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The Story Spinners
As a kindergarten teacher, I am gearing up to go back to school in a couple of weeks. In preparation, one of the items on my to-do list was hit the bookstore to find some good reads. When I arrived, I felt like I struck gold because I found a few of my favorite titles came out with sequels and they did not disappoint. One great thing about reading books from the same author is the ability to compare and contrast. I think my little ones will be entertained and delighted to compare these titles! Caution: spoiler alert!
Mother Bruce/Hotel Bruce
Good ole grumpy Bruce the bear is back with a whole new problem. He returns from migration (with his geese from the original story) only to find mice have transformed his house into a hotel. You gotta love Bruce because in the end, he may just be a giant teddy bear at heart who can find room for a few visitors to stay.
If You Ever Wanted to Bring an Alligator to School DON’T!/ If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach DON’T!/ If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library DON’T!
These stories have an If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, feel. The charming alligator lover is back to show readers why you shouldn’t bring a circus to the library (they are for sitting quiet and reading)! And why its a bad idea to take a piano to the beach (when your mom asks you what you want to bring, she means a frisbee or a shovel)!
What Do You Do with an Idea?/What Do You Do with a Problem?
If you thought ideas made you nervous, wait until a problem comes along. Just like ideas, you can’t ignore problem because they grow (and unlike ideas, you don’t want that to happen). But when you tackle a problem, you may find it really isn’t so scary after all.
I love to get my kindergarten class excited about reading. The best tool in my toolbox for this task is a great book to share. What are some of your favorite picture books?
By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder
I am not a morning person. I hit snooze when the alarm goes off and pull the covers over my head for five extra minutes of luxurious, dreamy sleep. I’ve always been this way. In elementary school, I was the last one out the door. On some days, my dad would actually leave and go pick up the rest of the carpool before coming back to get me. In high school, I did my homework in front of the television with the late night talk show hosts as company. And in college, I was known for writing papers long after my housemates were in bed. I wasn’t much for the infamous “all-nighter,” but it did happen now and then.
Years later, when I entered the work-world as a teacher, I needed to make changes. I had to get up early. My first job required taking a bus and two trains (the red and green lines in Boston) to my school, setting up for the day, meeting with colleagues, and greeting students, all before 8:00 am. And when I became a mom, well, that’s another story. Late nights and early mornings were a way of life.
But now, I am retired from teaching and my children are long gone. I can create my own schedule, the one I was born to live – go to bed at 11:00 p.m. (after Stephen Colbert’s monologue) and get up at 7:00 a.m. to meet my walking group by 7:15. It’s the perfect life. Except that my fourteen-year-old dog has decided to get up at sunrise. Every single morning.
I love this dog. She’s the dearest, friendliest, loviest, golden retriever you could ever imagine. Her name is Berni and everyone adores her. Especially me. But lately, this devoted ball of orange fur is getting up at 5:13 am. Okay, well sometimes it’s more like 5:29. But still, it is VERY EARLY. And for some reason, she only comes to my side of the bed. She totally ignores my husband (who is snoring loudly and doesn’t hear a thing) and waits for me to wake up. And, being the good mommy that I am, I get up, give her a cup of food, and let her outside to do her business. Only this dog is not interested in a quick run to the bathroom. She is WIDE AWAKE. She sniffs the grass, goes hunting for rabbits or squirrels or chipmunks or voles or whatever wildlife is also up at this ridiculous hour.
She wasn’t always like this. For most of her life, she lived by our schedule. But lately, as she approaches 100 (in people years), she’s up with the roosters. Like a farm dog, or an insomniac. Mostly she’s hungry, famished, in fact. And those yummy fish and potato dog food nuggets are calling her name. So, I go to the bathroom. I go outside. I watch her wander in the yard. I let her back in. And guess what? Now, I am wide awake, too. And it is only 5:45 am.
It was during one of these early morning strolls, when I was pulling weeds in the yard while Berni sniffed wildflowers, that I came to a big realization. This is the time of day when many highly successful and productive writers slink down to their studios and crank out a ton of pages. I don’t know about you, but I’ve read scads of articles, and heard many speeches, by authors who insist that they do their very best work before the sun is up. And every time I hear this, I say to myself, “MUST BE NICE, BUT I WILL NEVER be one of those people.” I envied those industrious authors, but knew that early morning writing was not for me. Until now.
