Teachers Write 7.31.16 Retelling Fairytales with Grace Lin

Good morning! It’s Sunday, which means Jen is hosting the weekly check-in on her blog, Teach Mentor Texts.

Grace Lin is our guest author here today! Grace is the author of the Newbery Honor book WHEN THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, and its new companion book, WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER as well as the Ling & Ting series for emerging readers and a pile of other great books. She joins us today to talk about the magic writers can find in fairytales!

Retelling Fairytales is like Redecorating a House

As a writer, I love retelling fairytales. I like to think of it as refurnishing a well-built house. You already know that the structure is solid, what you are doing is just changing it to your own tastes.

Though, that can be a challenge, too. How do you make a house that has belonged to another family for generations into your own home? How can you dare to take down that porch (which you think is ugly) when it’s been there for hundreds of years?

But think about it this way—for that house to be lived in, for that house to again hold life, it should be adapted for a new owner. That is like our classic stories—for them to continue to live, we should allow them to change for our new generations, for better or worse. I often think about my time in Rome, Italy when I saw a famous Bernini statue sitting in the middle of a busy street, ageing and discoloring. “That’s terrible,” I said to my Italian companion, “In the US, that would be in a museum!” My friend looked at me in shock, “But putting it in a museum would be like killing it! Here it is looked at and enjoyed, it is a part of life.”

Our classic stories are like this. We can let them change and be a part of our modern lives. And as writers, we are the ones that get to do it!

How? Well, for me, it’s allowing myself to ask, “What if?” One of my favorite stories when I was a child was the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ but it was also one that caused me the most pain. As I mention in my TEDx talk, in fifth grade a fellow student told that I could not play Dorothy in the school play because I was Chinese. Devastated, I was so convinced that she was correct that I didn’t even try out at the audition.

Yet, what if Dorothy was Chinese? Why couldn’t she be? What if she didn’t have to be in Kansas at all? What if she wasn’t even called Dorothy, at all?

Because the wonderful, magical thing about stories is that anything can happen. Why is it crazy for Dorothy to be Chinese when her house actually flies to another world? How could that be more unrealistic?

Of course, “what if” questions can be fraught with layers of concerns, especially if—like me—you are choosing to adapt a story that is not exactly of your culture. When I rework a Chinese story, I often worry that I anger traditionalists with my “Americanization” of the stories (a girl, for example, would never go on an adventure). And, with the attention given to diversity (which I think is a really good thing), I know many people worry about “messing up” or “getting in trouble.” But, in the end, it’s just like redecorating that house. I do the best I can to be respectful of the neighbors, but I also have to change it to how I see fit, because I am the one that will live in it.

I hope you like living in yours!

Writing prompt:

Take a fairy tale with traditionally-set-in-stone characters and settings and ask yourself some “What if?” questions. How would the rest of the story go? (Fun tidbit! A character in my upcoming novel, “When the Sea Turned to Silver” was inspired by asking myself, “What if the Little Mermaid was Chinese?”) Here are some “What if” questions to start you out:

“What if Cinderella was a boy?”

“What if Jack (Jack in the Beanstalk) was a girl?”

“What if Sleeping Beauty never woke up?”

“What if Goldilocks were black?”

“What if Hansel & Gretel took place in the sea?”

“What if Snow White’s mother was still alive?”


Watch Grace’s TEDx talk, “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf”


Teachers Write 7.30.16 Writing Scary Stories with Tracey Baptiste

Good morning! We’re three months away from Halloween, but hopefully you’re in the mood to be scared…because today’s guest is Tracey Baptiste, the author of THE JUMBIES and its forthcoming sequel. She’s with us today to talk about writing scary stories.

How to Write a Scary-But Not Too Scary-Story

Plotting a story for kids with a high fear-factor can be tricky. But to get an emotional reaction from the reader, whether that emotion is fear or joy works the same as it would for any other type of novel. It means tying all of the action pieces to an emotional reaction. In this case, that emotional reaction will be fear. But for little guys, it’s important that a scary story is not too scary. Frightening elements need to be cut with other things: humor, frustration, longing, success. And of these, humor is probably going to be your biggest ally.

To illustrate how this works, I’ll use the plot points from my own novel, The Jumbies, to chart the emotional reaction from the reader and show how to strike an emotional balance that doesn’t leave your reader cowering (unless of course, that’s your end goal). All emotional factors will be numbered 0-10, with 1 being only a moderate feeling, to a strong feeling at 10. Please note, these numbers are SUPER SCIENTIFIC.


Emotional Reaction

The Jumbies begins with Corinne running through a dark forest after an animal.

 Not too scary. Fear factor 2.


Corinne worries that the animal she is chasing might attack.

This could get bad. Fear factor 4.


She’s lost in the dark forest.

We all have that fear of being lost. Plus dark forest? Fear factor 6.


She remembers a trick to get out and starts to exit.

The reader will feel Corinne’s relief, but she’s not out yet. Fear factor 2.


But then something seems to be following her, and it snarls.

Scary thing in the darkness. Snarl probably means something toothy! Fear factor 6.


She gets out of the forest and is immediately grabbed by a pair of hands.

Has something gotten her? The toothy thing that snarled? Fear factor 7.


The hands turn out to be her father, they have a bonding moment.

