Put down the book and back away.

Happy Banned Book Week!


Celebrate your right to read by picking up a banned or challenged book. I put together some of my favorites in the link below.


Click here to see my board of some of my favorite banned and challenged books! Continue reading “Put down the book and back away.”

Fire Horse Girl – Released this Week and Giveaway

There is a giveaway of The Fire Horse Girl and a listing of all the great books coming out this week on Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. It is a great site in general, so after you sign up for the giveaway, look around.

Also, I will be guest-posting an Inspired Openings blog post next Monday.

Hope you are having a wonderful holidays!


Letters About Literature

Here is a plug for one of my favorite writing activities and contests for students.

For Letters About Literature, students are asked to reflect on the value a book has brought to their life – how has it changed their view of themselves or the world . I love the topic. I have had students writing moving letters about everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

They are discouraged from summarizing the book and are encourage to write about its impact on them personally. When students read the past winners they quickly conclude that they are asked to do much more than prove they read the book. They must connect and reflect.

Their website has a great explanation of reflective writing:

“Reflective writing is when an individual looks back at a past experience or period of time and thinks about the meaning and significance of that experience or time. Reflection is personal. It is insightful.

Think of a mirror.  When you look into a mirror, what do you see?  Not just your own image but also the space around you and behind you.  That’s kind of what you do when you write a reflective letter to an author. The author’s work – the book – is the mirror. The letter you write should capture the image in the mirror – a little bit about yourself and your world, how you saw yourself reflected in the book.

Here’s the really interesting thing–no two readers quite see the same reflection in an author’s work!

Reflective writing is not a fan letter or a how-to-do process report.  Nor is it literary analysis or lit-crit.  Rather, reflective writing is personal.  It is insightful.  It is an expression of ideas, sometimes memories or  emotions associated with those ideas.  The author’s work is the doorway (or again, perhaps the mirror) that allows the reader to discover these things about himself or herself or the world.”

I love the people who run this contest. They believe in what they do and take great joy in receiving and reading the students’ letter. They seem to place great value on every letter they get. They encourage their contestants and find a number of ways to honor young writers. For example, they have a gallery for the envelope art that is drawn on the entries.

Visit their site at lettersaboutliterature.org. You will find contest rules and lesson plans. They also post past winners and other valuable resources for coaching students through their letters.

This year’s deadline is January 13, 2013.

Examining Character

We were looking at character in my eighth-grade English class. We had done the standard – what they do, what they say, what others say about them, but I wanted them to look deeper. I wanted my students to draw conclusions and see the patterns and meaning behind the character’s behavior.

Because that is when things get interesting.

Why do they do what they do? Why do surface traits contrast with deeper beliefs? What does that say about the character?

We are reading To Kill a Mockingbird which contains so many great characters, but we also tried this technique with a short story and it worked beautifully (“In Your Hat” by Ellen Conford).

I found a discussion of dimensions in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. You can find a lot of great techniques for breaking down story parts at Brooks’s website – storyfix.com. It is a great site for anyone trying to teach or learn the structure underlying stories.

The technique asked writers to look at three dimensions of character:

The first dimension – What you see on the surface of a character and their interactions with their world. We looked at Scout’s first dimension. She spends long summer days with her brother Jem and Dill. She wears overalls and occasionally tries out a little cussing. She fights unless Atticus tells her not to.

The second dimension – Why the character does and says the things they do. I loved what my students discovered about Scout when we started to discuss this dimension. They pointed out that she doesn’t have a mother, so it is probably important that she fit in with the boys. They argued that while Jem is growing up, Scout is finding her identity in a town that likes to stereotype. I was blown away by their ability to take their thinking deeper when they had a method to guide them.

The third dimension – The choices a character makes and actions they take when the stakes are high. We discussed the possibility that Scout is torn between fitting in and standing out. She wants to be her own person, but she also wants to be a part of society.

After learning how to navigate the dimensions, the students filled in a simple three box chart to brainstorm the first, second, and third dimensions and wrote an essay on a character from To Kill a Mockingbird. They had much more to say after thinking about the layers of character.

Next week, we are using this technique on our own short stories. I hope it helps give the dying soldiers, broken-hearted girls, Soviet spies, and post-apocolyptic survivors populating our stories the texture readers expect and deserve.

Friday Reading

“Stories can teach, correct errors, lighten the heart and the darkness, provide psychic shelter, assist transformation and heal wounds.”

– Clarissa Pinlola Estes, PhD

In my English class we read every Friday. I am always so struck by the power of stories on these days. I watch my students enter the world of their stories, they smile and laugh. Their brows wrinkle with frustration. Sometimes, when I ask them to find a stopping place, they pull out of their books reluctantly, clinging to the fictional world, still reading even as they close the cover.

