Rebuilding School & Classroom Libraries in Louisiana

If you’re like me, you’ve been watching the news out of Louisiana and wanting to do more to help. When whole communities are flooded, families who have lost everything are uprooted, and that can be especially tough on kids. As a result of flood-damaged schools, many students have also been displaced from their classrooms for now, and teachers & librarians have lost books and supplies. Let’s make sure those kids have beautiful books in their school and classroom libraries when they return.

For Flooded Schools & Libraries: Here are two resources that have been brought to my attention that may be helpful to you. Check out Beyond Words, the ALA’s relief fund with Dollar General and The Lisa Libraries, which donates books to organizations that work with kids in poor & under-served areas.

For People Who Want to Help: Not all schools are ready to accept book donations right now, so donating money to this disaster relief fund set up by the Association Education Professionals of Louisiana is one great way to help.

Some schools that lost classroom libraries are ready to receive donations of new and like-new books to replace classroom libraries now. Please follow the guidelines carefully so we don’t inadvertently create more work for people who are already buried in it.

What NOT to send at this time:

*Used books, unless they’re relatively current and like new. Please do NOT send boxes of used books that have been weeded from a collection. If your classroom or family has two new copies of the Harry Potter series, and you only need one set, that’s great to donate. But please don’t send discarded books or other boxes of used books at this time. When we were working to rebuild a library in the Adirondacks after Tropical Storm Irene a few years back, we found that boxes of used books quickly become overwhelming, and many had to be disposed of. The last thing we want to do is create another job for people who are already very busy cleaning up from the floods. If this changes and there’s a need for more books, I’ll post an update here.

*Books that do not meet the needs of the specific schools to which you’re donating (and for now, those are all elementary schools). If you have YA novels to donate, please hold onto them for right now. I know of at least one high school library that lost books to the flood, and they’d love donations eventually but are not prepared to receive them just yet. I’ll update this page with more information when I can.

More schools will be added as I learn about them, but here is a start for folks who are ready to help.

St. Amant Primary School in St. Amant, LA


Jessica Paz, a fourth grade science & social studies teacher at St. Amant Primary School shared this photo of her flooded building, along with the news that teachers there lost their classroom libraries for grades PreK-4.  The teachers can’t get back into their rooms yet, but Jessica’s home is dry, and she’s able to store and distribute books for her colleagues. This school is in need of books for classroom libraries. Teachers like Jessica who use trade books in the content area instruction would especially love nonfiction that relates to social studies & science.

Need: New and like-new books for grades PreK-4 (esp. nonfiction relating to science & social studies)

*Authors & Illustrators: If you’re sending your own books and would like to sign them, I think that would be lovely for students to see when they get back to school. Either “For Readers of St. Amant Primary School” or just “For Louisiana Readers” would be great. (Some books may also be distributed to other schools in need.)

Send to: 

Jessica Paz
Books for St. Armant Primary
15510 Oakstone Dr. 
Prairieville, LA 70769


Glen Oaks Park Elementary in Baton Rouge


The photos above are from Glen Oaks Park Elementary, where first grade teacher Aimee Manzella Lastner lost the classroom library she’s built over the past four years. Other teachers and the library have lost books as well. Aimee says the K-2 classrooms seemed to suffer most of the losses. Her school is set up at a dry temporary location now and would appreciate donations of new and like-new books for grades K-2.

Need: New and like-new books for K-2

*Authors & Illustrators: If you’re sending your own books and would like to sign them, I think that would be lovely for students to see when they get back to school. Either “For Readers of Glen Oaks Park Elementary” or just “For Louisiana Readers” would be great. (Some books may also be distributed to other schools in need.)

Send to:

Glen Oaks Park at Banks Elementary
Attn: Aimee Manzella Lastner
2401 72nd Avenue 
Baton Rouge, LA 70807


Tanglewood Elementary in Baton Rouge

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Tanglewood Elementary in Baton Rouge also suffered devastating flood damage. The library lost nearly everything. Brittney Banta-Troxclair’s first grade daughter was only in class for one day before the rains began and school had to be closed. Brittney’s home was spared, so she has a safe, dry place to store donations and is working with the librarian on a book drive to begin rebuilding.


