Teaching All American Boys: Resources for Addressing Sensitive Topics and Engaging Students

I love a lot of things about books, obviously. But one thing I especially love is the way a novel can provide an accessible, relatively safe entry point into a difficult topic.

This year, I added Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s acclaimed novel All American Boys to the eighth grade English curriculum at my school. Students were engaged in reading, discussing, and writing about the book, and they showed great maturity as we used it as a jumping-off point to talk about racism and police brutality. In this post, I’m going to share some of the resources that I used, as well as an excellent example of student work. My hope is that that these materials might be helpful to other educators who teach books that tackle tough topics, or who want students to complete engaging creative writing assignments that cultivate analytical close reading skills.

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All American Boys is the story of two teens—Rashad, who is black, and Quinn, who is white—and their attempts to deal with an act of violence that leaves their community divided by racial tensions. Because the book has some mature content, I wrote a letter to families to offer them some context. I wanted my students’ families to know why I had selected this book and to be able to continue some of our class conversations. Here’s the letter we sent home.

Once families were informed, my next step was to prepare students to read the book. To do that, I drew upon the resources that the publisher, Simon and Schuster, has provided for the novel. It worked especially well to give students an opportunity to hear the two authors talk about their process of writing the book, both in their NPR interview and the brief video interviews that are included on the publisher’s site. We also had some pre-reading discussions about what students knew about the Black Lives Matter movement and instances of police brutality that have been in the news.

Then it was time to read. As we read the novel and discussed Rashad and Quinn’s experiences and realizations, students developed empathy for both characters and were able to break down how the characters responded to events in the book and where those responses came from. Moreover, we had concrete passages and characters to refer as we began to have bigger conversations about the issues raised in the novel.

Students were so caught up in the world of the book that they were eager to imagine the perspectives of vividly drawn secondary characters, so I gave them a creative writing assignment that asked them to write a chapter from the perspective of any character other than the two narrators.

Here’s the assignment-sheet I gave them, which includes a brainstorming guide to ensure that they were engaging with the novel in a thoughtful, analytical way. I also provided my own example, as I often do, so that students could get a sense of how they could write a new chapter that would be original and imaginative but would also fit into, and in some way extend, the existing story.

I was very pleased with the work students did on the creative writing assignment. They did a great job of pulling details from the book and then using their imagination and empathy to bring characters’ stories to life. Here is an example of one especially outstanding piece of student work by a very talented eighth grade writer named Hannah.

The Simon and Schuster page that’s dedicated to All American Boys includes a quote from Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely about why they wrote the book: “As a black man and a white man, both writers and educators, we came together to co-write a book about how systemic racism and police brutality affect the lives of young people in America, in order to create an important, unique, and honest work that would give young people and the people who educate them a tool for having these difficult but absolutely vital conversations.”

I am extremely grateful for books like this one, which provide such a valuable tool for me to start these kinds of conversations, both in the form of class discussions and in the form of writing assignments that ask students to speak back to and engage with novels. I hope some of my materials might be useful to others who want to spark these kinds of conversations, as well.

When “Finish What You’re Working On” Isn’t the Best Advice

 “Finish what you’re working on.” If you want to be a writer, that’s one of the most common pieces of advice you’ll hear, and it makes a lot of sense.

It’s fun to start a book, but it can be really hard to wade through the murky middle and make it to the other side. And you have to finish a draft before you can begin to revise it into something that shines. But I’ve recently learned that there are times when it’s better to put something aside for a while than to push through to the end just because you’re determined to finish.

At this time last year, I was working on a middle grade novel about a thirteen-year-old girl named Annabelle. I’ve been thinking about Annabelle’s story in some shape or form for several years now, and I’d been making good progress writing it…until I hit the midpoint scene and the story began to fall flat. Suddenly, writing Annabelle’s story was a struggle. I was writing boring scenes, and they weren’t leading me to anything more interesting.

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Annabelle’s story is set in Gray Island, a fictional place off the Massachusetts coast, and she lives near beaches that look like this. On good days, writing her story feels like being transported here.

I am not a person who likes to give up, and I had promised myself that I would finish a draft by spring. So I kept going.

But then something happened, almost exactly a year ago. It was the Friday of my midwinter break from school, and I was weeding through a filing cabinet, attempting to get rid of old papers I didn’t need. I came across the evaluations that my four advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts had written after I worked with each of them. One of my advisors mentioned a story idea I’d told her about—one that I had come up with off-handedly, because she wanted to know what I might work on next, and had then completely forgotten about. But she wrote in my evaluation that she thought it had promise.

I sat down at my computer and wrote a first chapter for the forgotten story idea. It felt energizing and silly and fun. It felt so much better than working on Annabelle’s story, which wasn’t fair to Annabelle. I love her, and I desperately want to get her story right.

So I decided that I was going to take a break from Annabelle’s story and let myself play with the new idea. And then, several months later, I was ready to go back to Annabelle. With all that distance, I could see where the draft had gone off the rails, and I realized that one whole, exceptionally boring subplot could simply go away. I was very pleasantly surprised with how much I’d actually written and how much of it I actually liked, once I cut the stuff that didn’t belong.

After that, writing Annabelle’s story was fun again. Not fun every moment—sometimes it was overwhelming or confusing or frustrating. But it was mostly fun, and before too long, I finished. It was several months after I’d promised myself I would finish a draft, but that was okay, because it was a much better draft than I was ready to get to last spring. I revised the draft, then got feedback, then revised again, got feedback again, and revised some more. I just finished this third round of revision this week, and each step has taken me closer and closer to the heart of this manuscript.

And yesterday, on the Friday of this year’s midwinter break, I sat back down to play with the idea that gave me permission to take a break from Annabelle. I don’t have any set plans for when I’m going to finish that one, but I have some new perspective on it, now that I haven’t looked at it for a while. And it’s still pretty silly and energizing to work on.

My 2016 Reading Year in Review

Well, here we are at last, on the first day of 2017! 2016 was a year that included some major low points for sure but, for me personally, some very special high points, as well. It was a chaotic year with lots of new adjustments and responsibilities, but I just managed to meet my goal of reading 100 books (in addition to the ones I re-read along with my students and the countless wonderful picture books I’ve been reading these days). Of the 100 books I read in 2016, 48 were middle grade, 42 were young adult, and 10 were either adult fiction or nonfiction. Here are some of the highlights of my reading year:

Favorite new book to teach: I am lucky to teach at a school where I’m able to adapt the curricula to incorporate timely books and keep things fresh. I added All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely to the eighth grade curriculum this year, and it was a terrific book to teach. We had important and lively conversations, and students were engaged and did some inspired creative writing at the end of the unit. I’ll try to post more about how I structured the unit soon, since I was so pleased with how students responded.

Favorite trends: I’m not sure if this is a general trend or just a trend in what I happen to read, but I loved reading a handful of co-authored books with two narrators (each written by one of the authors) in 2016. In addition to All American Boys, which I had initially read in 2015, I enjoyed Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, and The Pages Between Us by Lindsey Leavitt and Robin Mellom. Since Cordelia Jensen and I wrote a co-authored book with two narrators that will be published in 2018, it’s no real surprise that I’m a fan of this trend!

Somewhat strangely, I also read four books this year that feature characters returning home after a kidnapping: Tara Altebrando’s The Leaving, Jennifer Mathieu’s Afterward, Kim Savage’s After the Woods, and Robin Benway’s Emmy and Oliver (Emmy and Oliver was actually published in 2015 rather than 2016, but the others were published this past year). It feels sort of wrong to say that I am a fan of the kidnapping trend in YA…but these four books were among the most gripping page turners I picked up.

Another favorite trend (and I really, really hope this is one that continues) is that I’ve been reading more contemporary realistic middle grade books that feel geared toward ages 10-14 rather than ages 8-12. I love younger middle grade novels too, but there has been such a lack of books that feature characters who are in 7th-9th grade and that are geared toward 6th-8th grade readers. This is such a rich, complicated time, and I want more books that delve into those years in all their murky, exciting, in-between-ness!

Favorite older MG: Speaking of the trend toward older middle grade (hooray!), my favorite older middle grade titles this year were Natasha Friend’s Where You’ll Find Me and Jo Knowles’s Still a Work in Progress. These books are full of memorable characters, emotional moments, and realistic seventh and eighth grade social dynamics. These are the kind of middle grade books I feel great about being able to give to seventh and eighth grade students who feel like most middle grade novels are a little young for them. Another powerful middle grade novel that students in fifth grade all the way through eighth grade loved this year is Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin.

Favorite MGs that tackle tough issues: I’m also a fan of middle grade books that feel younger in their tone but tackle difficult issues in age-appropriate, gentle but honest ways. This year, I loved Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish for its treatment of addiction, Jenn Bishop’s The Distance to Home for its depiction of grief, Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story for its exploration of the September 11th tragedy, Claire LeGrand’s Some Kind of Happiness for its portrayal of depression, and Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second for its look at a race-related act of violence.

Satisfying second or third books in a series: I’m sometimes reluctant to pick up a sequel or the second or third book in a series in case the follow ups don’t live up to the original, but I had great luck with sequels in 2016. I thought Varian Johnson’s To Catch a Cheat was just as smart and fun as The Great Greene Heist; I loved Leila Howland’s second Silver Sisters offering, The Brightest Stars of Summer, at least as much as last year’s charming Forget-Me-Not Summer; and Dianne K. Salerni’s The Morrigan’s Curse was every bit as exciting as the first two books in her fabulous Eighth Day Series. And actually, all three of these series also appeal to older middle school readers, too, so I am doubly happy about them!

Favorite YA contemporaries: Contemporary YA has been my favorite genre to read for years, and while I was more drawn to MG  than YA in 2016, I did find some contemporary YA novels I loved this year. I was a big fan of Emery Lord’s first two novels, but I thought her third book, When We Collided, was her best yet–so full of emotion and depth. I also could not put down Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things; I was so invested in the fun, mysterious romance. I adored Nicola Yoon’s ambitious, gorgeous The Sun Is Also a Star; in my opinion, that one absolutely lived up to its well-deserved buzz. I also loved the fun female-female romance in Jaye Robin Brown’s Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit and the own-voices depiction of a trans character in Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl.

Favorite books I wouldn’t have picked up on my own: As in 2015, my YA and MG book club once again encouraged me to read a beautiful historical MG that wasn’t on my radar: Louis Bayard’s impressive Lucky Strikes. I also read Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity for book research, thinking I would glean helpful information even if it wasn’t the most exciting read, but I found it absolutely fascinating and can’t stop talking about it.

Book I Can’t Wait for Others to Read in 2017: I’m excited for other people to read the very last book I read in 2016, Flying Lessons and Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh. It’s a wonderful, varied selection of diverse short stories that’s a must-have for school and classroom libraries, and it comes out in two days, on January 3rd, so you don’t have to wait long!

Wishing you all a happy new year full of good books and much joy (which are sometimes the same thing, in my view)! I’d love to hear about some of your 2016 reading highlights or books you can’t wait to read in 2017, too.

My New Reading Challenge: a Concrete First Step in Standing Up for Inclusivity

I like to keep track of the books I read on Goodreads, and for the last couple of years, when Goodreads has prompted me to join the Goodreads Reading Challenge, I’ve set the goal of reading 100 books throughout the course of the year. Then, periodically, I’ve noticed that I am a book or two ahead of schedule and felt pleased with myself—the way I used to feel as a kid when I got a good grade on a test that I was already pretty sure I’d done well on.

But as I’ve reflected on the election and some recent online conversations about harmful representation of marginalized groups in published and about-to-be-published books, I’ve realized that I need to make a major change to my Goodreads Challenge.