That’s a nice surprise! Fear factor 0/Love 5/Humor 3


But as they move away, the thing in the forest follows them out.

Uh oh. It’s coming after her again, but she’s with her dad. Fear factor 3.



The action in chapter one is set up to prime readers for the scary bits throughout the story, but it doesn’t do so at top speed. It eases the reader in, gets stronger, and ends on just a slightly scarier note than where it started.

In chapter two, there is nothing scary at all. I needed to set up Corinne’s relationship with her father, and frankly, the readers need a break. But chapter three, which is purposefully short, is a steady hum of scariness that describes the main jumbie and introduces her motives. Chapter four again, has almost nothing scary in it until the very last line, but the next chapter amps up the scare factor again.


The plot points that create the emotions of love/friendship/humor follow each other, but go in the opposite direction of the plot points that create feelings of fear. This is the balancing act. Chapter by chapter, the plot allows for a very varied emotional response. It is a very purposeful emotional roller coaster that keeps kids turning the page, not knowing what will happen next.


Take out one chapter of the story you are working on and write out the action and emotional reaction you expect from the reader using the chart below. Then use a line graph (Click on the Insert tab, then Chart in Word) to plot out the emotional action.


Emotional Reaction
















Rules of thumb:

In opening chapters, you want to see more variation in the fear factor. The chart should be all over the place.

In middle chapters, the fear factor should be amped up, but so should other emotions.

Short chapters without much variation are OK, but should be preceded and followed by chapters that are quite different, emotionally.

In the final chapters, the fear factor should be at their highest levels, with other emotions only added in to increase the reader’s feelings of fear/worry for the main character.

Like all horror novels, it should not end on an emotional fear factor of zero. There should be something left over, that keeps the readers on their toes.

Feel free to share a bit of what you wrote today – or a reflection on this prompt (or just say hi to Tracey!) in the comments if you’d like!


Teachers Write 7.29.16 So Many Sides of a Story with Jen Malone

Good morning! Who’s feeling brave this week? It’s Friday, which means it’s time to check in with Gae on her blog and get some feedback on your work-in-progress if you’d like.

We also have guest author Jen Malone joining us. Jen’s titles include AT YOUR SERVICE, YOU’RE INVITED, and THE SLEEPOVER. Her next project is a book written with friends, in multiple points of view. Jen’s joining us today to talk about how that all works!

Group Projects: They’re Not Just For Your Students

The very words “group project” can strike fear in the hearts of your students, but their teachers know better, right?

The writer’s room tends to be a mythical place, typically reserved for TV show scribes, but I’m here to make a case for exactly that type of banding-together approach across all types of fiction. And, in the true spirit of collaboration, I’ve invited some friends to join me (well, not just my friends, but my co-authors.)

The seven of us are about to turn in a manuscript for a multi-authored middle grade novel called Seven Sides to Every Story, which will publish with Simon & Schuster next summer and which we pitched as, “Following the format of the film Love Actually, seven students’ storylines intersect over the course of one night at a middle school dance.”

When I first approached these talented ladies with the idea for a book authored by seven people that would NOT be an anthology, but rather one continuous story, every last one of them said “sign me up” before I even got to the details.  And then we set to work figuring out, um, how exactly do we do that?

We hope to persuade everyone to try this type of writing (really you should- it’s fun, we promise!) so here’s a little conversation about what it’s been like in the trenches:

Jen Malone (At Your Service, The Sleepover, co-author of You’re Invited series):  Rachele, what were your first thoughts when I mentioned this idea?

Rachele Alpine (Operation Pucker Up, You Throw Like A Girl): My immediate reaction? Bring on the crazy! Seriously, I was thrilled to be a part of a project with some of my favorite middle grade authors. I wasn’t sure how (or if!) we’d be able to pull it off. Seven people working on one story sounded like a whole lot of different opinions, but I was up to the challenge from the get go!

Jen: So how exactly are we doing it? Alison? Gail?

Alison Cherry (The Classy Crooks Club, Willows vs. Wolverines): I couldn’t fathom how seven people could possibly agree on one plot and put together an outline that made sense—I can’t even agree with myself about the plots of my books half the time. But it didn’t turn out to be that much of a challenge at all! The seven of us had a long conference call and talked through who each of our characters would be. Then each of us submitted a short explanation of our character’s basic three-act structure, which Jen and I then chopped up and pieced together into a full-book outline. Shockingly enough, the draft we ended up with adhered almost exactly our original plan!

Jen: Ah yes! I have a picture of that notecard-shuffling in action, Alison. Here are the two of us taking over the porch on a writing retreat. Thus far, this has been the only part of the writing process that actually happened in person (and even then, only between two out of the seven of us)! Obviously, M&Ms were critical to the process.


Gail Nall (Breaking the Ice, Out of Tune, co-author of You’re Invited series): Truly adorable picture. I’ll summarize the process: 1) a really good outline, 2) flexibility (no big egos allowed!), 3) an awesome editor and 4) Google docs.

Jen: Yes, Google Docs has been a lifesaver. We can all work at once in the document and leave comments for each other as we go. Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 3.41.26 PM

Jen:  Ronni, what’s been the most enjoyable aspect to writing like this?