*New and like-new books for grades K-4, including picture books, easy readers, chapter books, graphic novels, nonfiction, and middle grade books of all genres.

*Authors & Illustrators: If you’re sending your own books and would like to sign them, I think that would be lovely for students to see when they get back to school. Either “For Readers of Tanglewood Elementary” or just “For Louisiana Readers” would be great. (Some books may also be distributed to other schools in need.)

Send to:

Brittney Banta-Troxclair
Books for Tanglewood
17186 Benton’s Ferry Ave.
Greenwell Springs, LA 70739


Westside Elementary in Scott, LA


(Photo: Westside Elementary, by Erick Knezek in The Advertiser)      (Photo: Westside library, KFLY News10)

Westside Elementary School in Scott, LA was also severely damaged by flooding. The school library lost many books, and K-5 teachers lost most of their classroom libraries. A nearby school in the district is dry and prepared to take donations for Westside now. Truman Early Childhood Education Center is dry and prepared to accept, store, and distribute book donations for grades K-5. Books may also be distributed to other schools in need and to families that lost their books in flooding.


*New and like-new books for grades K-5, including picture books, easy readers, chapter books, graphic novels, nonfiction, and middle grade books of all genres.

*Authors & Illustrators: If you’re sending your own books and would like to sign them, I think that would be lovely for students to see when they get back to school. Either “For Readers of Westside Elementary” or just “For Louisiana Readers” would be great. (Some books may also be distributed to other schools in need.)

Send to: 

Truman Early Childhood Education Center
Attn: Anita Pool
200 Clara Street
Lafayette, La 70501


Sharing and Updates

If you’d like to share this information, please share a link to this blog post, which will be updated as needed. Please do not copy and paste the address for donations. There may come a time when these schools are no longer able to accept donations, and there’s no way to stop that from happening if the information isn’t being updated. Also, we expect to have information about other schools in need soon. As I hear from them and learn about needs and storage abilities, I’ll post updates here, so there will be more opportunities to help in the coming days.  If you are a teacher or librarian at another school that suffered damage and you’d like help with book donations, please send me an email via my contact form with information about what you need and when/where it can be sent. Thanks!!

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Dear Grace: Hiking Lower & Upper Wolfjaw on 8.8.16

August 8, 2016

Dear Grace*,

My June and July were crowded with travel to cities whose views come atop buildings instead of peaks, but I finally made it out for the first big hike of the season this week. I was worried about having waited so long, but I shouldn’t have been. From the unmistakable smell of deep Adirondack woods to the scrape of rock on my palms as I climbed to the familiar burn in my legs on the descent…it was just so good to be back.

My hiking pal Marsha and I decided we’d climb Lower Wolfjaw and see how we were doing as far as time and energy, and make the call about continuing on to Upper Wolfjaw from there. We set out from the St. Huberts parking area at 7:22, and it wasn’t long before we reached the trailhead…along with a note about bears.


We decided to take the Wedge Book Trail, which heads into the woods after a short walk along the Lake Road.


We’d read that this climb is a gentle one at first, and that proved to be true – the trail is beautifully maintained and soft, with more pine needles than rocks. After a while, it begins to follow the brook, which was lovely. There’s an especially pretty little waterfall near this bridge crossing.


The last mile or so was steeper and rockier, but nothing particularly challenging by high peaks standards, even for someone a little out of practice. We reached the summit of Lower Wolfjaw at 10:10. It’s not an open summit, but there are some pretty views if you explore a bit and climb the rocks.


We decided to continue on to Upper Wolfjaw, since it was only 1.5 miles away. This was a fun spot…a tight squeeze that required us to take off our packs and shimmy through the rocks, climbing sideways.


(Hikers who don’t fit through here could bypass the crevice by climbing over a rock face instead. It’s steep but doable.)

We’d read about a false summit on Upper WJ, so we weren’t surprised when the trail continued on past this big boulder that seemed summit-like…


We were, however, a bit confused when the trail kept descending – a lot. Then it leveled off and started climbing again. It wasn’t until we got to the top of Upper Wolfjaw at 11:45 that we figured out why. In order to get from Lower to Upper, you have to climb a smaller mountain in between. You can see that in the photo below – that’s Lower on the left and the smaller hill on the right. My hiking buddy called it the “fake mountain” since it didn’t count for our 46.


