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!


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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

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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.
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Teachers Write 7.13.16 Q & A Wednesday

Got questions about writing? Our Teachers Write guest authors have answers for you. Today’s official guest author for Q&A Wednesday is Karen Rivers, author of THE GIRL IN THE WELL IS ME and BEFORE WE GO EXTINCT.


You may see other authors popping in to answer questions as well, so ask away!

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Teachers Write 7.12.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Megan Frazer Blakemore

Good morning! Today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is courtesy of guest author Megan Frazer Blakemore, who writes great middle grade novels like THE WATER CASTLE, THE FRIENDSHIP RIDDLE, THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL, and (new this summer!) THE FIREFLY CODE as well as YA novels like VERY IN PIECES. Megan joins us today with a writing challenge to “feel back” into our younger years. 

I used to work in a small, independent high school where the faculty and students ate together. On the first day of each school year, I would watch the ninth graders step into the dining room and freeze.

These kids came from all over greater Boston, and many did not know any other students. They certainly did not know if there was any sort of protocol about who sat where, and none of them wanted to make a mistake. As I watched, my own stomach twisted and I ached for them.

One of my favorite quotes about writing for children comes from author Charlotte Zolotow who wrote in The Horn Book Magazine: “Many fine writers can write about children but are unable to write for them.… The writers writing about children are looking back. The writers writing for children are feeling back into childhood.” As I sat in that dining room, I was feeling back into childhood, to that social uncertainty.

With that in mind, I invite you to feel back into childhood and revisit the school cafeteria. Write a scene that takes place during lunch. This can be autobiographical, of course, but it need not be. Likewise, the example I provided reveals social awkwardness, but maybe your character is quite confident in this space. Working on a fantasy or science fiction? What does lunch look like in this world? Essentially, please feel free to adapt this prompt to your needs, and share a little of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like. I look forward to reading! 

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Teachers Write 7.11.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Mara Rockliff

Good morning! It’s Mini-Lesson Monday at Teachers Write. If you want to start with a warm-up, head on over to Jo’s blog, and then you can come back to today’s mini-lesson.

Our guest author today is Mara Rockliff, who joins us from Pennsylvania. She’s written many historical picture books, including Around America to Win the Vote (coming out August 2) and Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France. Mara is here today to talk about evaluating the reliability of research sources…


Research sources: whom can we trust?

Hey teachers and librarians! I’m so happy Kate invited me to hang out with you all today. So, I’ll just dive right in and say we’re living in a golden age for research. No matter what we’re interested in, it’s never been so quick and easy to find information. Of course, as we all know, it’s also never been so quick and easy to find information that is wrong!

Teaching students (and ourselves!) how to sift through all that information and decide which sources can be trusted is a daunting task. I mean, there’s basic good advice like “Don’t rely on Wikipedia”—unless you want to write about the Brazilian aardvark. But solid-looking sources can include serious errors, too.

I’ve been researching Georgia Gilmore, a little-known hero of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. One serious, scholarly book by a Columbia professor said that Gilmore “moved to Montgomery in 1920.” This puzzled me, because every record I could find showed her as being born in 1920, in Montgomery.
Then I read the transcript of Gilmore’s testimony at the boycott trial. The first question she was asked was, “How long have you been a resident of the City of Montgomery?” She said, “I don’t know how long. I came here in 1920.” Reading that, I realized what she really must have meant was, “Don’t ask me my age!” Maybe the professor was too scholarly and serious to get the joke!

Some researchers use the Two-Source Rule, which says, “If you’re not sure about a fact, look for a second source.” Over the years I’ve learned to add, “…and then it’ll turn out the first source used the second source, or they both got it from the same third source, so if it seems suspicious, keep digging till you figure out what’s going on!” (Okay, it may not be the snappiest rule, but it does help me avoid embarrassing mistakes.)

