Teachers Write 7.18.18 Q&A Wednesday with Mike Jung and Jess Keating

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering. Today’s author guests are Mike Jung and Jess Keating.

Mike Jung lives in Northern California with his wife and kids. He writes middle grade fiction, and his, novels GEEKS, GIRLS & SECRET IDENTITIES and UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECTS were published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. He’s also contributed essays to numerous anthologies and is a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books team.

As a zoologist and author, Jess Keating has been sprayed by skunks, bitten by crocodiles, and
victim to the dreaded papercut. Her books blend science, humor, and creativity, and include the
acclaimed My Life is a Zoo middle-grade trilogy, the award-winning picture book biography,
SHARK LADY, and the hilariously informative World of Weird Animals nonfiction series. You can learn more about her upcoming books at www.jesskeating.com, or find her on Twitter @Jess_Keating.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

Teachers Write 7.17.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Debbi Michiko Florence

It’s time for our Teachers Write Tuesday Quick-Write, and today’s guest author is Debbi Michiko Florence! Debbi is the author of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series, about a Japanese American girl. Book 4 in the series, Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper (a Junior Library Guild selection) just came out this month. Before Debbi started writing as a career, she worked at a pet store, volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator, interned as a zookeeper’s aide, taught fifth grade, and was the Associate Curator of Education for the Detroit Zoo. A third generation Japanese American and a native Californian, she was born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles and has called many places home – Michigan, Mexico, Massachusetts, New York, and China. Today, she lives in Connecticut with her husband, a rescue dog named Kiku, a bunny named Aki, and two ducks named Darcy and Lizzy.

My idea for Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen (and subsequently for the rest of the series) sprouted from my memories of family traditions, specifically Japanese traditions related to holidays, such as making mochi for New Year’s and setting up the doll display for Girl’s Day. Using tradition as a jumping off point can help you find your way into a story or help develop a character. Let’s give it a try!

Your Assignment: Set a timer for five minutes. Make a list of family traditions or activities that you remember from your childhood and ones that you do with your family today. These do not have to relate to culture or holidays. When my daughter was young, every last day of summer we had a Mommy and Caitlin Day where we planned fun activities for just the two of us. Museum visits, a carousel ride, treats from the ice cream truck, a hike; we crammed as much fun into one day as possible. And as sad as it was to bid farewell to summer, we both looked forward to Mommy and Catlin Day.

Now that you have a long list, go through it and pick one to expand upon. Set your timer for ten minutes and write as many details about this tradition as you can recall. No detail is too small!

Optional if you have a character you’re developing: Now set your timer again for ten minutes and write about a character experiencing this particular tradition. How do they feel about it? Create details specific to the character and their family/friends.

I hope this gets you jump-started on a new story or helps you learn more about a character. Feel free to share in the comments below! Happy writing! I’m cheering you on!

Teachers Write 7.16.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Anne Marie Pace

Good morning! Need a quick prompt to get your creativity fired up? Head over to Jo’s blog for your Monday morning warm-up. And then come back…because we have a great mini-lesson today!

Our guest author is Anne Marie Pace, author of the Vampirina series and other picture books, including her latest, BUSY EYED DAY. She joins us today to talk about picture book revision. This is a great lesson to share with kids when you’re talking about word choice.

We’re all familiar with the writing process.  Whatever terms you use with your students, it’s basically the same five steps: prewriting, drafting, revising, proofreading, publishing.  Revision is my favorite part of the process.  I love making sure I’ve told a strong story with a strong plot in the strongest way possible.  Part of telling that story in the strongest way possible is through very careful, even nit-picky, examination of each sentence.

Personally, I tend to write clean, so even my drafts have complete grammatically-correct sentences and few spelling and punctuation errors.  (That’s not a requirement for being a writer; it’s simply something that I’m able to do. I know lots of wonderful writers who write messy and that’s fine.) So you might assume that once I’ve ensured the story is well-told, with complete sentences in the right order, I’m done.  But I’m not.  Grammatically correct sentences are fine; but I want to give more to my readers than serviceable writing. I want each word in my picture books to be the best word I can find. We know what Mark Twain said: “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I want rhythms that are fun to read aloud, even in prose.  I want my books to be the best I can create at that time in my writing journey—and I can do better than serviceable.