Ronni Arno (Ruby Reinvented, Dear Poppy): Friends! I’m an extrovert, and writing is a fairly introverted activity. The fact that I get to connect with my friends/co-authors on this project makes it so much more fun. I love bouncing ideas off of each other, sharing thoughts, and reading what everyone else has written. The fact that we have to incorporate our characters into other characters’ chapters (and vice versa) has been a new experience, too, and I think it intensifies the creative process.

Jen: Definitely social, which is not often a word associated with writing a book. We have a private Facebook page where we can brainstorm solutions together, pop questions up for debate, or even (this happened just this week) answer a poll to vote for a character’s new name. Here’s a screenshot from our initial Google Hangout brainstorming call. (hmm… perhaps we need to be thanking Google in the acknowledgments of this book). Don’t we make it look fun?

brainstorming call 2

Jen: Laughs aside, there has been a learning curve to writing a book in such an unusual way. Alison, what’s been the most challenging for you?

Alison: This isn’t the first collaborative book I’ve written, but the other project involved only two other people, both of whom have been my first-line-of-defense critique partners and close friends for years. Since we’ve read so, so (so so so so) many drafts of each other’s writing, we understand one another’s processes, and giving criticism in a way that makes sense to us has become pretty second-nature. Since I know some of my Seven Sides coauthors significantly less well, we don’t have that kind of shorthand, and that sometimes made it challenging to communicate what I meant in a way everyone could understand. It’s a lot easier to say, “Dude, this chapter makes no sense” to someone you’ve contacted thirty other times that day than it is with someone you’ve never spoken to one-on-one! In general, though, I think we’ve handled this admirably, and it’s been really good practice in explaining my thoughts clearly.

Jen: I would say the same for me, with regard to gaining experience explaining thoughts clearly and tactfully—and that’s never a bad skill for any of us to hone, since we need to be able to do that with critique partners, agents, and/or editors, even when writing on our own. Speaking of our own projects… Dee, how have you juggled working on this book alongside your other solo manuscripts?

Dee Romito (BFF Bucket List, Arrivals and Departures) This book came along at an interesting time because I not only had a deadline for another book, but I was also preparing for my debut middle grade to release. Fortunately, there was such a strong outline for Seven Sides, and structured dates for when chapters were to be turned in or critiqued by, that it was easy to see which project I needed to work on at any given time. Plus, it was so fun working with this group that I usually couldn’t wait to dive back in.

Ronni: I’ll add that it was so great to get on the phone with Dee to hash out our characters’ scenes—knowing that someone else was counting on me helped keep me on task!

Jen: Stephanie, what makes a collaboration like this different from your solo pieces of writing?

Stephanie Faris (30 Days of No Gossip, 25 Roses, Piper Morgan series): Collaborating means letting go of that personal attachment you have to a story a little because what you’re writing feeds into the “greater good” of the work you’re doing. It’s like being an actor in a movie–while you’re over here connecting with your character’s journey, six other authors are connecting with their characters and you’re all working to make the end product as a whole great. So when someone suggests something as an overall change, your job is to go in and make sure that change not only makes your scene work better, but makes their scene work better, as well.

Jen: Well said! I’ll also mention that being open to new formats and styles of writing has taught me a lot I can and will apply to my own solo projects. I never used to plot heavily, but seeing how much more quickly I could draft with an outline in place (a total necessity for a project of this scope) converted me for life. 

As teachers, you have a set of skills and strengths developed in the classroom that can lend itself well to this type of project. Engaged educators are always crowd-sourcing ideas and may be accustomed to fitting outside-the-box creative approaches into a mandated curriculum and/or managing others to achieve a common goal.

So here’s a challenge for you: Create a group project of your own by looping one, two, or a dozen Teacher’s Write participants in on the next writing prompt you try. Feel free to use the comment box below to find others eager to team up. M&Ms are optional.


Teachers Write 7.28.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Laurie Ann Thompson

Good morning! Today’s Thursday Quick-Write shines a light on nonfiction – something our guest author Laurie Ann Thompson does beautifully. Laurie is the author of BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS and EMMANUEL’S DREAM: THE TRUE STORY OF EMMANUEL OFOSU YEBOAH. 

Writing From the Heart: Putting Yourself Into Your Story

I worked on draft after draft of the text that eventually became Emmanuel’s Dream—a true story about a man from Ghana with a disabled leg—for six years before I landed my agent and two more years after that before the manuscript finally sold. I’d done all my research and had written a competent biography. People read it and enjoyed it. But the most common feedback I received was, “Good writing. Unfortunately, there’s just something missing.”

At various points along that bumpy road to publication, I will admit that I occasionally became discouraged. During one particularly low period, my well- meaning husband said something along the lines of, “Why are you—an able-bodied white woman from Wisconsin—writing this story anyway? Maybe it’s time to drop it and move on.” My first reaction was OUCH, but then I started to wonder… maybe he was right. What did I have in common with Emmanuel? Why did his story affect me so deeply? Why did I feel it was important for children to hear? Could I convey that in a meaningful way?

It turns out these were just the questions I needed to ask in order to come up with a brand-new draft that finally worked. You see, I’d had all the facts in the right order, but what was missing was heart—my heart. I’d been so focused on writing the truth that I’d carefully removed my own feelings from the page. But isn’t real emotion just another kind of truth? And isn’t it, perhaps, the most important kind of truth to share with others? When I finally sat down and got clear about my why for telling that story, the how to tell it best revealed itself almost immediately. For me, it wasn’t a story about having a disability. It was about being counted out, challenging an unfair and discriminatory system, and making the world a better place. With that in mind, the heart of my story became clear.

