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.

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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!

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Teachers Write 7.21.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Heidi Schulz

Good morning! It’s hard to believe how quickly the summer’s flying by, isn’t it? Today is quick-write day, and your guest author is Heidi Schulz, who likes to tell people that she lies to children for fun and profit. Heidi is the author of the New York Times Bestselling Hook’s Revenge, and a sequel, Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, published by Disney-Hyperion. Bloomsbury Kids will publish her picture book debut, Giraffes Ruin Everything, in August. 

Today’s challenge from Heidi? Be funny!

Want to have a humorless conversation? Start trying to analyze why something is funny. Humor likes to shrivel up and die from close examination. But that’s okay! We can still learn a lot from its corpse. What makes something funny, anyway?

Think about the last time you laughed—not one of those courtesy chuckles, but a true, deep, belly laugh. Odds are the thing you were responding to came as a surprise. Truly funny things are often unexpected. As you are writing humor, think about what might surprise and delight your reader.

Why is humor important?

Humor engenders sympathy. It breaks down barriers. It opens the gateway to other emotions. When I teach humor workshops I often ask if participants have seen the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, and if so, which characters got the most laughs. Everyone agrees Rocket and Groot, right? Then I ask, which characters made you tear up, get a lump in your throat, or elicited some such emotional response? Once again, Rocket and Groot are the big winners here.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Laughing with a character is a bonding experience, which is why I feel it’s important, even in serious books.

Still not sure? Take a look at Melinda Sordino in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Doug Swieteck in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. Try to imagine how those stories would be different if not for the delightfully clever and humorous voices of those narrators.

We are able to connect more deeply with those characters, even in the midst of their pain, because humor makes it feel safer to do so. As a result, we feel everything more deeply.

But, I’m not a naturally funny person!

That’s okay! You don’t have to be able to tell jokes or make people pee their pants laughing over cocktail conversation order to write humor. Maybe your humor doesn’t blossom on command, but writing is a slow, meditative process. You can take your time with it. If you have ever laughed at something, you understand humor. Don’t shy away from trying just because you have never been the class clown. Perhaps all you need are a few new tools and some practice.

Astound Your Friends, Confound Your Enemies: Five Humor Writing Tricks

1. The Rule of Three

Groupings of three feel more complete, more pleasing to readers. They are also more humorous. Just be sure not to bury your punch line. If I change the order of the example below so that the funny part is in the middle it becomes far less effective.

Original: “I imagined skipping over there and asking if anyone would like to trade places. I’d offer to play goalie. They could be hunted down by a maniac in a blue Crown Victoria.”—The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher

Altered: I imagined skipping over there and asking if anyone would like to trade places. They could be hunted down by a maniac in a blue Crown Victoria. I’d offer to play goalie.

Not as good, is it?

Make sure you end with the joke, and then build in a beat, perhaps by ending the paragraph, or even adding in a scene or chapter break. That rest will help give emphasis to the last line—the funny part.

2. Specificity

Specificities are funnier than generalities. In the example below, the size, breed, and name of the animal is far more humorous than if it just read “dog.” Read the sentence aloud both ways and see what I mean.

Original: “I saw her out on the front stoop one afternoon with her arms full. She held a jewelry box and a stack of photo albums and her teacup Chihuahua, Billy Dee Williams.”—The True Story of Smeckday by Adam Rex

Altered: “I saw her out on the front stoop one afternoon with her arms full. She held a jewelry box and a stack of photo albums and her dog.”

Try being specific. Is your character eating “cereal” or “Sugar-Frosted Honey Nuggets?” Look for areas where details such as this will add to the humor and voice of your work.

3. Hyperbole

Hyperbole is specificity exaggerated, and it can be used to great comedic effect. Read through your work, looking for areas you might be able to exaggerate. I’ll bet there are a billion of them.

“I homed in on Adam and his precious violin, which was probably handcrafted under a mountain by dwarves, it was so expensive.”—Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung

4. Incongruity/Funny Juxtapositions

Incongruity is unexpected. It’s surprising. And it’s really funny.

Ask yourself, “What is the polar opposite of what is currently happening in this scene?”—for example, Heavy Metal Mondays at your local Teavana shop, or vicious attack chickens—then see if you can incorporate it.