As a kid—as a white, privileged kid with access to lots and lots of books—it gave me so much comfort to read books in which I saw myself. I read books like Judy Blume’s Just as Long as We’re Together and Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson and Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly over and over because I recognized myself in those characters. It took me a long time to learn that I can’t compare my insides to other people’s outsides—just because other people seem happy and confident and completely at ease with things that cause me great anxiety doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling unsettled in their own way. But these novels invited me inside another person’s consciousness. They allowed me to compare my insides to someone else’s insides. These novels didn’t shy away from depicting characters’ flaws; these characters I loved and related to messed up a whole lot, but I still rooted for them and realized that they deserved good things. And as a kid who could be very hard on herself, it was immensely helpful for me to realize that, if I could love and forgive a character who messed up, then maybe I could love and forgive myself, too. Maybe I could realize that I deserved good things as well.

But I cannot even fathom how difficult it must be for readers who cannot see themselves in books in the way I have always been able to. It was relatively easy for me to feel like I could compare my insides to a character’s insides when our outsides weren’t all that different. Yes, I could (and still can) connect to characters who are not female or white or heterosexual, and reading books about characters who are unlike me in key ways has helped me to be a more empathetic person with a broader worldview. But when I was an adolescent and needed comfort, the books I returned to were books in which the main characters were like me in fundamental ways.

I also cannot fathom what it must be like to be part of a marginalized group of people who have not had this luxury of being able to see themselves easily in books, and then to see hurtful, stereotypical portrayals of people who are supposed to be like them. 

Last week, author Justina Ireland tweeted, “Set a goal to read at least one diverse book for every book by a white author you read. Don’t know of any books? Ask Twitter.”

I have always believed that we need diverse books so that all kids get to have the kinds of reading experiences that comforted me so much, but that I also took for granted because I didn’t have to work hard to seek them out. We need to support authors of color and authors who are part of the LGBTQIA community by buying and reading their books so that more diverse books continue to be published. I, as a teacher, need to read these books so that I can recommend them to students and recommend buying them for our school library.

But you know what? Even though I believe all of these things, even though I mean to be an ally, when I look at the 87 books I have read so far in 2016, I see that less than 20% of those books are by authors of color or authors who are part of other marginalized groups. My count might be slightly off because I don’t always know how authors identify and I counted conservatively, but one thing is for sure: when I glance at my Reading Challenge progress and see that I am a book ahead of my goal pace, I don’t feel that familiar, cozy self-satisfaction of getting a good grade. Instead, I feel like I need to put my money (literally) and my energy where my mouth is. I need to do a whole lot better.

So for the rest of 2016 and all of 2017, I pledge to do what Justina Ireland suggested. I pledge to read one book by an author of color or an author from another marginalized group for every book I read by a white, heterosexual author. 

I know that I need to do more than this in order to do my part to stand up against all forms of intolerance. But this is one concrete way I plan to start. Please join me, if you’d like, and please feel free to suggest books you think I should read. Thank you to the people in the young adult and middle grade community who are committed to speaking up about issues of harmful representation, or lack of representation. I know that it is not your job to educate me, but I am listening to you and learning from you, and I am grateful.

The Realism Spectrum

The seventh grade English curriculum at my school includes a lot of historical novels, and when I teach seventh grade English, I talk about how historical fiction falls somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from almost fully rooted in historical fact to almost fully fictional.

One book that falls on the mostly-rooted-in-fact end is Melanie Crowder’s lovely biographical verse novel, Audacity, which tells the story of labor activist Clara Lemlich. On the opposite, mostly fictional end is Ann E. Burg’s All the Broken Pieces, which is set soon after the Vietnam War; the premise of the story (a main character who was airlifted out of Vietnam and adopted by an American family) is rooted in historical fact, but all of the characters are fictionalized. Then there are books like A.B. Westrick’s Brotherhood and Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Seeds of America” trilogy, which fall somewhere in the middle. 

The eighth grade curriculum, on the other hand, mostly features contemporary young adult fiction and some classics. This fall, my eighth grade students have been discussing two contemporary novels: we recently finished reading Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys, and I’ve been reading Jake Gerhardt’s Me and Miranda Mulally as a read-aloud. As we geared up to read the end of All American Boys, we left off at the end of a chapter in which one character proposed reading a list of names at a protest.

I asked students to predict what those names would be, and they correctly guessed that the characters in the book would read a list of real-life people who have been victims of police brutality.

When I asked them why they felt so sure that the book would include names we would recognize even though it is fiction, one student said, “Yeah, but it’s on the realistic end of the fiction spectrum.”

This struck me as an interesting comment, because I had never really thought about a 25657130spectrum of realism in contemporary realistic fiction. In theory, all contemporary realistic novels would be pretty close to the realistic end of the fiction spectrum. But then I thought more about the distinction she was making and realized that she was absolutely right. All American Boys is very clearly grounded in reality. Unfortunately, the book’s inciting incident, in which an innocent black boy is brutally beaten by a white police officer, is reminiscent of many recent events. Moreover, the authors reference a real-life artist and cartoon, Aaron Douglas and the Family Circus cartoon, as influences on one of the main characters. This book is fiction, yes, but it is conspicuously set in the world in which we live.

Our class read-aloud, Me and Miranda Mullaly, is on the opposite end of this realistic spectrum. As we’ve been reading the book, students have often commented on how some of the scenes feel larger than life. The main characters at times read like caricatures, with their defining traits magnified for comedic effect. The book includes the characters’ responses to free-writing prompts in English class, and my students often point out that no one would really share personal details or insult their teacher and classmates in their free-writing assignments, the way characters in the book do.

25894020What’s interesting, though, is that when students laughingly say they can’t believe characters would write these things, they aren’t objecting to the way the book is written. They have even pointed out that it isn’t realistic that eighth graders would write emails to each other in 2016–they would text–but they don’t care all that much that characters in the novel email each other.

They have accepted that this book is on the over-the-top, not-so-realistic end of the contemporary realistic fiction spectrum. It’s not fantasy or magical realism–it just reads like real life with the volume turned all the way up. Because the students are entertained and the over-the-top tone is consistent, they are perfectly willing to accept content that they don’t find completely believable. On the other hand, I think they’d be much less willing to accept  an occasional hard-to-believe moment a in book that falls on the very realistic end of the realism spectrum.

My own books tend to fall on the very realistic side of this contemporary realism spectrum, but some of my favorite humorous novels, like Jaclyn Moriarty’s Ashbury Brookfield books, fall closer to the not-so-realistic end. Someday soon, I want to try my hand at a funny book with a completely over-the-top tone. Maybe consciously thinking about this spectrum will help me!

Shiny, Happy News: My First Book Deal!

Almost three years ago, I got an agent. An agent I’d heard great things about, who requested my full manuscript seconds after I queried and then read my book in less than 24 hours. I’d worked on that book for two years, throughout the second year of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and then the year after I graduated. I loved that book, and since my big-time agent loved it, too, I couldn’t help thinking that this was it! Before too long I would be a published writer!

Except that didn’t happen.

I racked up a lot of complimentary passes and did a revision for an editor who also loved that book, but I didn’t get a publishing offer. The book just wasn’t different enough, I kept hearing. It didn’t have enough of a hook to set it apart.

I was disappointed, of course, but I had listened to the advice everyone gives—to work on something new while you’re on submission. I didn’t have to wallow in my disappointment for very long, because a little less than a year after that first book went out on submission, I had a new book that was ready to go.

This book was going to be the one! It was a book I’d started at the beginning of my first year at VCFA. I’d rewritten the first forty pages five times during my second semester, trying to get the story right, and now, a few years later, I finally had it. This book had a bigger hook, I thought, and a more unusual structure.

But this one racked up the kind passes, too.

I worked on two new stories while that second book was making the rounds. Cordelia Jensen, one of my classmates from VCFA and the talented author of the YA verse novel Skyscraping and another forthcoming YA verse novel, read the beginnings of those two new stories for me back in February of 2015. She then wrote me an email in which she said, “I have to say that in these two voices I hear less of your own personal voice which I think shows your evolution as a writer. Even though I ABSOLUTELY LOVE hearing your voice in the other books, I think I am seeing a stronger range right now, if that makes sense. And, for what it’s worth, maybe if these other books had sold quickly these two others wouldn’t be here at all. So, that’s my positive thinking this morning.”

Cordelia’s positive thinking stuck with me. I still believe in those first two books that went on submission. I’m still a little sad that they didn’t sell. They’re the kind of books I would have loved as a kid and teenager, and they explore issues that are important to me. There is a whole lot of me within them.

But Cordelia helped me realize that I was growing as a writer as I pushed past the kinds of voices and characters that came most naturally to me. This whole process was hard and full of disappointment, but maybe it was leading me somewhere wonderful.

And then a few months later, Cordelia said to me, “Hey, we should write a book together!” And a few days after that, she said, “I have an idea for our book. Do you think you could write this?”

I honestly wasn’t sure if I could. Her idea—for a middle grade novel that would have two alternating narrations, one in verse and one in prose—was much different from anything I’d ever written, and much sadder. Granted, in the course of our first conversation, all of my contributions served to make the book less and less sad, but still—this story was going to be a stretch for me. In fact, it was ironic that we decided to name the main character for my sections Lauren—a name so close to my own—when the character of Lauren is much less like the kid I was than any of the other main characters I have written. She is furious with her parents and she steals things, whereas anger makes me nervous, and, even as an adult, I am pretty terrified of doing anything wrong and getting in trouble.

But as we talked about the idea and fleshed it out, I saw a way in—a way to make Lauren someone I could connect to. I understood Lauren’s pain and her motivation. And it turns out that she does have some characteristics that I share—fierce love for her brother, loyalty to a friend, an earnest desire for things to be fair. And she goes to a Friends school that’s similar to the school where I teach, and she shares my students’ strong beliefs in the need for social justice.

Cordelia and I brainstormed a general story arc, and then we each sat down to write a chapter. And Lauren’s voice—so different from my own—poured out of me. Our agent, Sara Crowe, read our sample chapters and loved them, so we kept going. I’ve never had more fun writing anything. I would sit down and write entire chapters at a time!

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Me with my talented and inspiring co-author, Cordelia!

And now, this sad but hopeful middle grade book, EVERY SHINY THING—this book that reflects my evolution as a writer and might not exist if I had achieved my writing goals more quickly—has found a publishing home!

In EVERY SHINY THING, two seventh graders—Lauren, who comes from an affluent family, and Sierra, who is in foster care—team up to enact a Robin Hood scheme to right some societal wrongs, and learn lessons about justice, friendship, and family in the process. Maggie Lehrman, senior editor at Abrams/Amulet, loves the book and is going to help us make it the best it can be. I can’t wait to be able to share it with all of you in spring 2018!

My 2015 Reading Year in Review

It’s the last day of 2015, and I’m happily sitting here in my pajamas, with a clementine-clove candle burning, ignoring the pile of dishes in the sink and thinking back on the past year. I thought I’d give this long-neglected blog some attention with an end-of-year post on my year in reading.

This year I read 101 books (not including the ones I re-read along with my students as I taught them). I read 2 nonfiction books, 3 adult novels, 33 middle grade, and 63 young adult. Of the MG and YA novels, 15 were fantasy, sci-fi, or magical realism, and the rest were realistic; 6 were verse novels; 2 were graphic novels; 21 were 2015 (or early 2016) debuts; and 15 were written by Vermont College of Fine Arts alums. Next year, I may try to read a few more graphic novels and a few more adult ones, just to keep things varied. But overall, it was a great reading year, and here are some of my personal highlights.

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Here’s me in a perfectly shaded reading spot on a beach in Puerto Rico in July, devouring The War that Saved My Life.

Favorite new books to teach: I’m always looking to keep the 7th and 8th grade reading lists fresh, so I’m excited when I discover books that fit the curriculum. This year, I loved teaching A.B. Westrick’s Brotherhood and Melanie Crowder’s Audacity. Both books are brilliantly researched historical fiction that my students learned from and enjoyed, and both led to wonderful discussions and exciting Google Hangouts with the authors.

Favorite “trend”: I’m not sure this is a trend, exactly, but I’ve read a handful of new books this year that have dual timelines and alternate between “now” and “then” storylines, and I’m a fan. Gina Ciocca’s Last Year’s Mistake and Jennifer Longo’s Up to This Pointe are two YA books that make great use of the past/present storylines, and Ali Benjamin’s The Thing about Jellyfish is a MG that does this beautifully.

