A Literacy Program that Works

By Susan Wroble

Imagine a school where students love books… a school where every single student had a reading partner — a trusted, caring adult who showed up each week, often staying with that student year after year after year. And imagine a literacy program at that school where the students were able to select from books that were chosen specifically for them, books that matched their interests and their reading level. It seems impossible, but it is exactly what reading specialist Julie Neitz Wielga has created — a reading intervention program that works.

The Partners in Literacy Difference

The program began almost twenty years ago as a typical remedial literacy program. At Denver’s Odyssey School (a combined elementary and middle expeditionary learning school within the public school system), struggling second and third graders were assisted by a few adult volunteers. But then the teachers asked for volunteers for other students. Students asked if they could get a reading buddy. Parents asked if their child could be in the program. It grew to the point where it made more sense to include everyone than to just leave a few students out.

In 2011, the program incorporated as a non-profit named Partners in Literacy. Partners in Literacy works via a two-pronged approach. They assemble a large team of volunteers to provide each class with an adult for every student, either one-on-one or in small groups, and they create a library at the school of books that are curated to match those students’ interests.

The reading sessions are spread throughout the week. Kindergarteners and first graders, for example, might be on Mondays, while 2nd and 3rd graders might have reading on Tuesdays. All of the teachers, the principal and vice-principal are reading buddies. Others are parents and community members. Many of these volunteers come more than one day a week, working with multiple students.

The reading sessions are scheduled as the first activity of the school day, allowing volunteers to give 50 minutes of volunteering time and still get to work. Getting volunteers can be challenging, because, as Julie notes, “we need people who like kid’s books and kids.” To find new volunteers, Julie explained that Partners in Literacy places notices in the local papers and in nearby Little Free Libraries, but “word of mouth is the best way we recruit.”

Partners in Literacy differs from other literacy programs, like Mile High United Way’s Read with Me or the nationwide Reading Partners, in the development of a curated library. “We don’t look like these programs,” Julie explained. “We bring in our books. Having a library curated to the students’ interests makes such a difference.” In an era where many schools and school systems have eliminated their libraries, Partners in Literacy believes that children need to know that reading takes practice, focus, and time, but it is really worth it. Their goal is to steer each class, and each school, towards a strong reading culture.

Early Interventions

The life-long implications of failing to read are staggering. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 85% of juvenile offenders have reading problems, and more than 60% of prison inmates are functionally illiterate. In terms of brain development, the size of the Broca’s area of the brain, which is linked to literacy skills, correlates with socio-economic status — the lower this status, the smaller this area of the brain.

Neuroscientist Joanna Christodoulou of the MGH Institute of Health Professions studies reading and the brain, and whether early intervention programs can help. Her research showed working with a child who is struggling to read literally changes the size of the Broca’s area and its connections within the brain.

In the early grades, Partners in Literacy is exactly the type of program that makes a difference in brain development. Kids struggling to read learn best when they can be given a buffer against the effects of chronic stress. The Partners in Literacy model, where adults and students take turns reading the book aloud then discussing it together, provides this buffer in the form of a safe, caring adult. Best of all, the kids have not been singled out for a remedial program. Instead, this safety net is offered to every single student in the school.

Middle School Magic

As vital as early interventions in reading can be, for middle school students, Partners in Literacy can work magic. “It is important for these kids to see themselves as intellectually alive at an age when they are working out their identities,” Julie said. “At this age, kids begin to recognize and make their own choices about their educational lives.” During middle school, the reading partnerships often morph into book groups, where the students decide together what book to read, and the pace of reading. Often, they choose to read at home between the weekly sessions and discuss their responses when they are together.

Partners in Literacy is unique in that it combines the inclusion of every student and the development of a curated library. And in combining those two elements, they have shown that it is completely possible to create a school culture that makes every child a reader. 

 

 

 

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ACCOUNTABILITY: A WRITER’S BEST FRIEND

“I have to get back to work. Goodbye.”

That’s what I say if I’m talking to someone, and it’s time to show up in my studio and write. The time is blocked out on my calendar, like any meeting or appointment. I got the idea from a writer friend while sharing our routines – and how we show up to our writer job.

