Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The First Fifty Words--Make Them Count

     You've probably heard from different sources how important the first fifty words are, especially of a picture book. In a recent webinar, THE Jane Yolen mentioned that openings are critical. She mentioned having been a Golden Kite judge, and how much she enjoyed doing that. Jane gave special notice to the stories' beginnings. A successful opening, she says, comes within the first fifty words of the book. She enjoys playing around with her own openings until she feels she's got it just right. She suggests we do the same---type up the first fifty words of a number of picture books. Then, type up the first fifty of your own manuscripts. How do yours stack up? What's lacking that you could add to spice things up? How are you hooking the reader with your opening words?
     I decided to type up the first fifty words of four different books. What did it tell me? Did I want to read on? How did it hook me? So, here are my four, starting with Owl Moon by Jane Yolen:

     "It was late one winter night,
       long past my bedtime,
       when Pa and I went owling.
       There was no wind.
       The trees stood still
       as giant statues.
       And the moon was so bright
       the sky seemed to shine.
       Somewhere behind us
       a train whistle blows,
       long and low,
       like a sad, sad song." (53 words)

     The scene draws us in...late at night, wintertime, with a child and her father on a special adventure. Children will love the out-of-the-ordinary nighttime experience, feeling secure with a loved parent. The language is lovely and lyrical, drawing you in to the story. "Stood still as giant statues" brings the poetic use of alliteration as well as "long and low," which evokes melancholy. The use of alliteration of the words "somewhere," "sad," and "song" is lyrical language at its finest. The long vowel sounds throughout slow us down as we read. We are hooked by the sights and sounds as we join these two on their fascinating journey to see what they will find on this cold winter's night.

     The second manuscript is Banjo Granny by Sarah Martin Busse:

     "When Owen's Granny heard he was a baby who went wiggly, jiggly, all-around giggly, and tip over tumble for bluegrass music, she packed her banjo in its trusty old case with the taped-up handle. She put on her thousand-mile shoes. And she started out to cross one river, one mountain, and a desert." (52)

     This story has a totally different feel to it from Owl Moon. You can tell it's going to be a fun romp. Will she make it safely to baby Owen's? What obstacles might she face as she crosses one river, one mountain, and a desert? The language is fun, and who doesn't like a Granny with moxie and determination? Her thousand-mile shoes tell you she's been around a while and is rich in experience, which helps her navigate the three obstacles. The refrain of "wiggly, jiggly, and all-around giggly and tip over tumble for bluegrass music" is used successfully to help move the story along. Not to mention it's so much fun to say!

     The third story beginning is from Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee! by Andrea J. Loney:

     "Deep in the heart of Lenox, Massachusetts, in a white frame house nestled between his aunts' home and his grandparents' house, lived a boy named James VanDerZee. James was the oldest boy of three sons and two daughters. At the Van Der Zee's, the children learned about music and art, and kindness, too." (51)

    What do we learn from the first words of this biography? We learn that family is important, kindness is emphasized, and that the Van Der Zee  children were introduced to a variety of artistic pursuits. How will those facts feed into the story? Of the five "W's", we learn the WHO--James VanDerZee. We learn the WHAT-what he wants is to capture each person's uniqueness through art,(even though his art turns out to be photography). The WHEN is hinted at in that cameras were cutting edge at that time. The WHERE is Lenox, Massachusetts. Kindness is fleshed out in the story as he takes extra pains to portray each person at his or her best when he photographs them. Even when the photography business dries up, there is a bright spot for James when his many photos taken over the years are used for a Metropolitan Museum of Art Harlem exhibit. He has succeeded in his quest.

     The last manuscript is Fearless, by Barb Rosenstock:

     "In those days it was pretty tough to be a girl. You had to follow the rules. You couldn't speak your mind. You had to ask permission. There were games you couldn't play. You weren't allowed at the best schools. You were supposed to stay clean, quiet, and obedient." (49)

     This takes place in a time when a woman was not expected to act like anything other than a refined lady. From this, we get the idea that someone is not going to fit the description of "clean, quiet, and obedient." Who is it, and how does she push the boundaries? In the next sentence we learn her name---Louise.  First, she was not CLEAN when the car she borrowed hit a chicken coop, wood splinters covered the seats, and chicken feathers filled the air. She was not QUIET when she crunched into a troublesome driver, scraped a car into the wall, and va-roomed past all to the finish line. She was not OBEDIENT when she tells her husband (who has told her to never race again) she is going on a vacation, but goes instead to Daytona to race. Louise spent her life fast, faster, flying, free, and FEARLESS!