I get to sit at the front, lost in my own fictional world of college basketball, or 19th century romance, or futuristic survival. It is odd because it is the day that we are all experiencing our own stories, our own emotions. The worlds of our minds are far apart. Yet it is also the day that the class feels the most connected.

Five Reasons to Read Legend

1. Two great characters! I mean really great. So great, they are each their own reason. First – Day.

Day is a fifteen year old on the run. The Republic is desperate to catch him, but they don’t know exactly what he looks like. He is like a ghost with a Robin Hood complex. It just goes to show how much trouble a teenager can cause a government that relies mostly on blind adherence to policies and procedures.

We start the story with Day outside his parents’ house and the words “My mother thinks I’m dead.”He watches from a safe distance as soldiers mark his house with the sign of the plague. Except that it isn’t the familiar X. There is a third line sprayed on the door that cuts the X in half. This is the first time Day has seen that marking.

2. Then we meet June. June is sitting int the Dean’s office because she was scaling the side of a nineteen-story building with a gun. June considers it necessary training if the Republic is ever going to catch their most-wanted criminal, Day. She would be in a lot more trouble if she wasn’t the Republic’s prodigy and first to score a perfect score on the exam they use to decide their youth’s future.

The two lives intersect when June’s brother is killed and she goes looking for the most likely suspect – Day.

3. The chapters alternate points-of-view. I don’t mind this, but sometimes it is a hard sell for students who miss or forget to look for the cues offered at the front of the chapter. That is not a problem with this book. The chapters state the name at the top in bold letters. The font and the color changes as well. Marie Lu reports on her website that in the second book, Prodigy, Day’s chapters will be in dark blue. Even better.

4. Speaking of Prodigy, it comes out January 29, 2013.

5. I think many of my YA readers will appreciate Marie Lu’s video game background. It shows up in the action and the descriptions that seem to give just the right amount of detail woven through the action and dialogue. Lu has a gift for moving characters smoothly from place to place. I also love the drawings of the characters and other fun information at http://marielu.org/writing.html.

I want to pass this book on to…

Fans of Maze Runner and Hunger Games.

Some of my boys who love video games but haven’t found a book they love.

Anyone who wants a fast-paced, action-filled book. But, make no mistake, the characters are well-developed enough that not only does a lot happen, but it all has meaning.

Fans of the Demon King series – even thought it is a very different time, place, and style, the characters seem similar to me. The high society girl and the street-smart boy. It might pull readers from one genre into another.

Fictional Dreams

Peter Pan

“..children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies, and every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

I took my five-year old to see the musical Peter Pan a few weeks ago. To echo one lesson at the core of Peter Pan – it’s funny the things you forget when you grow up.

I had forgotten the scene where Tinkerbell drinks Peter Pan’s medicine. If, like me, it has been far too long since you have seen Peter Pan, here is a recap of that part:

In the second act, the Lost Boys have left their hideout with Wendy and her brothers. They are going to fly to Wendy’s house where they can finally have parents, but, before they can leave, they are captured by Captain Hook. Then Captain Hook sneaks down into the hideout and poisons the medicine Peter Pan had promised Wendy he would take. Tinkerbell sees Captain Hook tamper with the medicine and tries to convince Peter Pan not to take it. When Peter Pan won’t be persuaded, she drinks the poisoned medicine herself.

Then her light starts to fade.

The curtain drops on the scene of the house where Peter Pan lives, and it is just Peter Pan, Tinkerbell’s flickering light, and the audience.

This is when my son turned to me, his eyes wide and said, “This is not good.”

“It’s going to be okay,” I told him when he buried his head in my shoulder. “Trust me.” He raised his head, and with a wary look in his eyes, turned to the stage where Peter Pan is pleading with the audience to clap.

It’s the moment when we are all tapped into the magic of childhood. The whole audience young and old is clapping because that is what will bring Tinkerbell back to life, and for a moment, we all get to be children.

I love moments like that – when belief comes to the surface. It is risky. It makes you vulnerable. When you take a leap and invest in something that defies all logic and reason for the promise of something beautiful.

In reading, people call it the fictional dream. It those times when you are so absorbed in the book that the world the author has created seems more real than the world you live in.

What asks you to believe more that stories in a book. They are nothing more than lines on a page.  But the way we devour them, take them in (their people, their settings, their messages) and make their part of our world. That is magic.

Jack and I clapped and clapped along with everyone else in the theater, and Tinkerbell’s light shone brightly again. And Jack smiled at me, and we went on dreaming.