Mentor Texts: How to use other books to help you write your novel

It’s a scary world out there, and we writers like to stay hidden behind the pages (monitors, screens, etc.) that display our words for us. Getting out there and talking to people? Making small talk? Exchanging pleasentries? Sometimes, even just leaving the house? Writers are not as good at those things.

But, I’m doing something scary for the sake of my future books. (It’s like planning ahead for your children by creating a bank account that you have to keep investing into, only for books, you’re investing yourself into the internet so that more people will like them when you kick them out into the world.)

I made a video!

It’s about mentor texts, how to select them, and how to use them to make your own story better. Tell me about the mentor texts you’ve selected for your own project, and feel free to ask questions or suggest topics for my next (eek!) video.

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Good Childrens’ Nonfiction?

Another round up of mini-reviews, but this time focusing solely on nonfiction for kids! Nonfiction usually isn’t followed by a “!”. It’s usually thought of as dull, dry writing full of boring facts – and a lot of the time that’s what it is. But it doesn’t have to be! Good nonfiction can be just as engaging for any age as good fiction, with the added bonus that when you finish reading, you might just go out into the world and change it for the better.

This blog has been neglected recently as I’m in the throes of work on my critical thesis for my MFA from Spalding University. I’ve been looking at environmentalism in both fiction and nonfiction books for children of all ages, and the sad truth is that there just isn’t much out there that is informative, engaging, and entertaining for kids. I think there are probably a lot of parents and teachers out there who have realized this, too, so I thought I would share a quick list of the books I’ve found that DO seem to do a great job of communicating facts to the age group they are marketed for.

The Eye of the WhaleThe Eye of the Whale: A Rescue Story by Jennifer O’Connell is a great, really short picture book telling the story of a whale that was caught in some fishing line/crab netting. Divers cut the whale loose, and it appeared to thank each of them for their help. Great for really young kids because it is narrative nonfiction – true story.

A Place for Turtles by Melissa Stewart would be great for lower grade kids. Each page talks about a different type of turtle in the US and how humans have damaged their habitat – but also how humans can help the turtles survive. This one is mostly facts, but they are told with simple language and great illustrations (which show diversity in humans, too!), so I think it would engage young children. It could also be a good way to teach children that turtles are not pets and they shouldn’t bring them home. (This book is just one in Stewart’s A Place For… series – check them out!)

a chicken followed me homeA Chicken Followed Me Home!: Questions and Answers About a Familiar Foul by Robin Page is just a great book! It’s a picture book with a question about chickens on each page, and the answers are clear and conversational. The pictures are lovely and the book would be great to teach kids of any age about backyard chickens.

case-of-the-vanishing-honeybeesThe Case of the Vanishing Honey Bees by Sanda Markle is a toss up for me on this list. It’s in picture book format and full of great, macro photographs of honey bees, but it is heavy on text and long on new vocabulary words. However, the information is very clear in explaining the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, some of the probably causes for it, and best of all why honey bees are so important and we need them so much. Suggested for older elementary and middle grades. (This is one in a series of Scientific Mysteries.)

Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines by Paul Fleischman is a great resource for teens (and adults too!) that digs deeper into the environmental topics of the day to show how the problem started and what is keeping it from getting fixed in a way that incorporates politics, psychology, and history. Recommended for anyone.

 

 

As another part of my research for this paper, I’m conducting an anonymous survey of kids ages 4-18. If you fall into that age group or you know or have kids who do, please take quick minute to fill out this very brief questionnaire. It would really help me out!

For more books that deal with environmental topics in both fiction and nonfiction, I suggest looking at the list of Green Earth Book Award winners chosen each year by the Nature Generation. What is your favorite book about the environment? Tell me in the comments!

Write Every Day?

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Write. Write more. Write even more. Write even more than that. Write when you don’t want to. Write when you do. Write when you have something to say. Write when you don’t. Write every day. Keep writing. ― Brian Clark

You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world. ― Ray Bradbury

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at 9 am every morning. – Peter DeVries

These quotes, and more like them, can be found all over the internet, in writing craft books, and in those images with words on them that get put up in classrooms everywhere. They are repeated because they are quotes from writers who are published, renowned, and – perhaps most importantly – successful. Somehow, I think we writers believe that if we can just follow the advise of those who have gone before, who have “made it,” we’ll be able to make it, too.

The concept of writing every day, sticking your but in your chair and typing away until you have something, is common in quotes like these. That’s why they make me nervous. There was a time in my life when I did, in fact, write every single day. No matter what. Sometimes it was a paper for school, sometimes a blog post, sometimes a newspaper article, sometimes just a few pages in a journal. After a few weeks of doing this, I did find that when I decided my writing for a given day would be directed toward an essay or a story that my fingers moved a little faster and the words flowed more readily than before. It was great place to be, having a semi-regular schedule that offered the opportunity of following all of the advice of the writing gods and writing every day.