Favorite younger YA/older MG: As you may know if you’ve read this blog, I have a major soft spot for books that are youngish YA or mature MG, because I teach 7th and 8th grade and feel like those are big reading years that are sometimes neglected in the market. My favorite YA books that hit this sweet spot this year were Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You, Emery Lord’s The Start of Me and You, Jennifer Mathieu’s Devoted, and Kathryn Holmes’s The Distance Between Lost and Found, and my favorite MG in this category was Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger.

Favorite ARCs I won: Through Twitter/Rafflecopter contests, I won two ARCs: Corey Ann Haydu’s Making Pretty and Marissa Burt’s A Sliver of Stardust. I’m not sure two books could be any more different–unflinching realistic YA and comforting MG fantasy–but I loved both of them, and winning them made me appreciate the writing community I have been building online.

Favorite books I might not have picked on my own: I’m in a YA/MG book club, and we’ve read some historical novels I don’t think I would have read on my own, because I tend to slant contemporary, but I adored The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz.

Favorite reading experience: I really loved reading so many novels by fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts alums this year–especially alums I know well. My very favorite experience was reading an actual, official ARC of Cordelia Jensen’s Skyscraping, a beautiful book I got to read in many different forms over the years, and seeing my name in the acknowledgements.

Favorite author-meeting experience: We’ve done a lot of awesome author events at school over the past year, and they have all been highlights in their own right. But for me personally, a big high point was meeting Sarah Dessen, one of my first favorite authors from when I initially got into reading and writing YA, at Children’s Book World. She was lovely and inspiring, and I love having a signed copy of Saint Anything.

Books I can’t wait for others to read in 2016: I was really impressed with Cori McCarthy’s ambitious You Were Here. It weaves together first-person chapters, third-person chapters, graphic novel chapters, and graffiti chapters. I loved it, and I’ve never read anything quite like it. Another strikingly original forthcoming book is Karen Rivers’s The Girl in the Well Is Me. I’ve been a fan of Rivers’s unique storytelling since reading The Encyclopedia of Me a few years ago, and I found this book compelling, humorous, daring, and heartbreaking.

2015 wasn’t an easy year in many ways, but when it came to reading, it was pretty satisfying. I’m excited for an equally enjoyable reading year in 2016!

Read Alouds: Fall 2015

This past week, a service day and some standardized test taking interrupted our regular school schedule, so I didn’t get to teach my normal classes for a couple of days. When the schedule got back to normal, I wasn’t at all surprised by the question that many of my students asked: “Are we doing read aloud today? We haven’t done read aloud in forever!”

As I’ve explained on this blog before, one of my favorite parts of teaching middle school English is reading great books aloud to students. Read alouds happen in addition to the independent reading students are encouraged to do and the whole-class novels that students read for homework and write about for grades. They are for enjoyment and conversation only. Students can choose to write about read-aloud books as they write essays on their final exams at the end of the year, and many of them do, but other than that option, I never quiz students or grade them on their comprehension or recollection of details. And even students who don’t like to read on their own often beg for extra read aloud and complain if we run out of time before getting to the next chapter or skip read aloud when we don’t have class.

But it’s not easy to pick a perfect read-aloud book. I want something with crowd appeal, but that students might not necessarily select on their own. Something new, ideally, so that chances are, no one in my classes will have read it yet. Something that will lend itself to interesting, resonant discussions and encourage students to make inferences and predictions.

It’s especially challenging to find something right for my eighth grade students, because there aren’t a whole lot of books out there that feel just right for eighth graders…or at least not just right to read aloud to them. Most middle grade novels feel too young, and many young adult novels might be great for them to read on their own, but I wouldn’t be particularly comfortable reading them out loud to a group of students who would erupt into giggles any time I had to say a swear word or describe any kind of PG-13 content.

By August of this past summer, I’d read a whole lot of wonderful books, but nothing that felt quite right for my new seventh and eighth grade read alouds. If I were teaching younger kids, I would have seriously considered Kirsten Hubbard’s lovely and intense Watch the Sky, Cassie Beasley’s magical Circus Mirandus, Lauren Magaziner’s hilarious The Only Thing Worse than Witches, Corey Ann Haydu’s poignant Rules for Stealing Stars, or Heidi Schulz’s delightful Hook’s Revenge. If I hadn’t included it as a summer reading choice, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s beautifully written and compelling historical novel, The War that Saved My Life, would have been a contender. But I was still stuck.

Luckily, toward the end of August, as my remaining vacation time dwindled, I found two promising titles on NetGalley that were coming out in September, and both turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

For seventh grade, I settled on Ali Benjamin’s powerful novel The Thing about Jellyfish.24396876 I hadn’t heard about it before I found it on NetGalley, but clearly my students and I aren’t alone in thinking it’s excellent because it’s now a finalist for the National Book Award. The Thing About Jellyfish is a grief story: twelve-year-old Suzy Swanson has refused to engage in “small talk” since her estranged best friend, Franny, drowned in the ocean over the summer. Suzy has plenty of people who want to help her to heal—both of her parents, her brother, her therapist, her science teacher, and her lab partner—but Suzy shuts them out because she thinks she knows the one way she can make things better. When Suzy learns about the deadly Irukandji jellyfish, she believes she can prove that a jellyfish killed Franny, and then she won’t have to accept her mom’s unsettling “sometimes things just happen, so Franny drowned even though she was a great swimmer” explanation. The book is divided into sections based on the parts of the scientific method, and Ali Benjamin weaves in flashbacks that show different stages in Suzy and Franny’s friendship and lead the reader toward an understanding of what happened between the girls on the last day of sixth grade.

Suzy is an endearing narrator who insists on thinking rationally and scientifically about topics that defy logical explanation. My students like guessing what happened between Suzy and Franny, and, thanks to Benjamin’s nuanced portrayal of Suzy’s character, they like Suzy, root for her, and feel heartbroken for her while also finding her amusing and frustrating at times.

19104829For eighth grade, I chose Shelley Pearsall’s The Seventh Most Important Thing. The Seventh Most Important Thing is set in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. The main character, Arthur Owens, is said to be fourteen but in seventh grade; I wish he were in eighth grade since some of my students aren’t crazy about reading about characters who are in younger grades and since fourteen-year-olds tend to be in eighth grade, not seventh. But Arthur feels like an eighth grader, and I haven’t had any trouble getting students to buy into his story.

Like Suzy Swanson, Arthur is also grieving; Arthur’s father died a few months before the book begins. When his mother, who is angry with his father for throwing his life away, gets rid of all of his father’s things, Arthur sees the “Junk Man,” who picks through the neighborhood trash, wearing his father’s hat. Furious, Arthur throws a brick at the man and then ends up working for the man collecting seven strange, “important” things as his punishment. The Junk Man, James Hampton, is a real, fascinating historical figure, and I admire Shelley Pearsall’s creativity in bringing his story to life and imagining his connection to a vulnerable but resilient teenage boy. Students have enjoyed puzzling out the bizarre tasks the junk man asks Arthur to complete and attempting to decode his strange way of speaking. The book has terrific art and history tie-ins and an engaging cast of secondary characters.

I highly recommend both, whether you’re reading aloud or not!

Takeaways from Last Year’s Author Events

Now that school is about to start up again, I’m reflecting on the author events we did last year and what I learned from new things we tried. We had some exciting virtual and in-person visits, and my main takeaways from our events may be helpful for others, too, so here’s what I came up with.

Preparing and Being Flexible for Skype Visits

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Google hangout with author A. B. Westrick

Last year, we were able to virtually visit with two of the authors whose books we had read as a class. After reading Everybody Sees the Ants, the eighth grade Skyped with A.S. King, and after reading Brotherhood, the seventh grade had a Google Hangout with A.B. Westrick. (Google Hangout seemed to work when there were challenges with Skype and provided a nearly identical experience, so if you’ve had Skype issues, that could be something to try.) In addition, different groups of students Skyped with Varian Johnson and Uma Krishnaswami, two authors I would have loved to host in person if they lived closer.

I’ve been organizing Skype visits for several years now, and my number 1 takeaway is that it pays to be both prepared and flexible. To prepare, it’s great to have students read something by the author. It’s especially great when the whole class has read one of the author’s books, but if that’s not possible, it also works to share the beginning of a book or even a short story or article by the author; when we talked with Varian Johnson, some but not all of the students had read The Great Greene Heist, but all of them were excited because they all read “Like Me,” his short story from the anthology Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, and “Where are all the black boys?“, a blog post he wrote back in 2013. 

It’s also helpful to have students brainstorm questions ahead of time. If you’re doing a Skype in an auditorium for a very large number of students, then it’s a good idea to plan out which students will ask which questions in what order. However, that’s not necessary when it’s a smaller group (although I find it’s best if I call on students so that the author doesn’t have to say, “Okay, you in the blue shirt. No, not you, him”).

After the students are prepared and the technology is set (it’s always great to have someone around for troubleshooting), it works well when the author knows what he or she will do if students run out of questions. Sometimes, Q and A will fill up the entire allotted time. When eighth graders talked to A.S. King, our time was up before the kids were out of questions. But when a group of students visited with Uma Krishnaswami, Uma offered to read a picture book at the end of the visit, and that was a big hit. If authors are comfortable with the technology, it’s a lot of fun when they have slides or documents to share in order to supplement the Q and A; A.B. Westrick started our Google Hangout with a PowerPoint that included some great photos, and Uma Krishnaswami shared her first edit letter for one of her books.

Thinking Outside the Box with a High School Visit

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Awesome turnout for upper school lunch visit!

At the end of the year, we had the opportunity to host I.W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above. Ilene’s book is most appropriate for high school readers, and she has a very busy schedule. The only day she could come was at the end of May, close enough to final exams that high school teachers weren’t comfortable giving over class time for the visit. So we thought outside the box and planned a lunch time visit. To make sure stressed-out students would come, my colleague Maureen suggested that we provide pizza for students who signed up ahead of time. We also enlisted SAGA (the Sexuality and Gender Alliance) to help us spread the word. In the end, we had a great turnout and were glad we weren’t deterred even though the visit came at such a busy time. In general, it can be more difficult to plan high school visits than middle school ones because high school schedules are harder to interrupt, so I think lunch time visits with local authors can be a great option.

Managing Panel Discussions and Book Sales at Local Author Day

Our biggest event this year was a Local Author Day for the middle school. We hosted three authors–Paul Acampora, Lisa Graff, and Dianne Salerni–and we invited fourth graders, who are entering middle school this fall, to join us. Each of the authors visited with one middle school grade before lunch, and then they all had lunch with the writing and library clubs. After that, they participated in a panel discussion for the whole middle school and fourth grade, and finally, they signed books that students had purchased.

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Local Author Day panel

All in all, it was a very successful event! The individual presentations were the biggest hit, with the authors offering some writing activities and making connections to each grade’s curriculum. Lunch and the panel were also great opportunities for students to hear from all three authors, and we sold a whole lot of books! We organize author visits in part to get kids excited about reading, and since each author had more than one MG book, there was something to appeal to almost every reader.

When a single author comes to visit, we tend to order their books from their publisher, because the publisher can usually offer a great discount. But for three authors with many different publishers, we partnered with a local bookstore. The bookstore provided books for us at a small discount, and we sold as many as we could and returned the books we were unable to sell. A few of the books sold out, and we had the authors sign bookplates and then ordered additional copies from the bookstore.

It went very well to partner with the local bookstore and have so many books available (seven choices total). We also shared this Local Author Day Book Order Form with both students and parents ahead of time, so many students ordered books ahead of time. If you are hosting authors for a visit (or if you are an author visiting schools), I would highly recommend supplying some kind of pre-order form.

However, a lot of students still wanted to buy books at the event, which was great, except that it got chaotic to make change for them and give other students the books they had already paid for so that they could wait in line to have them signed. Next time we do an event like this, I might want to have one station set up where someone has all of the unsold books and a cash box to make change, and then another station closer to the authors, with all of the pre-sold books to hand out.

