Using Character to Move Your Story Forward

I belong to a women’s book club, and this month we read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I enjoyed the book, but how the author develops her main character made me reflect on how I structure my own stories.

In The Language of Flowers the main character is Victoria, a damaged young girl on the cusp of aging out of the foster care system. She loves flowers, and uses their inherent meanings to communicate to others what she cannot.

The author lets us learn about Victoria through her actions, not exposition- we learn why Victoria is the way she is through her experiences. But the focus is not on what happens TO Victoria, but instead it is on the choices that she makes.

Somewhere in my ongoing education as a writer, I read that you should figure out what is the worst thing that you could do to your character at that point in the story. And then you should do that exact thing to them, which will propel the story forward. I understood the concept, but was always hesitant to torture my characters. After reading this book, I realize there is an alternate approach. Rather than think of what could happen to my character, I can think of what the choices are that the character might make and which one will move the story forward the most. I suspect it will be the choice that is the hardest, and the one that will require the most significant consequences.

For those of you organized thinkers like me, think of it as a decision tree. As you write your character and they reach a decision point, what are the different choices they could possibly make? And then for each choice, what would be the consequences? And if you later don’t like where the story headed, you hopefully have multiple decision points with which to go back and start a new path.

I’m looking forward to trying this on my novel in progress. Maybe this will help me to get some energy behind more novel writing!

Choosing the Right Books for Your Advanced Reader

I have an advanced reader in my house, who devours new books. My son has read and enjoyed many of the classics, such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Indian in the Cupboard; James and the Giant Peach; Charlotte’s Web; and The Borrowers. Aidan likes the newer books too, like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Holes, and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. He is eager to discover new series and new books, preferring fantasy and adventure topics.

He is, however, only in 3rd grade. I do not yet want him exposed to the world of middle school, nor do I want him worrying about the kinds of topics kids that age face. I do not want him to be exposed to excessive violence or death.

It is an ongoing challenge that I have in finding new quality books to read, and it is a topic I have discussed frequently with his 3rd grade teacher, Irene Drake. I’m sure many of you parents and teachers have faced the same issue.

So far, my approach has been to dig deep into the lists of “must read” books for his age, and sought recommendations from librarians, teachers, writers, and other parents. I also discovered the Scholastic Book Wizard, which with a little tweaking comes up with a list of appropriate books by Lexile Level or DRA along with age range. However, for Aidan, his reading level with a grade 3-5 filter only comes up with non-fiction books. Those are certainly helpful books for when he is in a non-fiction mood, but not always.

Joanna shared a list that her library prepared for accelerated readers. Some that caught my eye for Aidan were: The Moffat’s, The View from Saturday, The Enchanted Castle, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, Whittington, and Extra Credit.

What suggestions do you have for accelerated readers? Please share in the comments.

Interview: Irene Drake, Third Grade Teacher at Rockwell School

This week, we have the pleasure of welcoming Irene Drake, third grade teacher at Anna H. Rockwell Elementary School. Irene discovered her calling as a teacher 14 years ago after serving as an accountant for 2 non-profit companies. She was a 6th grade Math and Language Arts teacher before becoming a 3rd grade teacher at Rockwell School 8 years ago. She holds a Masters of Science degree in Elementary Education and a 6th year degree in Educational Leadership.

KDC: Irene, thanks for taking time to give us your insights into educating children. Tell us what inspired you to become a teacher?

ID: There were many things that inspired me to become a teacher, but if I could choose one I would say it would be Mrs. Miller who was my 2nd grade teacher. The way she cared about us as individuals, pushed us to always exceed expectations, and used her love of music to make learning more fun was a huge inspiration to me and had me thinking about becoming a teacher like her at a young age. She was also the teacher who inspired me to learn how to play piano and take lessons.

KDC: What is your favorite picture book and chapter book?

ID: My favorite picture book is Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola because it reminds me of my family growing up. My favorite chapter book is Tales of A Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume.

KDC: What are some techniques that you use to get reluctant readers engaged in reading?

ID: Some techniques that I use are:

  1. I use engaging chapter books that are part of a large series in order to hook the students and hopefully inspire them to want to continue reading more books in that series.
  2. I use technology to engage reluctant readers. Programs like Lexia and Raz-Kids are engaging for the students and provide those reluctant readers with a choice between fiction and non-fiction stories.
  3. I tap into the children’s interests to purchase books that might be engaging for those reluctant readers.
  4. I encourage them to try different types of books and I utilize our Media Specialist to help find engaging books for students who are reluctant readers.