Oh, the tricks I play on myself! But, they work. Well, okay, not always – especially during this pandemic, when my teaching and personal schedule are topsy-turvy, and my self-motivation is wavering. But, I keep trying. While sipping morning coffee, I turn on my studio light and open the curtains, so my office shouts, “I’m ready and waiting”. I set my alarm for writing sessions. I put my cell phone in another room, so I can’t hear the buzz of incoming texts or calls (which are perfect distractions when I’m stuck on a scene that I’ve re-written a dozen times!).

Unfortunately, the demons of distraction and procrastination still like to hang out in my office. Ugh! Good news is, I know my own worst enemies really well. Gradually, I’m learning to negotiate with them, so, my favorite co-worker, accountability, can kick them out and pull up a chair!

Here’s what accountability and I have been up to – and what’s really working:

Setting a timer. I try to follow a rigid routine during my scheduled writing time: For writing, I set a timer for one hour, take a 10-15 minute break, repeat. For research, I set a timer for a maximum of 30 minutes.

Monday accountability group. Every Monday, I do an email check-in with a group of kid-lit writers. We submit our goals for the week and report briefly on progress made the previous week. Wow! Keeps me honest and realistic! In our brief format, we manage to celebrate, challenge, and remind each other to keep plugging away, and that it’s okay to take a break.

Text-writing. Once a week, I have a writing “date” with another children’s writer. We text a few minutes before our start time to share what we’re working on or what we want to accomplish. Usually, we do two 45-minute rounds. Then, we briefly check in. We’re always amazed at how much we get accomplished in such a short time.

SCBWI Rocky Mountain Chapter critique group. Once a month, my SCBWI critique group meets in person. We’re the Story Spinners and we’ve been meeting monthly for 20 years. We email our work in advance, then, when we meet, each writer has 20 minutes for their work to be critiqued. When members don’t submit work, they can use their time to update the group on projects, invite brainstorming or advice on a project, share notes from workshops/classes, or etc. They’ve helped me think through SO many critical bits and pieces, such as how to end a pb or write a hook for a YA synopsis, a book title, an angle for a nonfiction article, and the list goes on. We hold separate meetings, as needed, to critique a member’s full manuscript.

Story Spinners are my rocks! Without their passion, drive, support, professionalism, desire to learn, confidence, nudges, wisdom and wit, I would have given up on my projects a long time ago.

SCBWI British Isles North East critique group. While living short term in England (twice), I met weekly with the same critique group. Through email, we continue to: exchange same genre manuscripts for overall feedback, check in bimonthly on current projects. We’re considering holding FaceTime meetings, as needed. They, too, are my rocks, my support group!

Oops! My alarm is going off. I have to get back to work on revising my YA. Goodbye!

 

Writing is hard, hard, messy work. Going out and doing talks and signing books is all wonderful, but a writer has to return home and go back to work.   

Julia Alvarez, author of AFTERLIFE, BEFORE WE WERE FREE, ALREADY A BUTTERFLY

 

 

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Book Review: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

“This is for the unforgettable…and the ones who survived…and the ones who didn’t.” …“This is for the undefeated. This is for you. And you. And you. This is for us.” (from The Undefeated)

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, is a powerful reading experience that highlights for children the history of African-Americans and the promise of our hope for the future.

This outstanding picture book won the 2020 Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished picture book published for children in the United States. It was also given a Newbery Honor Medal for its distinguished contribution to American literature for children and the Coretta Scott King Award, given to an African-American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions. On all three levels, the illustrations, the text and the message, the book is an inspiring read that belongs in classrooms, homes and libraries homes across America.

A successful picture book for children balances words and illustrations, which work together to tell a story. The text is Kwame Alexander’s free-verse poem, spare and minimal, which was written in 2008 to celebrate the birth of his second daughter and the election of Barak Obama as president. He strove to highlight African-American history that had been forgotten and to embrace the “woes and wonders” of this American story.

The illustrations, photo-realistic oil paintings by Kadir Nelson, are the highlight of the book. He infuses the faces of people from history, both the famous and the nameless, with emotion and beauty. Their portraits speak to the viewer of the joy and suffering of the African-American people. The illustrations have a luminous, glowing quality that spread across the oversized pages, and illuminate the determination and grit of the subjects.

Alexander’s poem makes brilliant use of “un –words”: unforgettable, undeniable, unflappable, unafraid, unspeakable, unlimited, undiscovered, unbelievable, unbending, underdogs, uncertain, unspoken, and finally undefeated. The repetition of “un-words” builds to a climax, and Nelson’s final illustration of “undefeated” is a crowd of children of today, with bright smiles and sparkling eyes, inspired by the past and dreaming of the future.

