Tag Archive: writing instruction


 

 

Write What Matters, for Yourself, for Others by Tom Romano. 2017. San Bernardino, CA.
Genre: Teacher resource
Levels: Writers and writing teachers at all levels will find much to love in Romano’s down to earth, highly readable text.
Features: Carefully selected student samples, anecdotes from the author’s vast experience as a writer and teacher, tips on writing and revising well, quotations from other writers you already know and love.

Overview
Want to inspire your students to create the best writing of their lives? This is your book.

Want to produce some great writing of your own? This is your book, too.

Got a half-finished piece of writing tucked away in a drawer somewhere? A piece you don’t think is good enough to publish? This is most definitely your book—and by the time you finish it you’ll be scrambling to dig that piece out and go to work.

Tom Romano packs an impressive stash of wisdom into a slim 132 pages. You can finish the book in an afternoon, but you’ll return to it again and again. It’s a treatise on daring to write fearlessly, combined with tips on writing and revising well, and examples—from professional writers, students, and Romano himself—to show how that’s done. Chapters are short and snappy, highly conversational, and bound together by one simple, yet profound message: Write with courage. Do it.

Throughout the book, Tom quotes other fearless authors I love, including Michael Pollan, Larry McMurtry, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Tim O’Brien, Donald Murray, Kurt Vonnegut, J. Ruth Gendler, and others. As I’m happily tuning in to these familiar voices, I’m also appreciating how Tom consistently, almost relentlessly, links writing to reading. It’s not enough just to read casually, though. As he illustrates so brilliantly in this book, we have to read attentively, looking for words used well, listening for voice, paying attention to beginnings and endings, letting sensory details wash over us and recalling how that felt. As a reader, he tells us, “Take to heart the written voices of authors you love” (92). From page one, this book is a lesson in reading like a writer.

In the end, Write What Matters is about trust. Trust in language, in ourselves as writers, and above all in our students. Romano says it this way: “For my students—and for myself—I want a boldness in using the language that offers itself to us. No hesitancy. No timidity. No procrastination” (6).

Early on, Romano talks about “trusting the gush,” letting our writing energy explode on the page, restraining all censorship or judgment. This can be hard for students. One of his Chinese students (part of a teacher education program in English Language Arts), found it exceedingly difficult to let go and be herself on paper. She’d already had some success with a formulaic approach to writing: introduction, three points, conclusion. And as superficial and unsatisfying as formula is, it’s hard to walk away from what you feel you can control. “She was doubtful, distrusting, and anguished,” Romano tells us. “In the beginning weeks of the semester, though, she participated in good faith. She let the language lead her, and she found she had things to say, things that weren’t in her mind when she began to write. ‘I think it a little bit magic,’ she wrote” (7).

Isn’t that precisely what we want for our young writers? A little bit of magic?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll read Tom’s book with a highlighter in one hand and a pen in the other. That way, you’ll wind up with no end of inspiring passages to share with students. In his own words, Tom seeks to be our “writing friend” (xv). And that friend is telling us to be nervy and unstoppable, to live on the literary edge.

Tom's book

Following are a few of the many features that render this small book so important.

Going inside Write What Matters

The Importance of Voice. A colleague of mine has a name for a decaf skinny latte with sugar-free flavoring. She calls it The Pointless. That’s exactly how I feel about writing without voice. My belief was affirmed a few years ago when a friend gave me a copy of Tom Romano’s book Crafting Authentic Voice (Heinemann, 2004). I devoured it that same night, burning through the pages, crying yes, yes, yes!! In that book, Romano makes a compelling case for the idea that it’s voice more than any other quality that keeps readers reading. Crafting Authentic Voice is filled with countless brilliant strategies for finding your own voice—and helping others do the same.

When I read Write What Matters it was like visiting an old friend. This new book also contains valuable lesson ideas for strengthening voice. Even better though, this time around, Romano cuts right to the chase with one uncompromising rule: Write fearlessly. Ultimately, voice comes from daring to say what we really mean. To state it boldly and unequivocally. To write “what matters.” As Tom himself says, “Don’t let fear or doubt or standards stop the flow of words from you to the page” (8).

The Writing Notebook. Romano talks about hearing the echoes of former teachers and other critics who might not like his choice of topic, the words he chooses, or the way he uses them to build sentences. Sound familiar? One voice in his head grumbles, “What on earth, may I ask, is your thesis?” (10). The notebook spells freedom from all that: “Through the notebook, I broke the surface and sucked air into my lungs” (11). No more over-the-shoulder criticisms and inhibitions. In our writing notebooks, we can be ourselves. All things are possible. Moreover, the notebook provides the practice, practice, practice it takes to write with confidence and skill.

Tom takes his notebook everywhere, he tells us, so he can write at a moment’s notice. Though I admire this idea enormously, I do my daily writing on the computer. You may choose to write in a leather bound journal or on a small spiral bound notepad you can tuck in a pocket. Format isn’t important. It’s doing it every day that counts. Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m not sure I’d know what to say.” In Write What Matters you’ll find many ideas for interesting things to include—quotations, memorable words or phrases, dialogue, potential writing topics, descriptions, sketches, complaints, predictions, observations, and more. The beauty of the notebook is that you can make it what you want. No boundaries, no assignments, no minimum lengths—and no negative comments! Why not start one today?

“Take pictures of your writing place.” (p. 29) Have to say, it never occurred to me to do this, but when I read Chapter V, A Writing Place, I realized how important “place” really is to writing. Do we think of this in school? Not usually. Students often have little time to write, and when they do, they often sit at uncomfortable desks in rigid rows surrounded by distracting noises. Imagine if they could move those desks out of formation, sit in beanbag chairs, venture outdoors—or even gather on a comfortable rug on the floor. Would it make a difference? Well, just ask yourself where you like to sit (or stand) when you write.

I’m lucky. I got to design my writing space. My desk is blue pine—pine that’s been “antiqued” naturally by insects. Its little notches give me something to scan as I’m thinking what to write next. It’s angled to surround me as I sit facing out toward a window that frames two hundred year old Ponderosas. The front is all book shelves, and the back is filled with tiny drawers and cubbyholes that hold pens, post-it notes, and other writing tools. On the wall hangs an “I Am From” essay by my grandson, alongside a framed copy of the timeless advice from Strunk & White: “Omit needless words”—art courtesy of author and illustrator Melissa Sweet. It’s my corner, and I’m at home the minute I sit down.

You might have your students photograph their writing spots, too. They’ll have fun sharing photos and talking about the kinds of places various writers like to work. In addition, it will help them appreciate the importance of choosing a spot where writing feels natural and comfortable, like something we’re meant to do.

Chapter VI, “Risk and All.” Risk is something all writers face. After all, we are sharing ourselves on paper and readers may not like what we say, or the way we say it. Fear of rejection makes many students write with caution and cautious writing rarely works. It never works when we are writing about things close to the heart—the things that matter. We don’t always have to write about “topics from the heart of darkness,” as Tom puts it, but edgy writing can take us from good to “memorable” (31-32).

One of the hardest thing I’ve ever done was to move my mother to a nursing facility so she could receive the 24/7 care she needed. She had dementia, and believed she was packing for a trip. My heart cracked as she carefully pointed out the things she wanted in her suitcase. When it wouldn’t hold anything more, we took off. She didn’t notice that we only drove three miles.

Though the facility itself was as bright and airy as that sort of place can be, it was decidedly medical with all the sights, sounds, and smells that implies. As I wheeled her inside, my mother—whose state of mind had freed her from all inhibitions—asked, “Why the hell did you choose this hotel?”

Writing about this experience was enormously therapeutic, but also risky, yes. My mother was a naturally funny, outrageously blunt person. As I wrote, the dark humor she inspired kept creeping in, and that made me a little uneasy. I could imagine readers/listeners saying, “What’s wrong with you? How can you laugh in the midst of this nightmare?” I had to trust my instinct that humor thrives in the bleakest of worlds. Without humor, I couldn’t honor this woman who, while losing her mind, kept the rest of us afloat with her quirky, comical observations.

I knew all the risk had been worth it when I read Tom’s unflinching advice: “Whatever you choose to write about—and I, for one, hope you write about it all—don’t hold back. Dive into your experience and perceptions with openness, honesty, and commitment” (32). This is some of the best advice on writing I’ve ever read. Here, I think to myself, is a teacher who is not just willing but wanting to read everything his students put out there. Saying, like Al Pacino in the movie Heat, “Gimme all ya got!” What writer can resist an audience like that? If you’ve ever wondered how to motivate students, there’s your answer.

The Beauty of Dialogue. Ever leaf through a book just to see if there might be, oh please, some dialogue in your future? Why do we do that as readers? Because dialogue provides a respite from the drone of uninterrupted narrative—even when that narrative is good. Dialogue, unless badly written, shimmers with voice. It also defines character. Folk wisdom says we’re what we eat, but literary wisdom says we’re also what we say. “Without dialogue,” Romano reminds us, “there would be no plays, no novels, no creative nonfiction, no films” (44). All the forms of communication we treasure most.

Writing dialogue takes a good ear. You need to read it aloud—more than once. You need to embrace incomplete sentences and broken, run-together, even mispronounced words. That’s how we talk. Romano suggests that the writing notebook provides an ideal place to practice. And he’s not opposed to eavesdropping on conversations! “Record exact words,” he says. Don’t just sum up what was said. That way, you can “revel in nuances, fragments, assumptions” (45).

As Romano reminds us, one of the best ways to learn to write dialogue is to read books written by those who are masters. Larry McMurtry, Sandra Cisneros, Mark Twain and E. Annie Proulx come immediately to mind. No doubt you have favorites of your own.

Among the most brilliant writers of dialogue in children’s or YA literature I would list Roald Dahl, E. B. White, William Steig, Laurie Halse Anderson, Gary Paulsen, Steve Sheinkin—and Esmé Raji Codell.

In her delightful book Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: A Memoir of my Fifth-Grade Year (2004), Codell tells of an incident involving her headstrong mother and the rude driver of a shiny red Jaguar—who happens to park directly beside a fire hydrant. Since the police aren’t giving this law breaker a ticket, Esmé’s mother ropes her fifth grade daughter into handing out justice. Notice how well Codell captures the rhythm of human speech, using strategies Tom Romano highlights in the book to create the “give and take” (44) of authentic conversation:

“What a joke! I’m laughing! HA! What does he care? As long as he gets a space.” I interrupted Mom to pull at her sleeve and point. A police car was coming down the street. It passed the car without slowing. “See? See?” sneered my mom. “He doesn’t even get a ticket. Nothing to stop him from doing what he wants. Nothing to show him we don’t like it.” My mother shook her head. “And I don’t like it.”
She went into the apartment and came back out again.
With a carton of eggs.
“Ma!”
“What? He’s a schmuck. The man’s a schmuck.”
“But Maaaa! Gee. You really gonna do it?”
“No,” she said. She opened the carton and handed me an egg.
“Ma! That’s not fair!”
“I’m your mother and you’ll do what I tell you,” she said plainly. “Now, hit the windshield.” (10)

As you read this or other passages aloud, talk with your students about things good writers do to make dialogue work. Then share these additional dialogue writing tips from Tom Romano:

  • Use said (most of the time) in favor of fancier words such as admonished, cried, announced, declared. (Check out Lonesome Dove—a book with some of the best dialogue ever written—and you will see that author Larry McMurtry uses said almost exclusively.)
  • Avoid adverbs—“Drop the gun,” said Dick forcefully. Let the content carry it: “Drop the gun,” said Dick.
  • Keep it brief. Tom reminds us that real people chat. They don’t deliver speeches to each other.

Sensory Details. “Develop the habit of writing toward the senses,” Romano suggests. “Don’t worry about overdoing it. You can always cut back” (54).

I’m a big fan of sensory detail because it’s strategy number one for transporting readers right into a scene. Students do overdo it, though. While describing the carnival, they deluge us with the jingling music of the carousel, piercing screams of the roller coaster riders, stomach jolting sensations of being catapulted through space, pungent smells of the buttery popcorn and foamy beer, garlicky taste of the hot dogs and syrupy sweetness of the cotton candy. This isn’t sensory detail—it’s sensory assault. But despite all that, I suspect Romano is right. Collect first. You can toss the excess later. Subtlety comes with time, with learning to sift through memories and celebrate the one or two senses that stand out.

In The Winter Room, author Gary Paulsen talks about how much readers bring to books. Such things as smells are not really in the books, he tells us, but in ourselves. If books could have smells, though . . .

