Up, Down, Over, and Under – Book news!

Thanks to everyone who bought, shared, and spread the word about our picture book OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW, illustrator Christopher Silas Neal and I are collaborating on two companion books that will be coming out over the next few years.

We’ve been working on the first of those for a while now, and the cover is ready to share today!


UP IN THE GARDEN AND DOWN IN THE DIRT comes out this spring. It explores the magical, growing world of a garden, from the point of view of a child and grandmother toiling up in the garden, as the earthworms, beetles, and ants do their own work, down in the dirt.

And Chronicle just signed up another companion book that explores the interconnected ecosystem of an Adirondack pond, as a parent and child set out on a morning kayak trip. OVER AND UNDER THE POND is in its early stages, which means lots of research, both the reading kind and the exploring, outdoorsy kind.

One more piece of up/down/over/under news… OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW will be available to even more families soon, since it comes out in paperback next month.

Many, many thanks to everyone who’s been buying this book, signing it out of the library, and sharing it with readers since it first came out three years ago.  I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to research and write with this same sense of wonder, and I’m extra-thrilled to be making two more books with Chronicle and Chris Silas Neal.

Teachers Write 7.15.14 A Friday Farewell (but just for now)

Congratulations!  Today we’re wrapping up six weeks of writing with all of our Teachers Write colleagues, and whether you’ve been sharing daily or writing quietly and lurking, the fact that you took time – no, made time – to be a teacher of writing who writes is something to celebrate.

It’s been amazing to read your stories and explorations and reflections, and it’s been a joy to see this writing community blossom into an even stronger one. I hope you’ll keep and nourish those friendships and connections as you turn your attention to a new school year. Before you do, though, I want to answer a few questions that have been floating around.

Hey…I want to use one of our summer writing prompts in my classroom.  Will it still be on the blog in October/January/March?

Yes! All of our Teachers Write posts live online, so if you bookmark a post to use with your students later on, you can be assured it will still be there when you go looking for it.

What happens with Teachers Write now? Do we keep writing during the school year?

Yes! You should most definitely keep writing, and you can always connect via our Teachers Write Facebook group. We don’t run Teachers Write as an official daily camp during the school year like we do for these summer weeks, but you can revisit any of the summer prompts at any time.

And this winter, you’ll have a great new tool for writing independently or starting your own teachers’ writing group in your schools and districts. 59 REASONS TO WRITE: MINI-LESSONS, PROMPTS, AND INSPIRATION FOR TEACHERS is my new book with Stenhouse – a collection of all the best writing lessons & prompts from our first two summers of Teachers Write.

59 Reasons to Write cover

I am so excited about this book – and really hopeful that those of you who have loved Teachers Write will use it to lead professional development in your own schools and districts, because teachers and librarians who write aren’t just mentors for their students. You have the power to change the culture of your schools and to create vibrant, supportive writing communities all over the world. I hope this book helps you do that. (And if it does, please come back here and tell us about it, okay?) 59 REASONS TO WRITE will be available by late November – I think I’ll be signing at NCTE, so if you’re there, please come say hi!

You’re still doing Teachers Write next summer, right?

Of course! We’ll be back in July of 2015. I think it would be great if you all launched writing groups in your own schools this year & then brought all your new pals back here to introduce us next summer. Do that, okay? 🙂

Hey…weren’t we supposed to buy some books to support the authors who organized & contributed to this summer’s program?

Why, yes! Thanks for reminding everyone about that. As you know, Teachers Write is a totally free program, even though similar online writing courses can cost upwards of $500. To help keep it that way, to say thanks to the folks donating time to make this happen, and to make sure we have enthusiastic author volunteers for future summer camps, we’re asking you to buy some books – one book from each of our main author-organizers below, and at least one book from a guest author of your choice.  This is a total honor-system thing…but it’s important to support programs that you believe in, even when they’re free. If I had to guess, based on the sales numbers we see, maybe a quarter of you have already done this. Thank you!! If you haven’t, please consider buying or pre-ordering some books from your local bookstore this week. Authors & some suggested books are listed below.