When I visit schools and talk to students about primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, I like to use the example of a game of Telephone or Whisper Down the Alley, where the information gets more and more garbled as it’s passed along. That’s why the boring-looking, small-print stuff at the back of a book—endnotes and bibliographies—are my favorite part. Why take someone else’s word if I can go back to the source?

But just because a source is primary, that doesn’t mean it can be trusted! When I researched Around America to Win the Vote, I found hundreds of articles printed in newspapers across the country between April and September of 1916. One of them said this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 10.34.03 AM

This struck me as a little fishy. I knew that just driving cross-country was a really big adventure. There weren’t any road maps then. Sometimes there weren’t even any roads! Zigzagging to hit every state would certainly take longer than six months and much more than ten thousand miles.

So where DID they go? I went through all those articles and marked down each stop on a map. When a Philadelphia paper said “Yesterday the suffragists were here,” I put a green marker on Philadelphia. If it also said, “…and now they’ve left for Wilmington,” I put a yellow marker on Wilmington, Delaware. Then, when I found a Baltimore paper saying that the suffragists had just arrived from Wilmington, I could switch that yellow marker to a green one (since the stop had been confirmed) and add a green marker for Baltimore, too. And here’s what I found out about their route.

So, if primary sources can be wrong, and secondary sources can be wrong, and Wikipedia can be really, really wrong…whom can we trust?

We can trust ourselves—to research thoroughly, notice inconsistencies, use our common sense, and keep on digging till we’re satisfied. Let’s call it the “Tons of Sources Plus a Brain Rule.” Yeah, I know, that isn’t very snappy either. But it works!

Today’s assignment is a research challenge from Mara! 


Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 10.36.23 AM

This historical marker stands outside Georgia Gilmore’s former home at 453 Dericote Street in Montgomery, Alabama. It contains three factual errors. The first person to find each error and post it in the comments will receive a signed book for your classroom, your choice of any of my books I have on hand. (I’ve got extras of all but one or two.) If all three errors haven’t been found by 9 p.m. Eastern time, I’ll tell you what they are. Cite your sources, please! 🙂

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Teachers Write 7.10.16 Getting Unstuck with Kristen Kittscher

Now that we’ve been writing together for a couple of weeks, it’s possible that the shiny newness of writing camp is starting to wear off. Maybe you’re looking at your notebook, looking at some of the writing samples shared in comments, and having some doubts about your work. One great solution to that is checking in with Jen on Sundays at her blog Teach Mentor Texts, where you’ll find plenty of support and encouragement. 

Today’s guest essay tackles that topic, too. Our visiting author is Kristen Kittscher, a former middle school English teacher and author of the tween mystery The Wig in the Window (Harper Children’s, 2013) which garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was named to ten Best of the Year listsKristen lives with her husband in Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade—the inspiration for her most recent novel, The Tiara on the Terrace. She joins us today to talk about what to do when we’re doubting our work.

Battling—and Deafeating!—Your Inner Critic

Greetings! By this point in the summer, you are in the thick of things and have been soaking up much wisdom from Kate and her fabulous guest faculty. Hopefully the lessons have inspired you and, slowly but surely, you’re hitting your stride as you work toward your goals. If that’s the case—stop reading now! Wait for more brilliant words of advice tomorrow.

But if you are finding yourself having trouble gaining and keeping momentum as you write, I thought I’d share some of the usual demons that block my own progress – and strategies for shutting down those negative voices.

1. “I just don’t have enough time.” 

When I first started writing, it took me a while to recognize that – more often than not – this lie was my self-doubt masquerading as a practical concern. To beat it, I followed the advice in Dorothea Brande’s brilliant book Becoming a Writer religiously. There’s not enough space to outline her technique here, but basically? Set a time each day – at first for just fifteen minutes – and write anything during that time, even if it’s to complain about not being able to write. Lock away the pages and don’t look back until a week or more passes. When you’ve done that successfully, increase the time and keep at it. It sounds like you’re doing nothing, but in fact, you’re training your unconscious to flow more readily when you need it to. It works. If you’re really having trouble, give it a shot! (Julia Cameron outlined similar techniques later in her The Artist’s Way, which might also be helpful to you.) Other tips: wake up a half hour earlier and write before you do anything else.