This book would have the smell of new potatoes sliced and frying in light pepper on a woodstove burning dry pine, the damp smell of leather mittens steaming on the back of the stovetop, and the acrid smell of the slop bucket by the door when the lid is lifted and the potato peelings are dumped in—but it can’t . . . . Books can’t have smells. (The Winter Room, 1989, 1-2).

Paulsen focuses exclusively on one type of sensory detail, but notice the rich experience our imaginations create. Amidst the rich aromas, we still see the woodstove and mittens and bucket, hear the crackle of burning wood and the sizzle of potatoes sputtering in the grease. Our tongues are already feeling and tasting that light pepper.

At the end of this chapter, Romano suggests choosing an activity—“cooking, playing, loving, working, sporting”—and writing down all the sensory details we can recall. “Write directly into the experience” he says, censoring nothing until you see what memory yields. This all-inclusive approach is highly strategic because if you censor too early, you might overlook the leather mittens or the burning pine. Even tiny details, if well-chosen and vividly portrayed, can evoke a whole range of sensory responses in readers. Consider Romano’s closing lines: “You hear the blare of the noon siren and raise your head. Your mouth starts watering for a toasted cheese sandwich” (55). No need to ask what you’re smelling and tasting as the siren wails. Sensory detail thrives on the power of association.

Chapter XV, Break the Rules in Style. I love this chapter. Who wouldn’t? Here the master teacher is encouraging us to be “ornery, rebellious, defiant” (63). Sounds like fun. Do we need to know the rules before we start this party? Absolutely. But once we do, we can write in lists, construct labyrinthine sentences (the perfect term for a long sentence that keeps its act together and never leaves you floundering), splash fragments through our prose, play with spelling, and more.

Tom also mentions these irresistible rule violations near and dear to my heart:

  • Starting a sentence with a conjunction, such as And or But
  • Using fragments
  • Writing one-line paragraphs

Why shouldn’t we do these things if they contribute to style or voice? “The land of writing is big,” Romano assures us. “It contains much” (69). Consider how e. e. cummings shrugged off punctuation and capitalization. Think what fun Sandra Cisneros had in The House on Mango Street (check out the chapter “Four Skinny Trees”) playing with fragments and repetition, and blurring the lines between prose and poetry. Who would want to lose all that?

Take Romano’s sage advice: Learn the rules, but once you do, “Don’t be afraid to experiment, to play, to invent your way to writing well” (69). It’s just one more way of being fearless.

Leads—or Ledes. Romano uses the journalistic spelling—ledes—but the concept is the same. Those first words, sentences, or paragraphs. Tom underscores their importance with these words: “If the first page doesn’t compel readers’ attention and pique their interest, than all that follows is for naught” (74).

He supports his argument with several striking examples from literature, along with suggested types of ledes and activities to help students generate strong openings of their own. In particular, he recommends “quickwrites” of multiple ledes to generate a “creative current” in the classroom (78). This approach is wonderfully effective in helping students shake off the misperception that it’s critical to nail a lede, or any part of writing, on the first pass—or even the second. In my experience, students are startled to learn that professional writers routinely write three, four, or even twenty ledes before finding the one that works.

What’s remarkable about Write What Matters is that through energizing activities like the quickwrites, Romano finds a way to instill habits like practice, experimentation, and revision without reducing them to drudgery. He keeps it all do-able, within reach, all the while pushing students to new heights of success. This balancing act is pure instructional genius.

I’ve collected leads (I always return to this spelling because it suggests what an irresistible lead does—lure us into the writing) all my writing and teaching life, so I’ve had a chance to accumulate numerous favorites. Here are a handful—and as you read them, ask yourself which ones would compel you to keep reading:

  • The best time to talk to ghosts is just before the sun comes up. (Laurie Halse Anderson, 2008, Chains)
  • “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (E. B. White, 1952, Charlotte’s Web)
  • Christopher Hogwood came home on my lap in a shoebox. (Sy Montgomery, 2006, The Good, Good Pig)
  • If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it. (Richard Peck, 2004, The Teacher’s Funeral)
  • It was a pleasure to burn. (Ray Bradbury, 1981, Farenheit 451)
  • Meeting Harris would never have happened were it not for liberal quantities of Schlitz and Four Roses. (Gary Paulsen, 1993, Harris and Me)
  • Most stories about the destruction of the planet involve a villain with an evil plot. (Mark Kurlansky, 2011, World Without Fish)
  • They murdered him. (Robert Cormier, 1974, The Chocolate War)

Collect favorites with your students and follow Tom Romano’s excellent advice to make the writing of multiple ledes a habit.

Imitation and Charles Harper Webb, poet extraordinaire. Throughout the book, Romano advocates tinkering with voice, occasionally imitating a writer whose voice speaks to us. This is not to say each person shouldn’t develop a voice that is his or her own. Not at all. It’s simply a way of stretching, exploring, coming at the world from a new direction just to see what happens when you step out of your comfortable shoes.

If you’re not familiar with the poetry of Charles Harper Webb (I confess I was not), you need to look up the incredibly entertaining poem “How to Live” online. It’s just what you would think—advice. But the scope, from deep to whimsical, practical to philosophical, playful to dead serious will delight and surprise you. Read it several times. Then follow Tom’s suggestion and write a “How to Live” poem of your own. You’ll be stunned by the voice that emerges. (At this point, Romano quotes one version by Brittany McNary Thurman, a college senior—and I believe it’s my favorite student sample in this book, which is saying quite a lot. Find it on pages 95-96.)

The lesson here, though, is not simply one of imitation. It’s an echo of Romano’s earlier admonition to sit up and pay attention to the writers we love. Learn from them, he says. “Sit in their classrooms of the page” (96).

Embracing Revision. The final chapters of the book are about revision, a topic Romano approaches from both a philosophical and practical stance. In the chapter titled “Befriending Revision,” he talks about revision as a natural part of life. We are revising constantly, “changing our minds, changing course” (104). Further, revision is not an admission of error or wrong-doing, but “a mark of growth and maturity,” a sign we have raised expectations for ourselves, an indication we are learning to care about readers (104-105).

In the chapter “Dwelling in Your Words,” Romano offers a concise tutorial on things we must attend to when we revise—the essentials: the lede, precise wording, imagery, sentence length and structure, sensory detail, endings (not just of whole pieces, but of paragraphs or even sentences), strong verbs, and “weeding the garden” of clutter (113). He also illustrates the revision process with an evolving piece of writing in which clarity emerges like sunshine.

It takes time to build a garden, perfect a recipe, raise a child. Why then would we think revision would be simple or fast? It too takes patience, effort, awareness, a willingness to step back periodically to regain perspective, and the courage to move in close enough to spot even the tiniest flaws. If we expect perfection too soon, we are likely to discover that “It ain’t bourbon yet” (97). And that’s the title of what has to be my favorite chapter in the book. You have to love a writer who discovers connections where you might not even think to look for them. Who but writer, teacher, and witty philosopher Tom Romano would link the making of bourbon to the writing process? He explains the painstaking steps required to distill this popular American brew, including endless assessments: watching, sniffing, and tasting. As he discovers, a premature sip only yields disappointment. But give that frothy concoction some time and a tender, loving tweak or two, and voila. You have something to take pride in, something worth bottling and sharing.

As if that weren’t enough . . . I’ve only begun to explore the numerous topics and suggestions Tom Romano offers in this entertaining and practical handbook. You’ll also find Tom’s thoughts on—

  • Sketching as prewriting
  • Using metaphor to clarify meaning
  • Ordering information
  • Embracing parallel structure
  • Surprising the reader
  • Nurturing voice over time

And one thing more: grit. In one of the most engaging Acknowledgments sections ever (133-135), Romano tells us that “Writing and publishing Write What Matters was a lot like hiking the trail in Kauai that wasn’t listed on the map: initially slow and messy, walking down an abandoned road overhung with dense foliage” (133). It required researching, reading, writing, revising, more revising, sharing, hoping—and looking for a publisher. Tom didn’t find one. Let me say that I can’t think when anything has surprised me more. I would buy anything Tom Romano wrote because I trust his thinking—and I’m hooked on writing that rings with voice, as his inevitably does. I’m sure many writing teachers out there share my perspective. What matters in this case, however, is that he didn’t give up. Encouraged by colleagues and friends, he decided to “bypass the naysayers and self-publish” (135). Bravo, Tom.

Do likewise. Believe in your message, too. “Trust language. Write what matters. You’ll move through sunlight” (132).

About the Author . . .
Tom Romano earned his Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire. He taught high school for seventeen years, and currently teaches writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Tom claims to have “caught the writing bug in seventh grade,” and has been writing ever since. He is the author of several best-selling, highly acclaimed books on writing, including Crafting Authentic Voice, Clearing the Way: Working with Teenage Writers, Writing: Teaching and Learning, and Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers. In addition, he’s written a memoir titled Zigzag: A Life of Reading and Writing, Teaching and Learning. Tom likes to start his classes by reading a poem, and insists that his college students write in multiple genres, and not focus exclusively on expository essays. Visit Tom online at

http://www.users.miamioh.edu/romanots/Tom_Romano.html

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
First—a reminder! Our new book Teaching Nonfiction Revision (co-authored by Sneed B. Collard III) is now available for purchase both online and through our publisher:


http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx (price: $26.50)

This book takes readers inside the thinking of a working professional nonfiction author—Sneed! For anyone who still might not know, Sneed has written more than 75 books for young readers, including Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Animal Dads, Firebirds, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Teeth, Wings, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, Hopping Ahead of Climate Change, and his recently published memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (several of which I’ve reviewed here on sixtraitgurus).

A seasoned, imaginative writer, Sneed knows his stuff and has a lot to say about the craft. In Teaching Nonfiction Revision, he details the tips and strategies that have won him numerous writing awards and made his books best sellers.

I had the fun of translating Sneed’s invaluable messages into classroom lessons teachers can use to help students revise their own nonfiction—with dramatic results. You’ll find engaging activities, strategies, suggestions on what to say in a one-on-one conference, writing secrets to share with students—and more. Many lessons and tips are down-loadable to make teaching easy and convenient. We’re confident you’ll find Teaching Nonfiction Revision a valuable addition to your professional collection.

Many thanks to my colleague and former co-author Jeff Hicks (Write Traits Classroom Kits) for his incredible review—posted recently right here on sixtraitgurus. If Jeff can’t convince you to buy this book, no one can.

Gurus will be in hiatus for a few weeks as I travel to Sydney, Australia. After returning, I’ll have several new books to review.

Until our next post, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

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Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish Are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest by Sy Montgomery. 2017. Photographs by Keith Ellenbogen. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Genre: Illustrated nonfiction chapter book.
Levels: Grade 4 through adult.
Features: Outstanding illustrations from the wild habitat of the Amazon rainforest, intriguing details backed by impressive firsthand field research, selected bibliography and index. Length: 67 pages, excluding back matter.

 

Overview
To say Sy Montgomery is a master of nonfiction is an understatement. Not only is her writing brilliant—at times poetic—but Sy’s incredible research always yields memorable details I can’t get out of my head. Like these . . .

Did you know that as many as 500 species can be found on a single flower from the Amazon? Or that the Amazon rainforest is known as the “lungs of the world” because it provides a staggering one fifth of the world’s oxygen? Or that a new species is discovered in the Amazon every three days? That’s only a sampling of what you can expect to learn about this exotic place where “life piles upon life” (12).

I’ll admit it. Previous books I’d read about the Amazon wilderness left me with a haunting sense of dread. An environment that’s home to giant anacondas (up to 300 pounds), fearsome piranhas, and the biggest alligators on earth, the black caimans, didn’t sound like anywhere I’d set up camp voluntarily. Now I feel my perceptions shifting. Though Montgomery never discounts the dangers, her book provides a balanced view, mixing the undeniable danger with a true vision of Eden—an elusive and endangered paradise worthy of our reverence and protection.

As we learn from Montgomery’s words and Keith Ellenbogen’s photos, Eden has some unusual inhabitants: pink dolphins, for instance, thought by some natives to have the power of transforming themselves into humans. And then there’s the Goliath birdeater, a tarantula that weighs in at a quarter pound and has a leg span long enough to cover your face—not that you’d want to check that out.

Center stage, however, goes to the tiny, gorgeous fish—tetra, cichlids and others—sought by aquarium enthusiasts throughout the world. They grow in abundance here, and flourish during the rainy season, when water rises so high that students take boats to school. “Then, in the dry season,” Montgomery tells us, “ . . . the water level drops—sometimes more than thirty feet. Nearly ninety percent of the small fish here are stranded, doomed in drying puddles” (5). Ninety percent. Think about that. While it might seem almost sacrilegious to pluck these small natives from Utopia just to satisfy some aquarist’s whim, just the opposite is true. If we don’t buy them, they die. And the local fishers, called piabieros, must find some other way to earn a living. Cattle ranching. Mining. Logging. Activities that call for burning or harvesting precious forests.