But those times never last for ever. Since I’ve been working through my MFA, I find that the few short weeks where the workload is lighter during semester transitions are cherished times – times where I do home renovation, catch up on housework, do a ton of yard work, go to parties, watch TV in the evening, catch up with friends, and generally do not write. At all.

During the heavier parts of the semesters, I find myself thinking of these in-between-weeks wistfully. But during the in-between-weeks, I find myself afraid, because I absolutely do not write every day. I find myself wondering, is this what my life will be like when I’m done with my program? Will I make myself so busy with home and friends that my writing desk is just sitting there to hold up the wall? Will writing simply be there, in the back of my mind, as something I will do when I have time?

All of which makes me wonder – is writing every day really necessary? Are quotes like “Don’t be a writer, be writing” both inspirational and unnecessarily harsh? If I only write a few times a week, or even once a week, does that mean I am not a writer?

I don’t think so. But while I am enjoying this time of home improvement, relaxation, and “spare time,” I am looking forward to beginning the next term, where I will once again be writing every day.

Frozen! Anna’s Winter Dress

Guys, I made this costume for work. The only thing better would be if I could have made it at work. But seriously, this was one of the easiest costumes I’ve ever done! I found the light blue blouse, a black t-shirt, and the blue skirt for $15 in a single trip to the Goodwill one block away from my house. A quick Google for Anna’s costume details revealed stencils and color guides.

I simply trimmed up the t-shirt to the shape of Anna’s vest, hemmed the new edges, and shaped up the collar of the blouse. Then, guided by a YouTube tutorial, I drew the designs onto the vest and skirt with white eyeliner, and painted them in.

Ta-da!

Winter dress

 

Anna

To finish it off, I used one of those great JoAnn’s coupons to get three yards of pink fleece for another $20 and with some quick cuts and just a little bit of sewing created Anna’s cloak. The lining fabric was provided courtesy of Juliet, who shewed up the bottom of our burgundy duvet cover.

Pink cloak

 

Anna

Costumes are so fun! I’m thinking that for Halloween, I will try to find time to add the gold details to the bodice and reuse this costume, which is one reason I didn’t mind spending the out of pocket money for the materials. Also – for $35 this costume was cheaper and (in my opinion) better than a store-bought version of Anna’s winter outfit.

Since no one is thinking about Halloween 2015 yet, what did you dress as for Halloween 2014? Did you make your costume or buy it? Let me know!

Review: Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo

 

I first heard about Echo when Pam Muñoz Ryan came to speak at my fall residency last November. Our focus for that residency was on writing for children – more specifically on the fairy tale – and our book in common was Ryan’s Esperanza Rising. During her visit, Ryan shared with us a bit about her upcoming book, Echo. My interest was piqued immediately, and I’ve been anticipating the book ever since.

First, although the cover and appearance of a book is something the author has little to no control over, it’s been proven that the cover of a book really does affect the way potential readers perceive the contents. That won’t be a problem for Echo. The dust jacket is  beautiful in reds, blues, and purples, with black and white accents. The board cover is enchanting, a pale wood that closes over bright red end papers. (I love good end papers.)

Second, there are many stories within Echo, but if the book is about one thing the most obvious answer is an enchanted harmonica. Who doesn’t love harmonicas? It’s even a pretty word.

Third, is what I mentioned above: Echo is one book, but it contains many stories. There’s Otto, a young German boy who finds himself inside a fairy tale in the woods; Friedrich, who must try to get himself and his family out of 1933 Germany due to a birthmark that covers his face; Mike, who tries to get himself and his orphaned brother adopted from the orphanage together during the Great Depression in 1935; and Ivy, whose family moves to a new farm in southern California to take care of it while the Japanese owners are held in a 1942 war camp. Each child is connected by the love of music, and each story by the thread of a single, enchanted harmonica.

With so much story, this middle-grade novel comes in at nearly 600 pages – but don’t let that hold you or your child back. The stories provide convenient breaks in the action, and the new characters will keep readers engaged. The pages are not crowded, and I found them turning swiftly. This book is a wonderful entry into conversations about Nazism, orphans, and segregation, but it can also be enjoyed simply for the stories it provides. I would recommend Echo to anyone who loves music – there is much love of music here, for everything from the cello to the piano to the harmonica.

I really love Echo – and I think you will too! If you’d like to read more about it, click here to read an interview Pam Muñoz Ryan did with Horn Book.

What I’ve Been Reading…

Since I switched my genre of study to Writing for Children and Young Adults last November, I’ve been enjoying the reading that comes with that category. Children’s books have a sweetness and a truth about them that isn’t usually there in fiction written for adults. So I love sharing them with other readers!