“George ducked as they zoomed past his head—pecking and flapping and flailing and floundering and squawking. Tabitha ran to help him. ‘STRONGARM’S CHICKENS!’ George yelped as twenty or more of them surrounded him and Tabitha. They had wicked gleams in their eyes and looked rather hungry.”—Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner

5. Reversal of Expectations

This is similar to incongruity, but can be subtler. As a writer, you plant clues, leading your reader to believe something is about to happen, and then, surprise! it’s something totally different. (Remember how I said truly funny things are often unexpected?)

“Anger and fear are close kin; even closer than my brother Danforth and me. As children, we were nearly inseparable. At least that’s what the surgeon said—though with skill and effort he eventually prevailed.”—Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code by Heidi Schulz (Hi!)

Practice Makes Funny

Like every other bit of writing, revision is where your humorous bits are going to start to shine. You may rewrite a joke or funny scene ten times, or more, before you get it right. That’s okay! Keep at it.

Ask your critique partners to highlight anything they found funny. If they didn’t get the joke you were going for, try reframing or replacing it with something else. Unlike a stand-up comedian who has one shot for a joke to land or bomb, unless you are writing in front of a live audience, you have the chance to refine as much as you need.

In the meantime, start paying attention to what makes you laugh. Can you emulate what the creator did to elicit that response from you?

Today’s assignment: Think of an everyday activity, such as: making breakfast, getting the mail, brushing your teeth, walking the dog, etc. and turn that activity into an extreme sport. Write a paragraph or two from the point of view of a sports commentator, using the rule of three, specificity, hyperbole, incongruity, and/or reversal of expectations to add humor.

(If you want a fun example of sports commentating, watch this exciting race:


On your mark. Get set. GO BE HILARIOUS!  

And then come back and share some laughs in the comments!

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Teachers Write 7.20.16 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! Wednesday is Q&A day on Teachers Write, which means it’s your chance to ask questions of our guest authors. Today’s official guest and answerer-of-all-questions is Mike Winchell!

Other authors may drop in to answer questions, too, so feel free to ask both questions that are Mike-specific and general questions about writing. 

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Teachers Write 7.19.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Kat Yeh

Good morning! Kat Yeh is today’s guest author for your Tuesday Quick-Write. Kat is the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE. She lives in Long Island but is here with us today to talk about plot twists.

Come On, Baby! Let’s do the Twist.

It’s a tricky thing — the twist.

Sometimes you see them coming a mile away. And sometimes they catch you off guard.

But the very best twists will always feel like that magical combination of utterly surprising and yet inevitable.

So, how do we do this?

Whether you are looking to write a surprise ending to your picture book, throw a little curveball into your novel’s plot, or land a big, jaw-dropping OMG that trashes everything you’ve ever believed about humanity and the world, there are two key elements that can help you pull it all off. The Set Up & Misdirection.


A twist needs a trail of tiny hints that lead up to its reveal. A twist should never seem to come out of nowhere or feel as if it has no purpose other than to shock or surprise. I love that special satisfaction of re-reading a beloved, beautifully written book with a twist and then seeing how the author has skillfully laid down the tracks that led me there. Seeing how what I thought were small story elements or little details turn out to have been planted for big purposes.

Hints should be subtle. Too much and you’ve given it away. I think I’d always rather have a reader miss a hint than feel pummeled over the head with one. Plus, if I’ve set up my story right, there will be another hint coming along shortly.

As you are writing and revising, your Find tool is great for keeping track of your hints and how you distribute them. Search key words and see how each hint or reference is shaped. I like to create a document that lists every hint of my twist from first mention to reveal. And then edit from there.

Don’t forget to think of your audience as you’re making choices about how big or small to make a hint. Something that may seem obvious to you as an adult writer who has read hundreds of books may slide right by a wide-eyed young reader who is less worldly.


This is something that all magicians know and use, regularly. Misdirection. Creating a big flashy distraction in one hand, while the other (often in plain sight) holds the key.

Use misdirection to keep a hint from being obvious. Hopefully your story will be filled with many high stakes elements and lots of tension. Use these as your distraction. If the misdirection you use is already part of your storyline, your hints will blend seamlessly into the narrative.

