Historical Fiction & Revision at the NYSEC Conference

I spent Thursday at the NYS English Council Conference in Albany, giving presentations on historical fiction and revision, chatting with other writers on a children’s literature panel, and signing copies of Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One.  The fabulous Merritt Bookstore handled book sales for the conference & took terrific care of the authors – Thanks, Scott &  Alison!

When I first arrived, Scott sent me to pick up my paperwork, including this name tag that helped me to introduce myself to the teachers. 

Hello, I’m Kate Messner. I’m  a presenter and…er….a fish

There were apparently two stickers printed out for each presenter – one with his or her name and the word presenter.  That one was supposed to go on the name tag.  The second sticker, which also included the speaker’s choice of dinner entrees, went on the envelope with the meal ticket, but apparently my stickers got switched, which amused me to no end.  It could have been worse, though, as one of my colleagues pointed out.  What if I had ordered the chicken?  Or the ham?

After a morning of book signing, I gave two workshops.

At this one, we talked about recently released historical novels like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, a National Book Award Finalist, and ideas for using historical fiction in the classroom.  Teachers were excited to learn about some upcoming 2009 releases in historical fiction, too.  My second presentation, Walking the Walk: How Teacher-Writers Encourage Student Revision led to some great conversations about how we choose to model what we teach and how sometimes that means taking risks. 

The afternoon panel discussion with fellow children’s writers & illustrators was fun for me, too.  I was on a panel with talented people like Ann Burg, Jack Rightmyer, James Ransome and Will Moses. The teacher-writers who came to fire questions at us were enthusiastic and thoughtful, and no matter how long I write, it’s always fascinating for me to hear about other people’s processes.

I’m reveling in a pile of new books tonight and have already dipped into a couple of them.  I’m loving Jack Rightmyer’s  A Funny Thing About Teaching, a must-read for anyone who values a sense of humor in the classroom.  I’m also devouring an early copy of Ann Burg’s April 2009 novel-in-verse with Scholastic, called All the Broken Pieces, which tells an incredibly moving story set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  Readers who know my blog know that I never shut up about books that I love, so rest assured I’ll be posting a full review of this one when we get closer to its release date. For now, though…just….wow.  Ann sat next to me at the bookstore tables, where she signed copies of her beautiful picture books with Sleeping Bear Press, and is not only an incredible writer but a kind, friendly, funny person, too. 

Here we are at dinner…That’s Ann on the left and me on the right, looking even sleepier than I felt after a day that started at 5:30am.

If you were at the conference and stopped by to say hello at the book signing or panel discussion or one of my workshops – thanks.  It was truly an inspiration to spend the day with people who are so passionate about reading and writing with kids.

Nine Things from NYSRA

I spent Thursday and Friday at the NYS Reading Association Conference in Saratoga Springs.  Here’s a roundup of the highlights…

1. The Authors Progressive Banquet was fun and stress-free. I didn’t even spill anything.  I was a little concerned about how the logistics would work, because the authors start the evening at one table and then rotate, switching tables for each course. Turns out you got NEW silverware every time you moved and didn’t have to take it with you.  That worked out well, though I think I might have been drinking from another author’s water glass at one point. It’s hard to say…

2. I found out about four minutes ahead of time that all the authors would be giving a brief, two-minute talk to the ENTIRE group in the ballroom during that banquet, which caused me to panic momentarily, but not for long because there just wasn’t that long to worry about it. I think I said something coherent.

3. I was on a quilt!


 NYSRA had authors sign quilt squares and put them together into three gorgeous quilts for a raffle. Wasn’t that a great idea?

4.  I got to meet Eric Luper (

) and hear his presentation about his YA novel Big Slick and his journey from reluctant reader to novelist.

High school teachers, take note:  Eric is smart and engaging and funny, and I predict that pretty soon he’ll be booked solid for school visits because he’s going to connect with teen boys in a big way.  Plus, he has wicked-cool poker chip key chains as giveaways. What more could you want?

5.  I spent some time chatting with Susan Goodman, who writes children’s non-fiction and has a funny book about elections called See How They  Run coming out this May. My students are going to love this one!