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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is a YA novel about a girl with a horrible secret and no friends. Recommended for teenagers who feel misunderstood or who want to understand their friends better.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Shmidt is an older, upper middle-grade book that brought me to tears. The Vietnam War, Shakespeare, and 8th grade can never again come together with so much beauty. Recommended for mature middle-grade readers who want a poignant story.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate tells the story of Ivan the silverback gorilla who was once on display in a shopping mall in Washington state. The story of how he was rescued from the mall and integrated into a zoo is a contributor to the larger story of the animal protections we have in place today. Recommended for animal lovers and activists.

Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani is the amazing epistolary story of two children who become pen palls and then best friends. One of them is an immigrant from India who lives in New York, and the other is a Kentuckian who is watching his beloved mountains destroyed by mountaintop removal mining. Recommended for everyone.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is the classic tale of Francie Nolan’s childhood in Brooklyn, New York. It is a v e r y long book… but it is full of beauty. Recommended for anyone who wants a long read that is guaranteed to move them, some time or another (especially writers).

Blue Mountain by Martine Leavitt is about a heard of bighorn sheep who are crowded out of their mountain’s winter valley by a human settlement. Tuk and his bandmates set out to find the legendary blue mountain where the herd will graze in peace, and they meet, defeat, and are helped by many other animals along the way. Recommended for animal lovers and preservationists.

In addition to what I read for my MFA studies, I also read a lot of the children’s books that I order for the library where I work. Here are some of my favorites:

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Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton is a super cute book. The story is pretty short, but young children will adore it.

Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers is not a short book, but it is lovely. Each letter of the alphabet gets it’s own mini story, just a few pages long. The fun is in finding out which stories are linked.

Home by Cason Ellis is a beautifully illustrated celebration of what a home can be in many different parts of the world, different time periods, and a few places that aren’t on earth at all.

Flare by Kallie George is an easy reader book about a young phoenix learning to be the best phoenix he can be. Companion to Spark, which is about a young dragon who is learning to control his fiery breath.

A Rock Can Be… by Laura Salas is a wonderful successor to Water Can Be… which I loved. Spectacular illustrations help children think outside the box by showing examples of the many, many things in our lives that a rock can be.

2014: A Big Year

Yes, this is a recap post. 🙂 2014 has been such a huge year for me, personally, academically, and in the world of literature. Instead of summarizing my summary, I’ll get right to it.


Winter

January Wedding

In January, I became Mrs. Vander Ark and moved all the way up to Southwest Michigan, during one of the snowiest winters they’d had in years! Our wedding was largely DIY, and it was a huge relief to be done planning for it.

Shortly after we moved into our cozy basement apartment, I received my first online publication (independent from my undergraduate school’s journal) from TWJMagazine.

In February I started working at the Bridgman Public Library, where I do children’s programming and order picture books through middle grade books – which increased the number of books I read quite a lot!

Notable Reads

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
  • Fortunately, the Milk – Neil Gaiman
  • Bats at the Library – Brian Lies

Spring

Left Bed

My MFA in creative writing at Spalding University began at the end of May, and the week I spend surrounded by other writers in Louisville, KY, was probably the most inspiring time of my life. It came just after the official closure of my undergraduate degree when we walked with our classmates in the early May graduation ceremony at University of the Cumberlands.

After Memorial Day, I also began writing for the Infusco Coffee Roasters blog… and spending a lot of time in the shop!

Caleb and I also tried our hand at raised-bed gardening for the first time and were far more successful than we anticipated.

Notable Reads

  • Wonder – R. J. Palacio
  • The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap – Wendy Welch
  • Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers – Frank Walker

Summer

Brick House

We bought a house! And proceeded to spend an entire month renovating. We refinished the floors, painted ceilings, walls, and cabinets, and moved in to our first house.

My CNF story “There Are No Buffalo Here” appeared in print via Garbanzo Literary Journal this summer. I couldn’t have picked a better place for it!

Notable Reads

  • Norman, Speak! – Caroline Adderson
  • Young House Love – the Petersiks
  • This Moose Belongs to Me – Oliver Jeffers

Fall

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As if we hadn’t been blessed enough by the rest of the year, September brought us our beloved beagle/foxhound puppy, Juliet. She is smart, loving, playful, and generally pleasant, and we love her to pieces.

We hosted our first Halloween Party and Thanksgiving dinner in our new home, and settled in for the rest of the holiday season.

I switched my concentration at Spalding from CNF to writing for children and young adults, and so far I’m loving it!

Notable Reads

  • Landline – Rainbow Rowell
  • Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  • We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

If you’re interested, you can see everything that I read in 2014 (200+ books) through this link. If you’d rather just know which books I had a lot to say about, check here, here, here, or here.

Here’s to a great 2015! Anyone want to share your resolutions? Mine are to start running again, have a more successful garden, and read more than I did this year. 🙂