The summit rock at Upper Wolfjaw is on the small side, but there was plenty of space to sit down for lunch and enjoy the views.



That’s Armstrong in the photo above, a mountain that some people climb along with the Wolfjaws. We were running low on both time and water, though, so we left Armstrong for another day and headed down. The path between Upper and Lower has some steeper sections that involve scrambling on the way up. We chose the tried and true Adirondack butt-sliding strategy to get down a couple of them.


I learn something on every hike, and if I had this one to do over again, I’d bring more water. I’d brought two liters and knew there were opportunities to filter along Wedge Brook Trail on the way down, but it was a hot day, and we were both out of water and thirsty about a mile before we reached the brook. Lesson learned. I’ll bring another liter next time I do a hike of this length. But the hike down was still enjoyable. We stopped to admire some cool fungi.



I had to take a photo of the AMR gate on the way out…so pretty with the afternoon sun in the trees.


It was fun to see Giant Mountain from the road back to the car and be able to say, “We’ve been up there!” It was one of my favorite hikes of last fall.


Our Wolfjaws hike ended up being about 12.5 miles and took just over 8 hours – not a bad start to the 2016 climbing season. My legs were feeling it the next day, but I feel like I have my high peaks confidence back now and am ready to get back out there. The mountains are already calling again.

Good climbing!



* Grace (in the greeting) is Grace Hudowalski, the first woman to climb all 46 high peaks. She was a founding member of the Adirondack 46ers, the group’s 1st president, and later on, its secretary and historian, roles she filled until she died in 2004. It used to be that if you wanted to be a 46er, you had to log each climb by writing a letter to Grace. And Grace would write back. She answered thousands and thousands of letters, with encouraging words and sometimes, her own reflections on a climb, too.  Today, the 46er application process is simplified; one only needs to keep simple climb records on a club form that can be downloaded. But I wish I’d had the chance to climb these mountains and write letters about them when Grace was around to read them. I love her story and her strength and the way she urged others to get outside and explore and tell their stories. So I’ve decided to write the letters anyway. I think Grace would have liked that.


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Teachers Write 8.5.16 One Last Time…

I’m starting our last morning of Teachers Write with my favorite song from the musical  Hamilton. George Washington’s farewell song felt like a good way to end, since we’re saying a goodbye of our own today. It’s always bittersweet. Each August, I’m sad to say goodbye to our every-day-writing-together summer, but I’m also excited for all of the students you’re about to meet, students who will benefit so much from the brave work you’ve done this summer and from the community you’ve forged.

Gae has one more Friday Feedback for you, and I have one last writing prompt here, too. Let’s do a little reflecting together.

Write a few quick lines about what you learned about writing, about being part of a community of writers, about yourself and the work that you do. Here’s a starting place if you need one.

This summer in Teachers Write, I discovered…

Feel free to share in the comments if you’d like. Even if you’ve never shared before. Especially if you’ve never shared before.

And finally, thank you. Your beautiful words and your brave willingness to share them, to make yourselves vulnerable to better serve your students, has been an inspiration to all of us this summer.

Teachers Write may be wrapping up, but we’re not going anywhere. I’m around on social media if you want to talk writing. We’ll be back next summer with new lessons and inspiration. And if you listen carefully through the school year, you’ll be able to hear me, cheering you on.



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Teachers Write 8.4.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Tracy Holczer

Good morning! It’s Thursday Quick-Write day, and we have guest author Tracy Holczer with us this morning. Tracy is the author of THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY and joins us today to talk about creating characters readers will remember.


Digging Deep: Creating Memorable Characters

“Go deep, not wide.”

I don’t know who to attribute this quote to, but I think about it often in life and in my writing. Because no matter how well a story is plotted, for me, it won’t come to life unless the characters ring true and deep. Although everyone has a different personal story, and each book is different in terms of circumstances and plot, the deepest shades of the human condition tend to be the same. Wanting to be loved, feeling disconnected or lonely, yearning for acceptance to name a few that are universal. These are themes covered over and over again in stories because they strike the heart directly. And if we can strike the heart, we connect to our reader, and that is the whole point.