Finally, during the panel, we had authors read very briefly (for just a few minutes) from one of their books, then I asked them some questions, and then we opened things up for audience Q and A. Students told me afterwards that they would have liked to hear the authors read for longer, and many more students had questions than we could get to. So even though I love going to events at which a moderator asks panelists questions (and even though I had consulted with students before asking questions), if we do this again, I might suggest that we have the authors read for longer, shorten the time the moderator asks questions, and leave more time for student questions. (Hmm…so minimize the part where I was talking, basically!)

All in all, we were able to connect students with some terrific, inspiring authors, and I’m looking forward to building on last year’s author events and making use of these takeaways! I hope they are helpful to others, as well.

On Writing and the Struggle to Keep Control

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a long time now because even during the summer, when I have glorious stretches of writing time, there are only so many words I can crank out in a day, and I’ve been hoarding them all for the manuscripts I’m writing.

Since I last posted, I finished and revised the young adult book I’ve been working on, and a friend and I jumped into a collaborative middle grade novel (which has been so much fun that I hesitate to say we’ve been “working on it” because it hasn’t felt like work at all), and I’ve played around with the beginning of another middle grade story I started last summer.

The past year has been draining and difficult for me in a lot of ways, and it has felt incredibly invigorating to have so much of this summer just to write—to sink into characters’ perspectives and explore ideas I care about and have some real control over the structure of a plot and the events that happen in a story. Control is something I’ve felt like I’m lacking in parts of my regular life, so it’s been pretty wonderful to have so much control over my schedule and writing this summer.

But the closer I get to having my new young adult novel ready to send to my agent, the more that sense of control starts to slip away because now I’m starting to think about what might happen if (and when, I hope) this book goes on submission to editors. Suddenly it seems like there are too many other YA books that share an element with my new book. Suddenly, even though this book seemed so different from my last two, I imagine getting rejections that are just like the ones I saw for my last two manuscripts.

Plus, after getting very encouraging, “this is so close to ready” feedback on the version of the book I sent to critique partners early in the summer, the response I got to the next version was thoughtful and useful for sure, but it didn’t feel quite as positive. And while I’m trying to take my time with this book to make sure it’s as strong as I can possibly make it, I’m having to be patient about so many things right now, and the idea that this manuscript might not be where I thought it was felt disheartening.

But then three things happened. First, on Monday night, I saw the movie version of Paper Towns. I’ve read Paper Towns at least five times, and for the past three years, my eighth grade students and I have discussed the book in depth and analyzed the shape of the main character’s hero’s journey. So I know the story very, very intimately. At first, I was happily struck by how much of the dialogue in the movie is replicated word for word from the book, but then as the movie went on, I began to notice story lines that had been cut, changed, or rearranged. Some of the elements that don’t appear in the movie are things I really like from the book, and occasionally I burst out with comments like, “This isn’t supposed to happen now!” or “She’s not supposed to go on the road trip!” But despite those moments of resistance, I thought the movie was great. Certain elements were emphasized and other ones were downplayed, but a book with a lot of internal narration can’t just get plopped right into movie form, and I think the the movie version absolutely captures the spirit of the book.

The second thing that happened is that on Tuesday, when I was having a rough morning for non-writing reasons, I was in my car in a parking lot after an appointment and trying to make an important phone call that I needed to focus on before I started driving, and a woman came up to rap on my window and tell me to please do whatever I was doing somewhere else because she had an appointment and needed my spot. So I pulled out of the parking lot, found a quiet residential neighborhood where it would be safe to stop on the side of the road, and burst into tears. That’s not strictly relevant, I guess, but I was trying so hard to do all the right things and be okay, and maybe sometimes we all just need to let go of the need to hold everything together and fall apart parked in front of a lovely house on a suburban street after somebody scolds us for hogging a parking spot. Or something.

And that release allowed me to be a bit more relaxed when I drove to a restaurant where I had lunch with a very wise writer friend who had read the most recent version of my manuscript and had a lot of extremely kind things to say about it but also some pretty major suggestions about switching the way the premise plays out, combining or changing some of the characters, and bringing in a couple of characters who have shaped the main character but didn’t show up in the action. Her suggestions involved completely rewriting the beginning of the book, which I had gotten extremely positive feedback on from my first round of critique partners and at a writing retreat in the spring. She was also suggesting I change one character, the protagonist’s sister, when that sister relationship was one of the things that all of the people who had read the novel so far liked the best.

But the thing is, as much as I like the sister and the beginning, I completely understood why making those changes could strengthen the overall novel. As with the movie version of Paper Towns, I may miss some elements of the first version I knew, but I can see how cutting or switching them will serve the end product.

And so, as I begin this revision, I feel confident that the changes I’m making will preserve (and maybe even amplify) the tone of the story. And I realize that I still am in charge of sorting through and incorporating other people’s suggestions, and while I can’t control whether there are other YA books that have something in common with this one or whether that will be a deal-breaker on submission, I can ensure that my story is as vibrant and fun and meaningful as I’m capable of making it. So I’m energized again, thankfully. And now I need to get back to work!

Relating to a book vs. liking it: A(nother) case against “girl books” and “boy books”

At the end of lunch a couple of weeks ago, a group of seventh grade students called me over to their table to tell me that they’d been talking about our read-aloud novel, Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead, which will come out this August, and they had a suggestion. On double period days, we should read aloud for twice as long as we do on regular days because they were so eager to find out what was going to happen.

“Except not today!” one of them said. “I have to go to the doctor and won’t be there, so you shouldn’t read aloud today at all!”

Then, during class that afternoon, I tried to stop after a particularly juicy chapter ending, and everyone begged me to keep going.

That’s exactly the way I want read alouds to go. I want students to be excited to talk about our read-aloud books and to look forward to the next chapter. And I’m especially happy that Goodbye Stranger has been so popular because at first I wasn’t sure whether or not I should use it.

9780375990984That’s not to say that I didn’t immediately fall in love with Goodbye Stranger, because as soon as I got to read an advance copy, I did. I adore the cast of well-developed characters and the poignant friend and family dynamics. I’ve used Rebecca Stead’s last two novels, When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy, as read alouds in the past, and Goodbye Stranger includes a lot of the same features that made those other two books work so well to read aloud: beautiful writing, lovable characters, thought-provoking ideas, and a puzzle for readers to work out.

But When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy appealed equally to boys and girls, and when I first read Goodbye Stranger, I wondered whether boys would like it as much as girls would. A lot of the novel is about the changing friendship dynamics of three seventh grade girls–Bridge, Tab, and Emily–as Tab discovers feminism and Emily starts to get a whole lot of attention from an eighth grade boy, and I wondered if the novel would be as much of a whole-class crowd pleaser as I wanted it to be. When I stopped and thought about it, though, I realized that there was plenty in this novel that would engage the whole class; there’s a mystery high school character who slowly reveals why she is so upset that she’s skipping school on Valentine’s Day, there’s a boy who can’t understand why his grandfather left his grandmother and his whole family out of nowhere, there’s a girl trying to make sense of what it means that she survived a terrible accident even though medical professionals told her she shouldn’t have, and there’s some powerful exploration of the kind of peer pressure and bullying that can happen over texting and social media. It’s an excellent book, and I believed that it was worth sharing.

A week or so after we started Goodbye Stranger, author Shannon Hale wrote a powerful20708771 blog post called No Boys Allowed: School visits as a woman writer. This post has rightfully received a whole lot of attention, so you may have seen it already. In the post, Hale describes her experience visiting a school where she presented to all of the elementary school students but only the girls from the middle school; middle school boys were not excused from their regular classes. One middle school boy who had loved one of her books got special permission to attend, but he was too embarrassed to come. And another elementary school boy wanted to wait until everybody else had left–even his teachers–before asking Hale if she had a copy of The Princess in Black, the book she had read from at the end of her presentation.

This school had sent a message to boys, loud and clear: they were not supposed to want to read books about girls, written by female authors.

Excluding boys from a female author’s presentation is an extreme example of a problem with the way we present reading options to boys and girls. But Hale also discusses subtler examples: “[W]hen giving books to boys, how often do we offer ones that have girls as protagonists? (Princesses even!) And if we do, do we qualify it: ‘Even though it’s about a girl, I think you’ll like it.’ Even though. We’re telling them subtly, if not explicitly, that books about girls aren’t for them. Even if a boy would never, ever like any book about any girl (highly unlikely) if we don’t at least offer some, we’re reinforcing the ideology.” She then points out that while lots of people might tell boys they’ll like The Hunger Games “even though” it’s about a girl, people probably wouldn’t tell girls they’ll enjoy the Harry Potter books “even though” Harry is a boy.

Reading that part of Hale’s post, I realized that I was guilty of some of that same thinking; I had questioned whether or not boys would like Goodbye Stranger since parts of it are about female friendship dynamics, but I probably wouldn’t have questioned whether or not girls would like a book about male friendship dynamics. And as Hale explains, that kind of thinking suggests that the male experience is somehow more universal and more important than the female one, and it contributes “[t]o a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn’t matter how the girl feels, what she wants […]. No one expects you to have to empathize with girls and women. As far as you need be concerned, they have no interior life.” Clearly, this is not the message anyone wants to send. It’s not fair to boys or to girls.

After reading Hale’s article, I was feeling relieved that I’d gone ahead and chosen Goodbye Stranger for our read aloud, but then we reached a scene in which two female characters, Tab and Em, have a disagreement. In the scene, Bridge, Tab, and Em, three of the book’s main characters, are in a convenience store, brainstorming ideas for their Halloween costumes, and an eighth grade boy named Patrick walks in with some of his friends. Patrick and Em have been texting each other increasingly daring photos of themselves, and Bridge and Tab don’t understand what Em is doing and think she should stop immediately. Patrick’s last photo was of his bedroom doorknob, and when Patrick walks over to the girls, Tab says, “Nice doorknob.” As soon as Patrick and his friends leave the store, Em gets angry with Tab.

When we finished reading that chapter, one student said he thought Em had overreacted when she got mad at Tab for mentioning the photo to Patrick. Other students immediately jumped to Em’s defense, explaining why she was so embarrassed by Tab’s comment and why Tab should have known better. As we debated the issue, it became clear that most of the boys in the class thought Em had overreacted and most of the girls in the class took her side. We talked about why that might be, and it came out that more of the girls in the class could relate to Em.

Prompted by that conversation, I shared Shannon Hale’s blog post with the class. The students were surprised to read about Hale’s experience, and as we talked about the article, one student’s comment really struck me: “Relating to a book and liking a book aren’t the same thing. I don’t need to relate to something to like it.” So even though some of the boys didn’t really relate to Em, that didn’t mean they weren’t as into the book, or that they were getting any less out of reading it.

And actually, that scene led the class to talk about some pretty important ideas: things like how much confidentiality we expect when we share a secret with a friend, and what happens when somebody thinks they’re teasing but they’ve still done something hurtful, and how it feels when we trust someone and then feel that they’ve betrayed our trust. It was a valuable conversation for everyone in the room, male or female, middle-school-aged or adult.

For me, that conversation emphasized that we do everyone a disservice when we assume that boys won’t enjoy or benefit from reading books that focus on female characters and are written by female authors. In a book as layered as Goodbye Stranger, different readers can find different aspects to connect to, and even if there are some elements that some readers don’t connect to, that doesn’t mean that the book isn’t for them. We need to trust that kids can select the books they want to read without confusing the matter by telling boys that certain assemblies aren’t for them, or by creating book covers that appeal to some potential readers but alienate others. And we need to trust that good books are good books, period.

Student-Author Interview 13: Robin Herrera

9781419710391_s3Back in the summer of 2010, I was just starting my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Robin Herrera was graduating. At Robin’s graduate reading, she read a funny, poignant excerpt from a novel about a girl named Star Mackie, and I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to read more about Star, so I was thrilled last year when Robin’s book came out and I finally could!