Teachers Write Author-Organizers

Kate Messner

For MG/teen readers – MANHUNT, EYE OF THE STORM, or pre-order ALL THE ANSWERS

For chapter book readers – MARTY MCGUIRE HAS TOO MANY PETS or pre-order RANGER IN TIME


Gae Polisner


Jo Knowles

For MG/teen readers – SEE YOU AT HARRY’S



Teachers Write Guest Authors for Summer 2014 (click to see websites/books)

Nora Baskin

Cynthia Lord

Donna Gephart

Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Megan Frazer Blakemore

Jeannine Atkins

Diane Zahler

Kathryn Erskine

Sarah Darer Littman

Donalyn Miller

David Lubar

Jody Feldman

Anne Marie Pace

Varian Johnson

Kat Yeh

Lola Schaefer

Kim Norman

Nikki Grimes

Sarah Albee

Erin Dealey

Erin Dionne

Phil Bildner

The folks on this list are not only amazing, generous humans but talented writers, too. Check out their work, and please introduce their books to your students.

And with that…Teachers Write Summer Camp 2014 is a wrap! Gae is over at Friday Feedback, so don’t forget to stop by for one last critique session. And remember that if you have questions or want to talk writing, we’re always around. Follow us on Twitter (@katemessner, @gaepol, @joknowles, @mentortext) or find us on Facebook via the Teachers Write group. And please look for us at NCTE in November if you’re there – there is nothing better than meeting Teachers Write campers in person!

Have a great 2014-2015 school year, everyone, and again…thanks so much for including us in your summer writing journey. It’s been a joy and an honor to work with you, write beside you, and call you friends.



Teachers Write 8.14 Thursday Quick-Write

It’s the second-to-last day of camp. I think that calls for a bonfire and some s’mores…

I’m revisiting my wrap-up writing post from Teachers Write 2012 for this final writing prompt of the summer – and that’s not just because I’m busy eating s’mores and getting a boy ready to go to college. It’s because I believe in the power of reflection.

You all showed up here in July – some of you veterans, some of you brand new to Teachers Write and even new to the idea of putting words on paper and sharing them. And it’s been an amazing summer of learning and writing. You’ve written bravely and shared with joy and fear and courage and all the other emotions that go along with opening up a bit of yourself to friends and strangers who are being brave, too. You’ve made me smile and laugh and cry sometimes, too, in all the best ways, and I am so proud of you.

So here’s one last assignment…

(You are being granted special time-travel abilities for this one.)

Write a letter to yourself of 10 weeks ago.  It will be sent back through time and delivered to you on July 5th, 2014…right before you begin Teachers Write.  What advice would you give yourself?  What can you tell yourself about what the experience will be like and how it might change your writing or teaching?

Here’s the letter I wrote to my back-in-time self after our first summer of Teachers Write…

Dear Kate,

Today, you are going to notice some of your Twitter teacher-friends talking about their goals to write this summer, and it will occur to you that it might be fun to set up a virtual writing camp.  Go ahead and do it, even though it’s not going to go the way you’re imagining.  You’re probably picturing a dozen people, right? Maybe twenty? Multiply that by 50 and you’ll be a little closer. It’ll freak you out at first when you see all those people signing up, but don’t worry — they are amazing people who will be happy to be here and patient with your summer schedule. Besides, tons of generous and talented authors are going to show up to pitch in. This probably doesn’t surprise you, does it? The children’s and YA writer community is amazing like that.

What will surprise you is just how much you are moved when you sit down to read the comments every day. These teachers and librarians will be so smart, so brave. They will try new things. Some will be afraid at first, but they will be so good to one another, so supportive, that new voices will emerge every week.  And these voices will be full of passion and beauty, humor and joy and poignancy.  They will be amazing, and they will make you cry sometimes, in the best possible way.

So go on… Write that introductory blog post, even though you’re biting off way more than you know. It will be worth every second, and when August comes, you will not be ready to let go. Not even close.

Warmly,   Kate

Your turn now…  Put today’s date on the paper, and then write your message to be sent to yourself, back through time. Share it in comments, too, if you’d like.  And be sure to visit tomorrow for our final Teachers Write Summer 2014 post and news about what comes next.

Teachers Write 8/13/14 – Q and A Wednesday

It’s time for our last Q and A Day Wednesday of the summer. Our official guest-author-answerer today is Erin Dionne, but I’m guessing we’ll have a few other summer mentors stopping by, too.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I’ll be around today, too.  Got questions? Fire away!

