Category Archives: Susan Wroble

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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CRITIQUING: Just One More Thing…

By Susan Wroble

 The goal: Critique without overwhelming.

The problem? It’s really tricky.

The solution: Just one more thing…

With the talented author Judith Robbins Rose (Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco), I feel very fortunate to lead one of the Connect Groups for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. Our Denver South Connect & Critique follows a model of craft presentation followed by critique break-outs. For some of our members, who are brand new to children’s writing and SCBWI, these critiques are the first time someone else has seen their work. They are being critiqued by whoever ends up in their circle, from other new writers to ones with years of experience.

In sessions like our Connect, as in many critique groups, the critiques come in two forms: written and oral. In an intensive at the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the SCBWI conference this year, author Laurie Halse Anderson offered her advice on the topic. She recommends restricting written comments in a critique to two types — smiley faces and question marks. I admire the simplicity of this approach, and the gentleness. From what I have seen, however, most of the problems in critiquing come not from the written review, but from the oral comments.

For years, at SCBWI conferences, I attended the “First Pages” sessions. The guest editor or agent would listen, along with the audience, as first pages of manuscripts were drawn from a pile and read aloud.  And then the editor or agent would give their initial impressions. Each year, I was reminded that the job of deciding which works to represent is very different from the job of mentoring and encouraging a writer. Our guest speakers had a tough job, and few did it well. Even though the submissions were anonymous, their analysis could feel devastating.

Likewise, our initial Connects faced a rough start. Now, we review the sandwich method before each critique session. In this method, constructive criticism is tucked between positive starting and ending comments. It’s so easy to visualize that it makes a great first approach. But it didn’t feel complete. It could still be overwhelming. And it didn’t feel that it did the job of helping writers, especially new writers, know where to begin to focus to improve their craft.

Drawing on her years of competing on the university debate team, Judy Rose had an insight regarding her coach’s approach to her entry in after-dinner speaking. “Even though he’d heard my piece dozens of times before, he’d laugh — and sometimes cry — and say “That’s great! It’s fabulous! There’s just one more thing…””

“Just One More Thing.” I love it. It feels like the sandwich method has just found the essential missing ingredient it lacked.

 

For more ideas about writing and receiving critiques, I found the following post from The Writer’s Loft especially helpful: https://www.thewritersloft.org/critique

 

 

 

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Leaping into Genres

By Susan Wroble

This fall, I took a leap. I had wanted to take a more active role in the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI. When an opportunity arose, I volunteered to co-lead a new writing group — the Denver South Connect and Critique.

Working with my co-leader, the talented Judy Rose (author of the award-winning Look Both Ways in Barrio Blanco) has been a delight. Having the opportunity to mentor some of the members who are new to SCBWI is incredibly fulfilling. But what I didn’t expect what how much I would learn and get out of this job.

Judy and I constructed a survey to try to find out the wants and needs of this new group and we passed it out at the first meeting. Understanding children’s literature terms and genres scored high. We divvied up the presentation work for meeting number two, Judy taking terms while I took genres. After all, how hard could explaining the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult, Fiction and Non-Fiction, or Literary and Commercial actually be?

Hard, it turns out. For every site I turned to, there were slightly different definitions. I finally chose a primary source to settle the disputes (Laura Backes of Children’s Book Insider). Then I made a spreadsheet. With a background in engineering, I love trying to make tight, concise spreadsheets. Making this one clarified a lot about genres for me — I hope it does the same for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The thing about “The thing about jellyfish”

By Susan Wroble

Ali Benjamin’s book The thing about Jellyfish has rightly won well over a dozen awards, from National Book Award Finalist to National Public Radio’s “Great Read of the Year” list. I loved the story, with its themes of friendship and grief, and its sections neatly divided by the parts of the scientific method. However, it’s not the story that startled, then amazed and finally inspired me. That came from the acknowledgements section at the back of the book.

“This story,” Benjamin wrote, “was born from a failure.” A few years earlier, she had become captivated by jellyfish. She dove into their world, learning everything she could about jellyfish and poured it all into a story. She submitted to a magazine. The magazine was interested, and kept it.

Then Benjamin waited… for a year. A year of waiting to hear. A year of waiting for her story to be published. And after a year, she did hear. The magazine no longer wanted it. The story was rejected.

I know what I would have done. I would have cried, then forwarded the rejection on to my writing group, The Story Spinners, knowing that they would give me the encouragement and support to keep going. Getting things published is tough, and a support group of people going through the same long process of rejection collecting makes the journey much easier to bear.

I’m not sure if Ali Benjamin did any of that. What she did do was keep going. Despite the wait, despite the rejection, she wasn’t willing to give up on jellyfish. She just delved deeper, moving beyond researching jellyfish to researching jellyfish experts. She took notes and continued to learn.

This incredible, award-winning story was what emerged. Had Benjamin’s original article been published, I am sure that it would have been fascinating. But it wouldn’t have been this. To have this book materialize out of failure served, for me, as a type of buoy – showing that what springs from the ashes of failure may be beyond our wildest dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cocoon!

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.

 

 

 

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Gone to the Dogs

 

By Susan Wroble, photo by Carol-Ann Mullin

A graduate level conference for social workers, focusing on human-animal interaction, was the last place I expected to find a recommendation on the practice of writing. But there it was, a gem of information, right in the midst of sessions about addressing trauma through the use of therapy animals.

NellaHathawayGalena

Like all writers I know, I wear a lot of different hats. I always hesitate when people ask what I do. My usual answer is that “I volunteer a lot.” The dozen or so organizations where I give my time center around three areas: science, education, and dogs. That meant that the “Animals on the Brain” conference, hosted by the University of Denver’s Institute for Human Animal Connection (HAIC), was right up my alley.

 

Much of the conference focused on brain chemistry – specifically, the hormones oxytocin, which promotes trust and bonding, and cortisol, which is released in response to stress. Working with animals tends to release oxytocin in the human brain. As a result, social workers are increasingly incorporating animals into their practice with individuals who are autistic or who have experienced trauma.

Nina Ekholm Fry, Director of Equine Programs at HAIC, was in the midst of a talk on the Social Neurobiology of Equine-Assisted Work when she made the observation that changed my writing practice. “Your state of mind can be changed, it can be affected. Your state of mind goes to sensations and thoughts.” She continued, “I have input in that. I can change what I feel.” Before working on a difficult task, Fry said that she reads through a list of compliments her students have sent her. This, she explained, changes her brain chemistry and thus her mindset.

 

My writing sessions have all too often started with the mundane – and the depressing. Filing a rejection. Figuring out where to send something next. Wondering whether or not I should follow up on an article sent months ago, given no response from the editor. And that, I realized while listening to Fry, is completely wrong.

 

As a result of the conference, I’m separating the filing, the rejections, the “what’s next” questions out from my writing sessions. Starting with a dash of anxiety-inducing cortisol is not the way for me to be productive. Instead, I’m collecting a file of kind words and published articles and rave reviews (okay, those may all be from my writing group!). I’ll review those before starting my writing. And, of course, spend a whole lot more time petting the dogs.

 

 

 

 

 

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