Cardinal Tetra

Wait, though. Could creatures so tiny possibly play a role in saving the most expansive rainforest on the planet? Turns out they could, yes. The problem is, exporting fish is not simple. It’s a complex process rife with uncertainty.

Fish are fragile. They must be collected, tended, and then transported with the care we reserve for the most vulnerable life forms. Everything from locating these shy fish in the first place to keeping them healthy in just-right conditions offers extreme challenges. “ . . . if these creatures are to survive in the wild,” Montgomery tells us, “it’s essential that people around the world care about protecting them” (17). Reading her book is an important first step in building that level of concern.

Amazon Adventure is filled with exquisite photos that capture the surreal colors of the Amazon. Some take us to the treetops with squirrel monkeys. Some plunge us right into water that’s thick with vegetation and “so stained with natural tannins it’s as red as burgundy wine” (10). You’ll feel as if you’re snorkeling with the team of aquarists and veterinarians who’ve signed on to this adventure, hearing the cries of parrots and kingfishers overhead, trying to remain “still as sticks” so as not to scare the fish—and hoping not to panic as you wonder what just brushed against your skin.

Don’t be surprised if Montgomery’s book leaves you wanting to visit the Amazon for yourself, or, at the very least, create your own aquarium sanctuary for cardinal tetras. You’ll want to be sure your new pet is from the wild, not farm raised. That way, you could be helping to save the rainforest that literally keeps us breathing.

In the Classroom

1.Sharing the book. Reading the book to yourself first will help you settle on a purpose for sharing: (1) to illustrate fine nonfiction writing that offers both engaging voice and rich content, (2) to inspire students to read the rest of the book on their own, or (3) to encourage further exploration of the book’s primary topics, including the Amazon rainforest, acquisition of aquarium fish, or set-up and maintenance of successful aquariums.

At 67 pages, Amazon Adventure is long to read aloud in its entirety, but I would suggest reading all of Chapter 1 aloud (including “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9) as an inviting introduction, then sharing selected short passages from remaining chapters. Use a document projector to view the book’s incredible illustrations. (Don’t miss the comical selfie by photographer Keith Ellenbogen, page 20.) Following this introduction, invite interested students to finish the book on their own, or continue your discussion with a small reading group.

2. Background, Part 1: Fish and Aquariums. Ask how many of your students have (or have ever had) an aquarium. Was it fresh or salt water? Who set it up? Share some stories of preparing an aquarium and stocking it with fish. What’s required? If you have an aquarium of your own, share your experiences. Have you ever lost a fish? Have your students? If so, do you know the reason?

Ask how many students have had tetras, the primary species discussed in Amazon Adventure. Do they know what a tetra looks like? There are numerous varieties, and you can find many photos online, in addition to those in the book. Among those students who have had tropical fish, do they know if the fish were farm raised or caught in the wild? Why is it important to know?

Tip: If it’s possible to arrange a field trip to a local aquarium or pet store that features tetras, this will add enormously to students’ understanding and appreciation for this book. As an alternative—and again, if resources permit—consider setting up an aquarium in your classroom. This offers students a chance to participate in creating an environment that resembles that from which the fish came.

3. Background, Part 2: The Amazon. Start with location: Can your students identify the location and directional flow of the Amazon River? Ask them to try picturing it; then share a map of South America that shows the mighty Amazon and its tributaries. Tip: There are numerous maps of the Amazon basin online, and each provides a slightly different perspective, so view a variety of maps to truly appreciate the size, shape, and ecological impact of the region. And don’t miss the artistic rendition by Sarah Green, opposite Amazon Adventure’s Table of Contents.

Size. How large is the Amazon basin—the area through which the river and its many tributaries flow? Why does the immense size of this area matter so much to human life? This is a good time to share “Amazon by the Numbers,” page 9. Compare the Amazon with any river close to your location, considering length, number of tributaries, or any other factors.

Firsthand experience? Have any of your students visited the Amazon or any of its tributaries? Have you? If so, talk about your experiences. Make a list of things you know about the region prior to reading this book and others, then add to your list as you learn more. Look up “Amazon River” online, checking out as many photos or videos as time permits. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who has been to the region, invite them to visit your class to do a short presentation and answer questions.

Further reading . . . Numerous books have been written about the Amazon and various adventures there. Have students assemble a list (looking online or working with your own media center staff) for further reading.

. . . and videos. National Geographic offers numerous videos on the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants. You might choose to watch one as a class, then recommend others for students to watch on their own.

4. Nonfiction: More diverse than you think! Though it’s filled with illustrations, this is not a picture book in the traditional sense. The pictures are photos, for one thing—as opposed to the cartoons, paintings, or drawings we expect in a picture book. In addition, the book is divided into seven chapters, each running about ten pages. For these reasons, I’ve chosen to call this a nonfiction chapter book. Do your students agree with that definition?

You will also note that the book contains numerous anecdotes and biographical stories. Sometimes, as in Chapter 6, we follow the hands-on research of a scientist like Tim Miller-Morgan, who searches for parasites among captured fish that have grown listless. Chapter 3 gives us a biographical profile of aquarist Scott Dowd, who now creates eco-environments for creatures at the New England Aquarium, and is as much at home in the waters of the Rio Negro as in Boston. Chapter 5 takes us back stage as dancers prepare for the Festival of the Fish. Other stand-alone sections, like the one on tarantulas or that on ants are primarily factual.

Help your students understand that nonfiction writing at its best (as in this book) comprises several forms. To appreciate the stylistic diversity, you might read just a few paragraphs aloud from Chapter 2: Kingdom of the Cardinals, from Chapter 3: Scott’s Story, and from one of the informational inserts—on the pink dolphins (page 38), the tarantulas (page 47), or the ants (page 56). Talk about how this blend of nonfiction styles enriches our reading experience. Why do our minds enjoy writing that takes multiple forms?

Speaking of forms, how many ways does nonfiction come packaged? Make a list with your students, based on your nonfiction reading and research. Your list might include any or all of the following—

Biographies and autobiographies
• Memoirs
• Newspaper articles
• Journal articles
• Reports
• Factual summaries (the kind you might see in a museum or art gallery)
• Nonfiction picture books
• Nonfiction chapter books
• Encyclopedias
• Textbooks
• Brochures of all kinds

5. Main message: First line . . . or later? You can’t really blame Sy Montgomery for embedding the book’s main idea right in the title. I appreciate this title because it sets up an important and intriguing contrast: tiny fish versus the vast rainforest. Bam. Just like that, we’re hooked—got to read the book.

What Montgomery does not do, however—and I also appreciate this—is hammer home her main message in line one. Too often we encourage students to do that very thing. That’s one way of going about things, all right, but it’s not always the most effective, and it can lead to formulaic writing: message, support, support, support, conclusion. Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

Instead of conking us on the head with a thesis sentence, Montgomery opens Chapter 1 by giving us fascinating information about the Amazon. She wants us to care about this special part of the earth. Otherwise, her message won’t matter. We don’t come to the main message (title aside) until page 2:

Luckily, beneath the glassy surface of its rivers live dozens of species of tiny, beautiful fish whose powers may be even greater than those of the mysterious pink dolphin or the mighty jaguar. These shy fish . . . just might be able to save the Amazon.

Talk about this with students. Does a writer sometimes make a wise choice by waiting for the just-right moment to make his or her main point clear? Is this something they might try in their own writing?

6. Creating a powerhouse ending. This message about the mission of the tiny but mighty fish is echoed in the book’s ending (page 67), which you may want to read aloud (and contrast with the passage from page 2, quoted above). Notice that while the ending reinforces the book’s primary message, it does not restate it. The language is fresh and original—and the passage contains quite a lot of new information. What do we learn from this page about writing an effective ending?

Have students review an ending from any current piece of their own writing, asking these questions:

Does the ending reinforce or relate to my main message?
• Does it give readers new information instead of just repeating things I said before?
• Does the ending leave readers with something I want them to remember or think about?

7. Striking facts. Good details are always important or surprising—or both. As you share passages from the text, invite students to record in their writing journals any informational tidbits they find new or striking. Here are a few that captured my attention:

The Amazon is 15 miles wide at the mouth
• It has more than 1,000 tributaries
• Over 80 percent of the plants we eat are derived from plants in the Amazon basin
• Roughly 2.7 million acres of Amazon rainforest are destroyed annually
• The cardinal tetra is the most popular aquarium fish in the world
• The black caiman can consume prey as large as a tapir

It’s important for students to understand that not all facts are equally important—or necessarily worth including in their writing. Have students review a piece of their own informational writing, underlining three to five details they have chosen to include. They should ask of each one—

Is this new information, not just something my readers probably know already?
• Does this detail answer a question that a curious person might ask?
• Is this information important to my topic?
• Will readers be excited or surprised to learn this?

The more yeses they can give to these questions, the stronger the detail.

8. Personalizing research. Research can start with reading books or articles—but it shouldn’t end there.

On the back book flap, we learn that author Sy Montgomery has made five other trips to the Amazon—not including the one she made to write this book. That’s dedication. How many of your students have done personal field research to prepare for a piece of writing? If they have never done this, now could be a good time to start.

A trip to the Amazon might be more than most students can take on, but countless research possibilities exist closer to home: visits to museums, aquariums, farms, places of work, theaters, art galleries, sports stadiums, and other places of interest can yield firsthand information that books alone simply cannot provide.

Students who do their own research (in addition to soaking up knowledge from experts) tend to write with more originality and confidence. They know their topics because, like Sy Montgomery, they’ve been there.

9. Voice—and the word choice connection. Voice comes in many flavors—comical, imaginative, awestruck, authoritative, chilling, sarcastic, whimsical, and more. One of the best ways to teach students about voice is by reading aloud, then having them describe what they hear.

If I had to come up with a word to describe Sy Montgomery’s voice in this book, I’d choose assured. She has a no-nonsense way of placing the truth under our noses like a good lawyer slapping down a telling piece of evidence before the jury:

“This huge, ancient rainforest is essential to the planet,” she declares in the first chapter. “Because its trees provide a full fifth of the world’s oxygen, it’s considered ‘the lungs of the world.’ Yet it all could vanish—and soon. Each year, mining, clearcutting, burning, and cattle ranching destroy an area of Amazon forest twice the size of the city of Los Angeles” (1-2).

Where does this kind of voice come from? Read the passage—or any others you like—aloud to students and ask them to describe the voice they hear, then try to put their finger on what they think contributes to that voice. Here are some things I noticed—and your students might too:

• Montgomery is unflinchingly honest, even when the message is bleak (and potential destruction of the Amazon rainforest is pretty troubling news)
• Her statements are direct and strong (she doesn’t say the rainforest is kind of important to many people—she says it’s “essential to the planet”)
• She’s confident—thanks to her hands-on research, reading, and interaction with experts
• Her word choice is impeccable—and let’s get specific about that . . .

Montgomery reminds us that the forest is huge and ancient. Who are we to destroy such a thing? It’s the lungs of the world. If we like breathing, that ought to matter to us. Words like vanish and destroy go beyond powerful. They deliver a slingshot direct hit.

As you share other voice-filled passages aloud, talk about specific words that strike a chord with us as readers. Ask students to identify other factors that contribute to voice. Have them review their own writing to identify a passage where their own conviction comes through loud and clear—and perhaps another where it does not. Can they revise to make the weaker passage more forceful?

10. Organizational genius. The book as a whole is brilliantly organized (It’s so good, in fact, that you probably didn’t even think about it), and you may wish to spend some time talking with students about that. Why? Because organization is one of the biggest challenges young writers face. Many students storm through the stage of gathering information, then look at the results the way they might eye a cluttered closet someone just asked them to straighten up.

Here’s a lesson in organization that demystifies the process and works well with a small group. (This is harder to do with a whole class unless each student has a copy of the book, but you can adapt the lesson to another, shorter piece of writing to which everyone has access.) It takes just four simple steps:

1. Help students see chapters or subsections as organizational blocks. Hold on—isn’t that obvious? You might be surprised how many students have never even thought of this. But once they see it, it makes both reading and writing easier. Have students ever divided their own writing into chapters or sections set off by subheads? If not, have them try this with any piece that runs three pages or more. It’s simpler to organize information when you take it chunk by chunk. It’s like labeling shelves or drawers.

