Category Archives: Susan Wroble

Highlights of Highlights!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

I have very strong childhood memories of getting the Highlights for Children magazine in the mail. First of all, it was mail – for me! (And my brothers, but mostly for me.)  I’d spot it on the kitchen counter, whisk it off to my bedroom, and immediately turn to the hidden pictures page. Then I’d search and search until I found every last rake, spoon, ice cream cone, and whatever else was listed at the bottom of the page! Today, Highlights publishes entire workbooks of these puzzles. They even have an app.

The first issue of Highlights magazine came out in 1946 and was published by the Pennsylvanian husband-and-wife team – Garry Cleveland Meyers and Caroline Clark. These days, the company’s corporate headquarters is  based in Columbus, Ohio, and includes Zaner-Bloser, Stenhouse Publishers, and Staff Development for Educators. But there’s another arm of the organization you may not know about – The Highlights Foundation. This is a 501 c-3 non-profit, established in 1984, that offers “workshops, retreats, and other support to writers, illustrators, and all creators of kid-friendly content.” (For a quick history of the company, go to: https://www.highlights.com/about-us/history.) The Foundation was established in 1984  in Chautauqua NY, but is now located in an idyllic rural setting in Honesdale, PA. George Brown, a descendant of Garry and Caroline, is its dynamic Executive Director.

During the pandemic, I took two of the Foundation’s classes online: “Filling the Writer’s Toolbox” with Emma Dryden, and “DIY Revision for your Novel or Non-Fiction” with Susan Campbell Bartoletti. But in August, after being prodded by my writing coach and award-winning author Sarah Aronson, and fellow Story Spinner and RMC-SCBWI Regional Advisor, Susan Wroble, I attended my first in-person event. And even though I am not a fan of mosquitos, ticks, humidity, or frizzy hair, this truly was the “highlight” of my summer.

“The Whole Novel Workshop,” was a six-day intensive for writers of MG and YA fiction. It differed from my other two classes in that it required an application. That meant submitting the first fifteen pages of my MG manuscript, a synopsis, and a cover letter. When my acceptance arrived, I literally whooped and hollered to the dog! Only that’s when the real work began. Not only would I be working on my revision during the workshop, I would also be receiving an in-depth critique of my full manuscript (from the brilliant, hilarious, and award-winning author, Crystal Allen) before I even arrived on campus. There were also three Zoom meetings with our  group (twenty participants and ten faculty), two books to read (one YA novel, one on craft), and partial manuscripts, synopses, and cover letters to read from the members of our assigned “Brain Trust” group (7-8 people). We used the Canvas platform to introduce ourselves (and our pets) and to explore writing prompts, articles, and podcasts. Needless to say, “The Whole Novel Workshop” could have been called “The Whole Summer Workshop!”

Finally, on August 21, the big day arrived. I pulled up to my home for the week, “#16,” the Jane Yolen cabin! (OMG – how did they know???) and basked in the beauty of my surroundings. There was a lovely front porch, with windows overlooking a wooded glen, a bookshelf filled with Jane’s books, posters on the wall, and an owl perched on the rafters. (I love OWL MOON!)

                .                                 

That evening, we all gathered for the start of what can only be described as a week of serious work, tremendous growth, and pure joy. There were craft workshops, thought-provoking morning prompts, critiques, time to write (alone or in community), Brain Trust groups (45-minute discussions about your manuscript led by YOU), one-on-one discussions, interviews with your main character (conducted by the dramatic Crystal!), pristine walks, and time to think about and work through your revision ideas. And the food! Ask anyone who has attended a Highlights workshop and they will definitely talk about the food. The chefs and servers prepare gourmet works of art three times a day, with snacks available twenty-four seven!