Since then, I’ve used the same approach for every book I’ve written. For example, for my teen how-to guide, Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something that Matters, my why was the intense yearning to change the world that I had felt as a young person and the frustration and disappointment of not knowing where to begin. For my simple picture book, My Dog Is the Best, it was how important my canine companions have been to me throughout the years, despite their various idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Readers may take their own, different meanings from my books, of course, but they won’t be able to until I’ve purposefully injected the proper bits of myself into the books first.

This all feels like it should be obvious to storytellers, yet clearly it took me years to figure out, and even then I only stumbled upon it by accident. In my school visit presentations, I recommend making every single writing assignment uniquely relevant to you, the author, by finding a way to tie it to your own personal interests and concerns, and there’s always an audible gasp of excitement—from students and teachers alike. And just last week a well-published author whom I admire greatly was discussing her struggles with her current work in progress. When I asked what her why was for writing it in the first place, she said she’d never thought about it that way before but couldn’t wait to apply it to her next round of revision!

So, in case it wasn’t obvious to you either, here’s an opportunity to get good and clear on your why and put the missing pieces of you into your work.

Today’s assignment:

Prompt 1: Go somewhere quiet and calm your mind. Turn off your busy brain and focus on your deepest emotions. Think about your current work in progress, if you have one. If not, think about something you’ve already written for Teachers Write. If you haven’t started writing yet, just think about why you want to write in the first place. Now journal for ten minutes about the following questions:

 Why must you tell this story?

 What are you really writing about?

 Why do you care so much?

 What meaning are you trying to create for yourself?

Optional: Once you’ve completed that exercise, go back and look at your work in progress to see if there are ways to put your most authentic self more prominently into your story. Is the work achieving what you’re really wanting it to? Where can you make adjustments that will reveal a bit more of your innermost heart?

Prompt 2: You can also use this basic concept to brainstorm new story ideas!

Write down a list of things that make you feel any kind of strong emotion: happy, sad, scared, angry… you name it. Think about why each item on your list makes you feel the way it does. Is there a story there? Make a document or folder where you can store these kinds of ideas whenever and wherever the emotion strikes!

Whatever you choose to write, feel free to share a paragraph or two in the comments today!

Teachers Write 7.27.16 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! Got questions about writing?  

It’s Q&A Wednesday on Teachers Write, and today’s official guest author is Hannah Barnaby!

Other folks may stop by to answer questions as well, so feel free to ask things that are Hannah-specific as well as general questions. Hannah & I will be checking the comments today to share answers!

Teachers Write 7.26.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Madelyn Rosenberg

Happy Tuesday! Guest author Madelyn Rosenberg joins us for today’s quick-write. Madelyn is the author of the Nanny X books, HOW TO BEHAVE AT A TEA PARTY, and HOW TO BEHAVE AT A DOG SHOW. Her quick-write today is about postcards!


Last summer I came up with a new writing prompt and I had so much fun with it, I did it all summer long. I’m calling it “Postcard.” When I have students do the prompt in a classroom, I pass out index cards. When I’m doing it myself, I just scrawl on a page of my writing notebook.

The rules are simple: Describe the scene around you, using only 10 words or short phrases. Put one word or phrase on each line, so you’re laying it out like a poem. Think about your different senses as you study your scene and write it out. It’s a good way to practice working varied senses into whatever you write. Especially smell – I hate how often we leave out the sense of smell when it is so evocative/linked with memory. I like to include scraps of dialogue in my postcards, too.

You can use this exercise not just to write about the world around you, but to write about a scene in your current work in progress.

A few examples are below. Sometimes it’s more fun to put the title at the end, especially if you’re sharing with others.




Non-greasy UV protection










“Drink or snack?”

“We are experiencing turbulence”

A carpet of clouds

Recycled air

Gingerale and tea

Angry stomach

Look for the exit over the wings

Books, kenken, in-flight magazines, barf bags

“Adjust your seatback position”

Map of the world


And here’s one from my daughter:


San Francisco Streetcar

“Three rights make a left”

Roller coaster

“Don’t block the exit!”




“Hold on!”


“Just sayin’”

Slow. Fast. Slow.


Today’s Assignment: Write your postcard! Describe the scene around you, using only 10 words or short phrases. Put one word or phrase on each line, so you’re laying it out like a poem. Think about your different senses as you study your scene and write it out. And feel free to share your ten lines in the comments today!


Teachers Write 7.25.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Linda Urban – Offering Critiques

Good morning! Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-up here, and Linda Urban is joining us for today’s mini-lesson. 

Linda Urban writes picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels.  Her works include A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Hound Dog True, The Center of Everything, Milo Speck Accidental Agent, Mouse Was Mad, Little Red Henry, and most recently, Weekends with Max and His Dad. Her books have appeared on more than 25 state reading lists, as well as best books lists from The New York Public Library, Kirkus, the National Council of Teachers of English, and IndieNext.
In today’s Quick-Write, we’re going to focus on one approach to writing a critique or response when you’re helping someone out as a reader of a work in progress. Linda Urban and I are critique buddies who do this kind of reading for one another often. She’s our guest author today, so we’re sharing a conversation about critiquing as well as a peek at what it sometimes looks like.