So how do we show this emotion on the page? The only way I’ve found (and believe me, I have tried to work around this more than I should) is by digging deeply into ourselves.

As a child growing up, I felt outcast. Like I didn’t belong. Whether this was actually true or not is irrelevant. It felt true. And as we all know, feelings and reality don’t always go hand in hand. And although adults and children alike have these types of overwhelming feelings, adults can more often talk themselves through it. We have the tools we need to deal with life on life’s terms. And if we don’t, we can pay someone for their expertise or read trucks full of books on the subject or beat phone books with a hose (very therapeutic) or take a yoga class or drink wine, or, or, or.

But children? They are at the mercy of the adults in their lives. How much they learn about their own emotional landscape is up to adults. Here is where fiction can help. As a novelist, I try to explore every layer of emotion that characters may be feeling, and the only way I can do that is by tapping into my own.

This is when I think of the Big Feelings in my life. Like when I was seven-years-old and my mom sat me down at the foot of her bed and told me she and my father were divorcing, how it literally felt like my entire world was falling apart. Everything I believed to be true about family, suddenly wasn’t. Or my first crush in the seventh grade, how I chased him and caught him to be my date to the Sadie Hawkins dance, which filled me with an exhilaration unmatched to this day. How when we were “married” by the minister in front of the haystacks at the dance, and he turned to me to “kiss the bride,” and I leaned so far backwards that I fell into said haystacks. As exhilarated as I felt, I wasn’t ready for that first kiss.

There are so many of these memories to explore and mine for their emotional truth. So much in our own lives that carry the universal. This is the way we connect to each other. Through shared experience and hope. And for me, digging deep into my own emotional truth is the only way to tell a story.

Today’s Assignment: A great writing exercise is to fictionalize an actual event in your own life. Take a Big Feeling and tell a story around it. Texturize it. Give it sounds and smells. Sit with the memory and look around. Who was there? What did they add or take away from you? Who were you before that moment and how did it change you? Explore, explore, explore. And bring it to life. Not only will your readers love you for it, but you will love yourself, heal yourself maybe, just a little bit more.

Happy writing!

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Teachers Write 8.3.16 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! This is our final Q&A Wednesday of the summer, so if you’ve been saving up questions, today is the day! Our official guest authors are Augusta Scattergood and Karen Romano Young!


Other authors will probably pop in today as well, so feel free to direct questions directly to Karen and/or Augusta or just ask general questions for anyone to answer. 

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Teachers Write 8.2.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Nanci Turner Steveson

Good morning! It’s time for your last Tuesday Quick-Write of the summer, and our guest today is Nanci Turner Steveson. Nanci is the author of SWING SIDEWAYS, a great new novel for middle grade readers, and she joins us today to talk about “spit poetry.” 


Let me start by saying I am a novelist, not a poet. However, I am on the Board of Directors of Jackson Hole Writers, and we have a very active group of poets who meet monthly. I was just starting to work through revisions of Swing Sideways when I decided I should attend one meeting so I could get to know that side of our organization.

I am a very organic writer. Everything I write in a first draft is, as we say, “puked onto the page.” You will see shortly that the quality of loveliness in this puking process is non-existent. It’s during revisions that I take The Ugly Duckling and work toward creating something I hope will be beautiful. I like to think of this as sculpting.

This process changed after listening to the poets dissect one person’s work at a meeting I attended. They discussed (for 20 minutes!) how the placement of one word changed the magnificence, or clarity, or subtleness of one line. I started going to their meetings to learn, because it was clear I had a lot to learn from them.

My most active takeaway has been an exercise I challenge you to try with a piece of rough draft work you may be fretting over. Below you will see the extremely ugly, spit-it-out-on-the-page paragraph I tried this with the first time. I took that mess of thoughts and words and plunked them onto separate document, in a different format, to create more white space: double line spacing, and sentence breaks so at first glance it looks like it could be the makings of a poem.

In this format it was easier for me to see the words that needed to come out. I began cutting and, with each pass, the beauty of the real message began to shine. After I got rid of all unnecessary words, I was able to put it back into prose form to flesh out the rest. The paragraph at the bottom is the actual result of this process.

