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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Future Wolf Creek Residents,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Priscilla’s Magical Minty Brownies

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

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

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

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

Pretty smart, right? More to come…

Your friend from the past,

Nora Tucker


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

Dear Troy,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love you,


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

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  1. Martha Willey
    Posted July 25, 2016 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Good morning Kate, thanks for sharing and the advice on advice giving. I chose Elidee’s letter to comment on. I enjoyed the irony of her writing someone in prison when they are talking about a prison break. They are trying to get in while others were getting out. A lot of backstory was explained as well without dragging the story down and her affection shows through. I can’t wait to see this book. Best wishes! And thanks for being brave.

  2. Pamela Tallmadge
    Posted July 25, 2016 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Elidee’s hopefulness that her brother could “write his way out” in the face of her writing being boring and not getting her into the fancy school intrigues me. Will she continue to remain hopeful? Will their presence closer to the prison help remind Troy of the life waiting for him? Her writing is so vivid about the “crazy morning” I wonder if she really wanted to go to the fancy school. I also wonder if Troy will get to experience Hamilton. I can’t stop thinking about this story and await more.

  3. Posted July 25, 2016 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Morning Kate,

    What an interesting and brave format for a book, including letters, recipes and more from all around a story. Sounds like it could be a great mentor text for formats of writing, as well as a good read.

    I looked at Nora’s letter. I like her reason for closing the blinds and knowing the time. It especially works when you understand she wants to “go out reporting” so time and place would be important to her, but I especially like how it showcases the prison and the systems they have in place for escapees juxtaposed against the line, “only they didn’t.” It makes me wonder why didn’t the system work this time. What is different about this jailbreak?

    The voices of the characters work too. I like the relaxed attitude or show of confidence that the inmate would return due to the black flies. That reinforces the setting as well.

    Nora’s voice does show how young or how people don’t tell her what’s going on. Her use of “I guess” and “or something” show that.

    I also loved the reflection around the brownie recipe. How it’s simpler than she expected and I wonder if that could reflect back to either the break out or the false heart attack. I think I’m going to try the brownie recipe with my boys today. I love peppermint patties.

    Thanks for showing us how this is done and letting us have a crack at it! I appreciate it!

  4. Posted July 25, 2016 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Elidee’s letter to her brother was a stream of consciousness which helped me understand her emotional state. She was lonely and she reached out to her brother and let him know that she believes in his ability to overcome his situation. The line, “and I hope us being closer helps you remember there’s a life waiting for you shows her belief in their strong family relationship. The connection of Hamilton to her their life was powerful and made me laugh about the ripped off line from Kanye.

  5. Jen
    Posted July 25, 2016 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Kate, it is such a treat to get a glimpse of your in-process manuscript. I so loved seeing Linda’s comments. Thank you both for sharing.

    I chose to critique Elidee’s letter to Troy. The idea of a time capsule as a backdrop to your story is so intriguing. This seems like an ideal way to represent the prison breaks in a less sensational way and naturally allows for multiple points of view.

    My curiosity about why Troy was in prison propelled my reading forward. I want to know more!

    I liked the way you wove in Elidee’s hunger for more information about the escape. The skittles were a sweet detail to show that she hung on to the hope of seeing her brother. I would have liked to see another detail / memory that tied Elidee and Troy together emotionally. (maybe it’s in another section)

    I wondered why Troy didn’t know that his Mama and sister had moved or about the private school she had wanted to go. Perhaps you addressed this elsewhere.

    Elidee’s description of the Hamilton play worked well, I liked how she felt that in some ways it was a mirror to her world. I might have liked a little more background about Hamilton’s island and motivations – just a snippet.

    Your bravery is insprirational, thanks again. Jennifer Kraar
    P.S. Is Elidee’s family from the south?

  6. Posted July 25, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Good Morning, Kate and Linda.

    Thank you for this great post. I’ve been part of a critique group for two years (formed from TW participants, so many thanks for that).

    I’ve chose Elidee’s letter to her brother for today:

    I love her voice. It evokes innocence, but also knowledge of how serious her brother’s situation is: “I won’t ask how it is in there. I know it’s awful, even though Mama tries to make it sound like it’s not so bad and you’ll be okay.”

    I can also feel her loneliness (“I don’t know any kids”), and a deep love for her brother and belief that he will win his appeal. I especially love the part where they’re stopped by the police and told they can’t visit. When the officer laughs, Elidee reports this as a matter of fact. I immediately want to know how the mother reacted, but I’m not sure if Elidee would notice that.

    I’m intrigued by the idea that Elidee and her mother moved all the way from NYC to be closer to the prison. I wonder how many people do that? I think young readers will ask about that too. I think this would be a great topic for discussion in a classroom.

    The pop culture references are a nice way to connect with young readers.

    Finally, like many others in New York (and the country) who were captivated by the prison escape and subsequent manhunt that June, I’m eager to read your book and see your take on how a small town managed the upheaval of their daily lives for those weeks.

  7. Dionna
    Posted July 25, 2016 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    What is there not to love about these excerpts, Kate?! There’s no room for improvement. It is flawless. It’s also really cool to see how you took a real event in your life (I remember the inmate escape not too long ago, and your Tweets about it.) and made a wonderful kid-voice to tell it. I cannot wait to read this entire novel.


  8. Andy Starowicz
    Posted July 25, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Good afternoon, Kate and Linda!