Sometimes when we ask a reader to look over our work, what we’re really asking is how they understand the words on the page.  What assumptions are they making?  Am I leaving the right seeds planted in the right garden?  Is the tone of my character dialogue conveying the playfulness I think she has?  Or does she just sound cheesy?  
That’s exactly the kind of help I needed with my novel Breakout, about what happens in a small town when two inmates break out of the local prison. The book is told entirely in documents, and after writing all of them, I was so overwhelmed that it was difficult for me to know if the words on the page were reflecting characters’ voices the way I’d hoped. I asked Linda to focus on that when she read. Here’s what it looked like in practice…
Nora Tucker’s letter on page 1 with Linda’s response:

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.09.21 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.09.27 PM

An excerpt from Elidee Jones’s time capsule letter to “future Wolf Creek residents” with Linda’s response: 

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.10.43 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.10.50 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.03.12 PM
Sometimes, critiquing is a matter of asking questions and making specific suggestions, but often, it’s also a matter of telling a writer, “Here’s what I’m taking away from what you’ve written so far…” Ready to give that kind of critique a try? 
In the spirit of being brave, I’m sharing a little more of this not-quite-ready manuscript with you today. If you’d like to give this kind of “here’s-what-I’m-seeing-and-thinking” feedback a try, choose one of the excerpts below (either Nora’s letter or Elidee’s letter to her brother Troy) and write a paragraph analyzing what you’ve taken away from it. Suggestions, of course, are always welcome, too! These letters are not from the very beginning of the book, so there may be references to things that came up that were mentioned earlier- that’s okay. 🙂 Feel free to ask questions, too – questions help writers see what’s clear and what’s not, and often they force us to think more thoroughly about what we’re trying to say.
Nora’s letter for the time capsule – June 8th

Dear Future Wolf Creek Residents,

I was planning to write about my sleepover with Lizzie today, but there’s something WAY BIGGER going on because two inmates broke out of Dad’s prison overnight!

Lizzie and I went to bed at around ten. Right before that, I went to close my blinds so the sun wouldn’t wake us up early. My window faces the prison, and you can see the lights and the siren horns over the houses across the street. Those sirens are supposed to go off and warn everybody if an inmate escapes, only they didn’t.

So at eight this morning, the doorbell rang and it was a state trooper who told Mom two inmates had broken out of the prison. Mom already knew that because I guess Dad got a phone call at five in the morning when they were discovered missing, so he had to go to work then. Mom told Lizzie and me not to say anything to Owen because she doesn’t want him to be all scared. She says this isn’t going to last long because even if the police don’t find those guys right away, it won’t be long before the black flies do, and then they’ll be begging to go back into prison.

Mom also told us she got an early morning phone call from Lizzie’s mom, who’s at the hospital with Lizzie’s grandma. Her grandma woke up having chest pains or something, so Lizzie’s mom took her to the emergency room to have it checked out. It turns out everything’s fine and it wasn’t a heart attack or anything, but they’re still at the hospital, and Lizzie’s mom can’t pick her up until later.

So it’s been a pretty crazy morning here! I figured all these time capsule letters were going to be about sleepovers and brownies and final exams, but I guess you never know.

Oh! Speaking of brownies, I have Lizzie’s grandma’s secret mint brownie recipe for you.

Priscilla’s Magical Minty Brownies

  1. Mix up two packages of any brand fudge brownie mix according to the directions.
  2. Pour a little less than half the mix into a 10×15 inch baking dish.
  3. Put a layer of Peppermint Patties on there.
  4. Pour the rest of the mix on top and bake it at 350 for about 45 minutes or until they seem done.

I was expecting it to be fancier, but I guess that was her secret. Sometimes things aren’t quite how they seem.

Anyway…back to the prison break. Lizzie and I wanted go out reporting so we could write more letters to you about it. Lizzie has this cool new voice recorder thing that would have been perfect, but Mom said we couldn’t go out because of the manhunt, which is totally unfair because she let Sean go to the market for work.

So I guess Lizzie and I are going to work on collecting background information instead. That’s always important for news stories, too. Lizzie’s making a chart showing inmate population and stuff, and I’m going to copy my notes about Alcatraz escapes in history. I know Alcatraz is a totally different prison and has nothing to do with Wolf Creek, but there are some really cool stories.  One team of guys who escaped from Alcatraz made dummies and left them in their beds so it would look like they were still there, sound asleep, instead of out escaping.

Pretty smart, right? More to come…

Your friend from the past,

Nora Tucker


Elidee’s letter to her brother Troy on June 8th: 

Dear Troy,

We were supposed to come see you today, but now we can’t because two guys broke out of the prison. Have you already heard about that? You must have. It’s not like people bust out of that place every day.

Mama had your Skittles and stuff all packed. We were gonna get there right when visiting hours start at 8:30, but we didn’t even make it to the end of the street. The cops were stopping every last car. When Mama pulled up, they looked in the back seat and the trunk and asked where we were headed. She told them, and one guy laughed. The other guy said there wasn’t gonna be visiting hours for a good long time. So we went home. Mama says I can eat your Skittles, and she’ll get new ones whenever it turns out we can see you.