Alexander and Nelson honor the achievements, courage and perseverance of prominent Black artists, athletes, and activists. The pictures are an assembly of famous Americans, from Jesse Owens to Ella Fitzgerald to Langston Hughes to Serena Williams. On one large spread, historical and contemporary musicians are pictured together, making past and present interrelated. Also highlighted are important moments in American history, which include the Civil War, highlighting Black soldiers who fought “to save an imperfect union” and the freedom marches of the Civil Rights Movement, with a diverse group of people singing “we shall not be moved.” Several pages are dedicated to ordinary people “who survived America by any means necessary,” followed by a haunting, blank, two page spread with the words “…and the ones who didn’t.” Joy and sadness intertwine together in this book, like the experiences of the people whose story is being told.

The book  addresses the horror of slavery, the violence of the civil rights movement and the police brutality of today. The most moving portion of the book involves three pages illustrating: “This is for the unspeakable.” The first of these three spreads, subtle and powerful, duplicates a drawing from the 1780s of the hold of a slave ship, and shows men’s bodies laying side-by-side, margin to margin, looking like patterned African cloth, until one looks closer. The second includes framed portraits of the four little girls murdered in the Birmingham Church bombing, with shattered glass covering their sweet faces. The last shows a spontaneous memorial to youth killed in recent police violence: teddy bears, burning candles, bouquets of flowers, and school pictures of the victims, superimposed over an American flag. The reality of these events cannot be denied and adds honesty and depth to the story, but ultimately does not detract from the overall positive message of the book.

One of the great assets of this book it that it can be accessed by children at different levels of understanding. It can be shared with children as young as preschoolers, as an introduction to both American and Black-American history. For older students it can serve as a springboard to understanding history through individuals or groups. The book’s back matter includes an annotated list of historical figures and events featured in the book. I can see the book being a treasured by parents and children, as well as being a powerful teaching tool for the elementary classroom.

Sometimes, I think the American Library Association, which awards the Caldecott Medal, does not always choose the best book. This year, however, they got it right. The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson is an extraordinary book that richly deserves the praise and honors that it has been given.

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Be A Word Nerd!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

You’ve heard it all before. Show don’t tell. Limit your use of adverbs. Create gorgeous metaphors. And the most important writing rule of all – Use strong verbs!!! But this is often difficult to do when you are working on an early draft. When you are further along in the revision process and ready to edit your work for “word choice,” try using some of the following strategies:

Mentor texts

Study outstanding books in your genre. Then, along with paying attention to the development of the main character’s arc and the twists and turns of plot, take note of the author’s exceptional use of language. This might mean underlining or highlighting words as you read. I keep a list of “words I love” on the Notes App on my phone, especially when I am listening to an audio book. I later transfer this list to my manuscript file in Scrivener and keep a second list in Word. Some of these words seep into my subconscious and suddenly appear in my writing. Others do not. That’s when I go back and read through the list again until I find a word that perfectly captures my character’s mood and motive.

Here are verbs from my latest list, taken from Gillian McDunn’s CATERPILLAR SUMMER and Melanie Crowder’s LIGHTHOUSE BETWEEN WORLDS: bristled, buzzed, carved, coasted, hooted, jabbed, jostled, looped, lumbered, lurched, quirked, rasped, rummaged, scowled, scuffled, shuddered, skittered, sloshed, snarled, stumbled, thrashed, threaded, throbbed, thrumbed, trudged, twinkled, whooshed, and withered.

Thesaurus and Websites

A thesaurus can give you a wide variety of words to use in place of your usual fare. But there’s also a website that puts your run-of-the-mill thesaurus to shame. It’s an extraordinary tool recommended by Jessica Brody, author of SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, called OneLook.com. When I first discovered this site, and put the verb “jumped” into the search box and checked related words, 338 synonyms came up! My favorites were: plunged, soared, bounded, leapfrogged, lunged, rocketed, and zoomed. Another website to check out is https://7esl.com/verbs/#Types_of_Verbs_Verb_Examples. It’s slightly more difficult to navigate, but is a valuable resource for writers in any genre.