2. Go through Montgomery’s book chapter by chapter, asking, “What’s the main message of this particular part?” For example, Chapter 1 introduces us to the Amazon, using a combination of description and fact to place us right at the scene. In Chapter 2, we go on a treasure hunt for tetras, getting right into that pristine red water, and learning how quiet we must be to let the fish approach. In Chapter 3, we get Scott’s story . . . and so on. When you finish listing the chapters and their purposes, look at this informational “map.” Why is it important for some things to come before others? Why do some pieces fit better at the end?

3. Think about what’s missing. You can be sure Sy Montgomery had more information on the Amazon and on tetras than she included in this book. The problem is, as a writer you can never share everything. It would be like bringing home each and every item from the grocery store. We have to make choices when we shop—and when we write. Montgomery doesn’t tell us what the researchers had for lunch, for example, nor does she recount every conversation. Thinking about what a writer might have omitted teaches students to separate important information from trivia. Writers always need to ask, “Do my readers need to know this? Will they care?”

4. Cut and re-order. Time for students to look at their own writing. Have them go through a current draft to identify the message of each section or chapter (or paragraph). Can anything be cut? Good! Pitching trivia is a first step toward great organization (just like cleaning the closet). Next, have them ask whether putting things in a different order would make it easier for readers to follow the discussion. For example, background information (like Montgomery’s description of the Amazon) should go right up front.

11. Organizational sleight of hand. Sy Montgomery pulled off two organizational tricks in this book that made me tip my writer’s hat. And you may want to point both out to your students.

First of all, she found a way to include information that didn’t fit neatly into one of her chapters. The sections on the seven deadly plagues (page 18), pink dolphins (page 38), tarantulas (page 47), and ants (page 56) would have interrupted her narrative flow about finding, preserving, and shipping tropical fish. Yet, this was not information Montgomery wanted to omit. So, what to do?

Answer: Give these topics their own space apart from the main text. Don’t you love it? This strategy is highly effective because it gives us, as readers, a little break in the ongoing rhythm of the book. Like hearing a new song on the radio. We welcome the change of pace and we devour the horrifying (but irresistible) details: “Wrapping twenty feet of muscular coils around its prey and squeezing it to death, this giant snake [the anaconda]can eat anything it wants, including jaguars—and people” (18).

The second trick is even better. That anaconda you just read about is part of a section called “Meeting the Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon—In the Dark.” Why the dark? Because these seven deadly creatures are often under the water, invisible to unsuspecting waders, swimmers, or snorkelers. The “plagues” include the stingray, the giant catfish, the piranha, and other creatures most of us aren’t eager to meet in person. (No wonder our adventurers shudder when something bumps a leg or arm!) But—Montgomery has a surprise in store . . .

Just a few pages later (27-29), we’re treated to “The Seven Deadly Plagues of the Amazon Debunked (Sort Of).” What??!! In this section Montgomery pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth behind each myth. Maybe these critters aren’t quite as deadly as we’ve been led to believe. Take the anaconda. We learn that although these big snakes are capable of eating people, there are no documented cases of this happening. Ever. See? Now you can relax on your next jungle hike.

I love surprises, so have to say, I enjoyed that gotcha moment. Well played.

12. Further research—and argument. Montgomery’s book raises many possibilities for further research on such topics as—
Mining, ranching, and forestry in the Amazon region
• Preservation of the Amazon and other rainforests
• The role of this or any rainforest in preserving life on earth
• Predictions for the future of the Amazon rainforest
• Impact of economic advancement on indigenous people of the Amazon
• History of the Amazon region
• Famous explorers (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt) who have visited the Amazon
• Impact of Amazon species on modern medicine
• Rate at which new species are discovered

Any of these or dozens of related topics make outstanding subjects for further informational writing. In addition, the book touches on many issues that affect our lives. Students might consider any of the following topics as a basis for argument writing—and likely they will think of others on their own:

How important is it to stop or slow down deforestation in the Amazon rainforest?
• Is tourism a boon to the rainforest economy—or a threat to the ecosystem?
• To what degree are we here in the U.S. affected by this rainforest so far away?
• Should people be free to use the resources of the Amazon as they see fit?
• Should tropical fish like the cardinal tetras be farm raised—or taken from the wild?
• Does the simple act of buying a tetra caught in the wild truly influence the future of the world’s biggest rainforest?
• Can the Amazon recover from damage already done?

 

About the Author . . .

Visit Sy Montgomery’s home page, and you’ll discover she has been chased by a silverback gorilla, “deftly undressed by an orangutan in Borneo,” bitten by a vampire bat in Costa Rica, and embraced by a Giant Pacific Octopus. Her daring research throughout the world has led her to write numerous books for young readers as well as adults, including three of my personal favorites: Birdology, The Soul of an Octopus (a 2015 finalist for the National Book Award), and The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. The Good, Good Pig is an international bestseller and a book I’ve given as a gift countless times.
Sy is the winner of the 2009 New England Independent Booksellers Association Nonfiction Award, the 2010 Children’s Book Build Nonfiction Award, the Henry Bergh Award for Nonfiction (from the ASPCA for Humane Education) and numerous other honors. Her work with man-eating tigers, subject of her book Spell of the Tiger, was made into a National Geographic documentary that Sy both scripted and narrated.
A graduate of Syracuse University, Sy Montgomery has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Keene State College in 2004 and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from both Franklin Pierce University and Southern New Hampshire University. She is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and universities. The New York Times described Sy as “equal parts poet and scientist.” The Boston Globe called her “part Indiana Jones and part Emily Dickinson.”

To learn more about Sy and her books, please visit symontgomery.com and bluereef.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .
I’m delighted to announce that our new book, Teaching Nonfiction Revision, co-authored with best-selling nonfiction writer Sneed Collard, has gone to press. It’s due for release August 31, and is available for pre-order from Heinemann now:
http://www.heinemann.com/products/e08777.aspx

Sneed and I had enormous fun writing this book. Our goal was to make revision both fun and productive for students in grades 4 through 8–and beyond! It’s adaptable for nonfiction writers of any age. Lessons and strategies are based on Sneed’s extensive experience as a successful writer of nonfiction, complemented by my own work as a teacher, writer, editor, and journalist. As you can likely tell from the cover, it’s light and fun–and we hope you’ll love it!

Sneed on Assignment

My friend, colleague, and frequent co-author Jeff Hicks will review the book in our very next post. Jeff brings his considerable expertise as a teacher and writer to bear–and I cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you, Jeff. Until next time . . . Give every child a voice.


 

Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich. 2017. Illustrated by Adam Gustavson. New York: Bloomsbury.

Genre: Biographical picture book

Levels: Grades 4 and up, including adults (must reading for fans of Pete Seeger and folk music)

Features: Striking illustrations, Foreword by the one and only Peter Yarrow, moving Author’s Note on how this book came to be, outstanding and diverse source list that will encourage students to expand their own research beyond books 

 

Overview

Pete Seeger. His very name sends chills down the spine of anyone who was alive and singing in the 1960s. Especially someone who has memorized recordings by those Pete inspired—singers like Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio, and the Smothers Brothers, to name just a handful. Lyrics to songs like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” are so deeply engraved in our consciousness it’s as if we were born knowing them. Even contemporary musicians owe a debt to this song writer and spokesperson for social justice. How do we thank someone like Pete Seeger, who so selflessly opened his heart to the world? With a book, of course.

Lucky for us, we don’t have to write it ourselves. Author Susanna Reich has done that for us, creating a beautiful, brilliant bio Pete himself would surely have loved. Reich’s rhythmic language brings Pete to life in a way that makes us feel we’re still part of his audience, clapping, stamping our feet, singing our hearts out. Reich tells Pete’s story from his days as a dancing, drumming toddler in the early 1920s right through to his unforgettable performance of “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2009. Throughout, we see how this legendary musician’s beliefs and dreams were shaped by the events he witnessed—and oh, how much he saw to change.

Pete Seeger’s life of 94 years spanned several wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and changes in voting laws, and growing awareness of the threat pollution poses to the earth’s very existence. Almost miraculously, no matter the cause, no matter the location, there was Pete, right on the front lines, using his voice to generate passion and hope. Though he is often associated with the Vietnam protests of the 1960s (probably because singers of the time adapted and sang so much of his music), Pete’s legacy reaches back to far earlier days, and continues through the present. He began protesting for workers’ rights the first time he witnessed Depression era bread lines—and his boat, the Clearwater, sails the Hudson River even now, reminding us to keep our precious water clean.

As Reich shows us in her timely book, Seeger’s protests had a singularity about them. Though outraged by unfairness, Seeger was never violent. Instead, he emerges in this thoughtfully crafted bio as someone profoundly capable of optimism even in the face of humanity’s darkest moments. He was a leader of infinite charisma, gentle and peace loving, yet incredibly strong in his convictions. Seeger insisted on performing with African American friends despite prevalent racist views of the time, refused to betray other performers to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and stood fast when network television executives objected to his daring song lyrics criticizing then-President Lyndon Johnson. Always focused on the other guy, Pete gave little thought to his own welfare or safety. His gratification lay in following the path he’d determined was right. Though he lived much of his life in the most modest circumstances—sometimes unable to afford heat for his home—he wasn’t one to fuss about comforts. As Reich tells us, “Pete didn’t mind the cold. It felt good to be making a difference in the world.”

Adam Gustavson’s soft pastel illustrations harmonize beautifully with this portrait of a kind, selfless person, always ready with a smile, and nearly always singing or playing an instrument of one sort or another. In one of the book’s most memorable lines, a family friend is quoted as saying, “He played all night, and played all day, and after a while, you wanted to ship him off somewhere.” We can’t help laughing affectionately at this image of a man making his family crazy with nonstop singing. Now, in his silent wake, we find ourselves wishing him back.

Make no mistake. Not everyone loved Pete Seeger’s music. It wasn’t the continuous strumming of the banjo they minded; it was the lyrics. They were honest—and blunt. Champions of the status quo felt threatened—as Pete hoped they would—yet they were helpless to stop the tide. As Reich’s book shows so clearly, music has power to inspire and unify. People who heard Pete’s voice felt his unmistakable message to their very core. His songs became part of them, and part of America’s landscape and culture. Before long, followers were singing those songs in marches, at meetings, around campfires, and in their homes. One voice became the voice of millions. Even today, someone, somewhere, is almost surely singing one of Pete’s songs. As Peter Yarrow so perfectly expresses it in the Foreword, Pete’s “spirit travels beyond his time on earth.”

The title Stand Up and Sing! is more than a gentle reminder. It’s the author’s challenge to us all, especially in a time of discord, division, and unrest. Will we, like Pete Seeger, have the insight to recognize injustice when it’s right before our eyes—and the courage to make our voices heard? If so, then perhaps we shall, indeed, overcome.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. The book is compact enough to share aloud in one or two readings. Use a document projector so students can linger over the telling illustrations. It’s also a terrific small-group choice for students interested in music (particularly folk music, guitar, or banjo) or in social justice and its history. In addition, the combined conciseness and completeness of the book make it an outstanding model for teaching students to write a good biography.

Background. Any discussion of Pete Seeger must begin with his music. If you’re lucky enough to have recordings available, play them. In addition, search for online video clips of Seeger singing to and with his audiences. Share some from recent times, and others from Pete’s early days to help students appreciate how long Pete kept the music going! Be sure to notice and discuss Seeger’s signature interaction with his audience, how he not only invites them to sing along, but coaxes them into doing it. Gradually, even the shyest, most reluctant singers in the crowd begin mouthing lyrics and clapping hands, swept up in the irresistible joy of the moment.

Foreword—and beyond. Students who have studied music in some capacity have likely heard of Pete Seeger. His death was very recent (January 27, 2014), and he performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. In addition, his songs, both those he wrote and others he popularized, have been recorded by numerous artists, many of whom—like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springstein—are extremely well known in their own right. Few students, however, are likely to know many details of Pete’s life beyond his singing and songwriting prowess.

Start by sharing the book’s engaging Foreword, written by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary). It’s a heartfelt tribute, coming from someone who not only appreciates the book’s message, but who knew Pete Seeger personally and has sung his music for years. Yarrow touches on highlights of Pete Seeger’s history, but . . .

. . . if you wish your students to have a broader, richer context for appreciating the book, here are some relevant topics they might research—perhaps in small teams of two or three—then  share with the class:

  • The labor movement (1940s and 1950s)
  • Civil Rights Movement (1950s and 1960s)
  • Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations (1960s)
  • Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger: the mentor and the legend
  • Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger: the electric guitar controversy
  • House Un-American Activities Committee
  • Blacklisting and the Hollywood 10
  • Charles Seeger, musicologist (Pete’s father)
  • Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, concert violinist (Pete’s mother)
  • The Newport Folk Festival
  • “We Shall Overcome,” gospel turned folk and protest song
  • Awards received by Pete Seeger, including Induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Center Honor, National Medal of Arts, Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album of 2008, George Peabody Medal, Woodie Guthrie Prize, and many, many more.