     I hope you will find this exercise helpful in your own writing. Those first fifty words---make them fabulous and make them count!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

How to Find Picture Book Mentor Texts ~ by Patricia Toht

I recently reached out to my GROG buddies to help me brainstorm about picture book topics for upcoming posts. I had already covered: 

The GROG hive mind came up with many suggestions, but one buzzed to the top --

How do you find picture book mentor texts?

• The most important thing you can do is to build your own reference guide. Read! Read! Read! When you find elements that are done particularly well in certain books, WRITE THOSE TITLES DOWN! I have a notebook just for this purpose, and it lists a different topic every few pages (e.g. humor, quirky characters, fractured fairy tales, minimal words, lyrical language, etc.) Soon you will have your own amazing reference guide at hand.

A recent stack of rhyming books
that I checked out of my library.

• Enlist the help of your librarian and/or bookseller. These folks are walking, talking versions of the above-mentioned reference guide.
Love your local bookseller!

• Use Google to sleuth for mentor texts. Narrow down the topic you are interested in and type key words into the search box, connecting them with the plus sign (e.g. picture book + cats + humor). You may soon discover that there are several wonderful websites with collected lists of picture books by topic. 

(mine the collective minds kids' book nerds)

Pragmatic Mom 
(great lists from Mia Wenjen)

(check the Classroom Ideas Archives)

(select Children's Books and Authors/Themed Booklists)

(Marcie blogs about mentor texts and how to use them.)

• Poke around Pinterest. Many Pinterest pages have collections of picture books by theme.

• Don't forget Twitter! The recent hashtag #nf10for10 on February 10 focused on nonfiction titles. Here is an example from an elementary school librarian outside of Boston.

• Sign yourself up for a month of mentor texts. ReFoReMo, Reading for Research Month happens every March. Throughout the month, guest posters focus on a particular aspect or theme of picture books and provide a handful of recent titles for further research on these aspects/themes. 
I will be joining the fun on March 7th when I look at "How To" picture books. You can find out more about ReFoReMo here.

I hope this helps you get started on the path to finding picture book mentor texts. 

Do you have questions? Tips you'd like to share? Please include them in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Annette Pimentel on Scaffolding the Past for Young Readers

our guest author, Annette Pimentel
by Sue Heavenrich, with Annette Pimentel

Last fall I reviewed Annette Pimentel's book, Mountain Chef, a wild tale of a cook in the Sierra mountains. I loved the story and the extensive back matter, and was amazed at how Annette did her magic. She graciously accepted our invitation to write a guest post for the GROG. And now I'll turn it over to...

Annette Pimentel

In the picture book biographies I write, I need to accurately recreate yesterday’s world for my young readers. Only when kids understand how things used to be can they see how a true-life hero transformed society. So, in every book I face the challenge of building a scaffold of knowledge about the past to support my reader’s understanding.

First, I need to decide what is important for my reader to understand. I think about assumptions kids make about their world—that girls and boys both play sports, for example. I try to figure out what essential elements of the world I’m writing about kids won’t already be familiar with.
Once I know what gaps I need to fill, it’s time to build that scaffold.
I’ve learned important scaffolding skills from mentor texts. Here are strategies that ensure kids get the background knowledge they need.

If only I could just stop everything and give kids the background they need! Usually that would be death to a story but occasionally it actually works.
Freedom in Congo Square depicts the joyful Sunday music and dance of enslaved people in New Orleans. But with a topic like that, there is the danger that young readers will fail to understand that those were stolen moments within a life of oppression. So before the book even starts, a Foreword tackles the issue of slavery.

Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs tells the story of a thinker who emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Rather than try to explain the significance of the Industrial Revolution within the story, the information is placed in a sidebar. The reader can drop out of the story for a moment, read, the information, then get back to the story with the knowledge she needs.

Handily, you can often build your scaffolding as you describe your main character since the information your reader needs probably relates to that main character’s passions and desires.

Martin’s Dream Day gives kids information about the state of civil rights in the US in 1963 by explaining Martin Luther King’s convictions:
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in equality. For everyone—not just a few. He wanted all people to have the full rights of citizenship. That meant the right to vote, to go to school, and to get a job. In the 1960s, African Americans did not have these basic rights.

I used the same strategy in Mountain Chef. I needed to explain to kids the ugly realities facing Chinese Americans after the passage of racist laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, so I described how my hero ended up in his job as a gourmet trail cook:
Bosses paid Chinese workers less than white workers….Most people with Chinese names ended up cooking in restaurants or washing clothes in laundries. Tie Sing, though, had…dreams as big as the country he loved. Cramped shacks weren’t for him.