I could talk about this magical week for hours. (And believe me, I have.) Instead, here’s a  stream-of-consciousness recap:

Know who your audience is and what your character really wants. (So true, Rob.) Emotion drives action. Look for the fractals. (Jennifer) Journal until you’ve figured things out and do the swirlies. (Sarah) Discuss ideas with fellow novelists. (We love talking about these things, right Nora?!) Go for long walks. (Thanks for being our guide, George.) Play with tense and POV and balance dialogue, narrative, and description by using colored pens. (Nancy) Get rid of unnecessary characters. (Find your orderly, get rid of the priest- Crystal) Try new plotting tools. (Can’t wait to use yours, Erin.) Writing prompts open your mind to new possibilities! (Yes, Melissa!) No writing is wasted time. (More Melissa) Don’t be afraid of marketing. (I will be in touch, Mia.) And other assorted other words of wisdom: Pay attention to your secondary characters. It’s all about voice. Play and think in the rock garden. Be open about making changes. Make writer friends and support their work. (Miss you all!)

And of course… Keep going!

Our incredible faculty rocked it EVERY DAY and worked alongside us. (There was an open mike night on our last evening… WOW!) Endless thanks to: Crystal Allen, Sarah Aronson, Nora Shalaway Carpenter, Rob Costello, Erin Dionne, Mia Garcia, Jennifer Jacobsen, Erin Entrada Kelly, Alex Villasante, Nancy Werlin, Melissa Wyatt . Can you believe this line-up? I am still in awe of each and every one of them.

You must go to Highlights. (Even with the mosquitoes, ticks, and frizzy hair.) Put it on your to-do list. Right now. highlightsfoundation.org/upcoming/workshops.

I can’t wait to go back.

 

 

 

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Stepping UP

By Susan Wroble, August 2021

I love the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I’ve been a member for a very long time (since 2004), but for most of the first decade and a half, I would attend the regional conferences, and write and file. It was only after our kids were grown that I was able to focus on writing more seriously.

It has been a very rough year for SCBWI. What had started as a labor of love had grown over a half-century into a large international professional society, and the structure had not always kept up with best practices. For various reasons, all of the regional team members of the Rocky Mountain Chapter resigned en masse this summer. I felt sure of only one thing—I wanted to make sure our chapter survives this crisis.

In normal times, I doubt if I would have ever applied to be a regional team member, but among my skill set were pieces that I thought would help. Most importantly, I am pretty good at keeping organizations going. As one example, I’ve run a long-standing support group for parents of twice-exceptional children. These kids are both highly gifted and have numerous learning issues. Most are on the autism spectrum; many have health issues and nearly all struggle with anxiety and depression. As a result, my role is often listening, and helping people find resources when they are at extremely difficult times in their lives. Similar groups tend to have social workers or psychologists as their moderator. That’s not me (I majored in engineering!). Yet somehow, I’ve managed to keep this group afloat for so long that some of our “kids” are now post-college.

I’d also organized large events, including multi-day regional speech meets with hundreds of competitors and judges. And I’d had experience volunteering in various capacities with SCBWI. Since 2018, I’ve co-led, with author Judy Rose, the Denver South Connect. After consulting with the outgoing team, I decided it was time to step up.

With the amazing writer, illustrator, caricature artist and graphic novelist Stan Yan, I’m honored to say I’ve been selected as one of the new Co-Regional Advisors for SCBWI’s Rocky Mountain Chapter. The outgoing regional team has been incredibly generous both with their time and in helping us understand the workings of the chapter. Unfortunately, anytime an entire team leaves, institutional knowledge will be lost. While I had loved our programming and had hoped to keep things going as they were, due to the timing of the resignations, the fall conference had to be put on hold. Some of our other programs are also on hold while we find new volunteers.

Thus far, it’s been a steep learning curve. I know that the year might live up to the chapter name—it will likely be Rocky. I’m committed to embracing that rockiness. I have gotten so very much from this chapter, and I want to keep it supporting others as it has helped me.

