Tuesday, June 30, 2015

So You Want to Be a Writer for Children?

So you want to be a rock and roll star
Then listen now to what I say.
Just get an electric guitar.
And take some time and learn how to play.

- The Byrds (1967)

It sounds like an attractive proposition. Write books for children. See your work on Amazon and in Barnes and Noble. Work from home. Sounds pretty good. Unfortunately what I have found in my brief experience in the publishing world is that it's a tough climb just to write something and get it published. As for making enough money to have a career, you may not want to quit your day job. Very few writers make enough to survive alone on income generated by their writing. What I haven't said is that it is impossible. You may be the one. Or you may just be interested in trying to get one book published. If so, let me offer a little advice from people smarter than me.

1. A good place to start is  Neil Gaiman's 8 Good Writing Practices. You have to write every day. You have to finish things. That's where it starts.

2. Read books about writing. Interested in writing picture books? This book from Ann Whitford Paul would be a good start.

3. Join SCBWI. They are the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. This is a great place to get advice, find resources, and connect with other aspiring writers. You will learn what to do when you have a finished piece.

4. You need to hang out with kids. Find out what they like. Learn what they are reading. You'll be surprised if you don't do this on a daily basis. Often prospective writers are stuck in their childhood and aren't connected with current children.

5. Read, read, read! Read good books that are like the ones that you want to write. Make connections with librarians and find out what is moving off the shelf. Librarians are your friends!

6. Find a niche and/or develop your voice. You're going to need something unique to get your foot into the door.

7. Use the blogosphere to find fellow writers. If you're not already, get comfortable with social media.

8. Steve Perry used to sing,  "Don't Stop Believing." As I said earlier, you may be the one.

Good luck!

Monday, June 29, 2015

I Don't Like Cheese

I Don't Like Cheese
written by Hannah Chandler; illustrated by Lauren Merrick
2014 (EK Books)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

It didn't matter what type of cheese his mum gave him. 
Mike refused to eat it. 

Mike the mouse is a contrarian. He thinks he doesn't like cheese. When presented with a piece, he politely refuses. Lucky for him Ashley, a girl in the house where he lives, brings him a little something each evening along with a token of which country the food is associated with. For example, on Monday she brings Mike a meat pie along with a cork hat representing Australia. Wednesday's meal is sushi and a little blue kimono from Japan on the side. On Thursdays, it's Italian and pizza is on the menu. Doesn't pizza have cheese? Mike can't be bothered with logic as he is living a traveler's dream until one Friday a note came with his croissant, creme brulee, and beret. The note said Ashley and her family are going on a vacation. The dinner train was coming to a sudden halt. Can Mike hold out until she comes back home or will he be forced to rethink his position on pasteurized goodness? His declaration regarding Dry Jack? His stance on Swiss?

At the age of 11, Hannah Chandler wrote this engaging picture book as a response to her principal's challenge. I usually don't mention an author's age, but this is pretty extraordinary. Plus, it's a terrific mentor text for young writers who will see that there is a potential big audience for their writing. I also like this book as part of a unit on trying new things or a healthy foods unit where students eat new foods. You can incorporate it into a unit on the five senses with a focus on taste buds. Or you could have a shared writing experience by making a book about the foods that your students do not like. They can practice main idea and supporting details with sentences like "I don't like grapefruit. It's too juicy and bitter for my taste buds."

Whatever your taste, I think you and your students will enjoy a helping of "I Don't Like Cheese."

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Poignant Poem

I saw this poem on a bench at St. Simon's Island in Georgia. I want to
say something profound about poetry, writing, or memory but I think
it's better to keep my mouth closed and let you come to your own

Friday, June 19, 2015

Poetry Friday: There's a Monster in the Garden

There's a Monster in the Garden
written by David Harmer: drawings by Tim Archbold
2015 (Frances Lincoln)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Go check out Poetry Friday at A Year of Reading.

What the mountains do is 
roar silent warnings over
huge brown and heather-covered spaces
or fill up valleys with dark green laughter
before resting their stone-cropped heads in sunlight.

When you write a poem about two traffic cops giving Santa a ticket for parking on a double yellow line, I'm all ears.  British poet David Harmer's poems are highly entertaining and there's an amazing versatility to the poems in this collection. One moment you're laughing when reading about a manic granny on a motorbike. Pages before, you are mesmerized by the musings of 13th century soldier Sir John who sees the ghosts of the men who lost their lives battling his father and grandfather.

I would use this book to show students that there's a wide range of emotions that can be shared when writing poetry. If you teach the skill of visualizing text, then you will find several poems that would serve well as mentor texts. And the similes! In the poem titled Lion, you get "...teeth picked out like stalactites in some vast cave" and "...black as a roaring mouth."

When I picked up this book, I expected a humorous collection and was not disappointed. What I didn't count on were the poems like Some Days, where the narrator speaks of sometimes school being a "concrete sandwich squeezing me out like jam" and on other days more like "a rocket thrusting right into the sun." Prelutsky and Silverstein will need to make room on the shelf for a visitor from the UK.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

If An Elephant Went to School

If An Elephant Went to School
written by Ellen Fischer; illustrated by Laura Wood
2015 (Mighty Media Kids)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

If a frog hopped onto a desk, what would she learn?