One great way to scaffold kids’ understanding of the past is to start with something that they will assume they know, and then describe how it was different in the time period you’re writing about.
Karl, Get Out of the Garden is a biography of Karl Linnaeus, who set up the system of animal and plant classifications that we still use today. How do you get kids to imagine a world where there simply aren’t consistent names for plants and animals? Here, it’s done by talking about a plant that every kid knows.
Doctors, gardeners, farmers—everybody!—argued about the names of plants. Dandelions might be called blowball, swine’s snout, or yellow daisy—depending on which town you lived in.
In Girl Running I knew that my soccer-playing girl readers were going to have to imagine a world very different from their own to understand the magnitude of Bobbi Gibb’s accomplishment in breaking the Boston Marathon’s gender barrier. So I start the book in a familiar environment: school.
Bobbi Gibb must wear a skirt to school because she is a girl. She is not allowed to run on the school’s track team. Because those are the rules—and rules are rules.

As young readers dive into more and more nonfiction, their understanding of the world becomes broader, richer, and more nuanced. But that growing understanding depends on the almost-invisible, but carefully-built scaffolds of knowledge constructed within the nonfiction they read.

Thanks you so much, Annette, for filling our writer's tool box with more strategies we can all use. 
Annette Bay Pimentel wrote Girl Running and  Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook up the National Park Service, the 2017 Carter G. Woodson Award winner. Every Wednesday she writes about recently-published nonfiction picture books at You can also find her on Twitter at @AnnettePimentel She is represented by Andrea Brown Literary.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Life of a Writer--Keeping Track of Your Ideas ~By Suzy Leopold

Another outstanding writing event took place during the month of January. I’m quite certain many of you participated in Storystorm with Tara Lazar. As always, there were excellent posts for writers to learn and grow from.
Storystorm 2018
Now, what are your plans for the ideas you generated and wrote down?

Ideas are what keep a writer moving forward. Whether you have too many ideas or not enough, keeping track of ideas in an organized fashion will support you and your writing goals. Putting them altogether in one place becomes a depository of ideas.

Perhaps you jotted down tidbits on scraps of paper, scribbled on a receipt, note cards, or even a paper napkin. Better yet, you may have typed your thoughts into a document on your computer. Did you write your inspiring *light bulb* ideas in a journal?  You’re ahead of the game if you kept your ideas in one place. Whatever tool you used, be affirmed in knowing you are moving in the right direction.

If you need some organization for your ideas, it’s time. It is time to gather all of your incredible ideas and keep them in one place. 

The human brain can’t possibly remember them all. Perhaps you are like me . . . I can’t remember most ideas since they seem to disappear into thin air as fast as they appear.

Created by Suzy
Any type or size of journal will work. Composition notebooks work best for me. Gather all of the odds and ends and pieces of paper you used to jot down your thoughts: Post-it® notes, index cards, your scribble scrabbles, receipts, and envelopes, etc. There is no need to rewrite your many ideas. Use a glue stick to adhere your collection of bits and pieces of paper inside a notebook.
Recording and tracking your ideas, are excellent organizational tools for a writer. Your ideas are ready and handy for when you need them. Over time you can refer to each one and expand on the idea as you develop it further. Are some of the shiny ideas standing out more than others? Perhaps some ideas are demanding, "Write me!"

As you weed through what you scribed during the Storystorm challenge, consider each idea thoughtfully. Carefully examine each idea and whittle down the list. Evaluate and determine which ideas have a strong picture book potential.

What makes a good idea? That's a challenging question. While no idea is ever wasted, a writer needs to consider the shiny ideas first. You need to weed through each one. Which ideas do you want to consider developing further? 

Here's my list of suggestions:

1. Choose an idea and write a pitch or a tweet.
2. Set a timer for 30 minutes and write a sloppy copy.
3. Brainstorm a few ideas with a critique partner.
4. Draft an outline to see where the idea takes you.
5. Select an idea and create a character map.
6. Ask yourself questions. Does the idea lend itself to a clear theme?
7. Do you feel you can expand on the catchy title idea? 
8. Search on Amazon. Do you see another writer who wrote about your idea? Don't be discouraged. Set out to write a story with a new spin, told in a way that only you can do. 
9. Write a draft, followed by several rewrites. From there take time to reconfigure and reconsider before sharing your manuscript with a critique partner or group. 
10. Finally, ask yourself, "Am I passionate about this idea?" Then you must write it.

After you have organized your Storystorm ideas in your Notebook of Ideas and prioritized which ideas have a strong potential to become manuscripts, keep on going. 

The journal can be used for future ideas throughout the year— an ongoing list to inspire you. 

Hang onto your inspiration. Create a depository of writing ideas.

Share in the comments below your suggestions for keeping track of your writing ideas.