Do you know those guys? You probably can’t answer that. Probably I won’t even send this letter — Mama says you won’t be able to get mail for a while either. Really I’m just writing because everybody at home is busy with end of school stuff, and there’s nobody to talk to here. I don’t know any kids, and Mama’s all caught up in church stuff. You know that’s part of the reason we had to come, right? Other than you. Her church friend Mrs. Gonzalez moved here last fall so she could visit her husband more, and she’s been trying to get Mama and me to move up ever since.

That wasn’t supposed to happen, though. We were supposed to stay in the Bronx because I was going to switch to some fancy school that you have to apply to get into, and it was gonna be great. Mama was gonna be ten kinds of proud. Only I didn’t get in. I worked so hard on that dang application and wrote it all fancy, but then a letter came in the mail saying that even though my grades were fine, my essays were boring. They said it nicer, but that’s pretty much what it came down to, and I didn’t get in.  Right after that letter came, Mama decided it was God’s will, telling her we ought to move to be closer to you and Mrs. G. So here we are. And now she can’t see you anyhow because those guys got out.

I hope you don’t know those two. I hope it all happened far away from you because it sounds like the kind of thing that could get everybody in trouble, and you definitely don’t need more trouble than you got already. None of us do. Not when everything’s already so different and mixed-up-out-of-place.

I started school this week. There’s only a few days left of classes before summer. It’s okay.

I won’t ask how it is in there. I know it’s awful, even though Mama tries to make it sound like it’s not so bad and you’ll be okay.

I hope you’ll be okay. And I hope us being closer helps you remember there’s a life waiting for you.  Mama says you’re just as smart as I am except when it comes to choosing your friends. She says you’ll be able to take college classes when your time’s up. Sooner if you win your appeal. I used to think Aunt Maya was right about that being some crazy-pants dream, but I keep thinking about that guy from the play. The one who wrote his way out.

You would have liked that play. Even though it’s about dead white guys, the actors and actresses all looked like us. It was your kind of music, too – all rap and hip hop  – and that Hamilton guy said in a song he never thought he’d live past twenty. I’m pretty sure he ripped that line off from Kanye, but it was still pretty cool. It made me forget that the story happened so long ago, you know? Like it coulda been happening in our old neighborhood right now. And like maybe you really could write your way outta that prison like Hamilton wrote his way off his island.

So keep working on your appeal. I’ll wait a while to eat your Skittles in case we get to see you soon.

Love you,


Feel free to share your feedback in the comments if you’d like, too!

Teachers Write 7.24.16 Being of Two Minds with Cheryl Klein

Good morning! Jen is hosting Sunday Check-in on her blog, and we have a special guest essay here today, too. Cheryl Klein is executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic as well as the author of The Magic Words, a great new resource for writers. She’s joining us today with a post about bringing your work-self and writer-self together. 

BEING OF TWO MINDS: How to Carry Strengths and Confidence from One Job You Know into the Work of Writing

By Cheryl B. Klein

Until last year, if you asked me what my job was, I would have said without hesitation, “I’m an editor.” I’ve worked in children’s and YA publishing for nearly sixteen years, and I love collaborating with authors to help them develop and refine their stories. I’ve also done a fair amount of writing, certainly—I even self-published a book in 2011. But since that book (and all my freelance writing) focused on teaching writers how to edit their own work, editing remained my primary identity.

Then, in 2015, a traditional publisher offered me a contract for a revision of my self- published book. Suddenly, my writing went from part-time hobby to second job, where I was on deadline for a project that tens of thousands of people might discover and read. This shift in identity and responsibility freaked me out, to put it bluntly. Some of my panic was the enormity of the task I’d undertaken, to restructure and expand my idiosyncratic little book into a comprehensive writing guide in just a few months. But a lot of my new fear was about judgment: I was about to be the judged rather than the judge, the edited rather than the editor, and I spent a fair amount of time staring at a blank page, wrestling with the insecurity and fear that truth brought up.

What got me past my block at last was editing. I didn’t know if I could succeed at writing the book I dreamed of creating, or some days, if I could write even one new essay for it. But what I did know, for sure, was how to probe, dissect, arrange, amplify, streamline, balance, and prune a piece of writing until it optimally expressed its core idea and emotion — that is, how to edit. All I needed to do, I reasoned, was fight through the fear and judgment and get some messy ideas on the page. Then I could edit that mess into a coherent essay, and bird by bird, I’d have a book.

This strategy worked. Better yet, it reminded me that I could use all my editorial techniques on my own material, and I approached the revision with newfound confidence. Just as I often outline novel manuscripts as I read them, I created a chapter list of what I thought the book should look like, and revised it as I added and subtracted essays. After I completed a rough first draft, I printed out the manuscript and read it on paper to get a holistic view of the text. Afterward, I made a to-do list of major revisions I wanted to undertake, rather like writing my own editorial letter. When my editor sent me her line-edits on the manuscript, I froze up again briefly, because here was capital-J Judgment of my writing, right on the page in front of me. Then I remembered how I feel when I edit a book—that I’m never interested in judging a writer, only in making the book work—and that freed me to consider her suggestions with a less emotional mind. Throughout the process, my comfort with my first job eased my anxieties in the second, and thanks to that interplay, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults will be out in September.