Here are some examples from some of my published and upcoming books. I’ll give you the original and revised versions and explain why I made the changes I did.


Original: If you wish to become a ballerina, you have to do more than wear a tutu and dream about dancing all day long. 

Final: If you are going to be a ballerina, you have to do more than wear a tutu and dream about dancing.

There is nothing wrong with wishing.  Wishes are hopeful and give us direction.  But here I want Vampirina to be more assertive.  Being a ballerina isn’t something you wish for, that a genie in a bottle can grant you.   Being a ballerina takes hard work, and to do it well, you must be determined to do that work.  Thus I replaced “wish” with “are going to” and it was a good change.



Original: Even though snow is flying everywhere, Pigloo keeps his eyes open so he’ll know when he’s found the North Pole.

Final: Snow is flying everywhere, but Pigloo keeps his eyes open so he’ll know when he’s found the North Pole.

In this case, the first sentence is grammatically correct, and for older readers the compound-complex sentence would be fine.  But the cause-and-effect in the first sentence isn’t necessary to the sentence’s meaning, and using “Snow is flying everywhere” brings importance to the snow and paints a picture.  “Even though” diminishes the image of the snow flying everywhere in a way that isn’t as effective.


Original: “Oh, you know Bunny,” Moose said.  “He’s always scrambling this time of year.”

Final: “Oh, you know Bunny,” Moose said.  “He’s always holed up this time of year.”

Among other things, GROUNDHUG DAY is Groundhog missing Valentine’s Day because he goes back to his hole for the last six weeks of winter. But the final illustration of this book shows Bunny dyeing beautiful Easter eggs.  The visual joke is that Groundhog has emerged, but now Bunny is unavailable.  I liked the first version because it plays with the concept of eggs without being explicit; however, in the end, I realized that kids of picture book age tend to be quite literal. I didn’t want kids to think the Easter Bunny was going to scramble the contents of their Easter baskets! It’s not that there’s no place for word play in picture books—of course there is—but I felt the last joke had to stand on its own, without being explained to the child. And Bunny being “holed up” reflects Groundhog being holed up earlier in the book.


Original: Glitter-eyed girl/Skitter-eyed squirrel

Final: Squirrel-eyed girl/Girl-eyed squirrel

I loved the rhyme of glitter and skitter, but in the end, I chose the version that implies the squirrel and girl are gazing at each other.  A girl wearing glitter sunglasses and a squirrel glancing around nervously doesn’t tell the same story as two beings taking note of the other, and the book is primarily about noticing, so the second version was more appropriate.


No more spider,/No more bug.

Two-armed mama/Gives a hug.


No more spiders/No more bugs

Loving mama gives big hugs.

At first I liked the contrast of all the “–eyed” constructs, which make up every couplet, with “two-armed.” But in the end, I decided the contrast didn’t add anything to the final story. Also Sammi has been away from her mother for some time, and it makes sense that she’d run to Mama for a hug after seeing a bug that made her nervous.


Original: Whether or not you come out on top, finishing with grace makes you a real winner.

Final: Whether or not you come out on top, finishing with grace is what makes you a real winner.

I’m usually looking for ways to cut words, not add them, and the final version is definitely wordier.  The “is what” is unnecessary to the meaning. However, the final version reads aloud more smoothly, with better rhythm.

I hope these examples have given you something to think about in your own writing.

Your assignment: Use your work-in-progress, or go back to one of your earlier writing exercises from this week.  Find a merely serviceable sentence, and rewrite it to make it sing.   If you like, share your revision in the comments!

The Brilliant Deep: A Conversation with Illustrator Matt Forsythe

Picture books are magical collaborations, and there are so many exciting moments along the way to their publication. As an author, when I’m writing, I’m imagining the page turns and the art, but at that point, I have no idea who each book’s illustrator will be. I was thrilled when I learned that Matt Forsythe would be creating the art for THE BRILLIANT DEEP: REBUILDING THE WORLD’S CORAL REEFS, and even more enchanted as I watched his sketches evolve and saw the words and pictures come together.

This book, about the life and work of Coral Restoration Foundation founder Ken Nedimyer, earned a starred review from School Library Journal, which called it “A book that can be used in so many ways—a study in biography, science, conservation, and volunteerism. A must for nonfiction collections.”