One of the great kidlit twists is from HARRY POTTER & THE SORCERER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling. I hesitantly say *spoiler alert* here, because I actually do know a few people who have yet to become immersed in the joy that is Harry Potter. But I did want to use an example that most people already know.

The Twist:


Terrifying and wonderful and, if you go back and look, perfectly planted with seeds and cloaked in misdirection. From the very beginning, J.K. Rowling leaves a trail that upon rereading is easy to see. Here are just a few examples:

1) Quirrell nervously lies about the origins of his turban. Hint.

At the beginning of the story, Quirrell tells the students that the purple turban he never takes off is a gift from an African prince for getting rid of a zombie.  “But they weren’t sure they believed this story. For one thing, when Seamus Finnegan asked eagerly to hear how Quirrell had fought off the zombie, Quirrell went pink and started talking about the weather…” This funny and outlandish bit (zombies & stuttering & a silly teacher in a purple turban!) distracts us from the fact that QUIRRELL LIED. He is not telling the students the reason he wears a turban is because the Dark Lord is under there. Misdirection.

2) The first time Harry’s scar hurts, Quirrell is sitting right there. Hint.

From the start, poor Professor Quirrell’s personality distracts us from his whereabouts and actions. He is scared and stuttering and weak. While Snape is the obvious Bad Guy. Mean and greasy. “The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes — and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.” Ahh! Strange, greasy haired teacher (ew!) looks into Harry’s eyes just as the pain comes. Misdirection.

3) When Harry is almost killed in a game of Quidditch— once again, Quirrell is right there. Hint.

Early into the story, it is established that Snape hates Harry. And now Harry’s broom has gone rogue and Snape is seen staring right at him (again!) and muttering something! Hermione attempts to save Harry. “…as she knocked Professor Quirrell headfirst into the row in front. Reaching Snape, she crouched down, pulled out her wand, and whispered a few, well-chosen, words. Bright blue flames shot from her want onto the hem of Snape’s robes.”

We are so focused on Snape, that the falling over of seemingly-there-for-comic-relief Quirrell is not nearly as interesting as blue flames. He is knocked over and the broom stops —and we register that information — but mostly we are thinking about Snape. Misdirection!

Now look at your own story. Check those hints that lead to your twist. Are they obvious? Or cloaked in misdirection?

Here are some of my favorite twists: The Sixth Sense for movies, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead for kidlit novels, and One Cool Friend written by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by David Small for picture books (check it out to see hints and misdirection in both writing and illustration!).

Today’s assignment: What are some of your favorite twists in beloved movies and books? Choose one to write about; be sure to talk about the set-up and misdirections. Doing this helps you to use those beloved favorites as mentor texts as you get ready to write your own twists. And feel free to share your ideas in the comments if you’d like.


Happy twisting!

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Teachers Write 7.18.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Mike Jung

Good morning! Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-Up here, and we have guest author Mike Jung visiting with today’s mini-lesson! Mike is the author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES as well as UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT. He’s also plays a mean ukulele, and he joins us today to challenge a bit of conventional writing wisdom…


Write About What You Don’t Know

One of the most common pieces of accepted writing wisdom is “write what you know,” meaning…okay, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Of course, every most common piece of accepted writing wisdom has its equal and opposite reaction, and for that one it’s “write what you don’t know,” meaning we should push ourselves, reach outside the comfortable boundaries of our current knowledge, and write about things we don’t know, but want to know, and are willing to learn about. Be diligent and respectful, do your research, have trustworthy people who can read your work with an informed perspective, etc.

Good advice, to be sure. However, HOWEVER, that’s not what I’m talking about in this post, as you can tell by the clever insertion of “about” between “write” and “what.” When I say “write about what you don’t know,” I mean something very different from the aforementioned “write what you don’t know,” because I’m not talking about approaching a story whose core is outside of our existing knowledge or life experience, using research/interviews/travel/etc. in order to fill those gaps of knowledge and experience to the greatest extent possible, then writing about that new knowledge with as much authority as we can muster. What I’m talking about is seizing upon a moment in which we discover a gap in our knowledge, experience, understanding, or worldview, and writing about how and why that gap exists.

