Author Guest Post!: “My Son’s Teacher’s Approach to Reading” by Beth Vrabel, Author of A Blind Guide to Stinkville

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“My Son’s Teacher’s Approach to Reading”

My son’s passion is soccer, but math comes a quick second. Those drills everyone groans about? The ones where students have five minutes to solve a hundred problems? He eats them up.

I think I get why: each week there is an obvious growth potential. He can—and does—create specific goals. This week, he scored a 98 percent in division facts. If he can do the same or better next week, he can move up to double-digit division. The progress can—and is—charted, allowing him to see the steady increase in his knowledge base.

Growth in reading and writing isn’t obvious. Just because a book is thicker than another doesn’t mean it’s more challenging. Just because he read it doesn’t mean he understood it. Just because he can tell you what happened doesn’t mean the story blossomed—or better yet, exploded—in his mind.

I have yet to see a writing or reading exam that goes beyond measuring grammar and vocabulary ability to measuring depth of engagement with a story. Sure, there are degrees of reading power tests, but do they really showcase whether a student “gets it”? I can time how long he spends reading, but how does that reflect what he absorbed?

Really, there is only one way to tell. Conversation.

My son’s second-grade teacher was brilliant at this. “Have you read this book?” she asked him one day, putting Call of the Wild on his desk. “I know you like dogs. Maybe you’d like this book. It’s one of my favorites.”

And then, a few days later, “What do you think about John Thornton?”

My boy was hooked. Maybe not on the story—at first—but in having book discussions with his teacher. He fell hard for the story later, but those few moments each afternoon where his teacher asked him where he was in the story filled him up. That she could hint to what was coming and loved the book as much as he did made a huge difference.

Soon he was asking her for other recommendations. Even better, he was looking for books he could recommend to her. “Mom, do you think my teacher has read this book?” he asked a few weeks later, pulling Where the Red Fern Grows from our shelves. “Do you think you could read it to me?”

Soon we, too, were talking through a book, drawing connections. He imagined what it would be like to live barefoot and wild like Billy. We moved on to Tuck Everlasting and debated what would make us drink from the spring. Would we want to live forever? He held my hand when my voice shook as I read the last chapter of Flora and Ulysses.

Now there were twenty kids in my son’s second-grade class. His teacher shouldn’t and couldn’t be expected to have separate lengthy book discussions with each child. But she didn’t have to; just a quick question here or there was more than enough to ignite his enthusiasm for reading.

My son’s daily reading log lists chapter titles and page numbers, but it doesn’t reflect the times he doodles Little Ann and Old Dan on his worksheets. It doesn’t measure his imaginary games of Quidditch on our front lawn, or take into account the Gryffindor hat he wears to bed each night. It doesn’t show that he named his guinea pig “Winn-Dixie.”

I ran into my son’s teacher at Barnes & Noble one Saturday. Her hands were full of books. One was specifically for my boy to read. “I can’t keep up with all of my readers,” she said. Is there any better indicator of amazing teaching than that?

About the Author

Beth Vrabel grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. She won a short-story contest in fourth grade and promptly decided writing was what she was going to do with her life. Although her other plans–becoming a wolf biologist, a Yellowstone National Park ranger, and a professional roller skater–didn’t come to fruition, she stuck with the writing. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in journalism, she moved through the ranks of a local newspaper to become editor of two regional magazines and a lifestyle columnist. Beth now lives in Connecticut with her wonderful husband, two charming children, a spoiled rotten puppy, and two guinea pigs, Winn-Dixie and Pippin.

About A Blind Guide to Stinkville

Stinkville

Before Stinkville, Alice didn’t think albinism—or the blindness that goes with it—was a big deal. Sure, she uses a magnifier to read books. And a cane keeps her from bruising her hips on tables. Putting on sunscreen and always wearing a hat are just part of life. But life has always been like this for Alice. Until Stinkville.

For the first time in her life, Alice feels different—like she’s at a disadvantage. Back in her old neighborhood in Seattle, everyone knew Alice, and Alice knew her way around. In Stinkville, Alice finds herself floundering—she can’t even get to the library on her own. But when her parents start looking into schools for the blind, Alice takes a stand. She’s going to show them—and herself—that blindness is just a part of who she is, not all that she can be. To prove it, Alice enters the Stinkville Success Stories essay contest. No one, not even her new friend Kerica, believes she can scout out her new town’s stories and write the essay by herself. The funny thing is, as Alice confronts her own blindness, everyone else seems to see her for the first time.