    Thank you for the lesson on offering critiques.

    This is a difficult concept for sixth grade students. When we begin revising and editing with peers, they instantly feel vulnerable and there is a notion that the other students will rip apart their paper, so the activities need to begin with building trust in each other. We start out slow with sticky-note revision (I suggest…, I like…) and we work on being respectful of all of the writing in the classroom. I, too, share my writing with them to critique (they love critiquing my writing, which makes me feel vulnerable:). Once the trust is there, the editing process runs very smoothly.

    I read and thoroughly enjoyed both letters, but I am writing the feedback for Elidee’s letter:

    The way you weave current events (last June’s prison break) into the story and letter is wonderful. The details draw the reader in and tell the story in a unique way. The characters are developed through the letters and move the story along. Elidee’s voice is so real (I’ve read only a short passage, but I feel like I already know her). She seems unsure about her current situation and her emotions, but her mama’s optimism and faith are guiding her through these difficult times. She believes in Troy. The conclusion of the letter is as solid as the start with another connection to the popular culture of our current time era.

    From reading all of your other books, Kate, I know that you do very thorough research, so I look forward to someday reading more of this story just for the facts about the prison break and manhunt. On a side note, I was fascinated to learn that Tupac and many notable others served prison time at the Clinton Correctional Facility (I remember reading about that when I was reading about the manhunt).

    Now, my sixth grade revision critique:
    I suggest that you write more and get it published, so I can read it.:)
    I like/love the format. With the advances in communication in this technological era, the letter (and writing a letter) has lost its allure.:(

    Thank you again – It was a great way to start a Monday of writing.
    Happy writing!

  9. Miranda Lambourne
    Posted July 25, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kate, when I first read that your new book was going to be told “entirely in documents” my first instinct was that it might be rather “dry.” It didn’t take more than the short excerpts your provided to see how wrong I was and how much you have woven into the documents – brava! I am already hooked!!
    I chose to critique Nora’s letter. Here’s what I took away from it that I have not already read in previous posts. For characterization, I assume that Nora is a well-adjusted “All American” middle school girl who any teacher would love to have in his/her class thanks to her enthusiasm for life, research, and writing. I felt like you captured her voice perfectly. I love her breathy enthusiasm, and use of capitalization and exclamation points (probably because this is something I have not yet grown out of wanting to use myself ha ha.) Her reflection on the “magical” brownies also shows the beginnings of awakening and maturity, which gives her character some depth. She is also an older sibling from the reference to protecting her little brother. I am also sensing that she is well protected. She doesn’t seem to carry any great fear of the prison inmates – it is all a big adventure to her. This tells me that her mom and dad do a good job of keeping his work and home life separate.
    For setting, I am imagining upstate New York from the blackfly and probably flat land (enough to build a subdivision and prison.) It feels bleak to me at this point because, let’s face it, who would actually choose to live next to a prison?
    Thank you so much for this opportunity to critique your work and for the clarification on critiquing. It gives me a much clearer idea of how to help my kiddos peer review in a non-threatening way.

  10. Linda Urban
    Posted July 25, 2016 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Such insightful readers! I love seeing what you are hearing in these letters.

    Simply letting a fellow writer understand what assumptions readers might make and what conclusions they draw is a gift. Thanks for participating!

  11. Posted July 26, 2016 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    I definitely need a partner to read my writing and correct it! This is great !

  12. Posted August 5, 2016 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Dear Kate, I am far behind with the TW posts and assignments but work my way steadily through everything. I really enjoyed reading through the two letters from your manuscript and decided to post my reply here, even if it is far too late. Thanks for sharing from this work in progress. I can’t wait to read the entire story. Thanks, Tanja

    Dear Kate,

    I read through both letters before deciding to give some feedback on the second letter, the one Eileen wrote to Troy. That grabbed me right away and made me feel I got to know Eileen quite well already. I loved how much information the letter contains, how much detail you have gently woven into just this one letter, making me extremely curious to see the rest of the story. So, Eileen and her mum – there seems to be no dad in the picture – recently moved from the Bronx to this new place, a place close to the prison her brother Troy is currently at. Troy made some bad choices but it doesn’t sound like he is going to be in prison for long. The family likes music and theatre. Further, I appreciated the humor in the letter, not just the incident of Eileen and her mum wanting to visit Troy on a day when two inmates have broken out, but Eileen seems generally someone with a great sense of humor. It is clear that she is trying to keep a light, cheerful and positive tone, for her brother’s as well as her own sake, even though their situation is far from easy. Not just her brother’s incarceration but also her being rejected by a fancy school she and her mum were hoping she would attend, must way heavily on the family. She is trying to joke about it but it is clear at the same time that she must have been pretty disappointed. However, Eileen sounds very much like a fighter, someone who doesn’t give up easily and definitely isn’t a push-over. Her mother on the other hand seems more resigned already to accepting things as they are, which is clear from how she reacted when told by the police officers that she wouldn’t be able to visit the prison for some time. She just accepts it, no arguing, no discussion. She simply turns back home. It makes me think that she has had a hard time, maybe because she is raising two kids on her own, in a rough neighborhood, with her son having gotten mixed up with the wrong crowd, with money always being extremely tight, and that she now simply doesn’t have any more energy to keep fighting. The letter also shows however that the three must have a really loving and caring relationship. There are no accusations towards the brother; instead Eileen conveys hope and encouragement that all will be okay in the end. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the story!

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