Now that the book is out and making waves, I thought it might be fun to share a conversation with Matt about his process for creating the art!


Kate: Hi, Matt! I’m so excited to chat with you about your work illustrating The Brilliant Deep, but first, I have to tell you that when I originally saw the finished art for this book, it absolutely took my breath away. And it made me wonder how your vision for this project evolved from the day Chronicle touched base to ask if you’d be interested in illustrating. I know that illustrators have to pick and choose when it comes to projects. What was it that made you want to say yes to this one, and what was your first thought as to what your approach might be?

Matt: I was really excited to see your script because:

  1. It was so beautifully written
  2. It had an environmental message
  3. I knew your work with Chris Silas Neal, which I loved so much; so I was excited to get to work on my own nature book with you.

Before this project I had been working on an animated fiction TV show – which was great fun, but it was exciting to have the opportunity to work on a non-fiction project – about an issue that is so current and pressing.

That’s why it felt important for me to write, too. And I’m so glad you felt that connection because I can’t imagine more perfect art for this project. Could you talk a bit about your process for this book?

This was my first non-fiction book, so the visuals required much more research than previous projects.

I wanted to make sure I got Ken and his family right for each time period – even the scuba/snorkeling technology had to be right for each era – and I needed to ensure the waterlife was accurate or I knew that the fact-checkers at Chronicle would have my head!

To help me out, Ken, himself, sent me a bunch of photos of his family and his early years with the Coral Restoration Foundation. Also, the underwater life had to be specific to each location where Ken dove in the Florida reefs.

For example, at one point, I wanted to draw Manatees; but Ken said I couldn’t because manatees are actually much closer inland than his dive-spots.

So: no manatees.

Kate: I am sorry about the manatees. That would have been fun.

What media did you use for this project, or was it a mix? I know there were sketches early on, but I don’t think I ever saw the in-between stages, before final art. Can you talk a little about the steps you go through when you’re creating a piece for a book like this?

Matt: It was a mix. I always use watercolour, gouache, pencil and then gouache again – usually in that order.

The first step is a very quick, loose run of small sketches through the book to capture some energy and flow in thumbnails.

Then I enlarge those and tighten with pencil. Once we have a final sequence of images agreed upon with the editors, I might do a quick value test on the computer before I go in with a watercolour wash to establish a colour story. And then I will use gouache and pencil to get the values right.

I like the colours to move from warm to cool with the story, depending on the situations. This was a particular challenge, because the second act of the book is about dead reefs. Which are by definition, lifeless and – very visually unappealing. I tried to focus the images on Ken and his work for this part of the book; varying the angles to hopefully create more interest and movement.

Here are some examples of pencil sketches:

 Here is an example of trying to establish values before going in with paint:

More sketches:

And here’s some of the final art…

Kate: This is so interesting to see – thanks!! One last question… What are you working on now?

Matt: Right now, I’m designing a Netflix animated show called 12 Forever. It’s a really fun show about a girl who doesn’t want to grow up – so she sort of fights her fears and fantasies on this magical island. I’m getting to design a lot of the creatures on that island. It will be out in 2019.

I’m also writing and illustrating my own picture book which should be out in Fall 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

What are you working on? What’s your next picture book going to be about?

Kate: I have a few things in the works and am excited about all of them. Chris Silas Neal and I are doing a couple more books in our Over & Under the Snow series – one set in a Costa Rica rainforest and another set in the desert. And I also have an upcoming Chronicle picture book called Where’s the Next President? which I just learned is being  illustrated by Adam Rex.

Thanks again for taking time to talk process with me today! I’ll wrap up with a link to a feature about our book that was just posted on the wonderful blog, Brain Pickings, where Maria Popova sums up Ken’s work so beautifully“What began as one man’s labor of love in the Florida Keys — the locus of his childhood love of the ocean — has become a global model of hands-on resistance to the assault on nature.”

Teachers Write 7.13.18 Friday Mini-Lesson with Michelle Cusolito

Happy Friday! Our guest author for today’s mini-lesson is Michelle Cusolito. Michelle spent her childhood mucking about in the fields, forests, and swamps around the farm where she grew up in southeastern Massachusetts. As an exchange student in high school, she temporarily traded rural living for city life in Cebu, Philippines. These early experiences set her on her current course exploring nature and culture like the locals. She spent 10 wonderful years as a grade 4 teacher. Now, when she’s not mucking around in the world, she’s usually in her office or local coffee shop weaving these experiences into stories for children. Her new book is FLYING DEEP: CLIMB INSIDE DEEP-SEA SUBMERSIBLE ALVIN.