This is a stirring small-town story that explores many different issues—albinism, blindness, depression, dyslexia, growing old, and more—with a light touch and lots of heart. Beth Vrabel’s characters are complicated and messy, but they come together in a story about the strength of community and friendship.

 

Thank you, Beth, for this post. We hope our sons are fortunate to have teachers like this one.

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Author Guest Post!: “Choosing Your Stepping Stones” by Margaret R. Chiavetta, Author of The Alchemist’s Theorem: Sir Duffy’s Promise

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“Choosing Your Stepping Stones”

Kids who are like me need the power of choice to help engage them in reading. Their choices are the stepping stones that lead to the path of engaged readers. They don’t just need a variety of stories to choose from; they also need the option to put a book down when it doesn’t interest them. Forcing myself to read something that doesn’t interest me is torture, but reading something that does interest me opens up my tastes, so that maybe one day a book I didn’t like before might actually be enjoyable later, when I am a slightly different person.

Reading has always been difficult for me. I don’t know why exactly. I know that my father has a difficult time reading, too. My mother and three sisters are “voracious” readers, and they are all well read. So I reckon there is something genetic involved.

As a child, I always wanted to read—I craved story just as much as any human being—but I couldn’t. I don’t mean that I couldn’t read (early testing deemed me an average, competent reader), I mean that I couldn’t stay engaged with the words on the page. I could look at illustrations and make up stories in my head, but I couldn’t bring myself to read the words.

I remember seeing books on our shelves that I wanted to read, like an herbal medicine guide, but no matter how many times I picked it up, I couldn’t engage with the words and retain the information. I grew up thinking I wasn’t very smart, and wishing I could read lots of books and become smarter.

I almost never finished the books assigned to me in school. I usually skimmed them, or asked friends before the test what I needed to know. Speaking out loud in front of people was a nightmare for me. Whenever a teacher asked me to read aloud in class my anxiety was so bad that I had no engagement with what I read whatsoever.

It wasn’t until fourth grade that I found my first stepping stone. We were assigned the book The Cay by Theodore Taylor. I loved the story. It was the first book I ever finished. Back then, I had no idea why the experience was different, but now as an adult I know exactly why. It’s an adventure story about survival. I love survival stories!

I still didn’t read assigned school books after that. However, I found my next stepping stone two summers later. I was home and extremely bored. There was a book that sat on the back of our toilet all of the time. I picked it up and read the whole thing cover to cover. It was a Calvin and Hobbes comic book. I fell in love with the series. I asked for more of the comics and got them for my birthday.

I still didn’t read the books assigned to me in school, and I rarely ever picked up books on my own. In high school, I remember reading The Amityville Horror and a romance novel, but that’s about it.

During college, a couple of important things happened. First, I started to suspect that I had the capacity to be smart in my own way. Second, my English 102 teacher assigned Octavia Butler’s book Dawn. It was my next stepping stone. I loved this book so much that I finished it and immediately went out and bought the second book of the series. Shortly after Butler’s books, I picked up Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series. My tastes for fiction began forming a pattern.

My stepping stones turned into a walkable path when I moved to Puerto Rico after college to do field research. There wasn’t much to do after work. I could watch DVD’s but only at night because it was too hot to sit on the furniture during the day. All there was for me to do was read.

I read like a demon. My mother and sisters turned me on to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, which I ate right up. My tastes diversified the more I read. In school, I never read the Hemingway books assigned because they didn’t interest me at the time, but in Puerto Rico I loved reading A Moveable Feast and A Farewell to Arms. I also picked up nonfiction, like David Sedaris’ books, and various memoirs and biographies. After Puerto Rico, I didn’t read as much, but I still read a lot more than before I lived there.

To this day, reading is still difficult for me. I can blow through a book in a couple of days if the story grabs me, and grabs me fast. But there are countless books I have picked up and struggled through, eventually putting back down. I know that reading is much easier when I have a choice, and I don’t feel pressured to read the same way and the same amount as other people. When I do choose to read a good book that suits my current mood, I can’t put it down.

My novel, The Alchemist’s Theorem, is the book I wrote for my younger self. If I had come across this fantasy adventure full of weird creature companions as a kid, I would have gobbled it up. I hope that it will serve as a stepping stone for kids who are wired like me and need a good foothold as readers.