2. “My writing isn’t good enough.”

Maybe your writing isn’t good yet. Who cares? It’s not time to judge yet. No one asks a friend who just took up the oboe when she’ll be playing for the New York Philharmonic, but tell a friend you’re writing a novel, and a second later he’ll be breathlessly musing about your being the next J.K. Rowling. It doesn’t make any sense that writing would be different from any other craft, but culturally we (and others) seem to expect it will be. Whether or not you’re any good yet is immaterial. You can only get better – and it’s spending the time that will make you so.

3. “I’m not really very creative.”

Hogwash. Think of the last vivid dream you had. Your unconscious was capable of making all that up, wasn’t it? Writing is simply finding better ways to bring the rich reserves of your unconscious into your conscious mind – where you can give it cohesive form.

4. “How can I be sure this is even worthwhile?”

You’ll never be sure. Even when and if it’s published! Sharing a book with readers is a wonderful, magical experience—and of course our goal with any writing project is to communicate and connect with others—but you will never really know for sure how you are really connecting. The writing and process is the worthwhile part. If you don’t find it so—stop now. Really. You’ll be miserable otherwise.

5. “This will take forever. I’ll never finish.”

Maybe it will take forever. But time will pass whether you finish your writing project or not. It’s really up to you if you’d like to have a finished manuscript by the end of that time passing. If you wrote 500 words a day for five months, you’d have 80,000 words. That’s the length of a typical YA novel. No one’s saying they’ll be usable words, but they’ll be there for you to work with, no matter what. Your inner critic might offer up very different allegedly “practical” concerns, but as long as you remember that most negative voices are either others’ beliefs that you’ve internalized – or your own efforts to impede your unconscious – you’ll get better and better at shoving them aside.

A caveat: if, no matter what, you’re finding it hard to gain a sense of flow, consider that perhaps your unconscious knows something you don’t and that the resistance is serving a real purpose. You might be experiencing some life turmoil, grief, other changes that really make it impossible for you to create right now. And that’s all right. There’s more to life than writing. I think?

Hope you can shut off your critic, enjoy your writing, and absorb some more of the wise words of wisdom to come!

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Teachers Write 7.9.16 From Research to Story with Anne Nesbet

Good morning! Guest author Anne Nesbet joins us for today’s weekend reflection. Anne is the author of THE WRINKLED CROWN, A BOX OF GARGOYLES, and THE CABINET OF EARTHS. As her website says, she writes “curious books for curious people,” and she joins us today to talk about finding the story hidden in your research…

From Research to Story

Since a couple of lessons this week have been about research, I thought it might be worth tackling today one of the most mysterious, wonderful, and (sometimes) difficult phases in a writing project: turning research into story. I prefer to think of this as “finding the story hiding in the research,” because the placebo effect is real, friends, and if I tell myself the story IS THERE, then that means I just have to FIND it, which feels somehow less daunting than making the whole thing up.

(By the way, although here I’m going to be talking about writing stories set in actual moments of history in actually existing places, I know from experience as the author of fantasy novels like THE WRINKLED CROWN, for which I had to learn quite a bit about instrument-making, that the “research-to-story” transition has to be navigated even when we’re writing about magical or imaginary places.)

So where is the seed of the story hiding in our research? And how do we breathe life into that story? My first historical novel comes out this fall from Candlewick; it is called CLOUD AND WALLFISH, and it’s set in East Berlin in 1989. I happened to be living in East Berlin in 1989 and had hundreds of pages of notes on daily life behind the Iron Curtain. Plus my inner archive-rat (very like a pack-rat, but with longer, more elegant whiskers) had carefully collected newspaper clippings, souvenirs, scraps of interesting paper. I had no shortage of research materials! But for twenty-some years those materials lived in their boxes–and the memories of East Berlin lived in my head–without turning into a fictional story. After all, I didn’t start publishing books for children until 2012, so I kept my East German archive without thinking of it as the basis for a novel.