I know, super-tricky! How do we write about something we don’t know about if we don’t know about it? Could you be any more confusing, Mike? What kind of writer are you? Maybe an example would be more illuminating. Yes, I’m thinking this blog post through as I write it, sorry. #notsorry

My mother and I have a complicated relationship. I love her, we’re very alike in more than one way, and we have a lot of difficulty communicating. I won’t go into all of the reasons for that difficulty, partly because I still don’t fully understand them all myself, but there’ve been some calamitously large gaps in our knowledge about each other, including my knowledge about her childhood and adolescence in post-WWII Korea. That’s changed to some degree over the past ten years, and the credit for that goes to my wife Miranda, because she’s somehow able to talk to my mother in a way I’m not, and as a result I’ve heard some stories about my family history that I don’t remember ever hearing before, some of them expected, some of them truly harrowing, all of them startling in their unfamiliarity. I knew my brothers were already more familiar with these stories than I was; like I said, it’s very, very complicated.

I really am enough of a creatively opportunistic troglodyte to have very quickly thought about these story fragments (because they did feel like haltingly conveyed fragments to me) as literary raw material. Miranda rightfully thought that those stories held the seeds of a compelling memoir, and that’s how I very briefly thought about them in terms of storytelling (“briefly” because collaborating with family members on any kind of project is a psychological minefield I’m not even remotely ready to walk through). Write what I don’t know, as they say. My mother’s experiences are not my own; would it be possible for me to learn about them to the point where I could write about them authoritatively in any way?

I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, because I ended up doing something quite different, albeit in a very diffuse, long-term, subconscious kind of way. I didn’t write anything that was directly about my mother’s very challenging experiences as a child and teenager in Korea; I thought about them, but I didn’t write about them. And I thought about other things. I thought about how and why it is that my mother and I have such intense troubles with communication; I thought about the shatteringly vast differences in our life experiences, and the equally shattering similarities in how we sometimes approach the world around us; I thought about the fact that there’s so much about my mother’s life that I didn’t know, and still don’t know.

Eventually, gradually, over years, I ended up writing about that lack of knowledge. It wasn’t a linear, A-to-B process, because sorting through the entire history of my relationship with my mother’s not something you do over the course of a couple of lattes, you know what I mean? And I didn’t take these psychological and conversational experiences with my mom in a direct, ripped-from-the-family-headlines kind of way, although there may very well come a day when I do exactly that. What I ended up writing about, years later, was a book called Unidentified Suburban Object in which a character (her name’s Chloe Cho) knows nothing about her parents’ pre-immigration life, tries very, very hard to find out, and then does, with surprising results. The story of Chloe’s parents bears only the most broad and nonspecific resemblance to my parents’ story, and the reason Chloe knows so little isn’t a reason that it’d even be possible to use as an explanation for my lack of knowledge.

Chloe’s emotional reactions are true to life, however. They’re distilled down to their essence in some ways, and my lifetime of pondering these questions gave Chloe a far greater degree of self-awareness and critical inquiry than I ever possessed as a tween-age kid, but there’s real honesty in the emotional underpinnings of that story.

My mini-lesson probably won’t provide any immediate solutions to problems in what you’re writing today. Or heck, maybe it will, but I think of it in longer-view terms than that. Maybe you could try it anyway? Writing doesn’t have to be a short term thing, after all, and actively building the ability to examine our internal selves is one of the most important aspects of doing this work. If we can engage in this kind of self-examination, which can feel so unresolved for so long, we can unearth a wealth of emotional honesty. I value emotional honesty; when it comes to doing the work of writing books for children, it’s probably what I value most. Maybe we can think of this as a way of laying groundwork for future work that’s more polished and more complete.

Today’s assignment: Is there some action, event, period of time, swath of history, or social arena that you didn’t know about, and jarred your sense of self when you learned more? Have you thought about why you didn’t know? How did you finally end up knowing more? Write about that. Don’t write about the thing you didn’t know about; write about the reasons you didn’t know about it. It may feel awkward. It may actually hurt. Write about it anyway. You can do it. You may find that this is one that wants to stay in your notebook for now, but as always, feel free to share a paragraph or two of what you wrote today in the comments if you’d like.