So why might this matter to you? Well, if you likewise freeze up when you sit down at the blank page, I suspect you too can use strategies from your day job to get past the block and improve your work as a writer. A few ideas to try:

Keep a journal of your day job. I have files on both my desktop at work and my laptop at home where I note recurring patterns in books I’m editing, submissions, or my own editorial reactions, and ideas that might blossom into essays or talks later. As a teacher, you have an unparalleled opportunity to observe a wide range of kids and young adults in action and reflect on their psychology and behavior, individually and in groups. Take notes on what you’re seeing each day — even just one striking image or a line or two of conversation — and let the richness of that reality inspire and inform your work. Moreover, if you’re just starting out as a writer, journaling is a terrific way to build fluency and discipline, and to get in the practice of telling the truth without fear.

What are your favorite parts of your job? What are your unique strengths in that job? Why do your colleagues come to you for help? Try to start your writing from one of those places of love or confidence. If you get most excited about the ideas you’re teaching, begin a story with a theme rather than a character or plot. If you’re fascinated by character, consider the narrative possibilities in bringing two contradictory qualities together in one character, or binding three very different people together in a shared cause. If you prefer one-on-one work with students rather than wrangling and entertaining a large group, try writing an intimate story that focuses on relationships rather than the next Game of Thrones. In short, if you know what you do best, you can build from there to fortify your weak spots, rather than starting your work on uncertain ground.

Look for metaphors and strategies from your work life that can help you in writing. When I was in college, a friend of mine who majored in computer science said that he wrote all his humanities papers as if they were computer programs: His thesis statement was the introductory code for the program; each paragraph of supporting evidence was a subprogram; in his conclusion, he compiled all of the preceding material together. Thinking of writing as coding gave him a structure he felt comfortable with, just as thinking of it as editing relaxed me with my book. What happens when you think of writing as teaching? If your readers were your students, how would you design your time with them? What strategies would you employ to get your point across? To keep them engaged? Experiment with these ideas in your writing.

Use the principles you teach. What do you tell your students about writing? “Messy first drafts”; “show, not tell”; “Use active and not passive voice” . . . These are all lessons we grown-up writers must remember as well. I find myself resisting this truth at times, when I say to myself, “I’m an editor, not a writer! I teach this stuff to writers, so I ought to get it all right the first time!” But honestly, I never get it all right the first time, and there’s no shame in that. I just need to accept that no matter how much I know, I too always have to follow these basic principles—because they’re really good principles!—and I always have more to learn as well. If I lock myself into a position as an “expert,” I miss out on the benefits of being a student: openness, simplicity, a willingness to take risks and have fun.

Trust the process, and trust your process. Along similar lines, whether we are sixth graders writing a five-paragraph essay, or novelists with forty books under our belts, we writers all use the same basic processes: Brainstorm, draft, then revise; good sentences become good paragraphs and then good chapters; big ideas, small details. These structures might seem limiting or frustrating occasionally, but they also work, and if we follow them, quality writing usually results.

At the same time, just as students demonstrate different learning styles, every one of us will have our own writing style and process, and we’ll find our greatest success if we learn to work with and trust that flow. Both my editorial and writing processes feel very sluggish, crabbed, nitpicky, and all over the place to me, as I try to organize thoughts that run in a million different directions. Through the years, I’ve developed a number of techniques to contain these ideas and put them in useable form: the aforementioned chapter outlines and to-do lists; character and plot checklists for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a novel. These techniques actually slow me down even further, as I have to complete the tasks to feel like I’ve got a full grasp on a book, and it always feels like other editors are working faster and more efficiently than I am. (Yes, we editors can be just like writers when it comes to judgment and competition!) But I’ve also learned that I do my best work, and feel best about my work, when I accept and trust the process I’ve cultivated—and it’s resulted in many, many terrific books through the years, if I do say so myself. If you find a methodology and a story that works for you, don’t worry about how other writers do their drafts, or whether you’re doing it wrong. Trust yourself and your flow, as you do in your day job, and that will bring out your best work.


Cheryl B. Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (www.arthuralevinebooks.com), an imprint of Scholastic Inc. She is also the author of Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, and The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, which will be published on September 6, 2016. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Please visit her website and sign up for her newsletter at www.cherylklein.com, and follow her on Twitter at @chavelaque.

Teachers Write 7.23.16 “On First Person Present” by Dayna Lorentz

Good morning & happy Saturday! Today’s a reflecting-on-craft kind of day, and our guest post is from Dayna Lorentz, the author of the Dogs of the Drowned City series for middle grade readers and the No Safety in Numbers series for teens. Dayna’s here today for some nitty gritty point of view discussion. 

Wrestling with the First Person Present Point of View

When I sat down to write the final book in the No Safety in Numbers trilogy, I wanted my narration to be intense, immediate, and voice-driven, so I used the first person point of view and wrote in the present tense. Once I started putting words on the page, however, I realized the depth and breadth of the hot water this choice put me in: first person, present tense is an incredibly limiting way to tell a story. Here are some of the pitfalls I encountered and some tips on how to get around them.

When writing in the first person, present, you are limited to a single character’s perspective, and also to that character’s immediate experience. Not only is the reader stuck in your narrator’s head, they are stuck with her in her present moment. This fact of the point of view sets boundaries on the story you can tell. The story is constrained by what the narrator can perceive, and the information she understands in that moment within the plot.