Because here I am at my computer writing this blog. And it is only 5:48 in the morning. It’s the dog’s fault, of course. But guess what? I kinda like this time of day. It’s quiet and I actually am clear-thinking and more efficient. I’m writing faster and better and there are very few distractions. It’s too early to run the laundry (wouldn’t want to wake up that sleeping husband) and there’s nobody to call. And here’s the clincher, there are no new emails to read since I checked the night before.
Who would have thought I would become one of those early morning writers? Not I, said the little red hen and everyone else in the world who knows me. So thank you, sweet Berni. Thank you for nudging me with your big wet nose and breathing in my face at the crack of dawn so I could get up and… write!
It’s a good thing I love coffee. And afternoon naps. And beautiful sunrises.
As I’ve shared before, I’ve tried NaNoWriMo. And I’ve not succeeded at NaNoWriMo.
And then the most amazing thing happened.
NaNoWriMo gave me something new to do. Camp!
Whereas traditional NaNo is well defined (50,000 words, win or fail), Camp NaNo is a choose your own adventure.
You also get cabins – you can join a cabin of people you don’t know, or create your own private cabin. Both come with a clear view of your cabin mate’s stats and private message boards to cheer each other on.
The first time I did Camp, I set a goal for 30 hours, with the hope of working on writing an hour a day. Even though I knew I was ready to write something, a word goal just didn’t feel right, because I didn’t know what it would be – was I going to start my middle grade magic story (likely to be around 40k) or my YA fantasy (likely to be 65k)? Also, I wasn’t really ready to start drafting – I knew this time around I wanted to spend more time ‘in development.’
The goal was actually a lot more ambitious then it even sounds – I was going away for a week long work trip so I already knew there would be at least 5 hours I would have to make up. Along with the job, I have young children – a little more than an hour a day on average would be tough. But my cabin mates were there, ready to cheer my on (and I was ready to give them the pep talks they needed).
And so I started. Slowly. Truthfully it was hard at first. I still wasn’t sure what I was working on so I felt stuck – stuck on what to pick, because I needed to get started. Camp NaNo also includes project stats and tracking, and they show you how you’re doing compared to the daily average you’d need to hit your goal. I was looking at an empty page and a graph that showed me clearly just how far behind I was.
But then things started to open up. I decided that reading and watching videos about craft counted as part of my hourly goal – it was helping me improve as a writer and I finally got to see that bar graph crawl upward in the right direction.
That movement improved my mood, and with some of the new tools I was gaining I started drafting out my two books to see which was more inspiring. I drafted a query letter to see if I was gripped by how I thought the book would flow. I picked which book I would work on. I watched Brandon Sanderson’s course videos while I pedaled on my stationary bike. That last week I spent hours at the local coffee shop, writing and craft learning (my mother-in-law was in town, and she watched the kids).
And I did it. I did it! I hit that 30 hours, was declared a winner, and earned my badge.
And I’m still going. I know what book I’m working on, and I’m making strides. And now it’s time for another camp! This time I’m much more in the generation and writing phase of my novel, but I’m still going for a 30 hour goal because I love the flexibility of knowing that sitting and writing notes and noodling about my characters counts toward my goals.
See you around the campfire!
Reading the Sunday Chicago Tribune was an all-day affair in our house. By dinner time, sections of the paper were scattered everywhere – on the kitchen and dining room tables, the living room floor, on beds…
I remember my brothers and me racing out the front door to the bottom of our driveway to get the paper. The first one to get the paper was the first to get to read the comics.
I could never get enough of Andy Capp, Archie, Beetle Bailey, Broom-Hilda, Cathy, Brenda Starr, Blondie, Funky Winkerbean, Peanuts… All week, I quoted the characters and re-told their stories at the dinner table, at school….and wondered, what would happen next. Now, it seems crazy to wait an entire week to find out what’ll happen next. But, I fell in love with all the guessing, predicting, and wondering.
In less than a hundred words, each comic strip provoked me, entertained me, and mystified me. Oh, and the artwork! I was completely fascinated by the colors of the characters clothes, hats, shoes, everything.