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Teachers Write 7.17.16 Dear Fiction… A letter from Erica Perl

It’s Sunday check-in time, so be sure to stop by Jen’s blog for a group hug and to see how everyone’s doing with their writing this week. 

Our guest here today is Erica Perl, the author of many popular works of fiction for young readers, including Ferocious Fluffity: A Mighty Bitey Class Pet (illustrated by Henry Cole), coming soon from Abrams and The Capybara Conspiracy: A Novel in Three Acts, coming soon from Knopf. Erica’s here today sharing an open letter…to fiction!


Dear Fiction,

How are you? Guessing you look great – you always do! I have a confession to make: I think about you all the time. I know, I know: non-fiction is super hot right now, and I totally get why. Non-fiction helps kids learn about actual circumstances beyond their own and it also validates real experiences they were sure no one else shared. Best of all, it helps them to see the world as full of possibilities, real ones that could actually happen and are supported with back matter and citations and proof. Yep, non-fiction is still packed with all that nutritional oomph but now it’s better-tasting than ever. A non-fiction book is the basis for the hottest show on Broadway, for crying out loud! And have you read any of the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales? Genius! There’s none of that gritty stuff that used to get stuck in your teeth when we were kids, remember that?

And yet… oh, I’m just going to come out and say it. I still love YOU! When I go to the bookstore looking for a new friend, it’s your shelves are my first and foremost destination. Sometimes, I play coy and just admire your jackets, which are often the prettiest in all the land. But even when you have the plainest of wrappers, it’s your inner beauty – your words – that wins me over every time. You always deliver delicious surprises and unexpected developments, even when you swear you are going to be “realistic.” I always defend you, by the way, against those haters that call you “fake” and “made up.” Think about it: Shakespeare and Sophocles could’ve stuck with non-fiction, and then where would we be? Plus, it’s not as if non-fiction has a monopoly on supporting text-based expository writing. I feel I owe it to you because of all you’ve done for me. I mean, you take me to all kinds of new places, some of which are places I thought I already knew, like New York City, or Narnia, or my own heart. And you introduce me to new friends, many of whom are people I didn’t think could possibly exist. Okay, fine, they don’t exist – you are Fiction, after all – but they feel as familiar to me as members of my family.

I know instantly upon meeting them that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. You make me laugh and make me cry, sometimes even on the same page (*cough, cough* Lily and Dunkin), and you make me see the world a little differently every time, in the best possible way. 

That’s why I can’t quit you, Fiction. You had me at Once Upon a Time…

Love Always,


Today’s writing prompt (if you’re up for some Sunday extra credit!): Write a love letter to an inanimate object or intangible concept. Go!


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Teachers Write 7.16.16 “Let’s Play” by Erin Hagar

Good morning and Happy Saturday! Today’s TW guest post is from Erin Hagar, the author of JULIA CHILD: AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE IN WORDS AND PICTURES and AWESOME MINDS: THE INVENTORS OF LEGO TOYS. Erin’s joining us to talk about the power of play.

Let’s Play: Toys as (another) way into your character

When I was a kid, this was my favorite toy: the Sesame Street Clubhouse. 

sesame clubhouse

I remember spending hours lying on the floor with my dad, helping Bert and Ernie and Grover go down the slide and through the chutes and around the merry-go-round.  My dad found this toy on E-bay a couple of years ago, and my kids and their friends loved it, too.

But looking at this toy dredges up painful memories, too.  When my parents divorced, they fought–a lot, loudly–about where this toy should live.  When I see this toy in my adult home, all these years later, I feel a strange mix of emotions.  

Some toys are just objects. Stuff.  Easily donated to Goodwill when they’ve gathered dust. But others, like my Sesame Street clubhouse, are loaded with meaning and emotion.  They can be loaded in our writing, too. Just as we use setting and dialogue to spotlight character and conflict, objects (and today I’ll focus on toys) can provide a window into our characters.  

 Sure, we could say a character is “competitive.” But wouldn’t it be better to show her marking the deck of Old Maid cards, like I used to do?  Or stealing money from the Monopoly bank? We could label our character a “neatnik.” But what about a scene where he organizes his Lego collection by size and color? Or, even better, showing how he responds when his little sister barges into his room and dumps them all on the floor?