I think it’s important to give kids free-range when it comes to reading. How can an entire class like the same book and read it at the same pace? In that scenario, there are at least a couple of kids suffering through it. And even when you let them choose their own books, it’s probable that they won’t like the first one or two or three that they pick up. As a kid, I wish I received encouragement to keep trying. I should have kept picking up books and putting them down until one grabbed me. I think my stepping stones would have popped up sooner, getting me to my reading path quicker.

CHIAVETTA_PIC

About the Author: Margaret graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2005 with her BA degree in anthropology. Afterward, she moved to Puerto Rico for a year where she spent the hot humid days following around free-range rhesus macaque monkeys. When the study finished, she went from one monkey job to the next, moving up and down the east coast for several years. Then she attempted a primatology graduate program in London, England, but developed an allergy to academia. Margaret dropped out and returned to the US and eventually went on to get her MFA in creative writing, graduating from the University of Washington Bothell in 2014. The Alchemist’s Theorem is her first novel. She lives in Seattle.

Alchemist Theorem

About The Alchemist’s Theorem: Sir Duffy’s Promise: An eccentric boy named Mendel and the alchemist Sir Duffy set out on a series of quests with their many weird and endearing creature companions–like Esther the snake-ish gusselsnuff and Gooder the big, lazy, carnivorous horse. These determined travelers must venture across the continent of Terra Copia, an exotic land where the species of flora and fauna in one forest are completely different from the next. It is up to them to safeguard secrets and dangerous artifacts from cagey enemies in order to prevent a terrifying curse from returning to their land.

The Alchemist’s Theorem published on November 6th and is now available.

Thank you to Margaret for this post!
We love the message that there is always hope when it comes to reading!

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“Games to Battle Writer’s Block” by Madelyn Rosenberg, Author of How to Behave at a Dog Show and Nanny X Returns

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“Games to Battle Writer’s Block”

A few years ago, I visited a fifth grade classroom after a long week of state testing. The students were still grumbling, particularly about the writing test, which was new that year in Virginia. They’d spent weeks practicing various writing prompts. But some of them still got stuck.

“Writer’s block,” one of them told me. I’d seen the same expression on my daughter’s face after a recent soccer loss. I hated to think the kids felt like they were losing at writing, too.

But there was good news: If they had writer’s block, that meant they were thinking of themselves as writers. The bad news, of course, is that thinking like a writer didn’t help with the stuck part. I spent part of my time in the classroom talking about the games professional writers sometimes play when they’re stuck, too. It wouldn’t help with that year’s school testing. But maybe it would help loosen the students up when they received classroom writing prompts in the years ahead. I’m listing some of my writing games here, in the hopes they’ll be of help in other classrooms as well.
 
Game 1: Fortunately/Unfortunately
In this game, I start out with a simple prompt, usually based on the classroom teacher: “Mrs. Wohlford walked into the classroom carrying a giant box.”
Then I walk around the room, tapping heads like we’re playing Duck, Duck, Goose.
“Unfortunately,” I say, tapping Head No. 1.
The kid in the Minecraft shirt, picks up the story. “Unfortunately the box was full of snakes.”
I touch another head. “Fortunately.”
“Fortunately the snakes weren’t poisonous,” says a girl with a Katniss braid.
I touch the shoulder of the girl sitting next to her. “Unfortunately…” I begin.
“… one of them was,” she finishes.
By the time we make it around the classroom, poor Mrs. Wohlford has died and been resuscitated about six times. I make sure to end on a “fortunately.”
My son’s friend Patrick, who has played this game with us a few times, says it reminds him of the Direct TV commercials (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZ80SVOHKoo). Except in the Direct TV commercials, they don’t live happily ever after.
 
Game 2: What if?
I ask myself this when I’m not satisfied with a plot point. And then I ask myself again. And again. And again. I ask until I have a situation that will move my story onward and upward.
In the classroom, I give the kids a scenario. “The fifth graders were sitting quietly at their desks, just before lunch. What if?”
Hands pop up like popcorn.
 “What if they heard a rumble and aliens landed on the roof?”
“What if an earthquake split the classroom in two?”
“What if  a dinosaur broke loose from the Smithsonian and grew flesh and stuff and started charging toward the school.”
Admittedly in this game, we are often dealing with an elementary school version of the apocalypse. But there’s plenty of laughter, too.
 