ORIGINAL MESS: Ahead of me, about one hundred yards away, was an area that looked darker than the rest of the night. I looked at the sky and saw how it was changing from dark to light. I was still crying, hiccuping away the tears I couldn’t control, looking for something, but what? Something to tell me where I was, and to show me what we’d been searching for all summer. The wooden oars of the rowboat burned my hands when I picked them up again, my hands were weak, achy, they hurt as much as my heart. But I rowed on, toward where I thought land might be, where I thought there might be a willow like the one we’d seen in the picture. Maybe if I found just the willow, maybe that would be enough for California, maybe then I could take her home and we could forget about everything and hopefully it all would be fine. But I had to find that piece of land, that part of the shore that could be were Dad said I would find the willow.



Ahead of me,

about one hundred yards away,

was an area that looked darker

than the rest of the night.

I looked at the sky

and saw how it was changing

from dark to light.

I was still crying,

hiccuping away the tears

I couldn’t control,

looking for something,

but what?

Something to tell me where I was,

and to show me what

we’d been searching for

all summer.

The wooden oars of the rowboat

burned my hands

when I picked them up again,

my hands were weak,


they hurt

as much as my heart.

But I rowed on,

toward where I thought land might be,

where I thought there might be

a willow

like the one we’d seen

in the picture.

Maybe if I found just the willow,

maybe that would be enough

for California,

maybe then I could take her home

and we could forget

about everything

and hopefully

it all would be fine.

But I had to find that piece of land,

that part of the shore

that could be were Dad said

I would find the willow.



Up ahead, a ribbon of sky changed, ebony to silver. I rubbed my arms and hiccuped away the last of my tears. When I reached for the oars again, the first hint of peach was beginning to mingle with the gray. The border of the lake took on a real shape. I could make out the tops of the trees and the bottom, where their trunks met the ground—black against green. Wood in hand, I rowed harder, faster toward the blooming light, toward a place where the earth arched and curved, then spun into an almost perfect circle.


Today’s assignment: Try this yourself now… Take something you literally just spit out and see where you end up after using this little trick. Would love to hear how it worked for you, and/or your students.

Happy sculpting!


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Teachers Write 8.1.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick

Good morning! Ready to get writing for our final week of Teachers Write? Start with Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up, and when you’re back, we have a great mini-lesson today – from Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, two great authors who have collaborated on their newest project, called TWO NAOMIS.

Many of us know the positives of collaborative work; it can strengthen higher order thinking skills and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL); can lessen stress by reducing burdens on individual students, build community, and even promote healthy competition. And since working together is often enhanced by snacking together whenever possible, it can also be an opportunity for cake. (Really, though; when isn’t there an opportunity for cake?)

There can be challenges, though:  the workload becomes uneven, some voices dominate while others go unheard, students worry about being critical of peers—it’s a delicate balance.

Collaboration for us is all about conversation — asking questions, listening for answers. But it’s okay–it’s great, even–if that conversation has some surprises. In a collaborative writing piece, writers have the chance to throw some surprises at their collaborators–and it can really up the fun quotient. When one writer adds details that are new and unexpected, it can be confusing and challenging. But more often, with the right mindset, it can be fun. Imagine a juggler working with two balls. Along comes the collaborator. The juggler stands there, waiting for the third ball to be tossed in. But what if the collaborator tosses a small toaster? A giant stuffed Elmo? Or a bowling trophy? Being open to surprises and willing to work with them is one of the great joys of collaboration.


I love incorporating drama into my workshops and visits, so I often bring index cards that have characters written on them, such as “ten year old”, “toddler”, “mom” and a separate set of cards with one-word emotions, like “frustrated”, “ecstatic”, “miserable”, etc. Then we just mix and match, and act it out, to work on using descriptive language: “Ecstatic toddler!” “Frustrated mom!” We act it out, and take note of movement, dialogue, reaction, etc. and pretty soon we’ve written a scene together.  Soon we throw in different settings and go wild: 

“A frustrated mom at a fast food restaurant! With an ecstatic toddler! And no money!” Then the students make their own sets of index cards and do the same in small groups. Writing “out loud” in this way can free students up from a focus on writing the “right” words to the freedom of really seeing and being the words as they brainstorm together, to noticing small details that enhance storytelling and listening others’ ideas and points of view.