Teachers Write 8/12/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

Today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is from guest author Phil Bildner. Phil is the author of the New York Times bestselling Sluggers! series, the Texas Bluebonnet Award-winning Shoeless Joe & Black Betsy and its companion, The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, both illustrated by C. F. Payne; and Twenty-One Elephants, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. His latest picture book is The Soccer Fence.

Phil’s Quick Write for today reminded me of this clip from DEAD POETS SOCIETY.


Inspired? Here’s Phil with your prompt for this Tuesday:

Sometimes we need to take a fresh look at the things we see everyday, look at our world from a slightly different perspective. Go to the place where you usually write. Now instead of sitting in your chair, stand on it. Or get a step stool or small ladder. Stand on that and look around at the things you see everyday. Suddenly, things look a whole lot different. Write about what you see differently from up here.

Feel free to share a bit of your response in the comments!

Teachers Write 8/11/14 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Good morning! Can you believe we’re starting our final week of Teachers Write 2014? It’s been so amazing reading your work, watching you share and connect and grow. I know you’re all getting ready for a new school year and so hope that you’ll bring that energy and joy into your classrooms, too.

Today’s Monday Mini-Lesson is courtesy of guest author Erin Dionne.

Erin is the author of five tween novels, including the Edgar Award nominated Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking (Dial Books, 2013). Her most recent novel is Moxie’s companion, Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting (Dial 2014). She lives outside of Boston and loves to talk to readers and writers. Today, she’s joining us to talk about what happens after your draft is complete.

Revision Strategies

Yay! You’ve made it through camp! Congratulations. Hopefully you are now the proud owner of a beginning, or a middle, or an end. Or a lot of beginnings and new ideas.

Now it’s time to look at the approaches to revising that beautiful, messy, something you’ve created. I’m not a fan of drafting, but I LOVE revision. That’s where we get into the thick of our stories and make them better. So here are 5 revision strategies to make your work shine:

1. Identify the heart of your story. What is this piece REALLY about? What is the big idea that you are exploring? Is it family dynamics? Self-expression? Growth? Whatever is at the heart of your story, look for places where you can develop that idea more strongly. That might mean cutting scenes, or characters, or plot lines. That’s ok.

2. Evaluate your scenes. Does each scene serve a purpose in the story? Is it revealing information, moving the plot along, or causing a conflict? If you can’t identify what purpose that scene is serving, chances are you don’t need it. Trim it or change it to work to move your story along.

3. Check your beginnings and endings. Are your first and last lines as strong as you can make them? Does your beginning hook the reader? Does the end hang on a cliffhanger? Or is it satisfying? Work on the beginning and ending of your piece until it is as strong as you can make it, then do the same for the opening and ending of each scene.

4. Get out of your characters’ way. Look for words that slow down the pace of your story or remove your reader from your character’s experience. Words like “I watched”/”I heard”/”I realized” can be trimmed and the resultant action will bring your reader closer to your character. (For example: “I watched her close the door,” becomes “She closed the door.” More active, and still from your main character’s point of view)

5. Get word smithy. Look for repeated phrases, areas where you’ve over-written (that long description of your main character’s sister’s outfit?), and unnecessary adverbs (most -ly words are unnecessary). Delete them. Look for flat writing: “he jumped over the log” and make it vibrant: “He leapt over the log.” Look for places where you can add sensory detail.

Today’s Assignment

When you are ready, go through this list and apply each step to your piece. Then do it again. And again. The more you revise, the stronger your work will be! Let me know in the comments how your piece might change from revision.

If you’d like to share some reflections on your revision goals, feel free to chat about that in the comments!

Teachers Write 8/7/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Good morning! Guest author Erin Dealey joins us for today’s Thursday Quick-Write. Erin writes wonderfully fun picture books for young readers, including GOLDIE LOCKS HAS CHICKEN POX and DECK THE WALLS: A WACKY CHRISTMAS CAROL.