 

 

 

 

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FINDING SILVER LININGS AND SHARING TIPS

By Susan Wroble

RMC SCBWI’s PAL (Published and Listed) Liaison Rondi Frieder suggested a theme for the group’s March get-together as “Silver Linings from the Pandemic,” but the unexpected silver lining was all the resources and tips the members had to share.

Join a Debut or Launch Group:

If you have a book coming out, find or create a launch group. “It’s a lifesaver,” said Beth Anderson. “I don’t know how I could have made it through a debut year without that type of support,” Julie Rowan-Zoch said. Being able to collaborate and divide the work has allowed Julie’s group to present to a number of conferences and book festivals. The benefits were echoed by Megan Freeman, whose novel-in-verse Alone came out in January, and Jessica Speer, whose debut MG novel on happy friendships was pushed back from 2020 to this July.

Pursue Poetry:

“Poetry is the language of our heart that can come out in hard times,” Claudia Mills said. She tried a verse novel during the pandemic and learned she could write in a whole new way. Claudia suggests Molly Fisk’s occasional online poetry group, where the only rule is that comments must be positive. “I love being in a judgment-free zone.”

For Denise Vega, poetry was also a gateway to writing inspiration. Denise highly recommends Renée LaTulippe’s offerings, including Peek & Critique, a free service offered to all KidLit writers. Peek&Critique’s teaching videos include an introduction to poetry forms, lessons on meter and rhyme, scansion practice, and language-level analysis and critique of your submissions.

Support the Schools:

Many of the PAL members focused on how they could support teachers through this exceptionally difficult year. In her blog, author Julie Danneberg began to really concentrate on providing teaching resources. A therapist as well as an author, Carolee Dean was excited that her new book Story Frames for Teaching Literacy could be a real help for teachers working with kids struggling to read or in special education. Laura Roettinger provides science links for educators on her blog and features interviews with authors.

Carmela LaVigna Coyle had two recommendations regarding schools and author outreach. Scholars Unlimited looks for authors to read and record one of their books for students and families. Their mission is “to support low-income, academically struggling young learners. Contact twachtler@scholarsunlimited.org Carmela also noted that Nest Tijuana, a school and resource for children and families along the border, is in need of books in Spanish.

Beth Anderson suggests working with an Indie Bookshop to do a launch at a school. “There is a real audience of kids for the author, a valuable visit with an author for the kids, and a group for the store to target with their book sales. It’s a win-win-win.” For Megan Freeman, 70% of her school and library visit requests are coming through bookstores. Colorado is so fortunate to have so many great Indies, including Second Star to the Right, BookBar, Boulder Books, The Bookies, Firehouse Books, and of course, Tattered Cover.

Beth also noted that author Kate Messner puts together a list each year of authors and illustrators who are willing to do free events with schools in conjunction with World Real-Aloud Day (next scheduled for 2/2/22!). Lauren Kirstein also mentioned Kate Messner as a fabulous resource with her videos and information on virtual author visits. You can sign up here to be on Kate’s list of authors who offer free 15-minute virtual chats with classes or book clubs who have read one of their books.

Another resource Beth recommends is TeachingBooks.net. This is a free service with original, curated literary resources. Authors and illustrators can post short video clips introducing their books or telling people how to pronounce their name! As an example, here’s RMC-SCBWI Co-Regional Advisor Dow Phumiruk’s page.

Kimberlee Gard also suggests paying attention to special book-related days, like Read Across America Day (the next is 3/2/22). For Kimberlee and many of the PAL members, the ability to do virtual visits in places where you could not connect in person has been a real boost to creativity.

Beth Anderson had great success with An Open Book, a foundation with the goal of connecting authors and illustrators with Washington, DC-area students to build equitable access and nurture a lifelong love of reading. Beth’s presentation was free—but the foundation purchased a copy of her book for every child in the class. She also recommends signing up to be interviewed on the Reading with Your Kids podcast, with host Jed Doherty.