Game 3: Take a walk.
This isn’t a game so much as an activity, but take a walk. When I have true writer’s block, nothing unblocks me more quickly than changing the scenery and going for a walk outside. A walk outside with your students might be a great way to unstick them, too. And it’s also something they can do if they get stuck in their writing at home.
If you’re unable to walk, due to time constraints or weather, try suggesting a change of scenery in the writing prompt itself. Have the students move their character outside, to a park, to the mountains, to the sea.
 
Game 4: Reverse the order.
Stuck on a beginning? Have the students start in the middle or at the end. Sometimes, initial writing directions can be intimidating: Write five paragraphs, use complete sentences, don’t forget your summary sentence, etc. It’s not as daunting if you plunge in, kind of like jumping off the diving board without testing the water.
Once you’re in, you’re in deep.
 
Game 5: Add an elephant.
When students get stuck, have them add an extra ingredient that can change the plot, even if it doesn’t make total sense. There’s a lot that can happen when an elephant lumbers into the cafeteria.
Or better yet, keep a jar full of types of animals, planets, natural disasters, and methods of time travel on your desk. When the kids get stuck, let them pluck something from the jar to add into their story. Bonus activity: Have the kids fill the jar themselves–their own arsenal of writer’s block busters.
 
Game 6: Pass it on.
Remember the Exquisite Corpse game you used to play as a kid? Someone draws the head, then folds the paper and you draw the middle, and then you fold the paper and pass it to a friend for the legs? This works the same way, except with a story.
Students split into groups of three. They can each write a beginning, and then pass the story around so a different student writes the middle and a third student writes the end. They can do it completely blind, to make a nonsense story. Or they can do it reading one line from the section above. Either way, the results are always fun. And that’s exactly how we want students to think of writing.
 

 

About the Author: 
Madelyn Rosenberg is the author of eight books for kids of all ages. Her most recent books include Nanny X Returns and How to Behave at a Dog Show. Visit her online at www.madelynrosenberg.com or @madrosenberg.

 

About the Books:

How to Behave at a Dog Show

How to Behave at a Dog Show
In How to Behave at a Dog Show, a picture book written by me and illustrated by Heather Ross, Julia and Charles learn that Rexie is not exactly Best-in-Show material. But he IS best at lots of other things. We’re hoping readers will see what’s best in their own pets, and in themselves. This book can be used in classrooms as a mentor text (How to Behave at a Tea Party is also in the series and kids could easily discuss how to do anything!) I also have a guide for how to host a classroom pet show. I’m attaching the link for that here, along with the link for the book trailer my son made for me. Teacher’s Guide
 


Nanny X Returns

Nanny X Returns
Nanny X Returns is a middle-grade novel. The first book in the series, Nanny X, has found favor among reluctant readers and I’m hoping this book will, too. The first Nanny X is a finalist for the Land of Enchantment Book Award. The follow-up chases Nanny X and her young charges around Washington, D.C., as they attempt to save our national treasures from someone named The Angler, who wants a statue of a fish installed on the White House lawn. I’m enclosing a discussion guide that can be used in classrooms. Teacher’s Guide

 

Thank you to Madelyn for these fantastic games and activities to battle writer’s block!

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Author Guest Post!: “Why Read (And Write) Fantasy” by Dorothy Winsor, Author of Finders Keepers

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“Why Read (And Write) Fantasy”

Not infrequently, I run into adults who are clearly skeptical about fantasy novels. Sometimes they even ask why I write fantasy rather than something “real.” These same adults roll their eyes when their kids read Rick Riordan or J. K. Rowling and say, “Well, at least they’re reading,” as if a fantasy novel is some sort of lesser book that might build a bridge to “real” reading.

In at least one way, I understand that skepticism because I’m an intensely practical person who’s uncomfortable with too much magic. At some point, I reach the end of my willing suspension of disbelief, and that point comes sooner for me that it does for many other people. As a matter of fact, I started reading fantasy only when my son was a young reader who was entranced by it.

I’ve come to see that fantasy is a good way for a middle-grade or tween reader to try out adult responsibilities and see kids take actions with real consequences.

Middle-grade and young adult fantasy allow a writer to put young characters in dangerous situations they wouldn’t face in Ames, Iowa, for instance. If the writer is clever enough, fantasy lets them take a dilemma a young reader might face in our world and show it acted out in a way our world doesn’t allow.