KDC: You may have 3rd graders who read above their age level and are ready for more challenging texts, but still need developmentally appropriate content. If one of those children asked you to recommend a book, what would you tell them?

ID: There are a few series that are developmentally appropriate and meet the needs of students who need more challenging texts. I would lead them towards the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade texts that I have in my personal library and guide them towards series’ written by Andrew Clements, Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl to start. All of the books in my library have been previewed by me and checked for appropriate content. Any book that is not developmentally appropriate does not appear on my shelf.

KDC: What changes are you seeing with the implementation of Common Core and a shift to more non-fiction reading?

ID: Non-fiction reading accounts for over 50% of the reading lessons, and non-fiction reading occurs in all subject areas like Science, Social Studies, and Math. Students are gravitating more to non-fiction books when making choices for independent reading. I have also seen more paired text options for students that include non-fiction texts. Students are now understanding that a map, graph, chart, etc.  is considered non-fiction reading.

Thank you Irene for your great perspective on education and the teaching of young readers! We appreciate your time.

A Sequel to a Classic and a Poll Update!

Many of you may have read in the news this week about Harper Lee, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Lee is now 88 years old, and the manuscript she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird back in the 1950s was recently discovered, and will be published in June. It takes place 20 years later, when an adult Scout comes back to visit her father.

Besides my curiosity on what this story might contain, what struck me most was a statement that the publisher made. They stated that the story would be published in its entirety (300 and some pages) without revision. Why no revision? Is it because Ms. Lee’s capabilities at 88 aren’t what they were 50 years ago? Because it is so perfect that no revision is required (I doubt it)? Or perhaps as Joanna noted, if it were revised it would be through a completely different lens than she would have had 50 years ago. Her experiences and perspective would have colored and changed how she writes, for better or worse.

I am most interested in a more craft-driven academic comparison of the two works, rather than excited for the story itself. My experience with To Kill a Mockingbird is the reason for my current approach to movies made from books. Back when I first experienced To Kill a Mockingbird, I saw the movie first. Once I read the book, it did not have any chance to be as interesting – how the story played out in my head was completely driven by the black and white images of Gregory Peck that I had already seen. Today, I swear by reading the book first, before I watch the movie. Then my own images are already rooted in my mind, and I can enjoy the movie from the perspective of seeing how the filmmaker might interpret the material. Often my mental images are richer, but sometimes the filmmakers can use technology to create some pretty amazing things (especially with fantasy or sci-fi materials).

Are you interested in reading Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, when it comes out in June?

An update on the poll we ran a few weeks back: There was a glitch in the poll that prevented us from getting complete results. Here’s your second chance to participate! Take a minute to tell us in the comments what type of book is your favorite, and we will choose a winner who will receive a book from a Connecticut or Wyoming author.

Some possibilities:

Funny

Fantasy/ Science Fiction

Realism

Non-Fiction

Mystery/Suspense

Thriller/Crime

Textbook

Other- whatever else might trip your fancy!

The First Page

Attend virtually any conference on writing and someone will insist the first page is paramount. You must hook the reader. I’d heard the idea enough, and struggled with nailing a great first page on many a project, but it wasn’t until my MFA that I took the time to analyze what I thought was a good first page. While doing an editing internship with Hunter Liguore, editor at American Athenaeum, I was charged with reading 34 first pages (without knowing the author or title) and deciding which ones I would accept, as an editor, and which I would decline. It was very informative, and I encourage you to try it out. Discovering what magical recipe for first page elements I was most hooked by has helped me figure out what my own first pages lacked. Here’s a sample of questions that I came up with from a few of the samples:

Is there too much emphasis on setting?

If the character isn’t very fleshed out, does the story premise fill in the gaps?

What kind of tension was there?

Were the questions raised unique and so enticing I had to read on?

Does the description feel connected to the character?

Is there dialog? What does it show about the characters?

Ultimately, I learned that I connect most with the people, the characters. Any other element had to serve them. If it didn’t– for example, if there was a lot of description about a ritual but not about the characters–then I wasn’t interested. I writes stories about people (arguably every writer does), so I need to make sure each of my first pages highlights the characters and their struggles, their connect to place, their sense of the world.