My family didn’t discuss what we read in the Sunday paper. We just read and went about our business. It was a rather quiet day. As a teen, I couldn’t wait to read the editorial pages. The letters to the editor were my favorite. I always tried to picture the writers, where they lived, how they dressed… Sometimes, I imagined meeting them.
I don’t remember us reading books, other than occasionally skimming through a set of Encyclopedia Britannica that collected dust on our basement shelf. To me, reading was what I did all day at school, for homework and well, something that I had to do.
My parents didn’t read us bedtime stories. Actually, I never thought of story as being contained in a book. But, looking back, I always knew story. It filled our two-story house.
Story was what my brothers and me passed around the dinner table every night. It was the entrée. My brothers reenacted scenes from The Marx Brothers and Star Wars; I delighted in laughing, making up stories, imitating teachers and telling what happened in school. I clearly knew story was something you make up, can’t wait to tell – and that it gets better every time you tell it, especially when my brothers would chime in, add on, and we’d just keep going, weaving our tales. No one ever said “stop” or “stay focused” or “don’t do that”. We just let it rip. It was a loud feast of one “and then, and then” after another; it was what we did naturally.
On a recent visit with one of my brothers, we told stories for hours. You know, the kind that make you laugh till your stomach hurts. I lost track of time. We let it rip. It felt just right; it was dang fun! I didn’t want our storytelling to end.
I think it’s why I write and keep revising. I don’t want it to end. I’m still in love with all the guessing, wondering, and still mystified by the art of writing.
How about you? Why do you write or do other art?
“I never thought Cathy would get married.” –Cathy Guisewite, author of the comic strip, Cathy.
On a recent trip through Scandinavia, I committed myself to reading the works of Scandinavian children’s authors. I wanted to reread the books that I had loved as a girl, to view them from the perspective of a writer and to read them in their native lands. I delved into the haunting fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson, the whimsical odd adventures and wisdom of Tove Jansen’s Moonintrolls and the very dark adventures of Astrid Lindgren’s Lionheart Brothers. But the best part of my reading journey through Scandinavia came from becoming reacquainted with Pippilotta Comestibles Windowshade Curlymint Ephraimsdaughter Longstocking.
I loved Pippi Longstocking. I wanted to have red, wild hair, to live alone in my own wacky home, to create my own rules and (most importantly) to have a pet monkey. All along, I knew in my heart I was just another Annika, a regular, good girl… but wouldn’t it be fun if I was different!
Pippi has enchanted millions of children like me over the decades since she was created in Sweden in 1945. Forever nine years old, she sprang to life in the post-WWII world and has been shocking the world ever since. Pippi is still wildly popular in Scandinavia and is one of their most notable literary exports. Astrid Lindgren is a national hero and is even pictured on the 20 krona banknote. A children’s author… imagine that!
Pippi is quite the child. She turns the tables on bullies by hanging them from a tree, terrifies policemen who want to put her in a children’s home, refuses to learn her “pluttification tables,” rolls out her biscuits on the floor and heroically rescues children from a burning building. The fantastical is presented as commonplace and the world Pippi lives in is magical. The books are funny, irreverent and entirely enjoyable.
I realize that my girlhood admiration of Pippi was because she was a person who could do anything and was never bound by the rules that govern everyone else. The books are anti-authoritarian, with an undercurrent of feminism. It turns out that Pippi Longstocking often ends up on banned book lists because of these themes. One of the hallmarks of her character is that she never conforms to societal norms and that the adult world is held up to scorn and critical evaluation.
Pippi is inspirational to me as a writer because she breaks with conventional ideas about how children, especially girls, should behave. Re-meeting Pippi made me want to write children’s books that make them imagine something different from what they think they know. Pippi Longstocking may not have the same effect on the current generation of young American readers that she had on me. But today’s girls and boys need to have characters like her to love. They deserve characters who can help them look at their world with a more discerning eye and give them the courage to act in new ways. We need to make sure that our children have their own “Pippi” to encourage them to have fun, to be a bit more daring and to have faith in their own abilities.
By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder
For the past two years, I have had the privilege of being a judge in the Colorado Humanities Center for the Book’s Letters About Literature Contest. This is a literary competition where students in grades four-twelve write letters to authors of their favorite books. Since most of these children have teachers who are passionate about reading and writing, the books chosen are some of the very best out there and many of my own favorites.