Learn Craft:

For many of the RMC-SCBWI PAL writers, this was a year to delve into craft. A huge silver lining of the pandemic was that so many opportunities became available because they were virtual—you could take classes from anywhere, often at reduced rates. As Fleur Bradley noted, in-person events can be exhausting, and being able to learn the material at the pace and times you wanted was a real blessing. Writers mentioned taking virtual classes and offerings from a number of places, including:

  • SCBWI (You can search by region or through their global events calendar, as most events this year are virtual).
  • The Writing Barn (classes, intensives, and retreats; located in Austin, Texas)
  • The Highlights Foundation (a range of courses, workshops, and retreats; located in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania)
  • Free Expressions (supporting new and experienced writers with professional literary services and workshops)
  • The Inner Circle (a private Facebook group with nearly 10,000 members for new and established writers interested in the craft and practice of writing, offers coaching and accountability)
  • Udemy (offers online courses on pretty much everything; this link goes to their writing courses)

Make Connections:

Making connections, both real and virtual, was a repeated theme. Rondi Frieder is in a group that meets each week just to write. Those meetings, now virtual, continued throughout the pandemic. Laura Perdew measured six-foot distances and opened up her back yard to writers and gets together with other Boulder authors to talk and walk. And many of the authors supplied books to Laura, who was collecting for communities that had been ravaged by the fires. Kimberlee Gard put up a Little Free Library at her new home that really helped foster a sense of community. And many of the authors supplied books to Laura, who was collecting for communities that had been ravaged by the fires.

Fleur Bradley suggested on focusing subgroups and genres. She was able to do a lot of networking through Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. She also noted that Twitter’s ARC sharing groups have been invaluable. Likewise, Megan Freeman was blown away by how generous the MG Twitter community has been in terms of sharing resources.

Fleur and Beth Anderson both mentioned FlipGrid, which is a free video discussion experience. Beth noted that her short author video on FlipGrid led to free conversations with classes—and that those sometimes led to longer, paid presentations.

Stephanie and Jim Kroepfl stayed involved in activities with the Colorado Author’s League, and they discovered the joys of contests when their book Merged was awarded first place in the Science Fiction/Fantasy and Young Adult Fiction category — and then took the grand prize in the 2020 Royal Dragonfly Award by Story Monsters. “Emotionally,” Jim said, “this was a lifesaver!”

Nurture Yourself!

Without a commute, nature writer Susan Quinlan ended up with extra time, which she was happy to spend outdoors. She found that it was a year of experimentation, and she felt especially nurtured by being able to read sites tailored to things that interested her, through sites like Feedly.com.

For Jennifer Mason, the challenge of the year was how to move around a conflict and let yourself stay flexible and live and fresh. When her WFH books were put on hold, she started a mystery podcast for kids, Blister and Muck. She had to keep learning about recording, marketing, and promoting all while writing an unsolvable mystery story.

And if you need some inspiration, Lauren Kerstein had the perfect suggestion—bubble baths! “A bubble bath is like an idea fountain,” Lauren said. “I keep waterproof paper and my phone nearby to jot down ideas. It has solved so many creative problems.”

 

 

Photo by Vika Aleksandrova on Unsplash

 

 

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Mentor Texts and Comp Titles

By Susan Wroble

The Story Spinners critique group has a long tradition of having retreats. In 2020, when Covid-19 made meeting in person impossible, we weren’t willing to abandon the tradition. We each picked a topic to present to the others in our first (and perhaps only) virtual format. I choose a topic I needed to learn more about—mentor texts and comp titles.

Author Tara Luebbe defined the difference between mentor text and comp titles in her blogpost for SCBWI Southern California’s Kite Tails last January. The same book might be both a mentor text and a comp—the difference is in how you use it.