6.  I met Mitali Perkins and got to tell her in person how much I liked Rickshaw Girl.

7. I heard Anita Silvey talk about current trends in children’s publishing.  She said fantasy and science fiction are still strong, historical fiction is on the rise,  publishers are looking for “no-blush” MG and Tween books that families can enjoy together, and this is the age of the graphic novel.  Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is now on my must-read list.

8. I gave a presentation called “Historical Fiction as a Bridge to Content Area Literacy” and got to share bunches and bunches of my favorite HF titles.  We talked about dozens of titles from different time periods — some well known and some that flew under the radar.  I shared excerpts from Spitfire, Sarah Miller’s Miss Spitfire, and Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold (March, 2008), which is a shining example of how historical fantasy can be used to introduce students to a time period (in this case, the Industrial Revolution).

9.  Not exactly conference-related, but still a highlight… I had perhaps the best chocolate chip cookie of my life at Four Seasons Natural Foods in downtown Saratoga.  It was really, really crunchy….a sweet ending to a fantastic two days of talk about reading, writing, and why we love stories so much.


I have a bad habit with book festivals and book fairs.  I know that when I’m participating in one, I should spend the weeks leading up to it preparing my presentation and choosing my readings and things like that.  What I tend to do instead is get sidetracked by all the other authors participating and go on a reading binge.  My book festival conversations tend to go like this:

Husband:  What are you doing for the Rochester Children’s Book Festival?

Me: Did you see who’s going to be there??!  James Howe and Tedd Arnold and Michelle Knudsen!  Can you believe that?  E and I loved LIBRARY LION….

Husband: Yes, but…

Me: I hope I get to sit near Tedd Arnold. He has this new young adult book out…

Husband:  Is your presentation ready?

Me:  …and Vivian Van Velde is going to be there…and Coleen Paratore…

You get the idea. 

This Saturday, November 3 is the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, with an AMAZING lineup of children’s authors and illustrators.  I’m participating in the festival’s “Tween Time” showcase of historical fiction, and my kids have convinced me that I need to dress up as my main character again since it was such a hit in Burlington on Halloween.  I’m portraying Abigail Smith, an 18th century girl who disguises herself as a boy to fight in a Revolutionary War battle on Lake Champlain.  If you’re near Rochester, please drop by ‘Tween Time at 10:45. I’ll be there with my hardtack and my haversack, ready to share!

In a rare moment of planning ahead, I finished my presentation last week, so I’ve felt entitled to go on a reading binge of other festival authors’ books.  Here are a couple reviews….

I loved James Howe’s novel THE MISFITS, where a group of middle school outsiders challenges the school’s name-calling habit as a student council campaign platform.  Until last week, though, I hadn’t gotten around to reading the sequel, TOTALLY JOE.  This is a lighter look at what it’s like to be a gay kid in middle school.  Howe introduces readers to Joe Bunch through his main character’s “alphabiography,” a series of essays he has to write about his life, with each topic starting with a different letter of the alphabet (26 chapters, including one on the ubiquitous alphabet-book xylophone, for those keeping track).  Through the assignment, Joe tells the story of his first sort-of boyfriend, middle school bullies, his creative, supportive Aunt Pam, and his quest to be Totally Joe.  It’s honest and tough sometimes without losing its fun voice.  Howe has provided a particular gift in this novel – a book about being gay that’s age-appropriate for someone who’s still in middle school and not ready for some of the edgier titles that seem to abound in YA literature.

I also want to talk about RAT LIFE, Tedd Arnold’s first foray into young adult literature, which was so great that when I finished it, I trotted right over to nominate it for a Cybil Award in the YA Category.  (Nominations are open until November 21st, in case you haven’t nominated your favorites yet!) 