Hope Is a Ferris Wheel tells the story of Star, an unforgettable character who lives in a trailer park with her mom and her older sister Winter, writes hilarious vocabulary sentences that she doesn’t turn in to her somewhat clueless teacher, and says things like, “Heavenly donuts!” Star is determined to find real friends and convince everyone her layered haircut is not a mullet, and she starts a poetry club with an unlikely crew of members: two boys named Eddie and Langston, who are stuck in detention, and a sweet girl named Genny plus Genny’s grumpy brother Denny. When a couple of surprising revelations shake up Star’s view of her family, she turns to Emily Dickinson’s poetry to find a new kind of hope.

Sixth graders Emma, Mia, and Carly read Hope Is a Ferris Wheel and had some excellent questions for Robin.

First, here’s what the girls liked most about the book:

Carly: I really liked how the book always left me wondering, especially about
Winter. I also liked how Star learned to live with things not going her way, and I liked how she ranted about her life in her vocabulary sentences.

Mia: I liked how when Star thought something was going to be so good it turnedemma.mia.carly (1) copy out awful, and when she thought something was going to be awful it turned out to be good. I also liked how she learned from Winter that you can’t always get help from other people and sometimes you have to rely on yourself.

Emma: I liked the ending with the postcard and how it made me wonder what would happen next. It was funny how Star wanted to start a club because the club kept not being what she wanted, like she first wanted a trailer park club and then an Emily Dickinson club. I liked how the club ended up being a poetry club and Eddie helped her, and I liked when her teacher finally read her vocabulary sentences.

And here’s what they wondered about HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL and Robin’s writing process:

Carly: Was the book inspired by your childhood in any way?

Only a little bit. While I never lived in a trailer park, I did live in an area with a lot of trailers, and had a close friend who lived in a trailer—though not in a trailer park! Her family owned some land, and instead of a house, they had a trailer.

A few of the details, like Star shopping at thrift stores and her admiration of Winter, were definitely based on my childhood. My sister and I didn’t have a great relationship like Star and Winter have, though. We didn’t get along until we’d grown up.

Mia: How long did it take you to write the book? How long have you been writing?

It took me six months to write the first draft, and I spent about three and a half years revising the book over and over before my agent sold it. I’ve been writing for about ten years now, even though Hope Is a Ferris Wheel is the first book I ever finished writing!

Emma: Did you have your plot already planned out or did it come to you as you were writing?

I only had a few details of the plot planned. This book definitely did NOT have an outline, which I don’t normally like to do! I wrote the book in chunks and figured things out as I went, but it did make revising MUCH harder. I’m working on another book right now and I had a pretty detailed outline for it.

Mia and Carly: If you were to make a sequel, where would it start and what would be included? Or if the book had an epilogue what would be included?

Note: if you haven’t read HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL yet, you might want to skip over the second paragraph of Robin’s answer.

I do have an idea for a sequel, though I’m struggling to write it. It’s more of a companion, which is kind of like a sequel but usually just involves the same characters. The companion would follow Eddie immediately after the end of Hope Is a Ferris Wheel, and his struggles with school, his life, and co-running the newly-minted Poetry Club. There would also be a lot of Langston. Star would be a more minor character. I’m hoping I’ll get it written someday!

I can tell you about Winter, if you’re curious. Around the time I finished the first draft of Hope, I found out my sister was pregnant with her first child. That kind of informed a lot of what I thought Winter would do, so in my mind Winter keeps her child, a boy, and moves out of the trailer into another trailer in Treasure Trailers. She’d keep up with school and eventually move out of the trailer park, too, and Star would be the world’s greatest babysitter.

Emma: Did you come up with the poems that Star, Eddie, Genny, and the others write? How did you come up with them?

I did! They were very fun to write.

I like poetry, but I really love writing it. The problem is, I write silly, funny poems. But it turned out that worked perfectly for this book!

Genny’s haikus are similar to the ones I wrote when I first learned about haikus. Star’s poems were very much keyed off of Emily Dickinson’s, filtered through her own innocence. Langston’s, of course, was very easy to write!

Carly: Why does Denny have such a problem with Star and Winter?

Why indeed? The short answer is that he’s kind of a stick in the mud. Very serious, very ordinary, and very resistant to change. He’s also very protective of his sister, and doesn’t want her becoming the “free spirit” kind of person she’s becoming. So since he doesn’t like people who are too different, he doesn’t like Winter. And since he doesn’t want his sister becoming too different, he doesn’t like Star, whom he thinks is pulling his sister in that direction.

And last but not least, the girls had a lot of questions about when Robin was in middle school!

Mia: Did you have to write vocabulary sentences as a kid and did you like them?

Yes I did! And I loved vocabulary sentences. I had a game I’d play with myself whenever we got a fresh batch of vocabulary words. Basically I’d try and “hide” the vocabulary word in the sentence, make it feel as natural as possible, so that if someone read the sentence, they wouldn’t be able to tell which word was the vocabulary word. So this resulted in some very long, rambling, or convoluted sentences, much like Star’s.

Emma: Did you ever not turn in vocabulary sentences or any other assignments?

There were assignments I didn’t turn in, though not purposefully, like Star. In 5th and 6th grade I was actually a very bad student and hardly turned anything in! My family was going through a pretty rough time, so I never got in trouble for it, really… but after the rough times, when I entered 7th grade, I did a complete 180 and started turning in all my work. Weird, huh?

Mia: Did you ever start a club?

No, although I was a “founding member” of a club in high school. We were called “The Movie Crew,” and we’d go see a movie every Friday, all through high school. The group grew in numbers, but always retained a core group of about four of us. We even had shirts and hats!

Carly: Star doesn’t like her teacher Mr. Savage and wishes Miss Fergusson were her teacher. Did you have any teachers like Mr. Savage or Miss Fergusson? Did you have any teachers that you didn’t like, or were there any teachers you wished you had but didn’t?

My 5th/6th grade teacher was very similar to Miss Fergusson. Her name was Ms. Lawson and she had that same tough but fair demeanor, underneath which she was very sweet and really cared about all her students.

I never had a teacher like Mr. Savage, but I did have some bad teachers. One of my teachers in high school I think judged me harshly because he’d had my sister. (She was normally a great student, but he had her when she was a senior, after she’d already gotten into her college of choice, so she often blew off his class.) I had another teacher who often said mean things—not about me, but about other races and cultures. He was old as dirt, so no one ever called him out on it, but now I wish I had. I also had a teacher in college who for some reason didn’t like me. I never figured out why, either.

Emma: Did you ever have a friend who had a sibling who didn’t like you, like Star has with Genny and Denny?

I can’t think of anyone, actually! But my sister hated all of my friends. Does that count?

Thanks so much for writing HOPE IS A FERRIS WHEEL and answering our questions, Robin! Oh, and if you’ve read Robin’s book (or if you want to, now that you’ve read this interview), you should check out Robin’s awesome blog posts that include her drawings for all of her characters! Here’s the one for Star, and she has posts with drawings of her other characters too: http://robinherrera.com/hope-is-a-ferris-wheel-star-mackie/

Why Teach Analytical Writing?

Welcome back for the final installment of my series on teaching analytical writing. If you’re new to the series, you can check out my series introduction, which provides some context, and the next three posts in which I explained how I break down the essay writing process to teach analytical paragraphs, thesis statements and topic sentences, and introductions and conclusions. Now I want to wrap up by considering why analytical writing is important to teach and learn.

When my seventh grade students started to work on their essays this winter, a student raised his hand and asked, “Why are we doing this?”

One of his classmates spoke up, reminding him that the essay was important because I’d said it was worth 100 points and that was more than most of the writing assignments they worked on.

Another chimed in, too. “And she said we’ll have to write lots of essays in high school, so we need to learn how to do them now.”

“Yeah, I get that,” the first student said. “But why? Why is it worth so much, and why will we write so many in high school?”

The question of why the assignment was worth so much had a simple answer: we were going to work on it for a long time, and I tend to determine how much an assignment is worth based on how long we spend on it. But I had to stop and think for a while before I could answer the rest of his question. I ended up telling him that each discipline at school teaches critical thinking in some way, and in English class, students learn to think critically by analyzing passages, recognizing patterns and symbols, and seeing what they can notice by breaking down sentences and focusing on the effects of individual words and sounds. I explained that essays ask students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate, and these are sophisticated skills that will help them with other complex tasks and problems throughout their lives. I pointed out that writing an analytical essay forces students to slow down and look very closely at small chunks of text, and in a world of overstimulation and constant rushing, it’s valuable to learn to slow down. And I said that it’s important to know the basic rules of a genre of writing so that you can use them when they work for you and break them when they don’t.

The student seemed satisfied by my response (I even asked him to paraphrase what I’d said a few classes later and he remembered the gist of my answer) but the truth is, I’m not sure that I’m completely satisfied with it. I know that academic discourse isn’t without problems. When I studied Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English in graduate school, I read a lot of articles about how academic discourse tends to privilege those who come from positions of power–students whose parents went to college before them, students who get to attend elementary and secondary schools that have lots of resources, and students who speak English at home. I learned about the code-switching that has to happen when students use one kind of language at home and have to learn to use another, more authoritative and definite, academic language at school. And the bottom line is, even with all of my methodical, color-coded handouts, there are kids who still really struggle to grasp the accepted conventions of analyzing texts.

The best compromise I can come up with is to be as transparent as possible as I break down the essay writing process, to share lots and lots of examples, to allow students to push the boundaries of the form when they want to, and to give students other, more informal and creative ways to respond to texts as well, whether in writing or in conversation.

And in the future, I’m going to pose the question that one seventh grader posed this year; I’m going to ask students why they think they need to do this kind of writing, and what they think they learn from it. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the reasons for writing analytical essays, as well, and I hope you’ve found this series helpful! Tune in later this week when I’ll post an exciting new student-author interview!

Teaching Analytical Writing: Introductions and Conclusions

Now that I’ve described the way I teach students to write the core of an essay (by constructing an essay skeleton and crafting TIQA paragraphs), I’m ready to discuss the last two essay elements: the introduction and conclusion.

Yes, the introduction comes first, and when I write my own essays, I usually start with it. But when students are learning how to write essays, I find that it works best to tackle the introduction after the body of the essay is mostly set. That way, students don’t spend time getting the introduction just right and then have to scrap it if their main points change or if they end up repeating something from the introduction in one of their body paragraphs.

The way I see it, a traditional analytical introduction has four main elements: a hook, a link, some summary, and the thesis. Here’s a document I use to teach introductions. It offers more details about these four elements, breaks down some possible types of hooks, and provides an example introduction. Students can think of the introduction as an inverted triangle with the point at the bottom; it starts somewhat general and relatable and then gets more specific.

The conclusion, on the other hand, is shaped like a right-side-up triangle with the point at the top. (Although not literally, of course. Literally it’s just shaped like yet another blocky paragraph.) Conclusions are tricky because it’s boring if they merely repeat the points of the essay without offering anything new, but it’s confusing if they suddenly bring up a brand new topic.

Here’s a document that offers some specific strategies for conclusions and includes an example conclusion. Basically, a conclusion should recap the essay’s main ideas, ideally without being too repetitive, and then it should consider the broader implications of the essay’s topic, come to some kind of evaluation of the literary work in question, and/or come full-circle back to the hook.

When I talk to students about structuring traditional, five-paragraph-or-so analytical essays, I often think back to when I was in middle school, when we were working on essays and a classmate said he already knew how to write them. “You just tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; then you tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em; then you tell ‘em what you told ‘em,” he announced.

Oversimplified? Definitely. But in a very basic sense, my middle school classmate was mostly correct. The introduction “tells ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em.” The body paragraphs “tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em.” The conclusion “tells ‘em what you told ‘em.” The other resources I’ve provided here offer some concrete information about how to do all that telling, and I hope they’ve been helpful! I’ll have one more installment of this series: a post that asks the question “Why teach analytical writing?” and summarizes my thoughts.