 

MENTOR TEXTS COMP TITLES
Are all about… Craft Sales
Can be in… Any genre Same genre as your work
Published… At any time Within the past five years
Serves as a… Template A way to “get” your story

 

Mentor texts are the books that you use to learn how to do something. Perhaps you need help on POV, or pacing, or story arc. Mentor texts are the books you use as guides to learn a writing skill. In contrast, comp titles are books that show where your story belongs in the market. They help identify the target audience and where your book will fit on the shelves.

How to Find Them: So now that you know the difference, how do you find mentor texts and comp titles? Hint: the answer is not to start by broadcasting for help on social media!

To start, spend some type analyzing what you need before you begin the search. For mentor texts, are you looking for help with the humor, with rhymes, with a character arc…? For comp titles, what are the identifying features of your manuscript—its genre, subject matter, formats, type of writing, and tone?

Now that you know what you are looking for, you can begin finding the books. While the way you use mentor texts and comp titles is very different, the process of finding them is similar. Some of the common ways to search include:

  • Children’s Librarians
  • Booksellers
  • Goodreads
  • Amazon, especially the features
    • “Customers who viewed this also viewed”
    • “Sponsored products related to this item”
  • Pinterest lists (these are surprisingly helpful), and
  • ReFoReMo lists (my favorite for picture book comps!)

Using the ReFoReMo Lists:

If you are writing picture books, I highly recommend the free “Reading for Research Month” held each year in March. This month-long picture book study was founded to help PB writers understand the form, market and craft of writing through the reading and study of current picture books. Registration for ReFoReMo typically opens in mid-to-late February, and one of the many benefits of ReFoReMo is their private Facebook group. Searchable lists—perfect for finding mentor texts and comp titles—are in the lists section of the ReFoReMo Facebook files.

Here’s an example of how to use the files: My work-in-progress WHAT’S IN YOUR CAULDRON? is a rhyming and lyrical nonfiction picture book with transformational change (witches to healers). Sometimes, the categories in mentor texts and comp titles will overlap. I might want to look at rhyming books for both mentor texts and comp titles.

I start by going to Facebook, and the ReFoReMo Page:

On the left, near the bottom of the list, you will see “Files.” Click on that. You get a (searchable!) long list, that includes things like:

  • How-to
  • Rule Breakers
  • Cumulative Structure
  • Unexpected Twists
  • Longer PBs
  • Universal Themes
  • Tough Topics
  • Wordless
  • Contradictions in Text vs Illustrations
  • Free Verse
  • Grief and Loss

From here, I will search for rhyming texts. “Rhyming” gets me nothing, but “Rhyme” leads me to this file: Rhymers

From this list, I might look at Elli Woollard’s THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT. The copyright date of 2016 means I could use this as a comp title, as it has been published within the past five years. Heading over to Amazon, I can use the “Look Inside” feature (it’s not on all books, but if it is there, it is just above the picture of the book cover). Like my work-in-progress, I can see that THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT is written in rhyming couplets. But the tone, the meter, and the arc are very too different; it is not a good mentor text in any of those areas. However, it might be a good comp.

A further search on THE DRAGON AND THE NIBBLESOME KNIGHT gets me a full reading via YouTube, and I can see that the dragon and knight go from being enemies to being friends. The combination of both a structural match (rhyming) and a thematic match (transformational change) makes this a potential comp title for my manuscript.

Success! And I hope that this post brings you some understanding and success in your search for mentor texts and comp titles as well.

 

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Pro Tips from the PALs

By Susan Wroble, September 2020

The themes that emerged from RMC-SCBWI’s PAL (Published and Listed) member Connect on Marketing Strategies on August 29th, were “build community” and “have fun!” But the PALs also had plenty of specific tips to share—hope you find some of them helpful in your journey!

SUPPORTING OTHERS:

1)         Review books. A simple and effective way to provide support to fellow authors and illustrators is to write a book review. You can use the same review for all sites. Amazon and Goodreads are the two most well-known sites for reviews, but there are plenty of others, including Barnes & Noble, LibraryThing, Shelfari, Bookish, and “What Should I Read Next.” Claudia Mills has set a goal is to review one of her friend’s books each week.