RAT LIFE is one of those books that made me laugh one minute and gasp in shock the next.  Its narrator, Todd, is a would-be writer growing up in Upstate NY in 1972.  In the first pages of the book, he hears about a body found in a river and meets a mysterious character who calls himself Rat.  Todd wonders if  Rat, an underaged recruit who’s just back from a tour of Vietnam, has something to do with that body in the river, and those suspicions mount throughout the novel, all the way to its dizzying climax.  I could go on and on about the humor, the interesting writing strategies Arnold employed, the gut-wrenching scene that almost made me stop reading but is so important to the book… but I’ll let you discover this one for yourself.  Don’t start reading until you have some time; you won’t want to take breaks.

Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller

“My heart is singing for joy this morning.”
-Anne Sullivan to Sophia Hopkins, March 1887

So begins one of the chapters in Sarah Miller‘s debut novel Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, and her quote from Annie Sullivan describes just how I felt when I finished this magical book.

Last spring, I issued an invitation to authors of historical fiction, to send me information about their books for a presentation I’m doing this fall at the New York State Reading Association Conference.  I heard from wonderful writers — some whose works I knew and some who were new to me.  But one title REALLY caught my eye:  Miss Spitfire by Sarah Miller.  First, it got my attention because the titles of our books are so similar.  When I opened it up to start reading, it got my attention in another way — a sweep-you-away-in-the-story kind of way.

Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller tells the story of Annie Sullivan, the young woman who battled beliefs of the time and fought with every ounce of energy she had to give Helen Keller the gift of language.  Sarah Miller tells the story in Annie’s voice — and tells it with a passion that speaks to the depth of her research and her pure love for this historical figure.  Miss Spitfire not only tells the story we see in The Miracle Worker — the story of Annie’s time with Helen — but also plunges into Annie Sullivan’s past, and in doing so, provides a deeper understanding of the commitment and determination that led to her success.

The portrayals of Annie’s emotional, psychological, and physical struggles with Helen were so vivid that I found myself reading with my brow furrowed in determined solidarity with Annie as she plunked Helen back into her seat at the dining room table for the tenth time.  Truly, Annie had to be a spitfire to survive this monumental challenge when she was little more than a girl herself.

The minor characters in this novel sparkle, too.  One of my favorite scenes brought Helen together for a lesson with the Kellers’ servant boy Percy.  I felt like I was about to burst with pride right along with Annie when Helen began to turn from a student into a teacher, helping Percy with some of the letters.  Mr. & Mrs. Keller, too, are painted with a tremendous depth of understanding.  It would have been easy to portray Helen’s parents as one-dimensional characters who got in the way of Annie’s work, but instead, Sarah Miller helps us to see their complexity and feel some of their anguish at having a beautiful, broken child. 

Early in the book, Annie tells Helen’s mother why her lessons are so vital to Helen. 

“Words, Mrs. Keller, words bridge the gap between two minds.  Words are a miracle.”

Indeed, they are.  And Miss Spitfire will have you believing in that miracle all over again.

Coming soon on my LJ…an interview with the author of Miss Spitfire, Sarah Miller!

An Invitation

Last weekend at NE SCBWI, I learned more about the Class of 2k7, the group of talented debut authors who got together to promote their books.  It got me thinking about how writers can work together to promote reading and books.  During my morning run today, I realized that I have a great opportunity this fall.  In November, I’ll be presenting a workshop at the New York State Reading Association Annual Conference in Saratoga Springs. The topic is “Historical Fiction as a Bridge to Content Area Reading.”  I designed the workshop as a way to share my Revolutionary War novel SPITFIRE and its study guide with teachers, but I’m also going to talk about other works of historical fiction that would work well in the classroom.

Here’s the invitation part. If you have a work of historical fiction that’s been published with a traditional publisher and you’d like me to include your book in the workshop, please let me know. At the very least, I’ll display it and include it in my handout, and I’ll feature some of the books in my multimedia presentation as well. I already have a list of books prepared, but I know there are so many more fantastic titles out there, and I don’t want to waste an opportunity to promote them. The presentation is part of the middle school strand of the conference,so I’m interested in MG and YA novels, as well as older picture books and picture book biographies that could be used with grades 4-8.

If you’re interested, let me know in an email or comment so that I can contact you.  Include the title of your book, your publisher, a brief synopsis, and a link to your website.  If you have writer friends who might be interested, feel free to share this link with them.