Student-Author Interview 12: Rachel M. Wilson

Today I’m thrilled to welcome the smart and charming Rachel M. Wilson for our latest student-author interview! Rachel is a fellow VCFA alum, and her debut Don’t Touch came out in September of 2014 with HarperTeen. Rachel also has a short story called “The Game of Boys and Monsters” out as a digital short from HarperTeen Impulse. Don’t Touch tells the story of Caddie, a talented actress who is struggling with OCD. Caddie’s parents have recently split up, and she believes that if she can keep from touching anyone else’s skin, they might get back together. Caddie longs to play Ophelia in her school’s production of Hamlet, but that would mean touching—and kissing—a boy named Peter.

Don’t Touch is a powerful, satisfying novel that depicts Caddie’s compelling journey and features an endearing cast of secondary characters. It also ends with one of the most compassionate, informative author’s notes I’ve ever read. Lily, Olivia, Casey, and Mary read the book and had some great questions for Rachel.

lily and oliviaFirst, here’s what the students especially liked about DON’T TOUCH, with Rachel’s response:

Lily: I like that the book is realistic fiction but there’s a mysterious side because of Caddie’s sort of magical idea that if she keeps her gloves on and doesn’t touch anybody she can make her dad come home.

Olivia: I liked how much I could sympathize with Caddie and connect with her even though her situation is unusual. I know that situations like hers really do happen.

Casey: I like how the book introduces Caddie’s phobia and how the reader gets casey and maryto experience what she’s going through.

Mary: I really like how descriptive the book is and how it describes Caddie’s feelings, especially.

Rachel: Thanks so much, you guys! It means a lot to me to hear that the book connected with you.

Now for some questions about the book and writing in general:

Lily: Have you ever been in Hamlet, and if so what part did you have?

I’ve never been in Hamlet, though I do LOVE the play and have seen it many times. I’ve never acted in any full Shakespeare production. In acting class in college, I did scenes as Macbeth (yes, Mr. Macbeth), Helena from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Lady Anne from Richard III. In high school I almost had the chance to play Juliet, but I went to a small school and all the boys who might have played Romeo played basketball instead of auditioning.

Olivia: Did you base the book of off your personal experience with OCD, theater, or both? Is Caddie based on any real people you know?

I do have personal experience with both OCD and theater, though the story in the book is very different from my own. My own OCD started around age 10, and at first it had a lot to do with a fear that I might catch a disease (sometimes a fantastical disease, like, I was afraid that touching a daddy long legs spider might make my legs start growing long and never stop). Later, I had some magical thinking of my own—I had rituals like focusing on a certain color while blinking, and if I messed those up, I’d worry that something horrible would happen to people I cared about. So there’s a lot of me in Caddie, but her particular fears and her friends and family situation are made up—all of that fiction has to do triple duty in being believable, serving the plot, and serving as metaphors for what’s going on inside Caddie.

I’ve always loved theater—I love it as a storyteller, and like Caddie, I love it as a way to experiment with a different way of being. I’ve always enjoyed playing at dramatic or extreme situations that rarely happen in real life. For my younger self, playing a character who was brave or outspoken or free was almost like practice for being that way in real life.

Mary: I read the Q and A part in the back so I know that you’ve had anxiety like Caddie. I was wondering if it was hard for you to write about anxiety since you have experienced it, even though the book isn’t about you and your personal experiences?

That’s a great question, and I’m going to answer it from two different angles. On the one hand, it was a pleasure for me to write about it because I know it so well and because it’s been a big part of my experience. It didn’t cause me anxiety to write about Caddie’s, though I sometimes felt along with her when I was into a scene. On the other hand, because I am close to it, it was challenging to make sure that what was in my head was getting across on the page. When you’re writing about something you know well, you sometimes have to do more research to ensure that you aren’t taking shortcuts and that what seems obvious to you will get across to a reader who may not have direct experience with your subject.

Casey: How long did it take for you to write the book?

That’s hard to say. I wrote twenty pages about a girl named Caddie many years before I wrote a draft of the book. When I did draft the whole book, it took about a year, but that first draft was very different from the final version—at one point, Caddie was a ballet dancer and had a manatee friend that she visited in Florida. It was a whole other story. I rewrote the book over the next year and then spent another two or three years with revision.

Olivia: What was your writing process like? When you were writing this book, did you have a writer’s group? Did you outline it?

I was in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts while I was first drafting the book, and my first mentor made me outline it, which I found very difficult. The final book is nothing like that first outline, but it gave me somewhere to go, and I probably wouldn’t have made it through a first draft without the outline. I wrote the book in a pretty patchwork way, working on scenes out of order, exploring in different directions, and writing new outlines each time something major shifted in the plot … Basically, I made a big mess and eventually put it back together again. I didn’t have a steady writer’s group, but I did bring pieces of the book to workshops at Vermont College, where I received helpful feedback, and I had a few friends read the whole book and give me notes.

Lily and Mary: Did people suggest that you make big changes about how you wrote the book, and if so did you listen to them? Did the plot change, either minorly or drastically, throughout the process of writing and editing the book?

Yes! As you might already have been able to tell, the book went through several pretty drastic changes before I ever tried to sell it. My first draft included many big plot threads all tangled up together, almost like I was writing two or three different books at once. My last mentor at VCFA, Martine Leavitt, gave me great guidance in focusing the plot. She suggested I pull out the threads that felt strongest and most central to the story and rewrite around those. Then, when I worked with my editors at HarperTeen, they had tons of smart ideas, especially about spending more time with several of the relationships in the book. There were some suggestions for changes along the way that I didn’t agree with—I think that’s bound to happen—but sometimes what’s bothering a reader isn’t the choice you’ve made but that you haven’t executed or supported it well enough. Sometimes instead of totally changing a scene that I liked, I was able to revise so that it worked better and earned its keep.

Lily: Would you ever write a sequel to the book or a book from a secondary character’s perspective? If so, what character’s perspective would you choose?

I doubt that will really happen, but I’ve thought about it—I’d be interested to explore what happens between Peter and Caddie next, maybe even from his point of view. If I were choosing to write a spin-off solely on the basis of fun, I might choose to do a connected story from Livia’s point of view. She has a refreshing take on the world, and I’d love to play with that more.

And finally, some questions about when Rachel was in middle school:

Olivia: Did you like acting when you were young? Did you go to a special performing arts school?

Yes, I loved acting. I did my first professional play in fifth grade—I was in the angel choir in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Birmingham Children’s Theater, and even though it was a little part with no lines, I was in heaven the entire time. The size of the stage and the audiences, the social time with the other kids backstage, and working with adults who were pros all dazzled me. We did annual plays at school, musical ones with limited spoken lines where the whole class sang songs on risers. We would get out of class for rehearsal, and I looked forward to those every year. I didn’t go to a special performing school, but my high school did have an excellent director who chose really sophisticated and challenging plays for us to do—we did Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think So). I didn’t always understand them at first, but I learned a lot by trying.

Lily: Did you like to write when you were in middle school?

Sort of. I remember my seventh grade teacher had us keep a morning journal, and I really enjoyed creating characters and stories for that. Sometimes she would have us do creative writing to support larger projects, like writing our own myths or poems, and I loved that kind of assignment. As I remember it though, our opportunities for creative writing were somewhat limited, and I didn’t think to try it on my own. I was super into visual arts and theater at the time, so I sometimes wrote graphic-novel-style journal entries or short plays for fun.

Casey: Were you ever in a writing club or anything like that?

No, I was at such a small school through 7th grade that we didn’t have many clubs. We kind of all did everything. I did work on the class newspaper, though, and that was both fun and full of drama.

Mary: Did you have a nice teacher that inspired you to be a writer or helped you figure out your career path dream?

I’ve had so many nice teachers. Thinking about middle school in particular, I remember being pulled in different directions by several supportive teachers—I was on the math team, working on special projects with the art teacher and the computer teacher, doing theater outside of school, and working on the newspaper I mentioned … In 8th grade, I started working with my new school’s theater director and with the Forensics & Speech teacher. All of these teachers were super-supportive of me and offered me a multitude of activities to try. Even though most of those activities weren’t directly related to writing, they’ve all fed my writing in one way or another. In order to write, you have to have lots of experience to draw on, so trying out a lot of different activities is a great way to go. Even now, I’m not only a writer—I’m an actor and a teacher and a freelancer with lots of odd jobs. I still believe in doing and being more than one thing, and maybe that started back in middle school.596343

Thanks so much for joining us and for giving us such thoughtful, interesting
answers, Rachel!

Readers can use the following links to find out more about Rachel and check out
some great resources for DON’T TOUCH, like a book club guide and a REALLY awesome book trailer!

http://www.rachelmwilsonbooks.com

Publisher’s book page: http://www.harpercollins.com/9780062220936/dont-touch

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13597757-don-t-touch

Book Club Guide: http://www.rachelmwilsonbooks.com/blog/book-club-guide-for-dont-touch

Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qs1BolrrRyw

Author photo by Evan Hanover 

Teaching Analytical Writing: Essay Skeletons

Hi there! I’m back with the third installment of my series on teaching analytical writing. Last time, I explained the TIQA paragraph, which I see as the building block of an analytical essay, and described how I give students a lot of practice writing analytical paragraphs before moving onto essays.

When it’s time to move onto analytical essays, I lay the groundwork in a couple of ways. First, I tell students about the essay topics I plan to give them as we are reading the book they will be writing about. We look out for quotes that relate to those topics together, and I encourage them to look out for additional quotes on their own. That way they’re not starting from scratch when it comes time to find quotes for their essays.

Once we’ve finished the book, I have students choose an essay topic. I can provide scaffolding for students who need it by steering them toward one of the topics we found quotes for during class, while I can encourage other students to branch out to topics we haven’t spent much class time exploring or even to come up with topics on their own.

Next, each student creates an essay skeleton. The essay skeleton includes their thesis statement, their topic sentences, and the quotes they will use in their body paragraphs. (For eighth grade I require that at least one of the body paragraphs includes a second quote and follows the TIQATIQA format. For seventh graders I don’t require a double TIQA paragraph, but some students choose to write them.)

The essay skeleton provides the core of the essay that students will be writing. It isn’t too difficult for me to give prompt feedback to each student on a thesis statement, topic sentences, and quotes, and I find that it’s worth it to look at these elements of their essays before they move forward with drafting. The bottom line is, it’s impossible to write a successful essay without a decent thesis or with quotes that don’t match up with the thesis.

So how do you teach students to write a good thesis statement? Here is my explanation of thesis statements, adapted from a handout I made for seventh graders writing essays about Howard Fast’s novel April Morning. If students are struggling to grasp thesis statements, it can work well to create some faulty thesis statements, model the process of fixing one, and then have students work together to fix another.

Interested in tips for explaining topic sentences? Here’s my explanation of topic sentences, using the same example thesis from the April Morning thesis resource. It can work well to have the class practice breaking down a model thesis into effective topic sentences before students try to write their own.

Once students have their essay skeletons, they draft their body paragraphs, using the TIQA format, and then after that, we move on to introductions and conclusions. Next time I’ll explain my reasoning for leaving the introduction and conclusion until the end, and I’ll share handouts I use for those two parts of the essay.

Teaching Analytical Writing: The TIQA Paragraph

Welcome back to my series on teaching analytical writing! Before I assign an analytical essay, I give students plenty of practice with the main building block of an analytical essay: the analytical body paragraph. I’ve tried a few different acronyms for the analytical paragraph format, such as PIE (point, illustration, explanation) or TEE + T (topic sentence, example, explanation plus transition). I now use TIQA (topic sentence, introduction of quote, quote, analysis of quote) and recommend it for students who are in seventh grade or older.

First, I remind students that analytical paragraphs show opinion, but without using first or second person, and that the convention is to use present tense to discuss the events of a literary work. Then I break down what each part of the acronym means (the starred elements are optional):

T: The topic sentence must lay out the main point for the whole paragraph. It is an umbrella sentence for the paragraph, meaning that everything in the paragraph fits underneath it.

I: The introduction of the quote establishes what has just happened before the quote, what is happening now, where the characters are, who’s involved in the conversation, etc.