Readers can follow characters is stressful situations because in a quasi-medieval world, young characters aren’t stuck in school all day. Anyone who remembers high school or middle school knows that being locked up there can be pretty maddening. Adults boss you around and you have to do what they say no matter how unreasonable it is. And that doesn’t touch the jungle world of life among your fellow adolescents.

But in a traditional fantasy world, characters take on responsibilities that we reserve for adults. Most notably, they work, meaning they interact with adults and wider events. Their families often depend on the results of their labor to survive. They sometimes have to make decisions that affect another character’s survival or the way a war will turn out. In other words, in such a setting, a writer can up the stakes and strengthen tension.

For example, in Finders Keepers, Cade takes a delivery boy job partly to earn enough to eat and partly to search rich people’s houses for his missing mother. There’s no adult to check his less considered actions because he and his teenaged brother are on their own, a situation unlikely to occur in our world. That lack of guidance lets Cade get into situations that make for a much more entertaining story.

Urban fantasy achieves the same goal by throwing powerful supernatural creatures into our world, so the young character has to engage in a bigger than life struggle.

Given how crappy school can be, readers may be relieved to identify with someone not slumped in a desk. As a writer, I like being able to expose a character to danger and increase what’s at stake if the character screws up.

Additionally, both urban and traditional fantasy situations can be used as metaphors for normal life. For instance, when Cade learns he’s a Finder, he’s horrified because he’s been taught Finders are stone-mad and destructive. Through the story, he learns to accept what he is and be proud of it. Most readers aren’t going to learn they’re from a group their society imprisons, but they are going to find they’re nerds, or fat, or gay, or unacceptable in some other way, and maybe Cade’s situation will speak to them. So the fantasy genre gives me a way to treat a common young person’s need in a more intense, metaphorical way.

Not all genres speak to all readers, but for me, fantasy isn’t “unreal.” Rather it’s a way to get at reality in a more vivid and heartfelt way.

Headhshot

About the Author: Dorothy A. Winsor spent years as a technical communications professor, studying the writing of engineers, before discovering that writing YA and MG fantasy was much more fun. Finders Keepers is Winsor’s first novel, though if you look closely, you can probably find a literal million words of Winsor’s Tolkien fanfiction posted somewhere. Winsor lives in Iowa.

Finders Keepers

140-character story pitch: Boy senses presence of heart stones. Girl recruits him to steal some. World ends at New Year if they fail. Boy also rescues mother. Tricky.

Summary of Finders Keepers: The eight gods that govern the world are tricky and fickle, and even the most innocuous of their blessings comes with consequences. Those who find a blessing are cursed to dance on strings in exchange for good fortune. Which raises the question: is finding one good fortune at all?

Cade lives a simple life with his mother and brother, but when he finds a heart stone, he wonders if he can’t change that. Heart stones are said to bring luck to those who hold them, and Cade’s tiny family could surely do with good fortune.

But heart stones aren’t just tokens of good luck; simply tracking one down is a sign of a special gift. Cade is a Finder, just like his mother before him, but this gift is hardly what is seems; if the larger community finds out about this, Cade’s entire life will change.

And not for the better.

Now he lives outside the law, struggling to find a way to repair the disaster he brought home to him family, all while fending off a new hardship that he never anticipated: an overwhelming desire to have heart stones in his hands.

No matter the cost.

Thank you to Dorothy for her post!

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Author Guest Post!: “The Power of One” by Mark Bouman, Author of The Tank Man’s Son

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“The Power of One”

I remember the times as a child when I simply wanted to disappear from the classroom or wished I had been able to hide under my desk.  The humiliation of having been verbally assaulted the night before by my dad stripped me of any shred of confidence I might have been able to muster that day.  My teacher saw that lack of confidence not only in my eyes and school work, but in how I always seemed to avoid her.  She asked me repeatedly throughout the school year why I had not done my homework and more than once berated me in front of the whole class for being the ONE student who kept “forgetting it at home… again.” Had she asked me if anything was wrong, I would have responded with a shrug and then a simple, “Nothing.”  Attention, any attention from anyone in authority was always bad and I avoided it like the plague.

As a teacher, helping students who have a rough home life can seem more difficult now than ever. Getting involved often opens a can of worms that can lead down a rabbit hole that seems endless. Having said that, there is a wonderful way to breathe life into a student whom you suspect is having a rough time at home: spend time with them.  Coaching, after-school activities and other events give you opportunity to invest in them.  Find out their interests and be intentional.  Invite them to be a part of what you’re doing.