“Everybody, sing it!” How does one begin a book about a legend? With a list of awards and accomplishments? His date of birth? Most memorable achievement?

Or perhaps—as Susanna Reich does here—with a scene that depicts the quintessential Pete Seeger. There he is, smiling, hands up, banjo at the ready, engaging the crowd. Asking them to sing along. Don’t know the words? Sorry, but at a Pete Seeger concert that’s no excuse. As I noted earlier, if you look up videos online, you will see Pete eagerly feeding words to the audience time and again. “This isn’t just my song,” he seems to be saying. “These are your lyrics—meant to be sung in your voice.”

What makes this image of Pete such a great lead for this particular book? Discuss this with students.

Are your writers working on a biographical piece currently? If so, have them consider a similar approach to writing a lead of their own. This calls for carefully, thoughtfully choosing a defining moment or activity that encapsulates a person’s identity and character. For Pete, becoming one with his audience is that moment.

 

Argument. Does music today have the same political clout that it had, say, during the anti-war marches of the 1960s? Can your students name any current songs they would label as “protest songs”? Or if not, can they name songs that inspire social justice or compel us to do what is right? Note: This can be a hard thing to come up with off the top of your head, so give students a day to investigate song titles and lyrics before delving too deeply into this discussion. Also, in case not all students have discovered this, it’s easy to look up song lyrics online. Just type in “lyrics to Little Boxes,” or whatever. (The results can surprise you. As I learned when I looked up “Rocket Man,” we don’t always “hear” what the composer wrote!)

Following your discussion, have students craft an argument supporting (or denying) the idea that music is a vital form of protest in today’s world. Advocates of social protest through music should be able to cite specific songs or quote lyrics that exemplify such protest.

 Organizational strategy: Letting go of trivia. In her Author’s Note, Susanna Reich admits, “In compressing Pete’s story into a picture book, there was much I had to leave out.” This revelation marks the perfect place to kick off instruction in organization.

Students often think the biggest challenge in writing nonfiction lies in coming up with enough to say. In truth, good research typically yields volumes of information. The real problem lies in deciding what to omit. Leaving some things on the cutting room floor makes it infinitely easier to organize what’s left.

Reich does a masterful job of choosing salient moments that reveal just who Pete Seeger is. After reading the entire book, go through a short segment, perhaps four to six pages, this time noting which stand-out moments from Seeger’s life made the cut.

For example, immediately following the opening page (which shows Seeger leading an audience in song), we learn how he loved music as a child and admired the “share everything” philosophy of Native American tribes. On the following page, we learned that Pete started his own newspaper, and cared more about a new banjo than sweaters and underwear. Talk with students about what these and similar details reveal about Pete as a person. Then have students imagine some of the details Reich might have left out. For example, she doesn’t tell us what Pete’s favorite food was, if he ever had a pet, or how well he did on spelling quizzes. Why? Because she had to make choices—and some details were more important than others.

As students write their own bio pieces (or any nonfiction, for that matter), encourage them to set priorities, ranking details from their research into three categories: (1) what’s critical, (2) what’s less essential but still fascinating enough to include if space permits, and finally, (3) what can go. Now they’re ready to put things in order!

Expanding research. Take a minute to share the list of “Selected Sources” at the back of the book. It shows that Susanna Reich investigated a wide range of sources in preparing to write Stand Up and Sing! Not just books, but films, taped interviews, and recordings. What sources do your students rely upon most when writing informational or other nonfiction pieces? Discuss possibilities and make a list that goes beyond the world of print, encouraging students to expand their fields of research.

Illustrations and voice. Seldom have I seen a book where illustrations so beautifully complemented the subject. Do your students agree? What is the overall tone of Adam Gustavson’s  illustrations? In other words, how do they make us feel, and what contributes to those feelings? Imagine this book with photographs rather than paintings of Pete Seeger. Would the book seem very different even if the text were unchanged? What makes these soft-hued illustrations such a good choice?

What words would your students use to describe the tone or voice of the text? Is it authoritative? Reverent? Joyful? Peaceful? Playful? Honest? Serious? Comical? Or something else?

Noticing the little things. Adam Gustavson’s illustrations are simple yet deceptively detailed. With each depiction of Pete Seeger, it’s almost as if we can get inside his thinking. We can sense when he’s troubled, and when he’s at peace. And if we take time to study his surroundings, they show us even more. Here’s one example . . .

Consider the illustration showing Pete Seeger shaving. Using a document projector, have students examine and respond to this picture. What do these visual details reveal about Pete’s life at this moment? As students continue looking, read the accompanying text aloud. Does it reinforce what you see in the image? What do the words tell us that we cannot get from the illustration—and vice versa?

What’s the big idea? The purpose of any biography, of course, is to share important elements of a person’s life. But why this person, and why now? Is Stand Up and Sing! of particular significance at this time when protests regarding so many issues are common throughout the world? What message or messages is the author hoping we take away from our reading of Pete Seeger’s biography? Have students write about this briefly, then meet in small groups to share and discuss their ideas. Once they’ve had a chance to share ideas in small groups, discuss the core messages of the book as a class.

Folk songs. Some people see Pete Seeger as a singer foremost, others as an activist who packaged his message in song. Either way, Pete is widely regarded as the king of folk music. But what exactly is folk music? Where does this term come from?

Discussion. Is the genre of folk music still alive today? What does it sound like? Ask students to search out some recordings of contemporary folk music and play them for the class. As part of their research, they are likely to discover that folk music has evolved into a wide range of sub-genres, including Celtic, neofolk, rogue folk, Americana, and many others. And of course it’s worth noting that many songs from the 1960s and even earlier are still being recorded in updated versions today.

Argument: The right choice? At one point in the narrative, Reich shares a critical moment in Pete’s life:

At college Pete couldn’t stop talking about workers’ strikes and unions, the civil war in Spain, and the Nazis in Germany. He talked so much that he didn’t do his homework. He lost his scholarship and had to drop out of school.

Losing a scholarship to Harvard is no small thing. Pete might have gone on to become a successful journalist—and what a different bio Reich would have had to write then!

On the other hand, when he left Harvard, Pete went to New York, where eventually he met blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly—and later Arlo Guthrie, with whom he would travel and perform across the U.S. Both had enormous influence on Seeger’s singing career. So the question is, Did Pete make the right choice? Is it the choice your students would make?

Discuss this, and have students craft an argument supporting or opposing Pete’s life changing decision to devote his time to music and social causes. Consider the ramifications of his traveling down one road versus the other.

Sentences that sing. The voice in any piece of writing is highly dependent upon sentence fluency. We don’t always think of this when reading for information, but author Susanna Reich is a master at crafting sentences. To better appreciate her skill and talent, slow down, read one or two pages aloud while showing them on a document projector, and ask students to notice some particulars that contribute to sentence fluency. They may mention highly varied sentence beginnings, variations in length, and a delightful mix of sentence styles—declarative sentences, exclamations, questions, effective fragments, and quotations.

Read-around: Learning to listen for fluency. Here’s something to try with small groups of three or four students each. Ask each group to select one short passage from the book; the amount of text on any given page is perfect. Ask them to read the passage aloud, round robin fashion, taking turns. Each reader can start and stop at any point—after one sentence, two, a whole paragraph, or whatever. But here’s the trick: Groups must continue reading for seven or eight minutes, long enough to go through the whole passage two or three times, perhaps reading a different section of text each time. Why? Because with each reading, fluency and inflection increase. Readers begin to really notice sentence beginnings, punctuation, word order and other factors that create drama. They become more adept at putting emphasis on the right words, using fluency to bring out meaning and voice. Like performers in a play, they uncover the power within the words they are uttering instead of mechanically reciting them. This is oral reading as it’s meant to be.

When groups finish rehearsing their passages, ask one or two to perform their selection for the class. Don’t be surprised if you have multiple volunteers! After listening, talk about the difference thoughtful oral reading makes. Is fluency especially important for this book? Why?

Research: Blacklisting. One powerful illustration in the book shows Pete sitting somewhere in a bus or train station, head resting on his hand, musical instruments unopened by his feet. If he appears forlorn, he has reason. His singing group, the Weavers, has just been blacklisted. Do your students know this term—blacklist? Have them do enough research to learn how the term originated and how common it was during the 1930s and 1940s.

The irony of it all.  Talk about why the Weavers—and others—were blacklisted. Their behaviors were considered unpatriotic or un-American. Do your students find this ironic? In other words, is the practice of blacklisting itself un-American? Why?

More questions for discussion. Is blacklisting still legal? And is it practiced in the U.S.? Have students write a personal response about how they view this practice. Note that when brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Pete Seeger refused to provide any information that would incriminate his friends. For this, he faced blacklisting himself, as well as potential jail time. How brave was this act of defiance? Would your students be this courageous in a similar situation? The answer makes a good topic for personal writing journals.

Freedom then—versus freedom now. One of Gustavson’s illustrations shows Pete Seeger singing in front of a television camera. In the text opposite, we learn that Seeger was invited to appear on television in 1967, for the first time in seventeen years. He sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song about a captain leading soldiers across a treacherous river, and eventually drowning. The song was believed to be a protest of Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Vietnam War, and it was cut from the show before it aired.

Crafting an argument. Compare this situation to the political and social climate in America today. Would that song likely be cut if performed now? How common is it to see or hear people criticize political figures, including a sitting president? Can such criticism ever go too far—or does this in fact make for a healthier social environment? Have students write an argument defending or opposing the kind of political free speech symbolized by protest songs like “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

 

A “link in the chain.” In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Susanna Reich says, “As I researched this book, I came to understand why Pete saw himself as a link in a chain.” After sharing both the book and the Author’s Note with students, ask them to comment on the significance of this remark. What did Seeger probably mean by this? Clearly the chain is a metaphor—but what does it represent?

Reich goes on to say, “This book is meant to be a link in that chain.” How can a book serve as a “link” in the kind of chain Seeger was talking about? Do we, as readers, play a role in making this happen?

What can we do? Pete Seeger was part of a legacy of peaceful protest often represented by people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Like Pete Seeger, Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi both believed there were ways to get their message of equality and justice across without resorting to violence. Have students write a short response piece suggesting specific peaceful ways we can keep the “chain” going in our everyday lives. Pete Seeger wrote and sang songs. Susanna Reich wrote a book. What more can we do?

About the Author . . .

Susanna Reich’s resume reads like a best-selling adventure story. She is an accomplished professional dancer, who has done graduate work in the ancient Hawaiian hula, and written about dance extensively, both for professional journals and in her 2005 book José! Born to Dance. She’s also been a professional flower arranger, designing flowers for Julia Child’s eightieth birthday and many other events of note. She’s even driven big trucks, something not many writers can brag about. But none of these accomplishments, she professes, has been as much fun as writing children’s books, something Susanna began doing in 1994. Awards and honors have rained upon her ever since.

Susanna’s first book, Clara Schumann, Piano Virtuoso, won an Orbis Pictus Honor from the National Council of Teachers of English, and was also an ALA Notable and Best Book for Young Adults, as well as a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

Recent books include Minette’s Feast: A Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat (Abrams, 2012), about the bestselling chef’s first cat, a Parisian who lapped up Child’s leftovers but preferred mice. The book received starred reviews in School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness and was on the best-books-of-the-year list, CCBC Choices.

In 2015 Susanna published another picture book bio, Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt), which recounts the early years of the bestselling band in history.

Susanna’s newest release, Stand Up and Sing!, makes us eager to know what’s next on her list. To learn more about Susanna, watch a video of her discussing Minette’s Feast, or schedule a classroom visit, please visit her website: www.susannareich.com

 Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Gurus is taking a hiatus for Spring Break. Please watch for our return in May. Meanwhile, have a look at my current . . .

 Book Recommendation for Adult Readers

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. 2015. New York: HarperCollins.

Author Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Department of History, University of Jerusalem, holds a PhD in history from the University of Oxford, and specializes in world history. His 2015 book Sapiens is both fascinating and controversial.

Sapiens is described by numerous reviewers as “sweeping” in scope—a hilarious understatement. It spans more than thirteen billion years of history, from the Big Bang onward. Best of all, Harari will have you turning pages with a style that’s delightfully conversational and sometimes comic. I couldn’t put it down. Does it have voice? And how. The language is vivid and precise, the pace as fast as a roller coaster ride. I read numerous passages twice just for fun.