Let It go

Congratulations! You’re already five weeks into TEACHERS WRITE! I applaud you for taking the time for YOURSELVES this summer. Your students will notice the difference, believe me. As a teacher, I know that the minute I started writing for myself, I began to look at every writing assignment I gave my students with new eyes, and a renewed passion. But we’re not done yet!

After Monday’s work on dialog, you’ve no doubt gotten to know your characters better, but I’m betting they’re hiding something from you. Today’s Quick-write is designed for you to put a finger on that missing piece… Characters have layers. Here’s a way to dig deeper.

Before you write: Take a moment to get into your main character’s head–or that of a supporting character you’ve been avoiding… You can do this by closing your eyes and visualizing the character or reading a key scene you’ve written about him/her. Is your MC hiding important feelings? Covering for a friend? Too shy to verbalize something that’s been bugging him/her? (Are you afraid of letting the MC change the course of your outline or story? Have you been so worried about proper punctuation and grammar you’ve stifled your character’s voice?)

For the next two minutes, try this quick-write as if your character is writing it.

Begin with this sentence: I’ve sort of been afraid to tell you this, but……

WARNING: Do NOT let the teacher in you OR the obsessive-editor-in-your-head hijack this assignment. : ) See what shows up on the page. Not all books are grammatically correct. When I first started writing I thought I had an obligation to my students to set a good example! What would have happened to e.e. cummings if he’d let his “editor-hat” take over his poems?

LET IT GO!!!!!!! Feel free to share your final paragraph in the comments if you’d like!

Teachers Write 8/6/14 – Q and A Wednesday

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is always Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp. Today’s guest authors are Sarah Albee and Lynda Mullaly Hunt!

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

Teachers Write 8/5/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

Today is feeling like a poetry sort of day, isn’t it?  And you’re in luck because we have a terrific guest author for this Tuesday Quick-Write.

New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark Sons, The Road to Paris, and Words with Wings. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California.

Nikki Grimes’ Poetry Writing Prompt

Step 1: Write a short paragraph about one of the following words: Bell, Shadow, Leaf, Lemon, Bullet.

 Consider all aspects of the item each word represents—how it looks, sounds, feels, tastes; what it does; what you can do with it; how it affects you; what it is made of; where it is found. Does it have an age, a color, a smell? Bring all of your senses into play and try to describe this item to someone who has never encountered it before. The idea is to think about each word in a new, and animated way.

 Step 2: Turn this paragraph into a poem. Use as many or as few, poetic techniques as you like: metaphor, simile, repetition, alliteration, assonance, rhyme, etc. Keep your lines simple. The idea is to think about words in a new way. This exercise can help you to keep your use of language fresh. Here are two examples to keep in mind:

 Ball is a round, rubber word.                          Pen is a slim word,

It fits inside my palm.                                        a tube of possibility.

I play with it outside,                                         Poems and essays hide inside

bounce it on the sidewalk.                                or ride the river

When it hits the ground,                                   of her ink.

it makes a smacking sound.                             Pen jots down things

My cupped hand waits for it                            that make you think.

to come back home.                                             Pen is round.

                                                                                    Pen speaks, yet

                                                                                    makes no sound.


Note from Kate: We’d love to see how some of you did with this prompt – feel free to share your writing from today in the comments!

Teachers Write 8/4/14 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Good morning! Ready for today’s Teachers Write mini-lesson? It’s all about dialogue – with guest author Megan Frazer Blakemore.

Megan is the author of great books like THE WATER CASTLE and THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL. (Fun fact: Megan and I share an editor at Bloomsbury – the terrifically talented Mary Kate Castellani, so we get to sign together at conferences sometimes. That is the best. 🙂

Writing Dialogue

You want Buffy the Vampire Slayer not Dawson’s Creek.

That’s the easiest way I can think of to describe how to write dialogue spoken by kids.

Sashi Kaufman, a young adult writer, puts it this way: “Your dialogue should be your average teenager on their smartest, wittiest day.”

Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) takes it a little bit farther: “Nobody but nobody will believe me on this, but the best dialogue sounds not at all like human beings talking in real life.”[1]

And adult author Adam Mansbach says: “It’s got to ring true without being overly slavish to the boring and inarticulate ways people often speak in real life.”[2]

Essentially what we are all saying is that dialogue should be true, but not necessarily realistic. It needs to be specific to the character’s age, location, background, etc., but it also needs to read well.