Do you like cute and clever books? If you're a preK- grade 2 teacher, your answer should be "Yes!". We crave cute and clever as much as a diet soda after the buses leave. Apparently, so do Ellen Fischer and Laura Wood. They have created a winning nonfiction book that will be a favorite in your classroom. Here's the setup: Each two or four page spread features one animal. The first sentence is a question about what the animal would learn in school. Next, a response that gives the animal human qualities is met with a variation of "No!". The final sentence tells what the animal really does in the natural world. Here's an example:

"If a bee buzzed into a school, what would she learn?"
"How to read?"
"No, Sir!"
"A bee would learn how to make honey."

Instead of reading a dry text to your PreK-1st grade class, you can have a fun interactive read-aloud experience with adorable illustrations. I would cover the last sentence in each series and take predictions about what the author is going to say about the animal. How would this work with a second grade class? I would use If An Elephant as a mentor text for writing. Students could create a booklet featuring several animals and mimic the sequence in the book. That is a fun writing experience that would nudge students into doing some animal research.

Look at the cover above. It screams to librarians and teachers, "Put me on display and many kids will grab me!" If you listen carefully, that's exactly what you will hear.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

North Carolina and reduced class sizes: Is it worth the cost?

The North Carolina Senate, in their budget plan, has proposed to lower class sizes in grades K-3 by adding teachers. Part of the funding for these new teachers will come from money used for hiring teacher assistants. If you want to have an informed opinion about this subject, I suggest reading "Does class size matter? Research reveals surprises" by John Higgins of the Seattle Times.
Higgins points out several issues that come with simply reducing class size. These issues need to be considered before taking away teacher assistant positions in the name of reduced class sizes.

Questions to ask:
1. What research says simply reducing class size will greatly improve student achievement? Can all schools with reduced class sizes expect a bump in growth or do other programs have to be implemented? Is the achievement growth in Tennessee and Wisconsin due to reduced class size or is it another variable?
2. Do we have the physical space to place over 6,000 new teachers? Who bears the cost if we don't?
3. Will the class sizes remain or will we revert back to numbers over 20 when the next fiscal crisis comes our way?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

How to Tell a Story (Coming this fall)

How to Tell a Story: 1 Book + 20 Story Blocks = A Million Adventures
written by Daniel Nayeri; illustrated by Brian Won
Available October 6, 2015 but you can preorder now.

I'll tell you up front: I don't get a single dime for talking about this product. Zip. Nada. No product or swag. I did meet Daniel Nayeri at the 21st Century Children's Nonfiction Conference this weekend. He was incredibly nice and gracious. But that doesn't really matter because if he was a complete jerk (which he isn't), I would still be writing this post. Why? I saw this product and it wowed me. What is it? An interactive way to teach kids about the elements of a story without having their eyes glaze over. They will want to write after playing this game. How does it work? You have 20 six-sided, color-coded cubes and a 144 page book that will explain how to use the cubes and teach you about how stories work. Click on the link at the top for a more detailed explanation.

The bad thing is we have to wait until October 6th before it's available. Having seen the product this weekend, it will be worth the wait. For now, you'll just have to be the cool kid who knows about something before everyone else does.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Don't Think About Purple Elephants

Don't Think About Purple Elephants
written by Susan Whelan; illustrated by Gwynneth Jones
2015 (Exisle Publishing)
Source: Review copy provided by the publisher

Sophie's worries made it hard for her to get to sleep and she was often tired in the mornings.

Ever been grateful for four hours of sleep? I have. When you lie in bed and can't get your mind to shut off, you are grateful to drift off to sleep for a few hours and not stay up all night. Of course, you will be having a soda as part of your breakfast of champions the next morning. Sans the caffeine, Sophie had a similar problem. During the day, everything was spectacular. She was busy and happy, but at night was when the worrying began. "What if there wasn't enough milk for her to have cereal?" she thought. Other possible problems lingered in her mind as well. The next morning, she was worn out and not up for her favorite daytime activities. Sophie's family was sympathetic and offered several solutions, but each came with new perils. Finally, her mom gave a simple piece of advice which was "Don't Think About Purple Elephants." One of the qualities of moms is that they are sneaky. In conjunction with this, they are also smarter than we are but use that power for good and not evil. Mom's advice sounded strange to Sophie, but when followed it did the trick. Sophie woke up the next morning refreshed enough to have a great day.

Not being able to sleep is a common problem for kids and adults. In this book, I really appreciate how supportive Sophie's family is to her dilemma. Everyone, including the cat, tried to help her. That thought can be transferred to the classroom as we try to help each other in the classroom each day. Another good use of this book is in teaching the skill of finding the problem and solution. I would ask students to conjure up their solutions for trying to fall asleep. Don't Think About Purple Elephants would also be a good book to contrast with Wemberly Worried, a classic picture book written by Kevin Henkes. Ask students to write about what is the same and what is different between the two books.

While you're not thinking about purple elephants, you might also avoid thinking about pink and yellow hippos. That works for me.