I particularly appreciated the small details inherent in many discussions—like this one on how we became a “race of cooks.” As you might expect, we owe much to fire:

The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both.

So—big brains are connected to short intestines. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. I didn’t.

Overall, Sapiens is intended to show why our species, Homo sapiens, emerged as dominant. It covers the consequences of three decisive turning points in human history, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolutions, posing provocative questions like these: Did these revolutions advance our quality of life—or create problems with which we still struggle? Are we happier than our ancestors, and what creates happiness anyway? Do we have a bright future—or any future, for that matter? Will artificial intelligence take over the world, leaving unemployed humans too much time to get into even more trouble? Are we getting smarter? And what makes us believe in the value of money, the rule of law, or the existence of nations?

Many passages ask readers to question fundamental beliefs about humanity, laws, rights, or religious faith. Some readers find this uncomfortable. I think that’s unfortunate. The book asks us to think—it doesn’t compel us to agree. When is the last time you agreed with everything in any nonfiction book? My recommendation is to get a copy for yourself and make up your own mind. Agree or not, you’ll definitely be entertained.

A sidebar: Get the hardcover version. It’s filled with color photos you won’t want to miss. Be warned, though: It is startlingly heavy, printed on gorgeous thick paper meant to last through multiple readings. Find a comfy chair. Don’t read this book in bed. I very much doubt anyone would fall asleep reading Sapiens, but if you did drop it on your head . . .

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Thank you for stopping by. Our goal is to feature writers who deserve recognition, so please tell friends about our posts—and peruse Gurus for past reviews you may have missed. Authors, if you’d like someone to review your book who will actually read it and spend time with it, please send a copy to me in care of Six Trait Gurus, POB 8000 PMB 8284, Sisters OR 97759. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Woodward.

Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever by Sneed B. Collard III. 2017. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Nonfiction science picture book

Levels: Grades 4 through 8, though adults will enjoy it too!

Features: Striking close-up photos, most by the author himself; expansive glossary; numerous sidebars that offer more detailed information for readers who want it; index.

 insects

Overview

“I dread the next one,” a friend told me—referring to her book club’s latest selection.

“Why?” I asked. Tiny print? Graphic violence? Saccharine romance?

“It’s nonfiction,” she groaned, making the universal face for FEEL MY PAIN. “Everyone knows nonfiction is sooooooo boooooring.”

I’d need a lot more o’s to capture her true inflection, but you get the idea. First off, let me say that if you find nonfiction boring, you’re reading the wrong books. And second, I have a cure: Sneed B. Collard III. I’m not sure Sneed is capable of writing a boring book (though perhaps he’s never tried). For one thing, he always knows his stuff, and knowing your topic is one secret to writing irresistible nonfiction. He’s got another nonfiction trick up his sleeve, though.

In a recent interview, Sneed had this to say: “My most important tool for writing nonfiction is an insatiable curiosity. Almost nothing pops up on PBS that doesn’t grab my attention: history, science, medical research, travel, baking shows—they all interest me.” (School Library Journal, September 20, 2016).

Curiosity is essential to good writing. We don’t always think about that when we teach writing, but we should—because curious writers seek answers to provocative questions like these:

  • How many insect species inhabit Earth?
  • What’s the most common insect on the planet?
  • Are there insect species yet to be discovered?
  • True or false: Insects dominate the world—and will likely be around after humans are gone.
  • Quick: Name three things no self-respecting cockroach will eat.
  • How do creatures so small defend themselves?
  • Can insects be bioluminescent?
  • Why is it so hard to swat a fly?

I confess I couldn’t answer any of these questions (well, maybe the one on cockroaches) before reading Sneed’s book. But I can ace this quiz now. Given that Insects (sans glossary and other back matter) runs only 45 pages, it contains a staggering amount of information—and like all good nonfiction, this book makes learning fun.

For one thing, it’s brilliantly illustrated with photos Collard took himself (with just a few exceptions). Most are close-ups that give us an insect’s-eye view of the ants, beetles, butterflies, caterpillars, bees, cockroaches, katydids, and other six-legged friends that surround us.

In addition, it has voice. The tone throughout the book is light, humorous, and engaging: “The abdomen, or hind part, of an insect is mostly used to store luggage. Or, more accurately, important insect anatomy” (13). That’s a favorite trick of Collard’s—tossing out a line just to see if we’re paying attention. Of course we are. Clearly, Sneed loves his topic, and wants us to enjoy it as much as he does. Readers need to be curious, too—and I am. Sneed feeds our curiosity with a continual banquet of intriguing details. I was truly fascinated to learn that the reason we have so much trouble swatting flies is not (as I’d assumed) that they’re outwitting us. They actually don’t see as clearly as we do, but they can detect motion far faster, making it frustratingly hard to sneak up on them.

What I love most about this book is how Collard challenges us to drag our mesmerized selves away from those electronic screens and do some firsthand research on insects, right in our own back yards. Or basements. Or any forest, meadow, lakefront, city park, or urban oasis. Unlike elephants and tigers, insects live pretty much everywhere on Earth. You don’t need to go on safari to find them. But you do need to be open to opportunities. As Sneed admits on his book jacket bio, “he’s never resisted the urge to sit down and watch a large colony of army ants march across his path.”

Why should we care about insects, though? Aren’t they just pests? Actually, insects rule. And not just in the slang sense. They outnumber us by an estimated 200 million to one. Think about that. What’s more, though we might detest the way they ruin picnics, devour sweaters and bedding, or spread disease, they also do many good things. Some pollinate plants we depend on for survival. Others eat disgusting matter we’d never touch if we didn’t have to—and what the heck would we do if they didn’t? And—“Here’s a humbling fact: without insects, most of Earth’s animals would starve” (28). We eat them ourselves. And before you get too snooty about food preferences, keep in mind that grasshoppers are low in fat and high in protein. Can you say the same for your lunch?

One more thing: You don’t have to be an insect enthusiast to devour this book. Sneed’s humor and enthusiasm make his topic captivating even for those of us who can barely think about insects without reaching for the repellant. When you look out the window, can you see grass? Trees? Earth? Flowers? Those aren’t just there for your enjoyment, my human friend. They’re all insect habitats. They’re alive. So ditch your phobia, open your mind, and come on an adventure into a world little appreciated.

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In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Though Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever might be too long to share aloud in one reading, it’s conveniently divided into thirteen chapters that run about two to four short pages apiece. You can easily share one or two in a lesson, and you’ll definitely want a document projector so students can take in the alluring, informative illustrations. The book is also an excellent candidate for small group study—or as a beginning point for individual research on insects. (And by the way, nonfiction picture books make outstanding book club choices! Start a trend.)

Background. What do your students know about insects now? How much do you know? Before sharing the book, consider making two class lists: (1) Things we know for sure, and (2) Questions we have about insects. Check the “for sure” list against any new, expanded or contradictory findings you run across as you read the book. Also see how many of your questions are answered. Research answers to any questions that remain.

Insectophobia. As part of your background discussion, you’ll also want to discuss the 500-pound cockroach in the room, namely entomophobia or insectophobia. That is, extreme fear of insects. Many of us aren’t ready to embrace insects just yet, but genuine insectophobia goes much deeper. Fear or revulsion triggered by insects can be so strong that it actually keeps those who suffer indoors most of the time. Unfortunately for them, most insects view doors and screens as mere suggestions—and no doubt a horror movie is lurking there somewhere. Have your students known anyone who suffered from this condition? Though we may be tempted to joke about it, insectophobia is no laughing matter. It can be debilitating. By the way, some people are repulsed only by certain types of insects, and there are names for these conditions too. Apiphobia is fear of bees, myrmecophobia fear of ants, and lepidopterophobia fear of butterflies.

Feel like a snack? Here’s another related topic you may wish to discuss: insects as food. Have any of your students seen the old western film “Lonesome Dove”? If so, they might recall a scene where the character Woodrow Call enthusiastically chows down on what he thinks is candy—then violently spits it out when he learns it’s a grasshopper. Though you might sympathize, not everyone shares that reaction. As of 2016, there were just over 7.5 billion people on planet Earth, and an estimated 2 billion of them—more than one in four—eat insects routinely. Do your students find this surprising? Have any of them ever eaten an insect, or do they know anyone who has? On page 29, author Sneed Collard offers some commentary on the nutritional value of an insect-based diet versus the typical American diet many of us eat. You might share this sidebar as part of your background discussion to help students consider how much our culture influences what we eat—or consider repulsive.

Argument. Could Americans realize some advantages by including insects in our diet? Should we do this? Have students consider the advantages and disadvantages, then craft an argument for or against an insect-inclusive diet. Here are some factors to consider: nutritional value of insects, potential resistance by consumers, availability, sourcing costs, and consequences to humans, insects, and creatures that consume insects.

Nonfiction voice. As you’ll notice, particularly if you share the book aloud, Insects isn’t written in an encyclopedic voice. Anything but. As you go along, ask students for words that describe the author’s voice. Here’s a sample passage to illustrate what I mean:

With its antennae, an insect can detect movement, temperature, smell, sound, humidity, chemicals, and even which way its body is positioned. Antennae cannot pick up satellite TV or Wi-Fi, but still, don’t you wish you had a pair? (12)

To further appreciate the voice in this passage, look up “antenna” in any encyclopedia—or in Wikipedia. Read a few lines and contrast the voice you hear with Sneed Collard’s voice. What differences do you notice? How do those differences affect readers? As you read Insects, identify other passages where you and your students think the voice is particularly strong.

Discussion questions: Ask students to consider my friend who dreaded reading her book club’s nonfiction selection. Where does that sort of nonfiction phobia come from anyway? Have your students read nonfiction they would consider fairly voice-free? If so, when?

 Written response. No writers I know—including students—want to write something readers “dread” to pick up. But perhaps as educators, we unintentionally push them in that very direction. Do we encourage voice-free writing in reports or other nonfiction pieces students produce for school? Ask yourself what things we do to suppress voice, and discuss this with students. How could we encourage voice in nonfiction—or any writing? Ask students to draft a response to this, and have volunteers read their responses aloud.

 Illustrations from the insects’ perspective. In addition to being a published author, Sneed Collard is an experienced professional photographer, and he puts his talents to good use with this book. Discuss what the illustrations add. To understand their contribution fully, have your students imagine the book without any illustrations at all. What would be lost? Do pictures—particularly photos—contribute something words alone cannot provide?

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Suppose the photos in Sneed’s book were entered in a “Most Striking Photo” contest. Which one do your students think would win? Why?

 The core message. The purpose of Sneed’s book is clearly to teach us more about insects than the average person might know. But in addition to that purpose, is there a central message here? A belief or idea about insects that the author would like to consider as we close the cover? Once you finish reading Insects, ask students to discuss the core message with partners or in small groups, then share their conclusions with the class. List their responses and take a vote. Which response or responses come closest to capturing the book’s primary message? How did they reach that conclusion?

 Information by design. In analyzing any book we tend to think first of content. That’s only natural. But the way information is presented has tremendous impact on how easy it is to absorb. After reading Insects, page back through the book, using a document projector, and ask students to notice the layout—that is, how pages are designed. Have them look at the design as they might look at someone’s living room. Is the overall appearance inviting, luring you right in—or does it nudge you to find a more comfortable spot? Here are a few specifics you might prompt students to notice as they review the book’s design:

  • A good balance between text and illustrations, so we are not overwhelmed by either
  • Detailed captions for most photos
  • Plenty of white space (empty or open space), making the text easy to read
  • Engaging titles for each chapter, offering clues about content
  • Subheads within chapters to visually organize information
  • Sidebars—those green boxes that contain “behind the scenes” info for readers wanting more

Could your students use one or more of these elements in their own writing? Encourage them to think creatively about format in the next piece of nonfiction writing they produce for your class.

Discussion question: Should we stress presentation more in work done for school? Why?

Authentic language. One characteristic that distinguishes Sneed Collard’s books (not just this one, but all his nonfiction) is his ability to use scientific language with accuracy and ease. He is so skilled at making meaning clear from context that we’re scarcely aware of how much terminology we are internalizing. To help students gain an appreciation for this, try this lesson.

Let’s say you plan to share the first two chapters aloud. Before reading or discussing them with students, scan those pages for specialized vocabulary you feel readers should know to fully understand the message. Here are some words I might select from those early chapters (for younger students, this list might be shorter):

  • exoskeleton
  • chitin
  • antenna
  • thorax
  • abdomen
  • ommatidia
  • mandible
  • maxilla
  • labium
  • circulatory system
  • digestive system
  • respiratory system

Are you surprised by the number of terms listed here? Actually, I was. Though the book doesn’t feel “technical,” it’s richly strewn with terms students need to speak or write about insects confidently.