Like most authors, I have an ever-growing list of topics I might write about. But how do I decide which topic warrants a whole book? For me, the biggest factor is my interest level. (Tip: I have a “hidden board” called “Ideas” on Pinterest. I pin interesting stuff I find so I can come back to it later).

I spent about a year deeply researching, writing, and revising Flying Deep before it went out on submission. Once it sold, we went through many rounds of edits to get it ready for publication. Now, 3½ years after writing that first draft, the book is out in the world and I’m talking to kids, teachers, librarians, and parents about it. I need to love my topic to be able to sustain my excitement as I share it years after I first started researching it. I also need to consider what is already out in the market. How do I do that? Here are my steps:

 I start with Amazon. I narrow my focus to kids’ books and search on my specific topic and
related topics. For example, when writing Flying Deep, I searched Alvin, hydrothermal vents,
Chemosynthesis, deep ocean, deep-sea vehicles, etc.
 Then, I search my library’s on-line system to see if I can get the books delivered to my local
library. (I also use the library’s search engine, but I’ve found it isn’t as robust as Amazon’s.
Occasionally, I find some gem not on Amazon, though). Why the library? It’s free! I get every
book I can, even if it seems like it won’t be that useful. You never know.
 If I can’t find a book, I ask my librarian to search for me. I’ve gotten books from New York and
Pennsylvania this way.
 If there are books I can’t get through the library, I assess how valuable that book will be and if I should buy it. If it’s a kids’ book that’s so hard to get, do I need to worry about it? It’s clearly not widely available. On the other hand, if it’s a book that seems like it might be helpful to my
research, should I purchase it? (Note: many people tell me they have also searched on https://www.edelweiss.plus/ I haven’t done this, yet).

Ok, so I get the 5 or 10 or 20+ books currently available. Then what? Read them all, of course! I love this phase of research. It’s kind of like that dreaming phase when planning a vacation: I snuggle up on the sofa (or perhaps the hammock if it’s summer) and read every book. Instead of dreaming about places I’ll visit, I dream about what I might write. I look to see what the books have in common and how they’re different. I look for things I’m curious about that are not covered in the books. I also check the bibliography for resources I might consult later. I take notes. I also consider these points:

 Is there a lack of books on this topic? Why might that be? (A lack of books doesn’t necessarily mean one is needed- there may not be a market for it).
 Is the market already flooded with books on this topic? (Multiple books already in the market
doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t write one).
 If there are multiple books already out, what new angle might I bring to the topic. (For example,I consider what I was curious about that isn’t in the available books).

Once I’ve done all of that, then I decide if I want to pursue the topic further. If I decide to proceed, I use the information I’ve gathered to guide my research. I look for a new angle to the story and the hidden gems that will bring my topic alive in a new or interesting way.

Your Assignment: Give this a try today. What topics have you been thinking about? (You have an idea file, right?) Follow my steps to see what you can dig up that has already been published and request the books from your library. Then see where your idea fits with what’s already available. While you’re looking, be alert for ideas that pop into your mind and jot them down. (Note: If you don’t have a list of non-fiction topics and you’d like to build one, check out my Teacher’s Write post from 2016 “Follow Your Curiosity.” In it, I give more background about Flying Deep and offer tips for finding topics)

Feel free to share your reflections for today in the comments! And a reminder: If you have a work-in-progress, you can also visit Friday Feedback to share a bit, get feedback, and give feedback to others, too.

Teachers Write 7.12.18 Thursday Quick-Write with Justina Ireland

Good morning! It’s time for our Thursday Quick-Write, and today’s guest author wrote one of my favorite books of the year – Dread Nation.

Justina Ireland is also the author of the teen novels Vengeance Bound and Promise of Shadows. She enjoys dark chocolate and dark humor and is not too proud to admit that she’s still afraid of the dark. She lives with her husband, kid, and dog in Pennsylvania. You can visit her online at www.justinaireland.com.