I once had a teacher encourage me to join the debate team that she coached.  Mrs. Turner was the first teacher to say, “I think you’d be good at this.” I never heard those words from a teacher before.  Her confidence in me made me want to do anything to please her. I was so shy and reserved I would never have considered doing something like that, but her persistent encouragement won me over. Her kindness and patience helped me get over my fears and birthed a hope in me that grew with time. She was the one bright light in my dark world. At first, I limped through each practice debate barely able to look up from the podium while speaking. I was surprised to discover many of other kids were as scared as I was.  I felt a camaraderie with the other students as we all struggled to overcome our fears. After each practice debate, the teacher would critique our performance. She wisely started with a whole list of things we did right and then would kindly pick one or two things that we could work on to improve. She had a way of making us feel important that pushed us to try harder.

My home life situation deteriorated more as my father began to get more violent.  His verbal assaults were accompanied by physical abuse, and eventually my mother chose to divorce my father. More than once, the debate coach gave me a ride home after a late night of practice so I didn’t have to walk the five miles back in the dark.  Eventually, I got over the terror of public speaking and our debate team went on to win the Regional tournament in Debate.

After the divorce, we moved to another town. No other teacher had an impact on my life like Mrs. Turner did. I never forgot the look in her eyes when she said, “Mark you can do this.”  She believed in me and was able to see not what was, but what could be.  Many years later, her investment and confidence in me bore fruit.  I became a motivational speaker and have spoken in front of groups of thousands all over the world.

I have taught in the classroom many times, and I occasionally have a student in class who I recognize as having a difficult home life. They are wounded in a way that seems to scream out, “help me,” but their cries for help are not heard in the noisy classroom.  Mrs. Turner was not deafened by the noise. She made it her mission to filter out the noise.  She showed me the power of one.

ABOUT THE TANK MAN’S SON:

Tank Man's Son

What did it mean to be the Tank Man’s son? To grow up overwhelmed by my father’s presence and personality? It was as if I didn’t exist, as if I was just something else for my father to crush.”

So begins the haunting memoir of Mark Bouman as he recounts the events of his childhood at the hands of his larger-than-life, Neo-Nazi father in brilliant, startling detail. From adventure-filled days complete with real-life war games, artillery fire, and tank races to terror-filled nights marked by vicious tirades, brutal beatings, and psychological torture, Mark paints a chilling portrait of family life that is at once whimsical and horrific—all building to a shocking climax that challenges even the broadest boundaries of love and forgiveness.

An epic tale of redemption and reconciliation, The Tank Man’s Son is a literary tour de force that is sure to become an instant classic.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mark Bouman

Mark Bouman shares more about his horrific childhood and the power of forgiveness in The Tank Man’s Son. He and his family served as missionaries to Cambodia for more than 20 years. Mark, his wife Joan, and their two sons Andrew and Nik, currently reside in Anchorage, Alaska.

Thank you to Mark for this powerful post about positively impacting students with rough home lives. And thank you to Christy at Tyndale House Publishers for connecting us with Mark!

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Author Guest Post!: “What’s in a Name?” by Royce Leville, Author of The Book of Names

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“What’s in a Name?”

A pseudonym is much more than a writer taking a different name, or even a writer hiding behind a different name. It requires a process of creating a whole new writing style.

Like hitting a tennis ball, making a quilt or playing an instrument, writing is a skill.1 As a skill, it can be trained, honed and improved. Talent is useful, but most writers agree that talent only takes you so far, especially when it comes to writing fiction.2

There are many ways to work on the skill of writing and to hone the craft.3 A favorite is the “write as someone else” exercise. In fact, writing as someone else was such a boon, it allowed for the creation of me, Royce Leville.