2)         Nominate for Lists on Goodreads. Lauren Kerstein recommended nominating books to be on Goodreads Listopia, because it increases visibility. I learned the process by nominating Laura Perdew’s picture book, The Fort, to a list called “Picture Books About Friendship.” The steps:

  • Log into your Goodreads account
  • Make sure that the book you want to nominate is on your shelf
  • Navigate to lists (under Browse) and scroll down. Find “search lists”
  • Find an appropriate list for the book and go to that list
  • Near the top is a button that reads “Add books to this list.”

3)         Give Shout-outs to others. Julie Rowan-Zoch has a unique—and fabulous—way of giving shout-outs to others. She acknowledges her friend’s birthdays on Facebook with a drawing. As Julie freely admits, the drawings are her daily art practice, but as RMC-SCBWI PAL Liaison Rondi Frieder commented, seeing them with a birthday greeting really makes the day special!

MARKETING/PUBLISHING PLAN:

1)         Spread the Word. “Don’t be afraid to be a little obnoxious!” Fleur Bradley said. You have to let people know that you a book coming out for them to be able to support you! She was nervous about the timing of her book launch in the midst of the pandemic. But she bought some Facebook ads to create awareness and excitement, then hosted a virtual book birthday, complete with cake. Susan Quinlan also spoke of the importance of reaching out. When she did, she was surprised at the number of old friends who wanted to buy her book.

2)         Create a Marketing or Publishing Plan. Jean Reidy created her own publishing plan to send to her publicist. It includes specifics on what she will do online, as well as with conferences and festivals, schools, libraries and bookstores, postcards, and contract marketing. Jean recommended asking if your publisher would pitch you for the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association. It’s a way to get in front of hundreds of booksellers in this region.

As a marketing professor for Colorado Mountain College, Jessica Speer is even more at home in the marketing world than the book world. She created a detailed marketing plan, starting six months before the publication date, and ending six months after. She uses the plan as a storage place for all her marketing ideas, including which podcasts or magazines to pitch.

3)        Join a Promotional Book Group. Several PAL members talked about the many benefits of joining a promotional group. Leslie Vedder said that members of her group found each other through the Publisher’s Weekly rights reports.

4)         Enlist the Bookstores. We are so fortunate that the Rocky Mountain region has phenomenal independent bookstores. Andrea Wang and Dow Phumirik each spoke of the importance of getting to know the bookstores. Dow noted that BookBar and Second Star to the Right are both in need of need of virtual content and appreciate any help. Second Star will be doing an educator’s night in October.

5)         Send out ARCS wisely. Megan Freeman suggested Googling the top ten children’s book bloggers in your given genres. You can find which have the greatest reach before asking if they’d review your book.

6)         Write a Press Release. Former journalist Lydia Shoaf wrote a press release for her book and sent it to her local Arvada paper. At first, there wasn’t much traction, but then it was picked up by surrounding papers. Those links were shared on neighborhood groups. Then it was publicized by the local bookstore—and in the school district newsletter.

7)         Use your Research. Some of Beth Anderson’s best marketing tools were an outgrowth of her research. The museum she asked to vet one of her books then hosted a program featuring her books.

8)         Create a Newsletter. YA author Carolee Dean puts together a monthly newsletter with updates, activities, and tips about writing and working with students. The newsletter, which goes out via email, then points to content on her blog, Twitter, or Facebook pages.

9)         Enter Contests. Linda Osmundson got visibility for her newest book by entering it into contests.

10)       Use your Publisher! Amazon has both a self-publishing arm (Kindle Direct Publishing) and a more traditional publishing arm. Ellen Javernick, whose books are with Two Lions, the Amazon publishing imprint for children up to age 12, said that she has had to do very little—because Amazon is doing the marketing work!