When I think of writing, I usually think primarily in the fundamental building blocks of story: setting, character, and plot.  For me, this is the Holy Trinity, and manipulating any single one of these elements will impact the other two.  Is your character a plucky girl from 1880s Wisconsin? That’s going to make her a lot different than a plucky girl from 1980s Wisconsin. And moving either of these girls to California would also change them as characters and would require some manipulation of the plot.

But keeping these three elements in mind when writing means that improving any of them requires us to look critically at the other two. To fix a broken plot means to consider both the character and setting.  To change a setting means modifying character actions and plot development, and so on and so forth.

So the exercise I have for you today involves thinking about your character critically, and using a modification of setting to understand them on another level.

Your Assignment: Every character has a place where they are comfortable and uncomfortable, and a common exercise involves writing a scene where your main character is somewhere they would love and somewhere they would hate (in Dread Nation this is the main character killing the dead in the woods around Miss Preston’s and killing dead at a university lecture, respectively).

But a better way to fully understand the depth and breadth of a character is to completely remove them from their time period.  How does your 1980s girl fare in the 1880s? What trends does she love and what does she miss about home?  Writing these kinds of quirky, irreverent scenes can help to get you out of the rut of your plot, and help you build a deeper, more nuanced character.

So: take your main character and write a scene with them a hundred years in the future or a hundred years in the past. As you write keep the following in mind:

What do they love about this new time? What do they hate?

How well do they adapt and what does that look like?

What is the hardest thing for them to overcome about the time shift? What do they miss most about their own time?

Feel free to share a bit of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like!

Teachers Write 7.11.18 Q&A Wednesday with Grace Lin & Emma Otheguy

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering. Today’s author guests are Grace Lin and Emma Otheguy!

Before Grace Lin was an award-winning and NY Times bestselling author/illustrator of picturebooks, early readers and middle grade novels, she was the only Asian girl (except for her sisters) going to her elementary school in Upstate NY. That experience, good and bad, has influenced her books—including her Newbery Honor WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, her Geisel Honor LING & TING, and her National Book Finalist WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER. But, it also causes Grace to persevere for diversity as a New England Public Radio commentator and when she gave her TEDx talk “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf,” as well as her PBSNewHour video essay “What to do when you realize classic books from your childhood are racist?.” In 2016, Grace’s art was displayed at the White House and Grace, herself, was recognized by President Obama’s office as a Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling.  These days, Grace is most excited about her new picture book, “A Big Mooncake for Little Star,” out at the end of August. Grace is offering exclusive, limited edition moon calendars to readers who pre-orders her book. See  (link below) for more info!  http://www.gracelinblog.com/2018/05/pre-order-big-mooncake-for-little-star.html

Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and a historian of Spain and colonial Latin America. Her picture book debut, a biography of famed Cuban poet and independence leader José Martí, titled Martí’s Song for Freedom (Lee & Low Books), received five starred reviews and was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal and the New York Public Library. Otheguy lives in New York City with her husband.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

Teachers Write 7.10.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Traci Sorell

Tuesday and Thursday are Quick-Write days at Teachers Write, so our guest authors will be coming by with some writing prompts to try out. Do as much or as little as you’d like with each mini-assignment, and feel free to bookmark those you’d like to use with students later on. Teachers Write posts don’t go anywhere after the summer ends. They’re always here for you to use and share with student writers.

Our guest author today is Traci Sorell, who writes poems as well as fiction and nonfiction works for children—the type of books she sought out in her school and public libraries as a child. Her debut picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, focuses on the universal spirit of gratitude in contemporary Cherokee culture across the four seasons. Illustrated by Frané Lessac and published by Charlesbridge Publishing, the book shares Cherokee celebrations, history and experiences beginning with the new year in fall and ending at the tribe’s National Holiday in late summer. Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located.

My debut picture book focuses on Cherokee people expressing gratitude in every season, not just when something good happens or when something asked for has been provided. In Cherokee culture and many others worldwide, cultivating gratitude for both the blessings and struggles experienced is critical to maintaining balance and perspective on life’s journey. It is an intentional practice and a muscle to be strengthened daily.

Your Assignment: Take a moment, close your eyes and reflect on recent blessings and struggles experienced this spring or so far this summer. Sketch or write those down.

Now review what you’ve remembered. Place a star next to the one that speaks most to you. Use this as the basis of a poem, short story, free-write, sketch, picture book, song, etc. Select the method that best resonates with your experience and create! Feel free to share some of your work in the comments if you’d like.