Q: The quote must make sense on its own and be properly punctuated, with a signal phrase (such as “Mabel narrates”) or signal sentence (such as “Mabel explains what happens next”) before it and a page number in parentheses after it. The quote is the core of an analytical paragraph, not just an example that’s wedged into the writer’s thoughts. It should ideally be under four lines of text to avoid dealing with pesky block quote format.

A: The analysis of the quote should be the longest and most detailed part of the paragraph. In the analysis, the writer should focus on specific words and phrases from the quote and carefully explain how those words and phrases support the point from the topic sentence.

T*: The transition sentence offers a transition between the writer’s first and second quote.

I*: Introduction of quote 2

Q*: Quote 2

A*: Analysis of quote 2

With middle school students, I think it’s worth the time investment to do several practice analytical paragraphs before asking students to write a literary essay that includes multiple analytical paragraphs. I tend to follow the “I do, we do, you do” rule of teaching writing, so usually I will provide an example of a paragraph that I have written, then we will write one together as a class as I project it on the board, and then I will have students write their own. Lately I have also been doing some partnered paragraphs so that students can help each other grasp the concept.

I also provide scaffolding by providing options for topic sentences at first, because some students have a difficult time coming up with a statement that includes enough opinion and sets them up to analyze. Usually I don’t have students try TIQATIQA paragraphs with two quotes until they have mastered single TIQAs. Once they have started to practice writing these paragraphs, it’s a good idea to brainstorm lists of good verbs for analytical writing (such as show, convey, portray, depict, emphasize, hint, suggest, reveal, etc.).

It tends to take a lot of practice before students really grasp how to break down quotes into key parts and analyze them. We practice doing this in class discussions as well as in writing, and in my experience, this is a skill that most students are ready to work on in seventh grade, but in sixth grade I stick with a format like TEE + T (topic sentence, example, explanation plus transition) and don’t worry quite so much about introducing quotes with correct signal phrases or sentences or writing truly analytical explanations of quotes.

Here is a color-coded Example TIQA about the novel April Morning. Next time I’ll explain how I use “essay skeletons” to get students ready to write essays.

Teaching Analytical Writing Series

Ah, the analytical essay. Whether it’s five paragraphs or not, whether it’s called an essay or a paper or even a “theme,” it’s pretty much the default major assignment in high school and even college English classes. Because I teach middle school, and because I work at an independent school, I have quite a bit of flexibility in my writing curriculum. I can assign a lot of varied creative writing assignments, and I very happily do! But I also need to teach students how to write solid, carefully structured analytical essays about what they read. Both my seventh and eighth grade classes are working on essays now, so I’ve been thinking about how I teach students to do this kind of writing and what seems to work.

The thing is, this kind of writing isn’t intuitive, so students need a lot of explicit instruction and examples. They need to be told that they can’t use first or second person, and then they need to see examples of how to write a sentence that shows their opinion without using “I” but also without a whole lot of confusing passive voice. They need to be armed with helpful verbs for analytical writing (depict, convey, portray, imply, reveal, etc.). A cheat sheet of good transition words helps, too (first of all, in addition, therefore, however, etc.). They need to understand the structure of a solid essay, and they need a lot of scaffolding to grasp how to structure an analytical paragraph and how to deal with quotes from the text they are analyzing.

I don’t blame them. I can clearly remember a moment when I was in ninth grade and had been assigned to write an essay with at least three quotes in it. I had been taught how to structure an essay in general, but not what to do with the quotes. So I wrote the whole thing and then asked for my mom’s help to sandwich in some quotes somehow.

I had always read a lot, so I had soaked up all kinds of unspoken rules of writing by reading. But it’s not like I was reading other people’s five-paragraph essays, so I had no way to soak up the rules of using quotes. After that assignment, my ninth grade English teacher wrote an essay in front of us, in marker on a transparency sheet that she projected on the board. I saw how she handled the quotations, and after that I knew what to do. But that experience has stuck with me. Students need to see good, accessible examples of the kind of writing we want them to do, and many of them need more than just examples. However, I don’t want to simplify essay writing to a meaningless formula in which students are simply filling in sentences rather than developing their own ideas.

I’m only teaching seventh and eighth grade this year, but when I have taught sixth grade in the past, I’ve asked for a modified version of analytical writing from sixth graders. They can still use the first person in their essays, which I’ve referred to as reader’s response essays rather than analytical essays. I’ve had them write responses with three body paragraphs that discuss three different points, and I’ve asked for one quote per paragraph, but I haven’t worried too much about how they integrate or format their quotes or how detailed their discussion of the quotes are. For seventh and eighth graders, I ask for essays that follow all of the conventions that students need to have mastered by high school, but I break essay assignments down into several manageable steps.

I haven’t done many teaching-related posts this year, so I thought I’d start a short blog series on teaching analytical writing in a way that gives students the support they need without encouraging overly formulaic writing. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post about the following topics:

-Essay Building Blocks: The TIQA(TIQA) Paragraph

-Preparing to Write an Essay and Essay Skeletons

-Introductions and Conclusions

-Why Analytical Writing?

I hope this series proves helpful, and I have some more student-author interviews in the works, as well, so those will keep coming, too!

Student-Author Interview 11: Jen Malone

It’s time for another student-author interview, and I’m very excited to feature the tireless and talented Jen Malone! Jen’s debut novel, At Your Service, came out in 2014, and she is one busy author. She has several books for tweens and teens on the way, and you can find out more about them at jenmalonewrites.com (and in her interview below)!

In At Your Service, thirteen-year-old Chloe Turner already knows exactly what she wants IMG_1320to do with her life: she wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps as the concierge at a fabulous New York City hotel. After Chloe manages to entertain Marie, the extremely difficult daughter of one of her dad’s important guests, she earns the job of Junior Concierge. It’s up to Chloe to show a prince and two princesses around the city. But cute Prince Alex, unimpressed Princess Sophie, and mischievous Princess Ingrid might be more than Chloe can handle…especially since Ingrid has an uncanny talent for disappearing and goes missing on Chloe’s watch.

This is a fun, humorous, fast-paced story that takes readers on an exciting tour around New York City. Abby, Juliana, and Lucy read the book and had some great questions for Jen!

First, here’s what the girls liked best about AT YOUR SERVICE with Jen’s response:

IMG_1322Juliana: I like that Chloe works at a hotel as the Junior Concierge and gets to help with the kids who stay there. She has a really unique job.

Abby: I liked how Ingrid, the littlest princess that Chloe was in charge of, wants to get all of the souvenir pennies in the city!

Lucy: I liked the point of view that the book is written in and the way the characters are described.

Thank you, girls!! I love reading these so much- you’ve made my day!

Now for some questions about the book and about writing in general:

Lucy: What inspired you to write this book?IMG_1318

Two things were my big inspiration for this book, and both were jobs I once had. One was managing a youth hostel in Baltimore not long after I graduated college. It was nowhere near as fancy as the Hotel St. Michèle (guest slept in bunk beds and shared one big bathroom!) but I did get to put together fun itineraries of my hometown for visitors from all over the world and I loved sending them places where I knew they’d have fun. I also used to work as a publicist for the movie studio 20th Century Fox and part of my job was acting as a personal assistant of sorts for any visiting movie stars. I would set up all their media interviews and walk down the red carpet with them at movie screenings, but I also had to do really silly things, like make sure they had their favorite kind of bottled water, which was only available in France and had to be shipped in special. Writing the scenes with Marie were really fun because I have dealt with movie stars who were only slightly more reasonable in their demands!

Juliana: Did you grow up in New York City? How did you decide to set the book there? Did you do any research about the city to write the book?

I grew up in horse country, about 40 minutes outside Baltimore. But I visited NYC several times as a kid and now I go three or four times a year from Boston, where I currently live. I think it helped that I don’t live in NYC because I still see the magic of the city every time I go and could write about it with that sense of awe. If I lived there, I might be more ho-hum about it and that could have snuck into the story. I did have to do a lot of research for the book- I interviewed a Rockette to find out what a rehearsal was like, I spent a day “shadowing” a concierge at his hotel, and used Google maps streetview to trace all the steps my characters took. My husband was in NYC on a business trip when I was writing this, so I had him visit every penny machine in the city and take lots of photos of their surroundings so I could write the part where the characters go to the penny machines realistically. He got extra hugs for that! And then my editor and one of my close friends who read my first draft both live in New York City, so I relied on them to fact-check for me.

Abby: How did you get the idea for Ingrid wanting to collect the souvenir pennies?

Directly from my three kids, who all have collections of them! We have fun seeking out those machines on vacations. I was really stuck on how to give Chloe clues about where Ingrid might be when she disappeared and I just couldn’t figure out how to write the next part of the story once Ingrid made her getaway. One day I was driving and the idea of the pennies just came to me! It ended up working perfectly because it let Chloe and the others have a roadmap of sorts for where to look and also allowed me to write about all the great tourist spots in the city.

Juliana: Is the Hotel St. Michèle a real place? If so, how did you choose to write about that hotel, and if not how did you come up with it?

It’s not a real place and it was actually named by my editor, but when I worked for 20th Century Fox I spent a LOT of time in fancy hotels throughout Boston because a lot of the visiting actors’ interviews were done in hotel meeting rooms (or sometimes in the actors’ suites). Also, part of my job was to check into the hotel ahead of the actors and make sure all the room’s lamps worked and that the toilet flushed- all so the movie stars wouldn’t encounter any hassles when they arrived. Silly, right? The good part was that sometimes they would finish their interviews early and hop a flight back to LA and I would get to stay in their fancy suites since the room had already been paid for. I once spent the night in the Presidential Suite at the Four Seasons in Oprah Winfrey’s bed when she left early- she even left all her yummy food in the fridge! So I had lots of good fancy hotel experiences to draw from when coming up with the Hotel St. Michèle.

Lucy: How did you choose to make Chloe the age she is?

Her age actually changed from what it was in the first draft. She started out as thirteen going on fourteen, but my editor wanted to leave room open if there were ever to be a sequel and thirteen is sort of the top age a character would be before it would cross into YA and be in a different section of the bookstore. But we couldn’t make her too young because then it wouldn’t be believable that she’d be allowed to roam the city by herself and/or with her guests. So we settled on making her twelve at the start of the story and then having her turn thirteen just before the royal family arrives.

Abby: Is there going to be a sequel to this book? If not, what else are you writing?

No sequel yet, though I do have some ideas for one, if the publisher decides to go forward with it! It really comes down to how many copies of the first book sell. But in the meantime, I have six more books coming out. The next one is a series called You’re Invited, which I’m co-writing with one of my good friends. The first book in that series comes out in May and it follows four girls who live in a tiny beach town in North Carolina and decide to entertain themselves over the summer by forming a party planning “business” in their abandoned-sailboat clubhouse. They throw some rather, er, unique parties and everything that can go wrong does, but their friendship is really what the story is about! It’s perfect for kids who might have liked The Babysitters Club and not yet be ready for Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants– it falls right between those two series. Book 2 comes out next year and I also have three Young Adult books coming out with HarperCollins, one per summer starting this July.

Juliana: What inspired you to become a writer?

I skipped kindergarten because my mom had taught me to read already and I think that made me latch on very early to the idea that my reading skills (and soon after, my writing ability) was what made me special- it was “my thing” and the part of me that I had the most confidence in, even when I was a disaster at other things (gym class- I’m looking at you!). In 3rd grade I won a school-wide award for Best Halloween Story and that cemented it. After that though, I stopped writing fiction because I thought I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I was an editor on my school paper in high school and college, then switched to advertising (writing the copy for ads) and then public relations (where I wrote press releases). So I was always writing, just not fiction. It wasn’t until my youngest daughter showed a huge interest in reading as a kindergartener herself that I even thought about writing fiction again. I had an idea to write her a short story that she could read to me at bedtime and I set aside a few hours to work on it. A month later I had written an entire book (oops!) That was in 2012 and I haven’t looked back—it quickly took over my life! Part of me wishes I hadn’t taken such a long break between 3rd grade and now, but when I realize how much of my other life experiences make it into my stories, I don’t regret the zig-zag path to get back to writing one little bit!