If you would like some craft books on this topic, try the seven book thesaurus collection by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (including The Emotional Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus) and Strong Verbs Strong Voice: A quick reference to improve your writing and impress readers by Ann Everett.

Be Creative!

I am a sucker for exquisite descriptions. In the MG novel, CATERPILLAR SUMMER, the main character, Cat, spends the summer at her grandparents’ beach house on Gingerbread Island off the coast of North Carolina. Take a look at these gems that connect us with Cat’s personality as well as the setting of the book: A rainbow of candy, an ocean of worries, freckles polka-dotting his skin, a sky puffed with clouds, a breath of strings, a blizzard of birds, a whisper of voices, fingers of fog, a look that was all sunbeams, a wave of people crushed onto the sidewalk, the world swirled green and gray as tears popped in her eyes. Now come up with your own descriptions, relating them to the characters, themes, and settings in your story.

 

Don’t Rush!

Revising a book is hard work. After you’ve made your unique characters flounder and grow in an interesting setting with an action-packed plot that keeps your reader turning the page, it’s time to polish your writing until it sparkles and shines. The first thing to do is a search for words you overuse. For me, those are often: that, just, really, I think, and very. The technique here is simple: slash or replace. Another strategy is to edit the pages of your manuscript out of order. Create a number grid and randomly choose a page to edit for word choice only. Then color in that number in and move on to another, jumping around on the grid.

If you are a writer, you MUST BE a word nerd. There’s just no avoiding it! Are there techniques and resources you’ve found helpful in your writing practice?

 

 

 

 

 

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Characters Who Need Some Love

When you think of February and Valentine’s Day, you may think of love and friendship. While I was visiting my local bookstore, I ran across a few characters who may need an extra dose.

One of my favorite characters of all time is Bruce from Mother Bruce. He is the unsuspecting bear that becomes the mother to some “geese” when they hatch. He doesn’t quite seem up for the challenge because he’s lacking the necessary nurturing skills. Bruce is the same old sour puss of a bear in Bruce’s Big Storm, but this time he reluctantly opens his home to the forest animals during a big storm. This helps him in the end when his house needs some fixing up after the storm.

Pig the Pug is another character that is notorious for his bad attitude and crazy shenanigans. Good thing, he has a good dog friend to help him out of trouble. But in the end, nothing calms Pig down more than a full body cast. Poor Pig doesn’t learn his lesson though. He’d back at his antics in Pug the Tourist. Will Pig ever learn to behave? He gets some time to think things over again when he winds up back in a full body cast.

I can relate to Grumpy Monkey’s protagonist, Jim. Sometimes, you just wake up grumpy. And who REALY wants to admit that is how you feel? It took Jim up until the end to come to terms with his feelings. But lucky for him he has a best friend that loves him regardless. Grumpy Monkey Party Time! Is a fun sequel that focuses on Jim’s fear of dancing at a party. When dance lessons from his friends don’t make him feel comfortable dancing at the party, everyone slowly admits dancing isn’t their favorite thing to do either. No fear, porcupine has the perfect crowd pleaser for the party, food!

What other characters have you run across that could use some extra love?

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Marketing Long Before Your Book is Published (And maybe before it is written!)

By Susan Wroble

I used to believe that writing came first, and marketing later. Big Mistake! It is easiest if you learn both simultaneously — they build on each other. Here are a few tips on starting your marketing journey long before your book is published…

Establish writing credentials.

An easy place to start is to write for newsletters. Many groups have regular on-line updates and are delighted to have a member feature or presentation review. For example, when I joined the Denver Rose Society, I knew nothing about growing roses, so I took notes at the meetings. It was easy to turn those presentation notes into short articles for their newsletter. Bonus — I didn’t know the national organization gave writing awards until I got three of them!

Why?

  • Simple — Agents and editors want to see that you write.

Create a blog.

When my writing group, the Story Spinners, created this blog, our goal was simply to push ourselves to learn a new skill. By sharing, we each posted about once a quarter, and we split the costs.

Why?

  • Blogging counts as writing credentials — even if your readership is close to zero!
  • You have a platform that agents and editors can get a feel for your writing and commitment to the industry.
  • A few of the posts have been expanded and been published in paying markets.

Read with purpose.