When we were writing a chapter about one of the first joint Naomis meetups, we started out that way:

What if Naomi Marie had planned to go to the museum with her best friend to work on the BEST PROJECT EVER, on what was supposed to be the perfect day off from school that turned into a forced outing with her pesky little sister, no best friend, AND the Other Naomi who’s threatening to ruin EVERYTHING about her life?

What if Naomi Edith loves nothing more than spending a Lazy Day Off at home, leaving home only to go to her favorite bakery for a late-morning treat, and wakes up to find that she is going to the museum (not the one that her father’s been promising to take her to), with the Other Naomi, a pesky little sister, and a mother who’s NOT her mom?

And what if that mom and that dad are nervous and preoccupied when the Naomis need them most?

And then what if that pesky little sister keeps getting lost and always needs to go to the bathroom?

My Naomi began this chapter annoyed with her little sister. As Audrey wrote her Naomi’s irritation with these moments, I was able to see very clearly how my Naomi, who was equally irritated, also began to feel protective of that same pesky little sister, and had opportunities to include moments and details that showed her tender “big sister” side as well.

Two Naomis started with a conversation – a very silly, what if this? and what if THAT? conversation. And once we settled on a story of two girls both named “Naomi”, we ran with it.


“When I was a junior and senior in college, I was part of an improv comedy troupe. Improv is very much an anything-goes kind of situation, but there’s one main rule everyone generally abides by–the YES, AND rule. If you’re in a scene and someone says, “I’m sorry you broke your arm,” you don’t contradict. You go with it. You’re now a character with a broken arm.

One of the most fun parts for me of collaborative writing is trying mightily to YES, AND any surprising elements your collaborator plants in the text and throwing her some of your own. It’s basically about accepting a premise or information. For me, it made my writing go in directions I would not have strayed, and though it can be scary, it can also be a very good thing.

Here’s how it played out in Two Naomis. We had two characters who shared a first name. We had not yet picked out middle names. And in a chapter Olugbemisola was writing, she gave the Naomi I was writing the middle name Edith. EDITH! I did not think of the Naomi I was writing as someone who would have the middle name Edith! My initial instinct was to talk it out with Olugbemisola and come up with a different name. But once I got past that initial reaction, I was ready to yes-and my way through that. The first Edith who came to mind (after Edith Houghton, the subject of a picture-book biography I had just completed) was Edith Head, the famous costume designer. And just like that I made Naomi E.’s mother, who did not yet have a set occupation, a costume designer which led me to ideas I’d have never had if Olugbemisola had given Edith the kind of middle my character thought she’d have preferred, like Violet or Ruby.

Using questions as a collaborative writing and revision strategy can help make the process less stressful and even fun for student writers. As we worked together, writing alternate chapters, instead of “critiquing” each other’s work, and simply suggesting changes or edits, we asked questions.

How do you want the reader to feel?

What do you mean by this phrase?

Why is this character doing that?

How do you think Character A will feel if Character B does this?

Why did you make her say THAT?

This strategy of focusing on meaning-making rather than “corrections” can ease the pressure of “being critical” for students working with each other on revision, and encourage student writers to dig deeper, to clarify, to figure out what they really mean. And as we believe that revision is an essential part of the writing process, we find that revisiting and revising these strategies is also vital. Give student writers opportunities for confidential assessment and feedback without the worry of stigma as whistleblowers, as well as opportunities for whole group conversation…about the conversation.

Asking open-ended questions, listening with “Yes, and…” in mind, making the “what ifs” a conversation – incorporating these strategies in the collaborative writing process opens windows of opportunity for surprise and wonder, for creative thinking, and for unique and thoughtful stories. And that is certainly something to celebrate together.

Perhaps with cake.

YES, AND ice cream.

Today’s Assignment: Want to give this collaborative writing thing a try? Find a buddy. It can your friend or partner or one of your kids or neighbors. It can  be an online friend you’ve met here or a colleague at school. Try brainstorming a story idea together using some of Gbemi & Audrey’s techniques. Then come back and let us know how it went!

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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”


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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!


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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.


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