As teachers, you have the tremendous gift of hearing kids talk all day long. You know what they sound like. You probably hear it in your sleep. When I was working in a school as a librarian, I would keep a journal with things I overheard. On the other hand, you don’t want to be to beholden to what you hear. You need to give your characters room to be poetic, even if your students don’t always get there.

What follows are some bulleted thoughts on dialogue to keep in mind as you write.

Potential Pitfalls in Dialogue

  • The exposition fairy: one character tells another character things they both know as a way of telling the reader.
  • Avoiding contractions: people use them, and so should your characters, even if your prose is more formal.
  • Speechifying: If dialogue goes on for more than three sentences, check to see if you should limit what they are saying. (This isn’t a hard and fast rule, like “Dialogue must not go on for more than three sentences.” – just something to think about in revision.)
  • Adverbs with dialogue tags. “Stop!” he said urgently. Your dialogue should be doing the work. If you think you need an adverb, revise your dialogue.
  • Similarly, avoiding dialogue tags. He bellowed, She whimpered, etc. Stick with the basics, — otherwise it’s distracting. You might not even need dialogue tags. Lately I’ve been ruthlessly cutting them in my own work, and find the conversation flows much better.
  • Slang: Youth slang changes very, very quickly. I mean, YOLO, right?
  • Profanity: If it’s profanity, it’s going to make it harder to get your work on school and library shelves. I don’t think I’m shocking anyone with this here. You need to decide how you feel about the role of profanity in your book, and in books for children in general. Is it necessary? Does it fit the characters? Then use it. Otherwise, reconsider.

Some Dialogue Tips:

  • Read your dialogue aloud. Even better: have someone else read it while you listen.
  • Make up your own slang.
    • This works especially well in SciFi or fantasy (think Firefly or Battlestar Gallactica)
  • Find ways to be creatively minimize profanity

o   Inspired by Norman Mailer, characters in John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines use Fug instead of that other F word. This makes perfect sense in the context of the book, because the characters are smart and would be reading Norman Mailer, but also the kinds of kids who would take joy in the fact that “you can say it in class without getting into trouble.” (Chapter 12)

  • Think about what your characters are doing while they are speaking. “I love you” means something very different if a character is staring into her crush’s eyes than it does if it’s mumbled while she eats a sandwich.

I’ve given you some thoughts on dialogue, and now it’s time to get to work. This exercise has two parts.

Part 1: He Said, She Said

To make sure your focus on dialogue, write a scene using only dialogue and minimal tags (“he said”, “she said” — hence the title of this exercise). This prompt is one of my favorites and it was suggested to me long ago by the author Saundra Mitchell: two characters having an argument about cheese. At least one of your characters should be a child or teen.

Part 2: Setting the Scene

In my first novel, Secrets of Truth & Beauty, Dara goes to live with her sister who she has never really known. All summer they are dancing around the secrets of their past, and the moment finally came for them to talk about it. I wrote the conversation, and it felt too raw. The novel is set on a goat farm, so I moved the scene so that Dara and her sister are cutting the hooves of the goats as they talk. This changed their physical relationship to one another. They aren’t sitting across a table or in a car; there’s a little distance. The slow pace of the work also served to slow down the conversation. Something you should always ask yourself is: Where are my characters and what are they doing?

Take your He Said / She Said scene and now place it in a context. Actually, multiple contexts. Write and rewrite the scene in three out of six of the following places:

  • A tree house
  • A mall
  • A sailboat on the ocean with no wind
  • Underground
  • On a carnival ride
  • Free choice

 For part two of this exercise,  you are now encouraged to flesh out the scene with details about the surrounding including both the setting and the actions the characters take. In other words, you are no longer limited to “He said”/”She said”, so add those sensory details and character reactions. A good example of what I mean comes from Terry, who has the first comment on this post.

[1] From: The Secret Mystery: The Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcón (Henry Holt, 2010) This is a great reference for writers. In it, Alarcón interviews several authors on issues relating to the writing process. Wonderful for dipping in and out of.

[2] Ibid.


Note from Kate: We’d love to see some of your writing from today’s lesson. Share away in the comments if you’re feeling brave!