Another great thing about toys is that some of them come to us preloaded with universal associations. Dolls and stuffed animals can mean comfort. A shiny new two-wheeler means independence and freedom. But writers can turn these associations on their heads. Consider this, from Lois Lowry’s Newbery-award winning novel, The Giver: 

Finally, the Nines were resettled in their seats, each having wheeled their bicycle outside where it would be waiting for its owner at the end of the day.  Everyone always chuckled and made small jokes when the Nines rode home for the first time.  “Want me to show you how to ride?” older friends would call, “I know you’ve never been on a bike before.” But invariably, the grinning Nines, who in technical violation of the rule had been practicing secretly for weeks, would mount and ride off in perfect balance, training wheels never touching the ground. (pg. 41)

Yes, bikes in the society Lowry’s created mean freedom and independence, just like in our word. But what does freedom mean when eight-year olds are technically forbidden to ride them?

Toys and play are universal aspects of childhood, but the specific ways your character plays and the specific toys she plays with (or played with, if she’s older) can tell us a lot about your character and the world she inhabits.

Now, let’s play!

Free write activity:  Take a character from your WIP (any age) and think about a toy they might own or used to own.  (The toy doesn’t have to be a part of the work right now, and don’t feel like you have to find a way to force it into your work. This is just an exercise to learn more about your character.)  Free write about that toy, considering some of the following questions:

How did your character get the toy?  Was it a gift?  A hand-me-down?  Did he find it?  Steal it? How did the character feel about getting it?  How does the character feel about the toy now?  

What’s the toy made of?  Is it plush?  China?  Wood?  Plastic?  How does it move?  What condition is it in?  Why?  Where is it in the character’s room?  Displayed in a protective plastic case? Stuffed in the bottom of the closet? Does anyone else want it?  Does anyone make fun of it?  Is it played with?  Alone or with other characters? Under what conditions does your character most want to play with that toy?

Does the toy have a life of its own when the child is away?  If the toy could speak, what would it say?  What would be a memorable occasion in its life?

I’d love to hear if you had any new insights into your character from this exercise. Let me know in the comments!


Posted in TeachersWrite | 14 Responses

Teachers Write 7.15.16 Dear Teachers… A letter from Debbie Reese

As always, Friday is feedback day at Teachers Write, so be sure to visit Gae’s blog today to spend some time on mini-critiques.

Friday is also one of our reflection days, and this week, guest author Debbie Reese joins us with a special letter to all of you. Debbie is an activist scholar tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo, and her website, American Indians in Children’s Literature is a great resource for educators. 


Dear Fellow Teachers,

When Kate Messner asked me to join Teachers Write, I thought my contribution could be a post titled “Let’s Talk about Native Stories and Native Characters.” As I sat down to think about it—and you—I thought a Dear Teachers letter might work better.

I taught kindergarten and elementary school for several years before I went on to work on my doctorate. Some of that teaching was in public schools but some of it was in boarding schools for Native children. There were striking differences between the public and boarding schools, and between the boarding schools, too (I taught at two different ones), but one thing was true no matter what children I had in my classrooms: they were children whose parents put a certain trust in me. A trust that I’d teach them to the best of my ability, and an implicit trust, too, that I wouldn’t do anything to hurt them.

I grew up at Nambe Pueblo on our reservation in northern New Mexico. I love it there. I can walk outside my door and readily find pottery shards—evidence that the land I live on is land that my ancestors lived on hundreds and hundreds of years ago. If you came to Nambe on one of our ceremonial days when we invite the public to join us for some aspect of it, you’d be driving onto the reservation, and, into our jurisdiction. If you were going too fast, you might get pulled over by our tribal police. You’d be given a ticket that you’d pay at the tribal court.

People who I went to high school with know all about tribal jurisdiction, but some of you may be going “huh?” It is highly unlikely that, though life experience or education, you’ve learned about Native Nations as sovereign entities.