HELPFUL APPS:

1)         Learn to use Apps for Design, Graphics, and SEO. Jessica Speer pointed to Pinterest as a hidden gem, with a lot of success for relatively little effort. Other tools she uses include the design site Canva for graphics, Animoto for videos, and the back plug-in Yoast, a search engine optimization tool that forces you to create keywords and use formats that Google prefers. Jessica went through all of her old posts with Yoast, and is now seeing increased traffic.

2)         Get more Mileage with Posts and Hashtags. Megan Freeman recommends using the social media landing page Linktree, which allows multiple hyperlinks and the ability to go beyond character limitations. She also recommends harnessing the power of hashtags, by researching their numbers of followers.

3)         Sign up for Google alerts. Pat Vojta suggests signing up for Google alerts on your name and the title of your books. She found her book on the front cover of a newspaper that way!

GIVING BACK AND HAVING FUN:

1)         Give Content. As a former teacher, Julie Danneberg is doing everything she can to support teachers in this COVID era—and for her, that means creating content that they can use in their classes to get a break! Her website has a special section just for teachers.

2)         Scour the Pages. Author Carmela LaVigna Coyle studied the art on every page of her books. Unknown to her, there were themes, including frogs and pollinators. Using these, she developed crafts, including bookmarks and finger puppets, that serve as another marketing tool.

3)         Create Videos and Podcasts. Inspired by Trevor Noah, Jennifer Mason launched a storytelling podcast in April, called “Blister and Muck.” At first, she said, the only people who listened were her friends. But then there was a 50% uptick and another. Judy Kundert has been telling stories with her husband acting as videographer. And Gregory Barrington gave a sneak peek at his first, and incredible, book trailer.

Let us know what you find most useful, and add your own tips in the comments. Thanks!

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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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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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Vacation Research and Golden Pens

By Susan Wroble

About a year ago, I opened up an email and fell in love.

The email was actually a link to articles from Live Science, and the story I fell in love with was Laura Geggel’s about a new dinosaur. The article quoted Cristiano dal Sasso of the Natural History Museum in Milan. “It is a miracle that it survived such a long chain of events: drifting away to the sea, then floating, sinking, being scavenged by marine animals, reworked by sea bottom currents, buried, uplifted within a mountain chain, and eventually blown up by human explosives.”

With a background in engineering, I love processes. I love mapping out the big picture, figuring out what comes next. And the process that transformed the dinosaur now known as Saltriovenator zanellaiinto a fossil was incredible. I couldn’t get enough.

I downloaded all the articles on Saltriovenator. I poured through the 78-page scientific paper, marking it up with different colored highlighters. I asked volunteers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Prehistoric Journey to help with the parts I didn’t understand. I started working on a draft of a nonfiction picture book about this miracle fossil. And I told my husband that if we could swing a vacation this year, because what I wanted most of all was to find out more about this dinosaur.

And last month that dream came true! From the guidebooks, I hear that Milan is full of amazing art, incredible fashion and is the gateway to the stunning Italian lake district. I am sure that is correct — but we missed those parts.

Instead, paleontologist del Sasso led me to his office and slid open a drawer — and I was able to hold one of Saltriovenator’s 200-million-year-old bones. The next day, he escorted us to a talk in the town of Guissano, north of Milan. There, we met with Angelo Zanelli, the amateur fossil hunter who, back in 1996, discovered that same dinosaur bone while searching for ammonites, then notified just the right people of his find.

I know that my manuscript has many more rounds of revision in front of it, but I was surprised and honored this weekend. At the annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (RMC-SCBWI), I was nominated for their Golden Pen award for my story “How to become a Miracle Fossil.”

And I have a new goal — I’m planning research vacations more often!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Squibby Notebook

By Susan Wroble

Over the years, I’ve attended a lot of conferences and workshops, but after this year’s Spring RMC-SCBWI conference, I felt that what I needed most was some way to organize the information so that it would stay relevant and useful.