Teachers Write 7.9.18 Mini-Lesson Monday: Another Point of View

Hi there! Happy Summer! And welcome to writing camp! Jo Knowles starts our weeks off with a Monday Morning Warm-up, so please visit her blog to get your creative ideas flowing – and then come back here for today’s lesson! 

Teachers Write is a free virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians.  To get daily posts delivered to your in-box, please click here and fill out your name & email on the form on the right side of the page. 

A quick note about blogging your Teachers Write experience:  Our guest authors have given permission for their lessons & prompts to be shared on the Teachers Write blog only. Please do not copy and paste any mini-lessons or writing prompts to your own social media feeds or blogs – publish only your own writing there. If you’d like to reference the ideas shared here, providing a link is the best way to do that. Thanks!

Our weekly schedule will look like this:

Monday Mini-lesson, and a Monday Morning Warm-Up
Tuesday Quick-Write
Wednesday is Q and A day – authors will be here to answer your questions! 
Thursday Quick-Write
Friday Mini-lesson and Friday Feedback
Sunday Check-In  – a chance to check in with everyone, reflect on the week, and share encouragement.

I’ll be popping in to comment, and I know many of our guest authors will, too, but since this community has grown so much (we’re more than 3000 teacher-writers strong now!) you’ll also need to commit to supporting one another. When someone decides to be brave and share a bit of writing in the comments, or when someone asks for advice or feedback, please know that you are welcome (and encouraged!) to be mentors to one another as well. Watching this writing community grow is one of the best things about being part of Teachers Write.

The first time you comment, I will have to “approve” your comment before it appears. This is to prevent us all from being besieged by online trolls. So when you comment, it will not show up right away – sometimes, it may be later in the day when your comment appears. THIS IS OKAY. Please don’t post more than once. I’ll be traveling for conferences & research some of the summer  but promise to check in whenever I get wherever I’m going each night. Be patient with  me, okay? 🙂

Now…let’s get started!

Another Point of View

Breakout cover imageWhen I was working on my June 2018 novel, BREAKOUT, about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home, I wrote the first draft in first person point of view, from the point of view of Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter. I revised. And revised. And somewhere around my third draft, thanks to feedback from writer friends, I reconsidered that POV decision.

How might different elements of this story look different to different characters? How would their backgrounds and life experiences change the way they saw things? And how might different documents – letters, poems, text messages, emails, news articles, signs, etc. – be useful in sharing those different perspectives?

This exploration ultimately led me to rewrite the entire book with a different structure, as a novel-in-documents.

I loved working on this project with this challenging puzzle of a format. (And I really hope you’ll want to read BREAKOUT and share it with your students- you can pick it up from your favorite bookstore!)

My next book won’t be a novel-in-documents because every story is different, and this one (a mystery set on a cricket farm!) will be better served with a different structure. But I’ll still take some time to write letters and poems in my characters’ voices, even though those pages probably won’t end up in the final draft. Writing from different points of view is a helpful way for writers of all ages to explore character, whether or not the final story will be told in multiple points of view. Often, when I’m writing a novel with an antagonist who doesn’t feel fully fleshed out, I take a break from the manuscript to journal in the “bad guy’s” point of view. It always helps me to understand more about my villain’s motivation and the backstory that shaped them.

So for today’s mini-lesson, let’s spend a little time playing around with point of view and structure.

Your assignment: 

  1. Go read this article about a pet owner who lost his cobra in a Florida neighborhood a few years ago. While you read, brainstorm a list of different characters who might be part of a story inspired by this news article and think about how their perspectives on what happened might differ.
  2. Next, brainstorm a list of all the different kinds of documents that might be part of this story if you were to write it using that format. Would there be text messages sent? From whom? What would they say? Who might write letters or diary entries or emails? What might a poem from one of the characters in this story look like? Could there be a rap battle? Petitions? Related news stories or editorials? Cartoons?
  3. Choose one of the documents you brainstormed and write it. Keep in mind which character(s) created that document and what their perspectives might be.
  4. If you’d like, share a little of what you wrote by copying & pasting into the comments. (If you link to a blog or other website, most people won’t see it.) And feel free to read some of the other posts to see how different writers handled other points of view!
  5. If you’re not ready to share quite yet, you can also just introduce yourself in the comments & say hello! I’m excited to meet everyone!