You know those word association tests, where someone says a word or phrase and you’re supposed to reply with whatever comes to mind? If we were to do a form of that, and said “American Indians” or “Native Americans,” chances are very high that a monolithic image is what comes to mind. The image will include feathers, a tipi, a buffalo herd, and maybe a totem pole. Pause your reading for a minute and do an image search on the web, using “American Indian” or “Native American” as your search words. See what I mean? That imagery is everywhere, and it is powerful, and it is a problem.

If you ask a Native person how they wish to be described, they’re likely to tell you they want you to tell your students what their tribal affiliation is, rather than the generic “American Indian” or “Native American” phrases. That request is important for several reasons. It dispels the image of the monolithic Indian but it also adds knowledge about a specific nation.

Let’s look at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s picture book, Jingle Dancer.


In the author’s note, Smith wrote “Jenna [the main character] is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation.” In her own bio, Smith writes that she’s an enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation. That information can be shared with kids when a teacher decides to use Jingle Dancer. The teacher can show kids a picture of Smith, saying “Here is a photograph of Cynthia Leitich Smith.” And, she can pull down a map and say “Here’s where the Muscogee Nation is located” and, using a computer and projector (or smart board) she can say “and here is the Muscogee Nation’s website.” Doing all of that provides kids with a lot of present-tense information that challenges the pervasive idea that Native peoples are of-the-past.

There are many things in any person’s life that are important. The items they choose to hang on their walls are one example. Do you remember Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat? It came out in 1999, and won the Caldecott Medal. At the time, I was teaching children’s literature to students in the teacher education program at the University of Illinois. Jewish students in my class were absolutely delighted as they pored over the book. On every page, there was something by the author—who is Jewish—that the rest of us didn’t notice. That book functioned as a mirror for those students, and it provided me and the other students with a window, or an opportunity, for us to learn a little bit about aspects of Jewish people that matter to them.

Those bits are all over the pages of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s picture book Jingle Dancer. On one page, Jenna is watching a video of her grandmother dancing the jingle dance. She’s using it to learn the dance. To the right of the television is a trunk. Many wouldn’t notice the trunk, but to a Native kid, it pops! A lot of us store traditional clothing in those trunks. When Jenna visits Cousin Elizabeth, we see a piece of artwork on the wall that echoes the artistic style of Virginia A. Stroud. I love that bit. I have one of Stroud’s paintings in my house right now!

There’s a lot to know—but with the growing resources on the Internet, there are ways to know that you’ve not had before! Back when I was a teacher, none of these resources were available. I couldn’t afford the membership fees for organizations that publish journals (NCTE publishes Language Arts) that sometimes carry articles about critical literacy, racism, and children’s literature. With that in mind, I created American Indians in Children’s Literature ten years ago. It allows me to put my research in a place where teachers, librarians, and parents can easily find it. I link to full text articles, too. A lot of items are ones I wrote in response to a question from a teacher. AICL is for you. If you want some help, write to me! Put “Kate Messner’s Teacher Camp” in the subject line, and I’ll bump your query to the top of my list.

All children—Native or not—ought to have mirrors and windows. As teachers, you can help change the status quo. I’m willing to help. Write to me.

With respect for the work you do,

Debbie Reese

American Indians in Children’s Literature


Twitter: debreese

Posted in TeachersWrite | 32 Responses

Teachers Write 7.14.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Phil Bildner

Good morning! Today’s Quick-Write is from guest author Phil Bildner, who writes picture books like MARVELOUS CORNELIUS as well as the terrific Rip and Red series for middle grade readers. Phil’s here with a fun writing prompt about thought bubbles!

When figuring out a character’s voice, I often use thought bubbles or speech balloons. I find “seeing” the words being thought or said help me fine-tune those characters.  
As I mentioned in last year’s prompt, I enjoy people watching. I’ll observe individuals and imagine his/her thought bubble or speech balloons. I love doing this at the supermarket, at the gym, and at airports (especially airports).
Your assignment for today: Do a little people watching. Make some thought bubbles and speech balloons. Create a little story. Try to capture what this individual sounds like through the words you imagine.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing this in public (or if you don’t have time to go somewhere), I’ve included two images. Feel free to use one or both to imagine the voices of these characters.
 Girl Thought BubbleKitten Thought Bubble
Happy writing! As always, feel free to feel a snippet of what you wrote in the comments.
Posted in TeachersWrite | 22 Responses
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