Try this exercise with books you’ve already read. Or take ten books from your to read shelf and read only the first pages. If you could only pick one to read further (pretend you’re an editor with a limited list), which one would it be and why? Or read the latest Flogging A Pro, a post on Writer Unboxed that takes first pages from a variety of genres and analyzes them in a similar same way. I imagine most of you read or write picture books, but I think the exercise can be helpful there too. It’s a lot of fun!

If you’re a reader, and not a writer, asking these questions can help you discern what it is you’re looking for in story, in general, and help you find better books to read for ourselves and your children.

Review: Mouse and Mole, A Perfect Halloween

One of my favorite Halloween books this year (last year, too) is Mouse and Mole, A Perfect Halloween, by Wong Herbert Yee. Yee wrote the Fireman Small picture book, which my son loved as a preschooler. When I saw this easy reader, I knew we had to have it.

Divided into four chapters, the book follows best friends, Mouse and Mole, as they prepare for Halloween. Mouse is whimsical, brave, and laughs at everything, while Mole is serious, timid, and does things by the book. As they decorate houses and carve pumpkins, Mouse is the one holding Mole’s hand throughout the scariness of the holiday. But don’t be fooled–there are plenty of twists to keep things interesting!

A Perfect Halloween is suitable for young independent readers, though it’s wonderful to read aloud, too. Mouse and Mole seem like a modern Frog and Toad, and their friendship is just as fun to watch. Yee’s accompanying artwork is also very charming and funny. This story is one of seven books written about Mouse and Mole. So far it’s the only one I’ve read, but the more times I read it, the more I want to read them all.

This would be a fun book to read before carving pumpkins. (You’ll just have to read to find out what happens to Mole’s jack’o’lantern!) Also, it would be a nice choice if you have young ones that might be a touch scared by Halloween–they will be able to see themselves in Mole’s story and find fun in the end.

Book Recommendations: Our Favorite Picture Books

A few months ago, we shared our favorite books for children 1 year and under. Next, we are sharing our favorite picture books. It is a good mix of recently published and rediscovered classics. To choose our list, we considered several criteria. First, did we enjoy reading it as adults (quality of craft and/or a multilayered story)? Did our children ask to read it repeatedly? Did we feel compelled to buy it and add it to our permanent home library? Can we anticipate saving the book for future generations?

As before, each of our personal lists brought back many memories. We will have to read some of these again soon!

Here are our favorite picture books for children, in alphabetical order by author:

An Egg Is Quiet, Dianna Ashton

The Mine-o-saur, Sudiptha Bardhan-Quallen

The Curious Garden, Peter Brown

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, Peter Brown

One Cool Friend, Toni Buzzeo

If You Find A Rock, Peggy Christian

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown, Cressida Cowell

Llama Llama Red Pajama, Anna Dewdney

Moonshot, Brian Floca

Whoever You Are, Mem Fox

Ox-cart Man, Donald Hall

Bread and Jam For Frances, Russell Hoban

The Horse in Harry’s Room, Syd Hoff

The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Bill Martin, Jr.

Me…Jane, Patrick McDonnell

Race You to Bed, Bob Shea

Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist, James Solheim

The Stinky Cheeseman and other Fairly Stupid Tales, Jon Scieszka

Grandpa Green, Lane Smith

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems

Owl Moon, Jane Yolen

You are a Lion, Taeeun Yoo

Do have other favorites not on this list? Please share!

Summer Here We Come!

It’s officially summer in our house: the weather’s warmer, the pool’s open, the kids are out of school, and the grill is fully operational. We’re working on some summer projects here that I thought I would share with you.

Summer Reading:

My kids love the reading program at our local library, and we have already stocked up our shelves with tons of books we are planning to read. I was inspired by a reading challenge that a fellow blogger does with her daughter, so I have challenged my son as well. I gave him a list of about 35 books, and I challenged him to read 20 of them this summer. I gave him a few weeks head start before school got out to get the momentum rolling. If he finishes all 20 this summer, he will earn a prize (likely a day out together – still to be decided by Aidan).

Aidan is stuck in a Geronimo Stilton rut (not a bad rut to be in, but still), so I designed the list to encourage him to read more high quality books and continue to advance his vocabulary and reading skills. Most of the books on the list are either books I loved as a kid or books I somehow missed, so we will likely be reading most of the books together. Having each of us read alternate chapter aloud seems to work well for us.