However, you can use this limitation to enrich your narrative by creating tension for the reader. For example, have someone tell the narrator something that she doesn’t understand, but that the reader does, building some dramatic irony. Perhaps the narrator overhears an older sister telling a friend about seeing a spirit haunting the bathroom mirror, which the reader knows is teasing, but the narrator is spooked.

You could also build suspense by having the narrator hear an unidentified, but menacing noise coming from somewhere in the setting. An omniscient, third-person narrator would have to tell the reader it’s a window-shutter flapping against the siding, but the first person narrator, limited to her experience, simply hears the clatter and bang and her imagination conjures up the ghost Big Sister described.

Practically speaking, this point of view handcuffs the writer’s ability to use the full toolbox of techniques for telling a story. For example, if you want to include a flashback or give context to a character’s reaction or even describe the scenery, you need to create the space in the plot for that to happen. To continue my example, the narrator can’t dive into her long-standing fear of ghosts brought on by an unfortunate Halloween mishap or even describe the eerie shadows playing across the wallpaper without having to stop on the stairwell, back to the wall, eyes squeezed shut, and reminisce, knowing full well that precious seconds are ticking by as she stands there during which the ghastly ghoul might grab her.

The first person, present point of view also lends itself to rambling. Your book could easily end up a string of thoughts and observations. To avoid this, it is important to put your character into scenes—add another character to the setting or force the narrator to move into a new space. Don’t leave your narrator fretting on the steps, convinced of imminent danger; add Big Sister flipping on the lights and revealing the misunderstanding, perhaps by dragging the poor narrator into the bathroom and confirming the lack of phantoms in the medicine cabinet.

Finally, first person present effortlessly slides into “telling.” Don’t let the narrator blow through a moment by telling the reader, “I feel relieved.” Show her relief by describing the relaxation of her muscles, the quieting of her heartbeat. Let her describe the tree branches outside the window as she recognizes that they, and not some silly specter, made the spooky shadows.

Teachers Write 7.22.16 Thinking about Revision with Ammi-Joan Paquette

Good morning! It’s Friday Feedback day over on Gae’s blog, and today we have guest author Ammi-Joan Paquette visiting to talk revision. Joan is the author of a pile of books, from picture books to novels, including the latest in her Princess Juniper series, PRINCESS JUNIPER OF THE ANJU. 

Into the Revision Tub We Go!

By Ammi-Joan Paquette

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about revision. It’s sort of a love-hate relationship we have with this magnificent beast, isn’t it? (Hopefully that’s not just me!)

Quite honestly, I’ve always been more of a drafter. There’s something about the tangible heft of plowing through a first draft that satisfies my deepest writer-urges. (Or maybe my neurotic hyper-organization tendencies!) When you’re drafting, you always know where you’re at. Daily progress? 1000 words = great! 2000 words = awesome! 50 words = . . . um, points for showing up?

But revision is kind of like being in a bathtub with an octopus. You’re never 100% sure who’s scrubbing who’s back and whether by the end of the session you’re going to end up cleaner than when you started. (On the plus side, you’re probably getting some great sensory research in.) So revision and I have something of a patchy history.

But as I’ve worked my way through the Princess Juniper series, I’ve come to realize how important revision is, and how strongly I rely on it. The truth is: I love drafting, but my drafts are downright sloppy. At that stage I’m basically just churning out the raw plot. The end result is a quivering mash of around 35-40,000 words. There is no time when I am not deathly afraid that this draft will be the one that doesn’t come together. I thought it when drafting Princess Juniper of the Anju last year, and I thought it while drafting the third and final installment in the series, Princess Juniper of Torr, several months ago.

Each and every time, though, the messy draft is followed by a headlong dive into that ol’ revision bathtub. And gradually I’ve come to realize something: Revision really is where the magic happens. Drafting is rush and wonder and discovery; but revision is craft. Revision is where you pull out the magnifying glass and examine every aspect of your story. Characters? Deepen. Arcs? Launch. Stakes? Heighten. Language? Smooth. Voice? Enrich. And that (long, effortful) process brings a deep satisfaction all its own.

I’ve also learned to work within my own constraints. I am the type of result-oriented author that needs a tangible roadmap for creation. With drafting that’s a measurable word count. With revision, I’ve learned to make (what else?) a to-do list. All through the early stages, I keep a document open where I jot down anything I can think of that I want to follow up on later. When my critique partners send along notes; when my editor comes back with comments; when I begin my own read-through and start seeing blank spots. One by one by one, they all go on my list. During my recent foray into Princess Juniper of Torr, my revision to-do list capped out at 94 bullet points.—Everything from “show father’s reaction to Juniper’s short hair” to “add more emotion to her return home” to “build up the climax to give it more punch.” It’s all measurable, it’s all exciting, it all becomes immensely doable.

A couple months ago, book #2 in my series hit the shelves. Princess Juniper of the Anju first saw the world as a cluttered, messy, abbreviated draft. It’s now 62,773 words long, and just as rich and layered and satisfying as I have been able to make it. It’s far from perfect, I’m sure, but having gone down all my checklists and satisfied all my criteria (not to mention innumerable read- throughs), I can ultimately say that my wet tangle with the revision monster was worth it. And if I left the bathtub with a tentacle or two more than I went in with—who’s counting?

Happy revising, all!