So what are kids reading these days? I am a judge in the fourth-sixth grade category. As you would expect, many eleven and twelve-year-olds are drawn to humorous titles such as Jeff Kinney’s THE WIMPY KID and Rachel Renee Russell’s THE DORK DIARIES. Others enjoy dramatic non-fiction like Jon Krakauer’s INTO THIN AIR, or inspirational biographies like Misty Copeland’s MY LIFE IN MOTION and Malala Yousafzai’s I AM MALALA. There are also the lovers of fantasy who are obsessed with JK Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series and JRR Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.
But more than any genre, these pre-teens are choosing books that touch their hearts and evoke emotion. Titles such as John Green’s A FAULT IN OUR STARS, RJ Palacio’s WONDER, and Wendy Maas’s A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE and GRACEFUL, show up year after year. Pam Munoz Ryan’s classic, ESPERANZA RISING, Katherine Patterson’s A BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, Jerry Spinelli’s STARGIRL, Jennifer Nielson’s A NIGHT DIVIDED, and anything by Kate DiCamillo, are also favorites. Like adults, children want to be moved in a profound way by the books they read.
When drafting their letters, the students are required to use good grammar, strong word choice, and creative devices such as metaphor and simile. They have also been asked to relate an event in their life to the book they have read. This might be a problem with a friend, a family crisis, or the competitive nature of school and sports. One student wrote about being lost on a hiking trip, another expounded on coping with a parent’s illness, and a third described the agony of moving to a new town and school. But when a student vividly described how much she wanted to “jump into the book” to comfort a character, I was impressed. She showed me her deep sense of empathy and insight, and articulated what I had felt when I read the very same book.
Books can surprise the reader. Years ago, when one of my sons was in high school, I gave him A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE. I was hoping that when the main character discovered she had a sensory disorder called “synesthesia,” it would resonate with him. And it did. I will never forget the smile on his face when he bounded into the kitchen. “I’m just like her,” he announced. “Like who?” I asked. “The girl in the book, Mia. I have what she has. We’re both amazing artists, but algebra and Spanish make us crazy.” A year later, when he wrote his college essay, he described his synesthesia in full detail, emphasizing the point that he was “hard-wired” to be an artist.
As a writer of middle grade fiction, here’s my takeaway from reading these letters – The books we write are important. They help children navigate the ups and downs of their roller coaster lives. Writers have an obligation to dig deep and create characters and stories that will touch their readers in ways that make them say, “That’s me.” Your character can challenge the reader to keep going, to try harder, to be compassionate. More importantly, your book can help the reader understand that he/she is not alone.
Being a judge in this contest has been inspirational. Kids in this age group are often considered anti-social, phone-obsessed, video-game-addicts, even bullies. But these letters have convinced me that after reading a powerful book, these same children are empathetic and deep-thinking. After attending literary agent Donald Maass’s workshop on “The Emotional Craft of Fiction” last weekend, I know he would agree with me. He told us over and over that we change lives by writing good fiction… that a great story opens a reader’s heart and gives them a sense of hope.
So get to it people. Sit down, open up that computer, and write a book that makes your reader feel something. You might change someone’s life, and in doing so, improve our world in ways you can only imagine!
What books have moved you or affected your life in some way? Send me some titles and I’ll put up a list.
By Susan Wroble
Photo: “Cocoon” by Dawn Huczek is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I was born with a hip that didn’t fit quite right, so I always knew I was going to be a candidate for an early hip replacement. The past few years gave a steady decrease in the things I was able to do. When I stopped being able to ride my bike around the neighborhood, I knew it was time to talk to an orthopedic surgeon.
The surgery was scheduled for early January. Our neighbors graciously loaned us every conceivable type of device I might need, from a cane to a shower stool to an amazing walker. Our daughter set up a Meal Train account, and emailed the link to friends, so we had meals delivered a couple times a week for a month.
Surgery was easy, with no complications. But recovery was a fascinating period. For the first few weeks, I was simply exhausted. I couldn’t wait to go to bed. Each night, I’d throw the covers over my head and think: “Cocoon!” Yet even as I thought it, I had no idea why.
The surprise to me was that it was indeed a cocooning period. The me that emerged was different. With all my normal activities on hold, my attention was increasingly focused on writing. It was the one thing I could still do.