Okay, before we give birth to a pseudonym,4 let’s take a few steps back. Why write as someone else? Good question. If you’re working towards writing fiction, especially novel-length, then you need to accept that there’s a lot of preparation and work involved before you even get to chapter one. Part of that is writing character descriptions.5 And the character really comes to life when he or she is given a voice; that is, when you attempt to write “in character.”6

Here’s a good sample exercise for writing as someone else:

  • Step 1: Write down some details of a character, including age, gender, profession, nationality, brief back story
  • Step 2: Move on to personal interests (past and present), taste in music, sports, books, etc
  • Step 3: Give the character some applicable (or even contrary) attributes, based on what’s already been listed in steps 1 and 2
  • Step 4: Start to populate the character’s world: car, house, furniture, clothing, accessories. Maybe make a list of the items found in the character’s fridge or wallet
  • Step 5: Now comes the Frankenstein moment. Can you bring the character to life on the page? Write in the first person, trying to use this character’s voice. Start with very simple things, such as making a cup of coffee or getting ready for work. See if you can write “in character”
  • Step 6: Now place the character in situations with other people. Think about dialogue and how this character speaks, and how this character behaves and reacts

Hopefully, through such a process, the character moves from being a blur of features to a sharply drawn and detailed person, one you might find yourself having conversations with inside your head.7

The more work you do in fleshing out the character, the more complex and believable the character becomes. In fact, the character may become so complete, he or she might even become the writer, with a unique style and a specific genre. And you’ve got yourself a pseudonym.8

Once there, the trick is how to get in character. Royce Leville has a black hat. With this hat on, Royce is writing.

This Jekyll and Hyde act might sound weird, but it can open some very interesting creative doors.

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Notes:

  1. This is the best thing to understand about writing, as it will help you with all forms of writing, whether it’s a birthday card for grandma, an important report at work, or a speech of some kind. If you work at writing, you can get better at it.
  2. There are plenty of writers out there low on talent who churn out successful books.
  3. Solitary writing endeavors result in little progress. Attend workshops, take creative writing classes, join a writing group. Book clubs are also good. Take the time to master the tenses and understand things like point-of-view, narrator knowledge and character consistency.
  4. Royce has written before about the benefits of writing under a pseudonym: http://chapterbreak.net/2015/01/12/guest-post-seven-reasons-to-write-under-a-pseudonym-by-royce-leville/
  5. Who hasn’t read a book with characters that seemed more like lazy sketches on napkins rather than intricately detailed and artistically drawn portraits? Or where a character said something that the character was completely unlikely to say?
  6. Have no illusions. This is much more difficult than it sounds.
  7. Not necessarily a bad thing.
  8. And you’ve possibly opened up a little can of crazy, because you’ll be writing as a character you’ve created, who then starts writing as characters he or she creates. Neat, huh?

ABOUT THE BOOK OF NAMES:

There’s a benevolent locksmith with keys to every lock in town, a serial-killing vet who harvests his victims’ organs, a group of men locked inside a container and stranded at a harbor somewhere, and a performance artist who can open a bottle of champagne in an extraordinary way

Strange situations, unsolvable problems, secret lives, redemption and revenge. At times THE BOOK OF NAMES invokes the spirit of The Twilight Zone, yielding tales of morality, sexuality, and power.

Book of Names

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Campbell is a prolific author, journalist and advertising writer who has published three books under his own name and two as Royce Leville.  He has won four independent publishing awards and received three prestigious writing residencies.  Campbell, born in Australia and residing in Germany, took second place in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards for his first Leville book, A Little Leg Work.  His articles have featured in numerous magazines and newspapers, while his short stories have appeared in Australian Reader, Spotlight Magazine, Italy from a Backpack and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) compilation, Lines in the Sand.

Find more information at: www.rippplemedia.com

Thank you to Royce for this fascinating look at pseudonyms and building characterization within writing!

Kellee Signature andRickiSig

Author Guest Post: “Teaching Kids Empathy through Story” by Natasha Sinel, Author of The Fix

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“Teaching Kids Empathy through Story”

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Recently NPR’s All Things Considered aired a piece about a research study suggesting that school kids who read and identify with Harry Potter display more positive attitudes toward people from disadvantaged groups. The reporter said, “So it turns out Harry Potter may be an effective tool against prejudice…When stories allow us to empathize with people who lead very different lives or come from very different backgrounds, it allows us to get into their shoes in a way that no amount of preaching can accomplish.”

While this doesn’t surprise me, I find it extremely interesting and validating.

I consider myself empathetic to an extreme. To be a writer of fiction, I believe that’s a requirement—we have to get inside our characters’ heads to see who they are, how they live, how they think. If I didn’t have empathy, then all of my characters would be privileged white women in their forties. But that’s not who I write. I write about teenagers—female, male, white, non-white, gay, immigrant, autistic, mentally ill.