One day that changed. I noticed one item in particular in my collection: the map of East Berlin, with that puddle of blankness where West Berlin was located. East German maps left West Berlin blank, as if its being occupied by the United States, France, and Britain had wiped it entirely off the map.


I looked at that blank spot, and this time I asked myself a question: What would a child do with a map with a blank spot in the middle of it? And I was pretty sure I knew the answer to that question: Fill that blankness with an imaginary world!

And right there I had found the seed of a story. Suddenly a character had slipped into the room: a child who would draw imaginary worlds on the blank parts of a map of Berlin. I wanted to know more about this character: whom he or she might be, where he or she might have come from. And I went through my collection again, rereading my old journals, looking at the old photos, studying the old newspapers, and this time I let my characters (already I was quite sure the child must have a friend, and that one of them must come from the other side of the Wall) guide me through all of this wonderful debris I had been holding onto for so long. “Is this part of your story?” I asked them, pointing to some little piece of history, or picture of the Wall, or a description from my diary of the East Berlin donut stand. “How about this? Or this?” And we figured out together which of these random fact and details might become part of the story, might be woven into fiction.

Whatever sort of story you are writing, research is almost certainly a part of your writing process. (We don’t know everything about anything, after all!) You may be digging through historical materials. You may be trying to remember what the inside of that funny old clothing store looked like on East Main Street, back when you were a kid. You may be researching the possible reproductive habits of dragons! An important first part of the process is creating a collection: your own archive of nifty facts, curious images, maps and quotes. A good collection hums with potential. You have a hunch something can be done with these wonderful objects/pictures/details! It’s just a matter of finding your way in.

As my Berlin story shows, an object in that collection can sometimes create the beginnings of a character: someone who would have loved that object–or hated it–or perhaps who lived in that funny-looking house in that picture–or who used to sneak into a neighbor’s garden to pick strawberries, so much sweeter when they’re still warm from the sun.

Then that character can help you reassess your collection: where (for instance) are the items that generate conflict? How do the items in your collection affect your character? Threaten your character? Fill your character with longing for something he or she doesn’t have? . . . . And soon you’ll find you have more than just a character: you have the makings of a plot!

My East Berlin tale grew into a friendship-and-spying story called CLOUD AND WALLFISH. It comes out this October, so I am now working hard on a new project, inspired by my mother’s childhood in Maine. My mother died relatively young, so I can’t ask her questions directly, alas. But I went back to Maine and spent some time reading through the local newspaper for the year 1941–and was amazed by the treasures I found there. Really, if you ever feel stuck, reading through old newspapers is guaranteed to give you all the new material and inspiration you could possibly want! The ads alone are well worth the effort–I’m still smiling about an ad I found for “Skits Stretchy-Seat Underwear.”


And sometimes you’ll find story-generating gems, like this review of a concert by the town’s new amateur orchestra: “The only discordant note in the entire evening’s performance was a disturbance in the balcony which occurred during the final selection. Later it was disclosed that the disturbance was caused by a musically minded mouse who arrived without having a reserved seat.” !!

It feels like a good day for some research “Show and Tell”: what interesting nuggets do you have in your collection? Is there a particular object or image or anecdote that inspired a recent story of yours? How did your story begin to emerge from your research? Share in the comments! And may wonderful, deep stories grow from the research seeds…..

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Teachers Write 7.8.16 Follow your Curiosity with Michelle Cusolito

Happy Friday! Be sure to start the day at Gae’s blog for Friday Feedback. Give some feedback, get some ideas on your own work, and learn strategies for offering helpful, thoughtful critique! 