In case you’re interested, here’s the list (targeted to a soon-to-be third grader who loves to read and has a good vocabulary)

A Wrinkle in Time
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The Phantom Tollbooth
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Secret Garden
The Hobbit
Anne of Green Gables
The Mysterious Benedict Society
The Tale of Despereaux
Because of Winn-Dixie
Alice in Wonderland
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
James and the Giant Peach
The Lightning Thief
Black Beauty
Shiloh
The Adventure of Tom Sawyer
Little House on the Prairie
The Neverending Story
The Wind in the Willows
Stuart Little
The Boxcar Children
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
The Indian in the Cupboard
Pippi Longstocking
Treasure Island
The Borrowers 
Charlotte’s Web 
Holes 
The Little Prince 
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Velveteen Rabbit 
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
The 7 books at the bottom are the ones Aidan has already read during this challenge, including Mrs. Frisby which we will likely finish tonight. The bonus in the challenge is that most of these books also have decent movies, so as we finish each book we reward ourselves with the corresponding movie. We have had some lively discussions about the differences in the storytelling between movies and books, why movies leave certain things out, and whether movie characters match what we have created in our heads.
I’ll keep you posted on how this challenge works out.
Summer Project
I am working on a project for the blog that will hopefully add another dimension and keep things interesting for you readers. I won’t spoil the surprise just yet, but hopefully we will have a periodic visitor who will share their thoughts with us on children’s books. Stay tuned – they may be ready to join us by the fall.
Summer Blog Schedule
Originally, I thought we would just plow through on the regular schedule, but now summer is underway and I am late posting for the second week in a row. A more realistic schedule is probably in order. Starting with today’s post, we will be moving to twice a month for new posts until the end of August. So we’ll see you again in 2 weeks!

Book Recommendations for Children 1 Year Old and Under

One of our critique group members recently became a grandma, so we were discussing our favorite books for very young children. Each of our personal lists brought back many memories, and we ended up with a solid list of quality books. So we thought we’d share them with you!

Here are our favorite books for children 1 year old and younger, in alphabetical order by author:

Hug, Jez Alborough

Sandra Boynton Books– including Pajama Time; Blue Hat, Green Hat; Moo, Baa, La la la!; Barnyard Dance!

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin

Are You My Mother? P.D. Eastman

Time For Bed, Mem Fox

Orange Pear Apple Bear, Emily Gravett

Cowboy Small, Lois Lenski

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?/ Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See? Bill Martin and Eric Carle

Guess How Much I Love You, Sam McBratney

Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey

Good Night Gorilla, Penny Rathmann

Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, Richard Scarry

I Am A Bunny, Richard Scarry

Sheep in a Jeep, Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple

I Love You Through and Through, Bernadette Rossetti Shustak

Hop on Pop, Dr. Seuss

Owl Babies, Martin Waddell

That’s Not My Puppy/ That’s Not My Car/ That’s Not My Dinosaur, Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells

Knufflebunny, Mo Willems

Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown

Do have other favorites not on this list? Please share!

Returning to Page One: A Second Take on Rereading

A few weeks ago, Katie shared why she doesn’t reread books. Basically, there aren’t enough hours in the day–she’d rather expose herself to something new. That’s a completely valid point. In fact, it reminds me of a different friend’s opinion that movies should only be watched once. (Gasp!) I have a slightly different take. It’s not a rebuttal, exactly. My day is, unfortunately, just as hour-deficient as Katie’s, and there are many books I enjoyed reading but would never reread. Still, I can think of at least two reasons to return to page one.

Lately, the primary reason I have reread books–wonderful stories such as Graceling, The Fault in Our Stars and One Crazy Summer–is because I’m studying craft techniques as part of my MFA. In the past few months, I’ve read each of those books at least three times. It’s only by reading so closely that I was able to dig deep enough to see how subtle  writing can be.

The second reason to reread is to reconnect with an emotional journey. Sometimes I reread to snicker (Ella Enchanted), or to have a good, solid cry (aforementioned The Fault in Our Stars). I’m also a sucker for reliving the moments of hesitation and resistance and surrender that first love brings; at 38, I’m never going to fall in love for the first time again. Mostly, I love coming of age stories–I feel as if I’m constantly coming of age. And maybe I can learn from watching someone else struggle through her own journey, even a fictional one.

Both of these reasons could be boiled down to this: Rereading means learning.

Every time I reread, something different in the text pops out at me. Maybe it’s a character trait I hadn’t noticed, or the way an author sets up a series of tiered epiphanies. Whatever it is, rereading has strongly influenced how I’ve evolved both as a reader and as a writer, and arguable as a person.

Next question: Do you keep books or pass them on?