And here’s a little extra incentive to participate in the comments today. If you share a snippet of your writing and/or an introduction, I’ll enter you in a drawing to win all four of these amazing MG novels by TW guest authors, past and present. And they’re ALL signed! Deadline: 11pm EST on July 9th.

Ranger in Time: Hurricane Katrina Rescue is out today!

It’s release day for Ranger in Time: Hurricane Katrina Rescue!

Ranger, the time-traveling golden retriever with search-and-rescue training, arrives in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches and residents start to evacuate the city. Ranger meets Clare Porter, who is searching for her grandmother. Once Ranger helps Clare find Nana, he takes shelter with them at their home in the Lower Ninth Ward, and they wait for Clare’s father to return from the gas station. But there’s no sign of him as hours pass and the weather gets worse. The wind picks up and rain pours down. And when the levees break, floodwaters dangerously rise, and Clare and Nana are separated. Can Ranger help Clare navigate the flooded streets to safety and back to her family?

This is book eight in my Scholastic chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog, and its more recent setting made it one of the toughest to research and write. The first seven books in the series are set in the more distant past…


Cover of Ranger in Time: Escape from the Great Earthquake by Kate Messner Image of Ranger in Time: D-Day: Battle on the Beach

Most kids who enjoy the Ranger in Time series weren’t born yet when Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005, so this story is also “history” to these readers. But for those who lived through the storm and its aftermath in New Orleans, the memories are still raw. When I was researching this book, I spent my usual weeks in library, reading everything from first-person accounts to news reports and government documents. I watched hours of video, including Spike Lee’s powerful documentary When the Levees Broke. I spent time doing research in New Orleans, too.

It was December of 2016 when I visited, and the tourist areas of New Orleans were sparkling with holiday decorations. But parts of the Ninth Ward were another story. Some streets looked as if the hurricane might have happened in the past year or two, rather than more than a decade ago. And many people who live here still feel just as forgotten as they did when they were waiting for help in the days after the storm. Laura Paul with the relief and rebuilding organization lowernine.org drove me though the neighborhoods that were hardest hit in 2005. She pointed out the homes that her organization helped rebuild and the areas where the neighborhood seems to be coming back.

But there are still blocks where most every home is ruined. Porch steps that lead to nowhere. Streets littered with debris from work crews. Uncovered storm drains that don’t seem to get fixed, no matter how many calls people make to the city. And there is still so much frustration and anger. A sense of betrayal over how the people of this neighborhood were treated when they needed help.

There’s a wonderful little museum in this neighborhood called the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, and it chronicles the history of the neighborhood, from its role in the Civil Rights Movement through the devastating aftermath of Katrina. Photos tell the story of the storm and the days that followed.

One of the things I appreciated about this museum is that it pointed out examples of racist media coverage of the aftermath of the storm. Below is a pair of headlines about people taking supplies from grocery stores, described as either “looting” or “finding,” depending on the survivor’s skin color.

J.F. “Smitty” Smith, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, talked with me about his experiences in 2005 and read an early draft of this Ranger in Time manuscript. When we talked on the phone, he was incredibly helpful and pointed out some details about the storm and recovery. But mostly, he wanted to talk more about the lack of help in 2005, and how awful it was, waiting. Reading the manuscript had brought it back for him, and he was frustrated all over again. “You don’t understand,” Smitty told me. “That dog has got to get in there and SAVE more people.”

That conversation, more than any of the other research I’d done, helped me to understand how residents of the Lower Ninth Ward felt after Katrina. And it led me to revise the manuscript, again. I’m so grateful to Smitty for making time to talk with me.

There are still many residents of the Lower Ninth Ward who need help rebuilding homes that have been in their families for generations. I’ll be celebrating book release day by making a donation to lowernine.org. Will you join me?

If you donate $20 or more, I’ll enter you in a drawing for a 30-minute Ranger in Time Skype visit in the fall (date to be agreed upon in September). You can use it for your classroom, library, or book club – or give it away to a school you want to support. To enter the drawing, just make your donation, and then leave a comment below.

And of course, if you’d like to read RANGER IN TIME: HURRICANE KATRINA RESCUE, it’s available from your favorite bookseller today!