Our guest author reflection here today is from Michelle Cusolito, whose debut picture book FLYING DEEP will be released in 2018. She’s sharing her journey with this book, along with some thoughts on following curiosity wherever it leads…

inside Alvin

Curiosity: It’s good for Students, Teachers, and Writers

When I was teaching, if my students asked me a question I couldn’t answer I’d say, “I don’t know, but let’s find out!” This would sometimes send us on wild investigations together.

Now that I’m a writer, I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Most authors get some version of this question. For me, the answer is, “My curiosity.” I don’t subscribe the old saying, “Write what you know.” I prefer, “Write what you’re curious about.” Follow your curiosity. Follow your passions.

I’m primarily a non-fiction writer, but I believe the same applies to fiction writers. Most people write about topics they want to delve into more deeply; topics or themes they are curious about. Some folks investigate a theme by writing fictional stories in which main characters grapple with that theme. I mostly write non-fiction on the topics I love. My curiosity about the world drives me.

Let me give you some examples.

Back when I was teaching fourth grade, my friend introduced me to his friend Don. During the usual “get to know you” chit chat, I learned that Don used to pilot Alvin, a deep-sea submersible that dove to previously unheard of depths. The naturalist in me was fascinated by Don’s description of black smokers (underwater geysers blasting toxic hot water), clams as large as dinner plates and tube worms 6 feet tall.

But I was also fascinated by the people who would take on that job. How did they survive the crushing pressure two miles deep? How did Don, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, pretzel his frame into a sphere that was roughly 6 feet in diameter? How did they last down there all day without a toilet? I wanted to know more. I knew my fourth graders would be fascinated, too, so I invited Don to visit our classroom to tell stories and share pictures. We were mesmerized. We learned new and excited science (All food chains DO NOT start with the sun!) along with interesting tidbits about the lives of pilots and scientists who dive in Alvin (They pee in a bottle!) My lessons on ecosystems, food chains and the lives of scientists were forever changed by Don’s visit.

Flash forward many years. I was writing books for children. I had an agent, but we hadn’t sold anything, yet. I was still following my curiosity and writing books on topics that fascinated me. The manuscript that landed me my agent, a picture book titled Frog Frenzy, investigated the annual migration of wood frogs. I had spent four springs, out in the field, watching migration and taking notes. I researched in books and on-line. And once I had a manuscript that I felt good about, I consulted with one of the premier experts on the subject who fact-checked it for me. I spent five years researching, writing, and revising that manuscript. That’s a long time. But I never got bored with my subject. I loved what I was learning.

I have many other examples, but I’ll skip to the manuscript that will be my first published book: Flying Deep. It was November of 2014 and I had decided to participate in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). The goal of PiBoIdMo is to generate 30 picture book ideas in 30 days. I came up with 32, mostly terrible, ideas.

But one of my notes said, “Hydrothermal Vents- Scientists in the Field? NF, Don C, WHOI”


 Write about “hydrothermal vents”- those black smokers I mentioned earlier.

 Perhaps write it for the “Scientists in the Field”

 “NF”-means it will be non-fiction (some of the ideas I listed were fiction).

 “Don C” means try to interview Don-the pilot I mentioned earlier.

 “WHOI”- means research on the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Website and visit WHOI.

On December 1, 2014, I was out for a walk. I normally carry a small notebook and pen on my walks, but on this day, I forgot. Of course, the first line of a picture book about Alvin popped into my head.

“Imagine you’re the pilot of Alvin, a submersible barely big enough for two.” I recited that line over and over in my head, afraid I would lose it before I got home. But then I realized I had a new-fangled tool in my pocket: a smart phone with a “Notes” app. I sat down to type that first sentence and more came flooding in. I typed wildly with one finger, trying to capture everything. Thirty minutes and 500 words later, I looked up.

I had a first draft. A terrible, inaccurate and wonderful first draft. There were so many gaps and errors in my knowledge (Alvin fits 3 people, for example). BUT I had a structure and I knew how my book would flow. All I needed to do was complete enough research to write it.