Read current books in your genre — the key word being “current.” There are blogs for every genre, but one of my favorite ways to find new kids’ books in general (after making friends with librarians!) is through IndieBound, a community of independent local bookstores. IndieBound puts out a quarterly newsletter called “Kids’ Next.” You can pick up a print copy at an independent bookseller, or find it on-line. As an added benefit, it is a fabulous resource for gifts for the kids in your life.

Why?

  • By reading with purpose, you can start analyzing, and learn how other authors have created an arc, or added layers, or built tension…
  • You learn what’s current and what is selling.
  • You learn what is already out there for subjects you want to write about.

Keep a reading log.

Record the author, illustrator (if applicable), publisher, and whatever else is important to you. I find it helpful to snap a picture of the cover. Here’s an example:

Why?

  • You learn the style of various publishing houses.
  • You can track books that are mentor texts.
  • You can track books that are comps for works in progress.

Study and track agents and publishers.

One easy way to research agents and editors is to subscribe to the free twice-weekly Publisher’s Weekly newsletter, Children’s Bookshelf. Other ways to study agents are through the sites Manuscript Wish List or QueryTracker. Here’s a Publisher’s Weekly rights announcement for my friend, author Jocelyn Rish:

Next, track the notices with agents or editors that seem like a good fit for your work. Like my reading log, I created a table in Word. For this table, I record the publishing house, editor, author and title, and the agent who represented the author.

Why?

  • You end up with a perfectly tailored list of agents and editors who represent and publish the type of work that you do.

Use Facebook.

Author Beth Anderson (LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT) recently spoke at the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI’s Denver South Connect & Critique. “I didn’t want to get on Facebook,” she said, “and now I can’t imagine not using it.”

Why?

  • The Groups feature. Instead of scrolling endlessly through a jumble of posts from assorted friends and distant relatives interspersed with ads, you can go directly to a group — think RMC-SCBWI, KidLit411, StoryStorm, 12×12, ReFoReMo, NF Fest…
  • These groups are the easiest places to learn about upcoming events, celebrate successes, and build community. You’ll need that community when your book is ready to debut.

I hope there’s a nugget in this post you find useful. And for you — what are the marketing tips you wish you had known early in your writing journey?

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Reading Goals for the year

Although January started weeks ago, it’s always a good time to reflect on the past and to make plans for the future.

As I first sat down to think about all that I did 2019, I thought about my major writing accomplishments. But as I spent more time considering the full spectrum of writing work I did, it included reading, listening to podcasts, taking classes, and even writing posts for this blog!

Creating Categories

So as I look to 2020, I wanted to focus in on one aspect – reading. The first thing I realized is that I didn’t want a straight reading goal of something like: fifty books. I wanted to be strategic as I thought about what I would read. I came up with the following categories and assigned some numbers:

  • Reading aloud with my kids: Picture books and Harry Potter 6 & 7 (24 + 2)
  • Reading in genre (36)
  • Fiction reading outside of genre (6)
  • Books on writing craft (4)
  • Non-fiction/how-to outside of craft (4)

 

Reading aloud with my kids

At the time of writing, I have eight-year-old-twins. I firmly believe there are picture books suitable for all ages, but there are books that will be less interesting to them – the time when we will sit on the couch reading picture books together might start to fade. While we’re in the zone, I want to capitalize on it.

I’m also currently reading Harry Potter aloud to the boys – I’d like to get through the last two books of the series with them before the summer. It’s something we love to do, and given that their friends talk about it more and more (spoilers abound) it would be good to finish it so there’s a chance for a few more surprises.

 

Reading in genre

This is a huge part of what it means to be a writer, and is recommended across the board. Plus, I love the genre I write in!

 

Books on craft

I love continuing my education and I think reading craft books are great ways to learn something new, but even when it isn’t new information, craft books are right there to remind you of things that you want to make sure to incorporate.

 

Reading outside of genre

I’m a writer and a reader – and while fantasy is completely my jam, that’s not the only type of fiction I enjoy. With the intention of being well-rounded, I want to make sure to dip into a variety of genres. I also learning across the board, and a few non-fiction non-craft books will make it into my reading list this year.

 ***

Whatever you decide for your own reading, think about how variety might help you meet your goals. Once you get your categories, assign numbers to each group, and then happy reading!