Once you’ve assembled your own list (which does not need to match mine), run through it with your class, asking students to briefly define each term. It’s OK to guess. If there’s a word they simply don’t know, such as ommatidia, leave that one blank for now. Then, as you read the chapter aloud, have students listen for any words they couldn’t define, or didn’t get quite right, and add or revise definitions based on what they learn from reading. As a final step, match students’ definitions with those in the author’s glossary on pages 46 and 47.

What’s your favorite genre? Many educators believe that nonfiction is supplanting fiction as the genre of choice among young people. Do you agree? What do your students think? Ask them to write a short argument defending their genre of choice. They should offer specific reasons and cite particular publications to defend their position.

Remind them that both fiction and nonfiction are big categories. They may want to narrow things down a bit. Nonfiction, for instance, includes not only science books but biographies and autobiographies, memoirs, history books, news articles, and other forms. Fiction can include adventure stories, fantasy, mysteries, and more. Once students finish writing, have volunteers read their arguments aloud as a prelude to a class discussion on genre and how tastes are evolving.

Note: For an interesting comparison-contrast extension, have students interview members of an older generation to see what their favorite genres and books might be. Have writers use results to create a generational contrast piece.

Curiosity—the key to topic selection. Author Sneed Collard identifies curiosity as one of his secrets to success as a nonfiction writer. As noted in the quotation from my Overview, Sneed takes an interest in virtually every kind of topic, from travel to cooking. What are your students curious about? Make a list. Oh, but wait: You first.

As your students look on, list three to five things that fascinate you, perhaps mentioning your reasons as you go. Here are just a few things I could be blissfully happy researching:

  • Discovery of new, Earth-like planets
  • Discovery of new octopus species—right in the San Francisco Bay!
  • The intelligence of crows
  • Why some whales actually seek human contact
  • New findings on benefits—and downsides—of homework
  • How worksheet overload is affecting preschoolers’ reading skills

Ask students to work with partners or in small groups of three or four to brainstorm lists of their own. Combine two or more suggestions from each group to form a class list—which students can then copy into their personal writing journals. Next time students need a good informational topic, this list will give them a source to check. Of course, students do not need to write about any of these topics—ever. But hearing one writer’s suggestions nearly always super-charges the imagination of another. That leads to good topic choice—which in turn leads to better writing.

Beetles or humans? Who will stick around? On page 7, the author tells us that since we have yet to identify all the insects on planet Earth, the actual number of species could be as high as thirty million. Talk about striking details! Here’s another surprise: At least 250,000 of those species are beetles. Why in the world would this be? Well, some scientists believe beetles have extraordinary “extinction resistance.” In other words, they can survive dramatic shifts in the environment. What about humans, though? Aren’t we pretty adaptable ourselves? Let’s talk about that . . .

Set up a debate: humans vs beetles—which species is more resistant to extinction? Form two teams to research this question, and let students choose which side to support. Just make sure you have at least a few debaters on each side! You may want to form debate teams of three or four to conduct research and plan a presentation.

Once you’ve given students time to assemble facts and form arguments, you can proceed in a couple of ways. Have one team from each side engage in an actual debate. Or give every team 5 to 6 minutes to present their argument. The rest of the class can score each presentation on a ten-point scale, based on two criteria: (1) How convincing is the team’s evidence? and (2) How compelling is the team’s argument?

 Personal research—and informational writing. Sneed Collard urges us to get outdoors (where most of the insects are) and do some research of our own. Reread the chapter titled “Learning More—The Final Molt,” page 44, and ask students to follow Sneed’s advice. Have them create an originally researched piece of writing on one insect that includes at least two components: text and an illustration. The illustration can be a photo, painting, sketch, or anything produced by the student him- or herself. The text might cover the habitat, behaviors, predators, or eating preferences of the chosen subject. (This needn’t be an “all about” paper; they can focus on one aspect of the insect’s life.) Have them document their personal observation with a record of time and place.

When you finish, create a class book of your results. Then talk about what students learned about the value of personal, hands-on research.

Note: For additional information on insects, look up the Amateur Entomologists’ Society: https://www.amentsoc.org/insects/what-bug-is-this/insects.html

sneed-portrait

About the Author . . .

Sneed B. Collard III is the author of more than 75 books for young people. His nonfiction titles include Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Teeth, Wings, Reign of the Sea Dragons, The Prairie Builders, The World Famous Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, and more recently, Hopping Ahead of Climate Change and Fire Birds—Valuing Natural Wildfires and Burned Forests (reviewed here on Gurus). Just last year, he released his memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (also reviewed on Gurus).fire-birds-cover

Sneed’s books have won numerous awards, including the AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books and the Green Earth Book Award. In 2006, Sneed received the prestigious Washington Post-Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award for his body of work.

In addition to his nonfiction titles, Sneed has written seven widely acclaimed novels, among them Flash Point, The Governor’s Dog Is Missing, and Dog 4491.

To learn more about Sneed, or to arrange a school or conference visit, please visit him at his website, www.sneedbcollardiii.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Good news! Sneed and I just learned that our new book Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons will be released by Heinemann on August 31. We think you’ll love it. Is it written with voice? Are you kidding? We chose our own topic! Is it driven by curiosity? And how! Will it help your students write better, stronger, more enticing nonfiction? You can bet your book club on it. Stand by for more information.

And in case you’re in a book club, and terrified that members would sooner drop out than read your next selection, check out my . . .

 on-trails2

Personal Book Recommendation for Adult Readers

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. 2016. New York: Simon & Schuster.

“It is impossible to fully appreciate the value of a trail until you have been forced to walk through the wilderness without one.” So begins a book like no other. It’s a history of trails that begins with the earliest forms of ocean life (ancient Ediacarans that are said to have gone extinct about 541 million years ago), and winds up in modern times along the dramatically expanding Appalachian Trail with a crusty old thru-hiker, Eberhart, who has given up every convenience imaginable save shoes to live unencumbered. In between, we follow trails of all kinds, including lost Cherokee footpaths, the trails of the savannah-making elephants, early roadways, deer tracks, pheromone-inspired ant trails, traces of food-seeking caterpillars—even explorations of the Internet. This book, an intoxicating mix of history, philosophy, science, and travel advice, offers many tips for navigating trails successfully, but most important, examines the nature of the trail itself.

How did trails begin anyway? With movement. Those primordial Ediacarans—inelegantly described by some scientists as “looking like a bag of mud”—inexplicably moved one day. We can’t say they decided to move because they were literally brainless. Decisions were beyond their reach. Moor describes the first traveling Ediacaran this way: “It shivered, swelled, reached forth, scrunched up, and in doing so, at an imperceptibly slow pace, began to move across the sea floor, leaving a trail behind it” (36). He could almost be describing a contemporary couch potato. And as this quotation shows, this incredibly intelligent book, filled with singular observations, is just plain fun to read. If you like your reading simultaneously, um, down to earth and deep, this is your book. Here’s what I mean . . .

“To put it as simply as possible,” Moor says, “a path is a way of making sense of the world” (14). So—life can be seen as an effort to create and then improve upon pathways. Ever hear or use the expression “cow path”? Maybe you think of it as some miles-from-civilization trail to nowhere, but in truth, cow paths can be indicators of a savvy instinct that any species needs to survive. Like many animals apparently, cows have a knack for finding the most efficient way to traverse any piece of ground. We’re often wise to follow their lead, and guess what. We do. Then we “improve” the old cow path by widening and paving it. But traces remain if you know how and where to look, whether you’re trailing buffalo, elephants, cows, sheep, snakes, or even ancestral sea creatures.

On Trails is a book so expansive in detail, and so rich in thought I cannot possibly sum it up in a few paragraphs. I urge you to get your own copy (hardcover because this is a book you’ll want to keep) and settle in for some enjoyable reading and reflection. You’ll learn more things than you can list, but here are just two that stuck with me.

First, it’s not so much the trailblazers that make the difference. It’s the followers. If you lean more toward follower than trailblazer yourself, take heart. Followers have more power than they realize. After all, they’re the ones left to make sense of all that information trailblazers leave behind, and then improve upon it. Think of them as the editors of the trail making world.

And second, trails teach us about ourselves even when we’re doing nothing more sophisticated than “staring at mud,” and perhaps this is why the allure of being on the trail is so irresistible. “Walking creates trails,” says Moor. “Trails, in turn, shape landscapes. And, over time, landscapes come to serve as archives of communal knowledge and symbolic meaning” (199). Writers who help us perceive connections we might not recognize on our own are rare treasures. Moor is such a writer.

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woodward-vickijeff3249aThank you for stopping by. We feature writers who deserve recognition, so come often, and tell friends about our posts. Keep sending me books to review: Six Trait Gurus, POB 8000 PMB 8284, Sisters OR 97759. My thanks to the wonderful writers who have done so already. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet. 2016. Afterword by Martha White. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Biographic chapter book

Levels: Like White’s own work, this book speaks to virtually all ages. It is written for mid-elementary and up, but the illustrations will make it appealing even to very young readers, and the details will intrigue everyone, including adults.

Features: Irresistible illustrations in Melissa Sweet’s inimitable style; carefully selected family photos; telling and fascinating examples of White’s original handwritten drafts showing his notes and revisions; exceptionally thorough timeline, complete with book covers and other illustrations; a touching Afterword by White’s granddaughter Martha; revealing author’s notes from Melissa Sweet, detailing her hands-on research for the book; bibliography and index.

 some-writer

Overview

“I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and have been stuck with it ever since” (1). This opening line from Melissa Sweet’s reverent and captivating look at the life of beloved author E. B. White touched a nerve. I too grew up loving the sound of a manual typewriter. My father, a court reporter, typed his own depositions until he could afford a stenographer (that, eventually, became my first job). When he replaced his old Remington, he gave it to me. I was about seven. And though I didn’t type very fast at first, I was enchanted by the way this machine transformed the look of my letters and stories. Of course, electric typewriters and computers came along and made everything easier. But only someone who has hammered out copy on an old Remington or Royal or Corona can appreciate how nostalgic the very sight of a typewritten letter makes us old-time writers feel. You don’t have to love typewriters, however, to appreciate Sweet’s book. It’s one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read.

From cover to cover, Some Writer! is positively gorgeous. Before I could settle down enough to read, I leafed through it several times, just soaking in the beauty. Sweet is a gifted, highly original artist, and her work is showcased here with a brilliant layout. It’s like walking through a literary garden. Pages feature a mix of Sweet’s endearing and folksy style, together with handwritten copy, Garth Williams’ charming and often hilarious drawings of the famous spider Charlotte, irresistible family photos—the kind you’d frame if they were yours—and a delightful blend of modern fonts with the occasional letter or memorable quotation written in the quirky, irregular type of the old Corona.

The text itself, minus the writer’s notes and other extras at the end, runs just over 130 pages, and they speed by. This book is everything you want a biography to be: not a stiff march through a dry fact-encumbered history, but an intimate peek into the everyday doings of someone we already love through his work. In one delightful anecdote, we discover that the White family thought of themselves as “city people,” but spent summers at Belgrade Lakes in New York, where Elwyn’s father rented two cabins. “The brothers,” Sweet tells us, “studied tortoises, tadpoles, and toads.” Regardless of weather, the whole family would crowd into the small skiff they named Jesse (after White’s water-fearing mother) and head for town. There, Elwyn’s father would buy a case of Moxie soda, “assuring his family that the new drink Coca-Cola would never be as popular as Moxie” (10). Little details like this—White’s father viewing Coca-Cola as the newfangled drink—make us feel as close to Elwyn as if we were attending a family picnic at the lake.

Other vignettes reveal that White was a good student, an avid reader, a musician (of sorts), a painfully shy person (something that remained true into his adult years), a lover of animals big and small, and a self-styled adventurer who loved hiking through the woods or getting out on the water. He began writing at a young age, winning his first literary award before he was ten (20). For years, White had his heart set on attending Cornell, but upon graduating from high school, felt it was his duty to join the Service and fight in World War I. Perhaps it’s lucky for us that the Army rejected him: he was too thin. So—on to Cornell, where he would acquire his life-long nickname Andy, and meet Professor William Strunk, Jr. We all know how that turned out.