In The Fix, some of Macy’s actions could be judged—she’s not particularly nice to her mother, she has a history of sleeping around—but as you get to know her, you learn that there’s a reason for her behaviors that even she doesn’t quite understand, even when the reader already does. Same goes for Sebastian. He’s an addict, he suffers from depression, and he spends several weeks at a psychiatric institute.

For readers who have experienced any of these hardships—depression, addiction, sexual abuse—I hope they’ll see that they’re not alone. I hope a reader who has been abused will see that telling someone can help. But I also hope that readers who haven’t dealt with any of these things will take away an understanding of the difficulties a friend may be going through, and will see how important it is not to trivialize or overlook pain that may be underneath the surface.

This quote I found really struck me, and I think of it now whenever I write: “We could be standing next to someone who is completely broken and we wouldn’t even know it.”

Part of empathy is realizing that people wear cloaks to make the pain and scars inside easier to hide. When we read, we see beneath the cloaks. Maybe that can help us look at our friends, our classmates in a new light. Maybe we can question actions first instead of judging. Maybe we can begin to understand what it feels like to be a survivor of abuse, an addict struggling every day to stay clean, an immigrant who fears deportation, an intersex girl learning about her complex body, a boy with Aspergers who wants close friends but doesn’t always understand the nuances of social interactions, an impoverished girl who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from.

If the studies are true, and kids can become more empathetic by reading diverse narratives, then we need to keep giving them the stories. I promise to keep writing them, and I hope you’ll keep teaching them.

 

About the Book:

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“Sinel bravely addresses tough topics, demonstrating that the weight of secrets can pull us under––and their release can save us from drowning.” —Holly Schindler, critically acclaimed author of A Blue So Dark and Feral

“Bewitching, beautiful, and brave . . . readers will marvel at Macy’s resilience. Sinel’s writing devastates and uplifts, by turns.” —Carrie Mesrobian, award-winning author of Sex & Violence and Perfectly Good White Boy

“A riveting picture of a teenager haunted by her past and struggling with her present . . . richly drawn, heartbreakingly real, and difficult to put down. The Fix shines.” —I. W. Gregorio, author of None of the Above

“A vivid storyteller, Sinel tackles an emotional topic, portraying the pain and repercussions of Macy’s experience with an honest sensitivity. I was hooked from the opening pages.” —Yvonne Ventresca, award-winning author of Pandemic

“Unflinchingly honest writing.” —Marie Jaskula, author of The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl & Random Boy

Perfect for fans of Laura Weiss’s award-winning Such a Pretty Girl and Leftovers, as well as Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland, THE FIX (Sky Pony Press; September 1, 2015; ISBN: 978-1-63450-167-5; $16.99; ages 12 & up), by debut author Natasha Sinel, addresses real-life issues of drug addiction and sexual abuse.

While there are many YA novels that focus on sexual abuse, very few explore the complex effects of sibling sexual abuse, which is extremely prevalent (five times the rate of parent-child sexual abuse) and underreported. The Fix, a contemporary story featuring two teenagers from opposite sides of the track, fills a void in young adult fiction.

Meet seventeen-year-old Macy. Rich, popular, and dating the cute boy next door, Macy’s life should be perfect. But she harbors a secret that could ruin her seemingly flawless family. A late night conversation with loner and recovering addict Sebastian at her friend Rebecca’s party throws Macy’s life off balance. The following morning Sebastian doesn’t show up at school, and rumors fly that he’s been hospitalized after attempting suicide. Though their conversation was brief, Macy feels connected to Sebastian and begins to visit him in the hospital. Their blossoming friendship eventually shakes Macy out of her carefully maintained complacency as she realizes that keeping her secret could destroy her.

The Fix not only tells the story of two good-hearted teenagers coming to terms with the cards they were dealt but is also about the fixes we rely on to cope with our most shameful secrets, and the hope and fear that comes with meeting someone who challenges us to come clean. Written with honesty and sensitivity, Sinel’s heartfelt and courageous debut will inspire readers.

About the Author:

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Natasha Sinel is a writer of young adult fiction. She graduated from Yale University with a BA in English and from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business with an MBA. Before beginning her career as an author, she was director of business development at Showtime Networks. Born and raised in Washington, DC, she now lives in northern Westchester, New York, with her husband and three sons.

You can visit her website at natashasinel.com.

Thank you to Sara at Sky Pony Press for sharing this great book with us, and thank you, Natasha, for your beautiful words.

RickiSigandSignature