A month after surgery, we went to a party, and someone asked the standard “What do you do?” question. For years, my typical reply has been that I volunteer too much. This time, however, what came out was completely unexpected. “I’m a writer,” I said, surprising myself with the answer.
For years, I’ve wanted to make that switch to writing. I just never expected hip replacement surgery to be the precipitating piece. My nighttime cocooning was indeed transformational, and I emerged feeling incredibly blessed.
Three years. Three teachers. I guess I should be embarrassed that it took this long for me to find an accordion teacher. I’m not. I’m thrilled! My search had nothing to do with the teachers. I knew my needs and was determined to find “the” teacher who was just right for me. Of course, I didn’t plan on it taking three years, but WOW, it was worth it!
Every teacher had a different expertise and passion. Teacher No. 1 filled a wipe board with scales and loved expounding music theory. I was lost; I was bored. Teacher No. 2 devoted a lot of time to practicing scales and reminding me to do so 30 minutes a day. I wanted to quit and sell my accordion. Teacher No. 3 said, “Quit worrying and let’s just play,” within a few minutes after I entered her studio and unpacked my accordion (and after I rambled off way too many questions). I laughed. She laughed. I relaxed. She said my fingers even began to relax on the keys.
I can’t explain why Teacher No. 3 is just right for me. Maybe it’s her hearty laugh or, her authenticity and pragmatic instruction; maybe it’s because time flies and I disappear during our lessons. I have fun and want to go home and practice – and learn more. And, she’s in love with playing the accordion. What could be better?
The day after my first lesson with No. 3, I had a revelation and shared it with a close writer friend: Everything that No. 3 said is exactly what we strive to do as writers. It’s what I want to do more of in my writing practice. My friend commented, “Sounds like an essay on lessons from an accordion.” Great idea!
It also gave me another idea. I committed to practicing my accordion every day for 30 days. My goal was to do what my teacher said, just play. I didn’t set a time for each practice session. After all, No. 3 never said how often or long she wanted me to practice. She just expected it.
Here’s what my accordion taught me about writing over the 30 days:
Quit worrying and just play.
Lesson: Just sit down and write. When I play a wrong note, I usually keep going and make up my own song and just let it rip. Then, I go back and learn the correct note. When I’m stuck on a scene, I go much deeper in my writing if I simply type “STUCK” and move on. Even if I get off track as I keep writing, I always discover something new about a character or what’s off or on in the scene. Yay!
Don’t think so hard when learning to simultaneously play the bellows, chords and keyboard. Take your time.
Lesson: Yes, it takes crazy concentration to play all three parts! But, when I relax my fingers and keep moving on after a mistake, it happens. Suddenly, I’m playing the ENTIRE accordion. When I’m trying to balance a zillion parts of a scene – voice, personalities of characters, tension – I eventually find “it”. Lately, I’m delighting in the tiny pieces that work and smooth out after long revising sessions. Perhaps, I’m finally learning patience with my writing process and finding the fun.
Practice every day.
Lesson: On busy days, I practiced accordion right before going to sleep, even if it was only 10 to 15 minutes. I also started carving out more writing time. For example, I printed pages and started carrying a chapter or entire picture book manuscript in my purse, so I could revise anytime anyplace.
Trust yourself. You’ll figure out how far to open the bellows.
Lesson: I assumed there was a golden rule on how far to open the bellows. Wrong! No. 3 told me that I’ll feel it and slowly find what works for me. Whether writing a first draft or revising, I find not only what works, but what doesn’t work. Lately, I’m finding entire chapters and characters that need to be cut. Oh, it’s painful to say goodbye to a character! But, nothing beats seeing the other characters rise, take off and move the story ahead.
Listen and you’ll hear when a note is off.
Lesson: No. 3 says, “It’s a good sign when you know a note is off; it means you’re listening and learning.” That’s exactly what happens when I read my work out loud! Lately, as I revise my young adult novel, I have to remind myself to stop and read an entire chapter out loud before moving on. Immediately, I hear what’s off. Magic!
After my 30 day commitment ended, I kept practicing every day, except when I had to travel by plane. I need to figure out how take my accordion with me. I miss it!
For now, no time to worry. I’m off to just play my accordion and write. Oompah!