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REVISING TEDIOUSLY, ONE TINY TWIG AT TIME

by Karen Deger McChesney

I’m still pinching myself! I recently witnessed a bird building its nest. A dream come true! I was enjoying my morning ritual of sipping coffee and bird watching…and, there he was! A brownish finch with a one-inch twig in its cone-shaped beak, standing outside a birdhouse. I watched my fine-feathered friend retrieve twigs from the tall course grass and turn them this way and that to get them through the birdhouse hole. Incredibly tedious. Impossible. But, he did it. Magical! The most amazing moment was when he hopped out of the birdhouse with a different twig in his bill, laid it on the railing, flew off and retrieved a new one.

Re-decorating? I pictured him inside re-arranging twigs, over and over again. Good heaven, it’s like revising! One tiny twig at a time. Ironically, I arrived late to my revising that morning, because I was so enamored with the finch. I have been revising my first YA for what feels like forever. It’s one huge over-and-over-again. I don’t know what revision I am on. I don’t count anymore. I only countdown to my next self-imposed deadline, psych myself up, and mark the calendar with my next deadline, again and again.

Oh, it’s a grind. Some days, it’s the thickest, darkest molasses and feels like I am merely mucking around. Currently, I am deep in re-arranging – moving entire chapters from end to beginning and all over. It’s a messy experiment! But, alas, I am cutting paragraphs and entire pages that no longer move the story forward – and probably never did. I discovered that I was just in love with the words. Geesh!

Occasionally, I long for the adrenalin rush of writing, especially my first draft. But then, I am caught off guard. Suddenly, something jumps out and looks completely different or new, as if someone else wrote it. Odd. Exciting! I dive into re-building an entire scene, layer by layer, and uncover pieces that need a good polish. It’s fun, but very different than writing; it’s hard to explain. Lately, I think it’s me that is different. I come to the page differently. Maybe, maybe, I am learning the patience of the finch and finally, letting my characters spread their wings and fly higher. I hope. But, of course, I want to be done, already. Fiddlesticks! Enough of this nesting!

I keep wondering why the finch removed twigs. I suppose they didn’t fit the shape of his nest anymore. Hmmm… all I know is, thank you, little bird, for inspiring me to keep on building and re-shaping my story. I want to revise like a finch – slowly, relentlessly, routinely – and be okay with all the unraveling.

It’s work. It’s my job. And, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in The Big Magic, “…90 percent of the work is quite tedious…”

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The Write Way to Retreat


Writing retreats are for writing up a storm, gazing out at lakes, snowy mountainsides, forests … free from the demands of dirty dishes, laundry, and family. Right? For me, the “retreat” part meant sleeping in and healthy snacking. And by “healthy,” I mean my appetite. I started writing first thing in the morning (ok, late morning) and stopped at bedtime, proud of what I’d accomplished.

Then one afternoon, over the crunch of pork rinds, I overheard a critique partner say, “I can write anywhere, but I can’t go to the beach anywhere.”

Lightbulb moment!

Slipping away from my computer and into my swimsuit felt like a writing crime. But exhilaration snuffed out guilt as I ugly-bodysurfed a wave back to shore where a cute lifeguard asked if I needed help. If only I’d been sixteen instead of … older. I imagined how my teen character would have felt: both thrilled and mortified, coughing up saltwater, knees stinging, another wave crashing over her head and destroying her ’do.

My writing senses kicked into high gear. Everything around had life-bringing story potential. The fishy, briny sea air. Gritty sand in my swimsuit. Seagulls squawking over a pork rind (Oops. My bad.).

So this was the retreat part of writing! Experiencing the environment. Time to tune the brain to Radio KIDS.

First experiment—waking up early: 5:15. Yuck. Still, time has an influence on story settings. Not just dark verses light. The sleepy resort town was creepy-quiet, the air fresh—no exhaust. Yesterday’s footprints had washed away, replaced by tiny, bubbling holes where sand crabs hid. Anticipation high, fingers crossed, I hoped the ocean sunrise would crest with a green flash. A blink before the big moment, a one-winged seagull distracted me and I missed it. But self-disgust turned to elation when I spotted a southbound pod of dolphins (porpoises?). All these usable emotions! And what is the difference between dolphins and porpoises anyway? How do those teeny sand crabs survive, unseen beneath tourists’ feet? How often does a green flash happen? This retreat business was adding fodder for picture book and magazine ideas as well!

