando – Part I

I spent much of last week traveling, hitting the road to talk with readers, teachers, and librarians about a third grade scientist named Marty McGuire and an optimistic Sea Monster named Ernest on his first day of school.

First up was the Hudson Children’s Book Festival on Saturday. This is an amazing festival held each year in Hudson, NY, with thousands of readers and a hundred authors and illustrators. It was also the first event where I had a chance to sign my two newest books, MARTY MCGUIRE, the first in my new chapter book series with Scholastic, and SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY, which is a first for me, too…my first picture book with Chronicle Books.

And here was my first customer of the festival.

Chloe is five and will start kindergarten in September, so she’s the perfect reader for SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY.  Her parents gave me permissions to share her photo with her new book, since she’s the first to have a signed copy of this one!

I got to spend Sunday at home with my family for Mother’s Day, and then Monday morning, it was off to the International Reading Association Annual Convention in Orlando — simply an amazing place to be a reader.

When I checked into my hotel room, my Chronicle editor and publicist had left a surprise for me – a super-early hardcover of OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW, my Fall ’11 picture book illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal.

I sat in my room and paged through it three times before I packed up my bag for a signing at Scholastic and then an author/educator dinner with Chronicle.  The other author at the dinner was Lola Schafer, who was so much fun to spend time with because she’s kind and funny and smart, and is interested in all the same stuff I am!  We had a great time talking about picture book ideas (when they come and when they don’t!) and how much we loooove research. If you haven’t seen her awesome (and enormous!) NF picture book JUST ONE BITE, you’re missing out.

On Tuesday, I started the day recording a video interview for the Stenhouse Publishers website.  Nate, who was behind the camera, came up with some great questions that made the whole thing easy.  He had quite the impressive studio set up, with lights and reflectors and the whole nine yards – but  made me laugh out loud when we were getting ready to start and he looked around. “I kind of figured you’d have handlers.”  Umm…no.

Then it was off to the Stenhouse booth to chat with teachers who came by for a sneak preview of REAL REVISION (which will be out next month!)

I met some great teachers at the Stenhouse booth, including Benetta Caston…

Bennetta came by to tell me how she uses Gianna’s snowy-morning run in THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. to teach her students about word choice. Talk about a story that makes an author-teacher’s day!

After my Stenhouse signing, I moderated an author panel on Engaging Readers K-5, along with Laurie Friedman, Gail Carson Levine, Ethan Long, and Kristin Clark Venuti.  We all shared a favorite classroom strategy for getting kids motivated to read and write. I talked about my Skype visit/writing workshops and three-column story brainstorming. Laurie talked about the lists & journals in her Mallory books.  Ethan shared the live sketching activity he does when he visits schools; he invites kids to list a person, a place, and a problem – and then he draws and talks the kids through the creation of a story.  The piece he drew on our Mac camera involved a Ninja in the shower who got locked in somehow. (Don’t worry…the Ninja was fully clothed in Ninja gear…)  Gail talked about the writing workshop she runs at her local library for kids in Brewster, NY, and I was immediately jealous of all those kids!  And Kristin wrapped things up for us with a song about onomatopoeia (she is a darn good ukelele player!)

Then it was time to sign SEA MONSTER’S FIRST DAY at the Chronicle Booth.  It was so much fun for me to hear about Addison and Mose and Alexander and all the other young readers who would be getting the books when someone got home from the conference!  Here’s my editor, Melissa Manlove, with our Sea Monster!

Another highlight… I finally got to meet Laurel Snyder and Christina Diaz Gonzalez, online author friends whose work I’ve admired for a long time.  They are even lovelier and nicer and funnier in real life than on Twitter. I love when that happens!

Christina (left) & Laurel (right) threatening to run off from the Chronicle Booth with the one copy of my fall book that was on display.

Then it was off to the Walker/Bloomsbury booth to sign SUGAR AND ICE, and finally one last hour at Anderson’s Bookshop. Tuesday evening’s dinner was with the Walker/Bloomsbury crew and some amazing teachers.  Here we are with our books, after consuming vast amounts of really pretty food.

Authors/Illustrators Eric Velasquez, Lindsey Leavitt, Martin Sandler, and me, and fantastic Chicago teacher Susan Bohman, who gave me a great idea about mapping out plot elements in tape on the classroom floor.

It seems impossible to me that all that fun and learning fit into two days, but it did. And there was still one more day of convention! Later on…IRA Part II.