 I called Don and interviewed him over the course of about 4 hours.

 I read every book I could find- both kids’ books and adult books. (Turns out, there was already a

Scientists in the Field Book on the topic, but it didn’t matter. My approach was different).

 I watched films.

 I scoured the WHOI and NOAA websites (Two reputable, reliable on-line sources).

Through all of this, I revised, researched more when my knowledge fell short, and revised again. By the time I visited WHOI to see their model of Alvin, I had a pretty solid working manuscript. Then I was connected with Bruce Strickrott, Manager of the Alvin Group. He talked to me for more than 3 hours during August of 2015 and took me inside Alvin. I left both energized and aware of places my manuscript was inaccurate. I revised again. The revisions and research would continue all through the fall of 2015.

In February of 2016, 1 year and 3 months after my original idea, I received an offer on my book. But I’m still not done. Just a few hours ago, (I’m writing this in mid-May) I sent Flying Deep to my critique group so they can read the latest version which includes changes based on notes from my editor. There will be several more rounds before the text is complete.

Start to finish, this book (700 words plus back matter) will have taken me nearly two years to complete. And that’s less than half as long as Frog Frenzy and many other manuscripts I’ve written. Despite that, I’m still not bored with the topic. Why? I am infinitely curious about the natural world and people who study it.

So, how does this apply to you, dear teachers, who are writing with us this summer? I encourage you to sit with your notebook or laptop right now and make a list. What are the topics you love? What are your passions? What fascinates you? Challenges you? Intrigues you? What puzzles you or bothers you? Write quickly. Get everything down.

Then, examine your list. What ideas tug at you the most? Which topics can you imagine exploring for the next month or two or twenty-two? Ponder them for a moment. If something comes to you right away, like when I was walking, write it down. If not, take a bath. Take a walk. Take a shower. Go for a bike ride. Stare into space and let your mind wander. No matter what you do, bring a notebook and pen so you can write down whatever comes to you. Write a terrible, (possibly) inaccurate and wonderful first draft.

Get it down in all its messiness. Read it.

What tugs at you now? Follow your passions and write more.

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Teachers Write 7.7.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Nancy Castaldo

Good morning! Today’s Thursday Quick-Write is courtesy of guest author Nancy Castaldo, whose fabulous works of nonfiction include SNIFFER DOGS: HOW DOGS (AND THEIR NOSES) SAVE THE WORLD and THE STORY OF SEEDS.  She joins us today to talk about weaving facts into narrative…

Turning Facts into a Scene

Fact nerd alert! I confess that I love facts. For me, facts are the jumping off points to creating story. They could be something simple like – Humans use their eyes. A dog uses its nose. That fact will lead to questions and questions help flesh out the story – in this case the story of sniffer dogs.

Let’s look at a sentence from my book SNIFFER DOGS: HOW DOGS (AND THEIR NOSES) SAVE THE WORLD):

“I’m crouched behind a pine tree in a North Carolina forest waiting patiently for Lex, a mixed-breed live-find dog to locate me.”

This sentence begins to expand that fact into a scene by introducing character and setting. Let’s take another look at that section.

“The woods are quiet except to the occasional bird whistle. And then I hear it – the bell on Lex’s collar!”

Now I’ve introduced other senses into the scene, which gives the reader a stronger experience. These techniques are also used for fiction writing. Take a look at how the writer incorporates theses techniques on the page of any narrative nonfiction.

Today’s assignment: Expand one of the basic facts below into a scene using character, setting, and perhaps dialogue (must be authentic for nonfiction! ). Keep in mind that there are many other techniques to use – for example, suspense. Don’t be afraid to do a little research. Write on!

Fact #1 Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall.

Fact #2 Journalist Nellie Bly raced around the world.

Feel free to share a paragraph or two of today’s writing in the comments if you’d like!

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