Next experiment: eat like the locals. First food: scrapple. Forcing a bite into my mouth revived long-buried childhood dread when a chicken liver quivered at the end of my fork. My stomach knotted. My heart swirled with cold. Do I swallow it whole or dare to chew? (I chewed. It tastes a bit like pork rinds.) These reactions would work great in a story! Second food: crab. Holding my breath, I tried not to watch fellow diners pulling white flesh straight from crusty red legs as I popped a piece onto my tongue. I felt my facial muscles contracting into a disgusted grimace. Chugging a glass of water, I wanted nothing more than to wipe the taste away with a napkin. A kid character would do exactly that. A plethora of writing material!

Last experiment: taking it all in. People-watching on the boardwalk. Eagerly waiting in line for a haunted house, squealing when the doors banged just because it felt right. Enacting my writer’s mind. I eyeballed interesting details, sniffed and analyzed everything from waffle cones to B.O., listened to a crowd’s cacophony of voices versus the whooshing ocean below a wave, tasted the salty air, and ran my fingers over puffy plushies and sticky taffy.

And I still got a ton of writing done.

Never underestimate the benefits of a writing retreat. Kayak at sunset. Have a snowball fight. Climb a tree. Writing can be done anywhere. Retreats reignite your senses.

Experience them!

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Breaking Barriers; Inspiring Others: Author Julia Alvarez

In early November,  I had the opportunity to hear Dominican-American author Julia Alvarez (say Hoo-lia!) speak about her life and books. Julia was in Denver to celebrate her book In the Time of the Butterflies, which had been chosen as the “Big Read” for the Denver Community for 2019.

Since her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, was published in 1991, I have been an avid admirer of her writing. Her works are known for their vivid characters, multiple points of view, poetic language and her sharp insights into human nature.

Julia Alvarez signing her book, In the Time of the Butterflies.

Julia Alvarez is a powerful female voice in American and Hispanic literature. Her early novels became the first Latina works to find their way into the mainstream of American literature. Now, her books are regularly read as part of the American cannon in schools around the country. At 69-years old, she balances writing, teaching and public appearances with a calm grace.

Dwarfed by the Newman Center stage, Julia reminded me of Yoda: diminutive, humble and infinitely wise. She spoke about her life and her writing, while encouraging and inspiring the packed house of writers who filled the seats.

Here are some highlights from Julia’s wisdom about writing, reading and life. These were culled from a several sources, the presentation that I attended and others I searched out on the internet:

On Inspiration: Where do I get inspired? By the pebble in my shoe, by the thing that unsettles me, by the story that takes me out of myself and makes me see things differently. It’s the story that won’t let me go… the story that I feel I must tell. Curiosity is the place I begin.

On being a “Real Writer:” I used to think real writers started at the beginning and went through to the end, maybe making a change here or there. So I thought I wasn’t a real writer because what I did was so messy. But I know now that writing is messy, but that, when it is all said and done, being a writer is a great blessing. It’s such an honor to be able to do what I was put on this earth to do.

On History: History is the story we tell ourselves about what really happened. What we remember is always filtered through a point of view. A novel is a lens to see a story and is the truth according to character. Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history. Just the facts can’t begin to tell the full human story.

On the Power of Stories: Stories have the ability to transform, encourage empathy and spur the imagination. Stories have the ability to show us our full humanity. I believe stories have the power to change the world.

On Books: I found, at the table of literature, a place where all were welcome. Here, I entered worlds, between the covers of books, that I longed to know more about. Being a reader is the beginning of being a writer. Once you become a reader, you realize that there is one story you haven’t read… it’s the story only you can tell.

On Revising: I am an endless reviser. When you begin, you write the best book you can write at that moment. Revision is part of the process of growing and improving as a writer. Through revision you read your book as your reader would and change your book for them. You become the best advocate for your reader through revision.

On Reading and Writing: Whether we are reading or writing a book, when we see with clarity all the complexity of another person, it is an amazing connection to humanity. When we walk in another’s shoes, it is a radical, transforming experience.

On Process: I am a person of ritual and I like structure. I write every single day. Sometimes the muse comes and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing is a muscle and needs to be exercised everyday. A dancer doesn’t just dance when she feels like it, she dances and practices everyday. This is the same of a writer.

On Characters: Give thanks to your characters and the stories they came to tell you. Honor them and put them to rest. The truth your characters speak is multifaceted, and what I love about a story is that it can hold all of the complexity that exists in that situation.

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