And finally, some questions about when Jen was in middle school:

Juliana: Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were in middle school?

Yes, but I thought I would be a journalist. Most of what appealed to me about journalism was that I loved getting to know a lot about one specific subject and then moving on to the next interesting thing for the next article (I’m really curious and I love to learn new things, but I also get bored sort of easily). However, I’m finding that to be completely possible with fiction writing too. Right now I’m writing a book that takes place during Hurricane Katrina. I’ve read probably twenty books on the storm and New Orleans and I love that part of the process. I’m even booking a trip there this winter so I can better describe the places I’m setting scenes. That kind of “formal excuse” to explore any subject that piques my curiosity is definitely something that would have appealed to my middle school self as much as it does my adult self.

Abby: Where did you live and what school did you go to?

I lived in Jacksonville, Maryland, in a really normal subdivision that happened to be surrounded by horse farms (I took riding lessons, but I never did get my wish of owning a pony!) and had to take the bus thirty minutes to the closest middle school. We sarcastically called our town “Actionville” instead of “Jacksonville” because nothing much happened there! We did get a McDonalds when I was in middle school, though. That was a big day.

Lucy: Is Chloe like you when you were in middle school at all, and if so how? Or are any of the other characters like you when you were in middle school?

Chloe is like me in middle school in that I sought approval from adults a lot and I always wanted to be seen as capable and mature, even when I didn’t always act that way. She has a good sense of adventure and I did too, but she’s much more confident in herself than I was. I wasn’t popular and I wasn’t unpopular- I was fairly “average,” if there even is such a thing. But I was so intrigued by the popular girls and I could never stop watching them (I think this trait is what makes me a good writer today- I people watch A LOT, but now I get to put those observations to use in developing characters) and I don’t think Chloe would care that much about popularity. For example, I definitely would have been much more intimidated by Princess Sophie than Chloe ever was. The times that I did hang out with the really popular kids were fine and no one was making fun of me or anything, but I just never had as much fun as I did around my other friends because I was never relaxed and being myself around those kids. I don’t think Chloe would have wasted five minutes trying to be popular—she was already looking to the future in a way I wasn’t at that age. However, I was totally boy crazy so, just like Chloe, I would have had a thing for Prince Alex and I also would have been so, so nervous and thinking things like, “Did I remember to turn off my curling iron” when he leaned in to kiss me!

Thank you, Jen, for visiting with us! We loved finding out about how you became a writer and how AT YOUR SERVICE became a book, and we’re looking forward to your upcoming releases!

Student-Author Interview 10: Dianne Salerni

18635086Here it is—student-author interview number 10! I’m really excited to bring you this interview with Dianne Salerni, author of two YA novels and a smart, fun, imaginative, and suspenseful middle grade fantasy series. The Eighth Day, the first book in the MG series, introduces Jax Aubrey, a thirteen-year-old boy who has been sent to live with a very unlikely guardian: eighteen-year-old Riley Pendare. Jax is not impressed with his new life with Riley…until he wakes up one morning to a world without any people.
It turns out that Jax is in the eighth day, an extra day between Wednesday and Thursday that is linked back to Arthurian legend. Jax and Riley are Transitioners, which means they have connections to clans from Arthurian days and can live in all eight days. But there are other people, like a mysterious girl named Evangeline, who can only live on the eighth day. With Riley’s help, Jax suddenly has to deal with greedy people who want to use him to access the eighth day and dangerous people who want to use the magical Evangeline to destroy the regular, seven-day world and everyone in it.  22206715

The Eighth Day is a fantastic book. I devoured it, and so did several of my students. And lucky for us, The Inquisitor’s Mark, the second book in the series, is out on January 27th, and it’s just as terrific! (And a third book is forthcoming, too!)

Two seventh grade students, Silas and Jonah, and two fifth graders, Abby and Miles, interviewed Dianne about The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark. I hope you enjoy the interview! When you’re finished reading it, you can find out more about Dianne and her other books at diannesalerni.com.

First, here’s what the students especially liked:

silas and jonah

Silas: I really like the idea of an eighth day that only certain people can get to.

Jonah: I like the concept of an eighth day, too. I really like how it doesn’t seem like any time has gone by for the kin who are only in the eighth day, but really a number of days have gone by for everyone else.

Abby: I really liked how Jax had to get a tattoo to represent his clan and make his magical abilities stronger.

Miles: I liked how The Eighth Day connects the legends of King Arthur to the present time. I also liked how the book was told from both Jax and Evangeline’s perspectives but more from Jax’s, and I liked the descriptions of the characters because I could really picture them.

photo 1 copy

And now for the students’ questions about the books, and about writing in general:

Silas: How did you come up with the idea of an eighth day?

The idea came from a family joke. Whenever my daughters asked my husband when they could do something (like go to Hershey Park, or the beach, or ice skating) and he didn’t have a specific answer for them, he’d say, “We’ll do it on Grunsday!” And they would groan because that wasn’t a real day. Once, while they were making the usual joke, I thought to myself, “What if there really was a Grunsday, but not everyone knew about it?” And that’s how it all started!

Jonah: How did you come up with the name for Grunsday? We know that some other days are named after Norse gods–does this name have any meaning like that?

Grunsday is often used as a joke name for a day that doesn’t exist. As far as I can tell, it comes from an old Beetle Bailey comic strip. In one episode, Army private Beetle Bailey is on kitchen duty all week. In each frame, he eagerly crosses off days on his calendar. When he gets to Saturday, he says, “I’m glad there are no more days in this week!” Then he looks at the calendar, sees another day, and exclaims, “GRUNSDAY?!?!” I assume cartoonist Mort Walker made it up.

Abby: I really like Evangeline. How did you come up with her character?

After I got the idea for a secret day, I had to figure out a story to go along with it. Jax was the first character who came to me, then Riley. I knew Jax would be an orphan who discovered the secret day by accident and Riley would seem pretty clueless and not a good guardian at first — then turn out to be more important than Jax thought. (And a good guy.) I started planning out different events and characters. The bank robber and the twins were planned early on. Believe it or not, Evangeline was the last (important) character who came to me. I had an idea about Jax finding a girl who lived only on Grunsday – then started wondering who she was, why she was trapped in that day, where she came from … Once I invented Evangeline, the whole story came together, and I was ready to start the first draft. She was the key to the whole book!

Silas and Jonah: We read both The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark, and we know that there is going to be a third book, too. How long did it take you to write the first book versus the second and third book? Did you write them all at once, or did you take a break between the books?

I started writing The Eighth Day (which I originally called Grunsday) in April of 2012. I finished the first draft in July of that year, then started revisions. That August, I went to Mexico to climb the Pyramid of the Sun so I could make sure I had that scene right. I shared the story with my agent in September, and by October, we had a deal with HarperCollins. (3 books, with a possible 4th and 5th if the series is popular)

I started writing The Inquisitor’s Mark not very long after signing the contract. It took me 11 weeks, the fastest I’ve ever written a first draft! By contrast, the third book took me about 7 months. I got interrupted a lot while working on it because of things I had to do for the other two books, like revisions and proof-reading. I didn’t take too long a break between writing each one because I had a pretty tight schedule for deadlines.

Miles: I like to write and my teacher tells me I’m a good writer, but I don’t know how you can just sit and write a whole novel with hundreds of pages. How do you do that? Are there any tricks?

When I was your age, I couldn’t write stories that long either. My stories gradually grew in length the more I wrote and the older I got. I don’t think there are any tricks I can recommend except to keep writing AND reading to learn everything you can about story-telling. More complex stories will come to you with experience. Writing short stories is a good way to begin!

Jonah: How did you come up with all of the names for the different families in the books? I noticed that some of the present-day families are named after ancient families’ last names, but then it seems like other families like the Morgans are named after the first names of the ancient people they’re descended from. How did you decide to do that?

I figured names would change over 1500 years, and some families might change their names to make them modern-sounding. For example, Sir Owain’s name was changed to Owens (although I gave Owens a first name that could also be a last name just so you wouldn’t know who he was when you met him.) As for Morgan LeFay, “le fay” means “the one with witch powers” so it was more of a nickname than a family name. Some legends say Morgan was Arthur’s half-sister; others say she wasn’t. None really give her a definite family name. Morgan made a good last name for a modern family, so I decided that Morgan LeFay’s line decided to use Morgan as their surname somewhere between Arthurian time and now.

Silas: Why did you switch from alternating Evangeline’s perspective with Jax’s in the first book to alternating another character named Dorian’s perspective with Jax’s in the second book? Will it be a different character’s perspective alternating with Jax’s perspective in the third book?

Such a great question! No adult reviewer has ever asked me why there is an alternate POV, let alone how I decide who it will be!

In each case, the alternate POV has to be someone who can provide the reader with information Jax doesn’t have – otherwise, there’s no reason to give them POV. In The Eighth Day, Evangeline gives the reader a glimpse of what life is like trapped in the eighth day. She shares the history of her family and her race, the Kin. Evangeline is the major focus in that book, because everything Riley and Jax do revolves around her.

In The Inquisitor’s Mark, Evangeline is still important, but her perspective doesn’t add anything to the story that Jax doesn’t already know. (FYI — One of my editors really loved Tegan and asked if I could make her the alternate POV character in Book 2, but like Evangeline, Tegan doesn’t have information to share that Jax doesn’t already know.) On the other hand, Dorian, as a member of Jax’s long-lost family and the Dulac clan, is full of information Jax doesn’t have but the reader needs. It was weird writing from his perspective at first, but the more I got to know him, the more I liked him. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the one with Dorian and Billy and the garbage chute!

Yes, in the third book, there will be a new alternate POV character who’ll give readers a perspective Jax doesn’t have. Based on the end of Book 2, you might be able to guess who it is, but rather than post a spoiler in this interview, I’ll tell your teacher who it is, and you can ask her if you want to know if you guessed right!

Miles: What does it feel like to spend a really long time working on a book and then wait to see if other people like it and if they think it’s a success or not?

It’s nerve-wracking!!! Since the popularity of the books will determine whether HarperCollins lets me write Books 4 and 5 (or if I have to end with Book 3), it’s scary, too. Also, because the books are written so far in advance of publication, I’m a walking, talking spoiler machine. I have to be careful what I say to people. The first draft of Book 3 was written before Book 1 even came out, but I can’t talk about it much. I can’t even share the title, because it hasn’t been officially approved yet!

And finally, some questions about when Dianne was in middle school:

Jonah: We heard that you were a teacher for a long time. When you were in middle school, did you want to teach, write, or do something else? 

When I was growing up, the only two jobs I ever wanted to have were teaching or being an author. I am really lucky that I got to live both dreams!

Abby: What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

I loved fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. (Still do, actually.) I read the novelized version of Star Wars a thousand times. (Yes, I was in middle school in 1977 when the first Star Wars came out.) I also loved mysteries written by Mary Stewart and Agatha Christie. Katherine Kurtz and Piers Anthony were my favorite fantasy authors.

Miles: How long were your fiction stories when you were in middle school? I want to know if you taught yourself to write for a really long time or if you could just do it even when you were a lot younger.

8th grade story cover page copyI’m so glad you asked that! I went digging in the back of a closet and found a story I wrote in 8th grade that won a creative writing contest at my school. Personal computers were only just getting invented back then, and I didn’t own a typewriter until I was in high school, so all my stories were handwritten. The Andromeda Treaty was a science fiction story, and it’s 37 notebook pages long, written in cursive.

If that was typed out, it wouldn’t be very many pages. So, as you see, I had to work up to writing novel-length 8th grade story pg 1 copyworks, just like you will some day!

Thank you so much for answering our questions, Dianne, and for showing us a glimpse of your middle school writing!

Dianne lives near Philadelphia and will be visiting our school for a Local Author Day this spring, which we’re very excited about. We highly recommend both THE EIGHTH DAY and THE INQUISITOR’S MARK! (And this is a great time to get and read THE EIGHTH DAY if you haven’t already, since you’ll be able to get your hands on THE INQUISITOR’S MARK at the end of this month!)