That’s when it hit. I already knew how to do this! About a dozen years ago, I had taken training in document organization. In addition to writing for children, I moderate a support group for parents whose kids are twice exceptional (2e). These are highly gifted students with a myriad of learning differences, and anyone who has a special needs kid knows that the paperwork mounts quickly. There are medical reports, 504s and IEPs, neuropsych evaluations… the list is endless. In my role as facilitator, I had attended a WrightsLaw Special Education Conference, where a major part of the conference was teaching parents to manage the papers.

And so, with a nod to both dyslexia, which is a frequent piece of the 2e puzzle, and my critique group, who affectionately refers to SCBWI as “Squibby,” I present to you THE SQUIBBY NOTEBOOK, also known as Children’s Writing Resources.

You’ll need a big three-ring binder (preferably the type with plastic outside that lets you slip a paper into the front and back covers and spine), a hole punch and a pencil. Slide something eye catching in the front plastic sleeve (I use a page from an SCBWI calendar) and make a label for the spine (my label says “The Squibby Notebook”).

The hardest — and most valuable — part of this system is the Table of Contents. Create a spreadsheet (landscape orientation) with the following five columns:

  • Date
  • Name
  • Title/Profession
  • Document Type
  • Notes

 

Make a header for the Table of Contents that reads “Children’s Writing Resources.” And then start filling in information on the spreadsheet. The “Notes” section is the most important. That’s where you connect the dots, linking this document to one or more of your works in progress. The notes section reminds you of why that document is important.

And then you file documents chronologically: oldest in front, newest at the back. With the pencil, date each document on the bottom right-hand corner. One of the beauties of this system is that each time you attend a webinar, workshop, or conference, you update that Table of Contents, and in the process review what the notebook holds. You’ll know which agents and editors you’ve seen and when you saw them. And with luck, by keeping the lessons at the top of your brain, and the documents corralled, you’ll shorten that journey from idea to publication. Happy filing!

 

 

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The Magic Notebook

By Susan Wroble

At first glance, my magic notebook doesn’t seem very magical at all. It’s your standard half-inch thick, plastic-covered white three-ring binder, picked up at a thrift store for fifty cents.

So how, exactly, is this not-so-special notebook magical? That story goes back years…

I’ve been a member of SCBWI for a long time. It took nearly a decade of plugging away at beloved middle grade novel before I realized that my writing group members had a much clearer understanding of my characters than I did — or ever would. My characters’ faces and bodies were always blurry; they changed ages with every re-write, and they never held onto consistent character traits. Despite assembling collections of photos and pages upon pages of dialogue, interviews and character traits, my characters were never real to me. Much as I love reading fiction, it finally became clear to me that my brain wasn’t wired to write it.

With that long overdue understanding, I let go. At first, it felt like giving up. And then it felt amazingly freeing. Everything changed. Instead of creating fictional characters, I could research the real people and things that captured my interest. Instead of a long novel, I could focus on short pieces, less than a thousand words. And instead of books, I could write for magazines.

And that is how the notebook came to be.

I made a spreadsheet of magazine due dates and wish lists to slip into the front cover (with a background in engineering, I love spreadsheets!). The list included all the upcoming themes for Cricket Media’s family of magazines. For me, the structure of a desired theme was the easiest place to start.

Simply having those dates and themes at the front of the notebook, where I saw them frequently, set the stage for the magic to happen. Ideas for articles kept percolating. I started asking friends what they’d want to see on a given theme — and found the question made for a great dinner party conversation! And then I started pitching. It took a lot of rejections and a bunch of typing out published articles to really get the sense of the style before an acceptance came.

In the end, the inside of the magic notebook didn’t matter at all. I had used the inside for submission guidelines, articles that seemed like good models, checklists of everything that was required to submit to a given magazine…

And I rarely cracked the cover. What mattered most was simply putting my notes in a place where I could see them and think about them. The true magic, it seemed, was in learning to change my habits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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