To anyone who knew how shy White was, it was no surprise that the only thing he feared more than public speaking was talking to girls—they “terrified him” (19). That all changed, however, when he met Katharine Sergeant Angell. Katharine already had two children from another marriage, but she and White would welcome a third, Joel (called “Joe”), the light of White’s life. He would say at one point, “To a writer, a child is an alibi. If I should never in all my years write anything worth reading, I can always explain that by pointing to my child” (50). Within a short time, he would never need an alibi again.

Reading this book is a supremely joyful experience—one that no fan of E. B. White should miss. Every page brings another delightful discovery. Through Sweet’s words, White emerges as a deeply good person, someone who cared both about people and about the earth itself. He was humble and optimistic, surely two rare qualities these days. And though an indisputable genius, White never craved or sought attention in any form; he was genuinely happy on the farm. He loved children, and admired them for the right reasons—for their intelligence, their sensitivity, their curiosity. White once wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world. I guess you can find that in there, if you dig around” (128). We don’t need to dig far. That voice that calls to us from the pages of Charlotte’s Web is no put-on; that’s E. B. White himself, as open and honest as the sky. When we lose a writer like White, the books remain as reminders and clues to that person’s innermost mind and heart. No wonder we treasure them. Sweet’s touching tribute makes a fine addition to an already unique collection.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. You may want to read Some Writer! more than once before sharing it with students. The text is so rich with detail that you simply can’t take it all in at once, and the illustrations add much to both the information and the voice. Looking at the Table of Contents, you’ll see that the book is divided into thirteen chapters, and one chapter is probably enough to share aloud at one time, or to discuss with a small group. Be sure to use a document projector so students do not miss even the tiniest feature of Sweet’s incredible paintings and sketches.

charlottes-web2

Background. Are your students familiar with E. B. White’s books? Some may have heard Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, or Stuart Little read at home or school, or perhaps read these books on their own. Talk about what they know now and how they feel about E. B. White’s books. Are any familiar with the book titled The Elements of Style? Show them the books if you have copies. If some or most of your students have not read at least one of White’s books, you may want to choose one to share aloud prior to discussing the biography.

It’s also helpful to students—or any readers—to understand the time in which E. B. White lived. He was born into a very different world in 1899. Give the-elements-of-stylestudents time to do a little research to learn what life was like in those times. Who was president? What did people do for work—or entertainment? How many attended college? What modern conveniences or appliances did they have? What methods of transportation did they use?

William McKinley

William McKinley

 

typewriter4And by the way, what the heck is a typewriter? As I noted in my overview, the book opens with E. B. White expressing his love for the click of the typewriter keys. It would not be surprising if many of your students had no idea what a typewriter is. If you have access to one, bring it into class and let students type on it to feel the effort those keystrokes require compared to today’s turbo-charged keyboards! They may be surprised! Also note how different the print itself looks. It’s not sleek and modern. It’s bumpy and uneven, sometimes blurry in spots. And writers in White’s time could not choose from hundreds of fonts, something we take for granted today. How would it seem to produce important work like a book on this sort of machine? How long would it take—and what if you made a mistake? Could people type 100-120 words a minute on this primitive device? Answer: They could—and did!typewriter3

 

Format and genre. This is a biography, something different from an autobiography or memoir. Help your students feel comfortable with these slightly different, but related terms. A biography can be described as an account of a person’s life written by someone else. An autobiography is an account of someone’s life written by the person him- or herself. A memoir is an anecdotal narrative based on firsthand experience. Memoirs often focus on a particular period or periods in a person’s life, and so may or may not be as complete as an autobiography.

car-driven-in-1899Central message. The central message in any biography answers the question, What was ______ really like? Instead of addressing this question all at once at the end of the book, try asking it chapter by chapter as author Melissa Sweet slowly reveals more—and more—about her subject. You might keep a running list of characteristics that describe E. B. White, adding to it as you go. By the way, notice the chapter titles. They’re creative, don’t you think? Do they also provide us with clues about each chapter’s content—and consequently, about White himself? Consider the importance of such clues to a reader. Would chapter titles or subtitles be something your students could use in their own writing to guide readers through a story or discussion?

Showing, not telling. If writing teachers have a favorite mantra, it’s “show, don’t tell.” Yet few things are more difficult to teach than this concept. Look for passages that show us something about E. B. White and his experiences without telling us outright. Consider this passage about a time Elwyn read a poem aloud from a stage in his school:

It had the line Footprints on the sands of time, but Elwyn’s words came out the tands of sime. Other kids started laughing and the moment on stage became even worse than En had imagined it would be. He could not finish. He vowed never to go up on a stage again. (3)

What is the author trying to show us about Elwyn in this passage?

A word about names . . . Notice, by the way, that E. B. White is called “En” here. Throughout his life, he goes by several different names. Have you or any of your students had this experience? Talk about what it is like to have more than one first name or nickname. Should a person be able to choose a favorite? Does E. B. White eventually do this?

Illustrations—and voice. As you go through the book notice the many forms illustrations take, and talk about the “flavor” they give to the narrative. Here are just a few examples:

  • Photographs
  • Paintings by author/illustrator Melissa Sweet
  • Cartoons
  • Quotations
  • Drawings by E. B. White
  • Handwritten and typed text

Do the illustrations contribute to the voice of this particular book? In what way? What sort of voice do your students hear in this book? Boisterous? Quiet? Conversational? Comedic? Authoritative? Reverent? Or something else . . .

Do your students find the mix of illustrations (paintings, photos, etc.) appealing? Why? Have they considered mixing different types of illustrations in any of their own written work?

Thinking small. Choosing a topic can be one of the most challenging issues a writer faces. At one point, E. B. White confesses that he finds it satisfying to write about “the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart” (37). Your students might feel the same way.

Get them started by modeling the brainstorming and selection of small topics. It’s easy—and your students will love it! Here are a few topics I would list as students look on (and yes, my list changes all the time, and by the time you read this, I’ll have half a dozen new ones I haven’t thought of yet):

  • BIG snow—and having too much of a good thing!img_2902
  • Tips for making really good scones
  • Relearning bridge—what’s fun, what’s hard
  • How birds stay alive in winter
  • How to look better at bowling than you are
  • Keeping in touch with friends far away
  • What I love about Tana French mysteries
  • Why sitcom laugh tracks are annoying
  • How long to keep leftovers before you can pitch them without guilt
  • Times when it’s simply NOT all right to look at your iPhone

These are little things on my mind right now. Your list won’t look anything like this—naturally. That’s the point. Topic lists are personal because as E. B. White discovered, we do our best writing about things close to our heart.

After modeling your list, break students into small groups and have each group come up with their “top 12 topics.” Share these aloud, then post them. Students can copy favorites into writing journals for later reference.

Where do you get your ideas? This question is a favorite one among students, especially those who have a chance to talk with a published author. Many writers will answer that they do not actually go in search of ideas; rather, ideas come to them—right out of own lives. This is definitely true for E. B. White. Where did White get the idea to write Charlotte’s Web? What about Stuart Little? Be sure students listen carefully for answers to these questions.

The significance of place. We don’t necessarily think of White’s writing as being about “place” per se, but in each of White’s books, setting plays a vital role. Read the description of the barn that opens Chapter 3 of Charlotte’s Web. You’ll see (and feel) at once how critical this setting is to the story that follows. (Note that White almost began the book with this description.) Share this passage aloud with your students. Ask what details they notice and how those details make them feel. What senses does White appeal to in this passage?

In one of the book’s most profound quotations (53), E. B. White tells us he can’t find words to explain what comes over him when he crosses the state line into Maine (the place where, as a boy, he spent summers with his family)—it’s “the sensation of having received a gift from a true love.” Have your students experienced a place that affected them so deeply? Have you? Talk about this. Such places can range from a homey kitchen to an open prairie, from an apartment balcony to a corner coffee shop, bookstore, beach, bridge, attic, treehouse, lake-side hideaway, or anywhere your feet or mind can take you. Discuss one or two places that have had an emotional impact on you. Then give students a chance to come up with one or two of their own, talking with partners to generate ideas. Ask them to pick one place that stands out, and write about it. Remind them that places without names—like the barn from Charlotte’s Web—often make the best choices.the-trumpet-of-the-swan

Crafting an Argument: Book Reviews. On pages 68 through 74, Sweet recounts the striking differences between critics’ responses to Stuart Little and students’ responses. Critics were not universally enthusiastic, and some even considered the book inappropriate for school libraries. Children loved it, however, and bombarded White with personal letters that he treasured.

stuart-little2Your students may not agree with the critics about their favorite books, either. Have them search out online reviews for any book they like, checking to see if critics and other readers agree with their point of view. If not, have students write a one-page review, defending their position and including one or two quotations from the book to support their thinking. Consider publishing some reviews online. As an alternative, have students write directly to the author. If you cannot find an online POB or email address, you can reach any author by sending a letter in care of the publisher.

Revising leads. Among the most fascinating parts of Some Writer! is the history of how White struggled to find the most effective opening for Charlotte’s Web. From pages 86 through 92, we learn that he wrote many leads over a period of several months. Share this section aloud with students so they can appreciate how different these leads are—and how hard White worked to get this part right. Notice that he doesn’t just revise the wording. The whole setting and perspective changes from one revision to the next. White began with a very direct lead about Charlotte, then moved to Wilbur, then to the barn itself, and on to Mr. Arable. The lead he settled on for the final draft ranks as one of the strongest in literature. It’s both engaging—and startling. Read it aloud to see if your students agree. Compare the leads (paying close attention to the captions at the bottom of each page), and talk about what changes from one to another, and which lead your students feel works best. What exactly gives a lead the power to capture us as readers?

After discussing White’s examples, have students look for favorite leads from books they love, and read them aloud for the class. Then ask them to review a lead from their own writing and revise it at least twice. Encourage them to make bold changes of the sort E. B. White made to his own writing. Instead of simply changing a word or two, ask them to make each revision distinctly different from all others. When they finish, have them share their three versions with a partner or in a small writing group, and discuss which ones work best—and why.

The nature of revision. In school, we often practice revision as a one-time event. Students write a piece, then at some point revise it—and it’s finished. But clearly for E. B. White, as for nearly all professional writers, revision requires ongoing and repeated efforts, often over a long stretch of time. What does this difference tell us about the true nature of revision? Should this have an impact on the way we teach writing? Discuss this with students.

Hands-on research.  In the first part of Chapter 9, we discover how E. B. White learned about spiders. He spent over a year watching them. At one point, he actually kept eggs in a box, waited for the young spiders to hatch, and tracked their first movements. How many writers would take time for all this? And yet, consider how important this hands-on research was to Charlotte’s Web. What if White had tried to write the book without knowing any more about spiders than most of us know?

In addition to the information from Chapter 9, share Sweet’s “Author’s Note” on pages 135-136 aloud with your students. Did Sweet do some hands-on research of her own for this book? Talk about how this form of research differs from looking topics up in books or on the Internet. What makes firsthand research so valuable?

Have your students done any firsthand research of their own? If not, this could be a good time to start! As a class, choose a topic: raising chickens, yoga, hiking, cooking the perfect omelet—anything. Discuss ways a writer can learn about a topic in a personal way—a site visit, interview, observation, etc. Ask students to include at least one form of personal hands-on research next time they are gathering information for a nonfiction piece.

 Writing down to children. On page 130, the author quotes E. B. White’s strong views about never writing down to children. Share this paragraph aloud. Then have students write a personal response. Ask volunteers to share their responses. How do your students feel about the point White makes here? What exactly does “writing down” mean, and can your students identify any authors who do this? Why is it important for an author to respect his or her audience—or to think about them at all?

the-story-of-charlottes-web-michael-simsA Final Note . . . For more information on E. B. White’s writing process, see The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims. 2011. New York: Walker and Company.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author . . .

Writer and illustrator Melissa Sweet lives with her family on the coast of Maine, near E. B. White’s former home. She has illustrated more than eighty children’s books, including the Caldecott Honor books The Right Word and A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, both written by Jen Bryant. Her collages and paintings have appeared in the New York Times and Martha Stewart Living, on Madison Park Greetings and Smilebox cards. She also wrote and illustrated Tupelo Rides the Rails; Carmine: A Little More Red, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book; and Balloons Over Broadway, a picture book biography that won the Sibert Medal and was named a 2011 Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction Picture Book. When she is not in her studio, Melissa can be found taking an art class, hiking with her dogs, or riding her bicycle.

Balloons Over Broadway

Balloons Over Broadway

A River of Words

A River of Words

Of her field research, Melissa said this in a 2014 interview: “When I set out, I travel with a small studio: camera, sketchbook, pens and pencils. But oftentimes I get somewhere and it’s more about taking time to soak up what I’m seeing without being too diligent about recording it. The impressions of a place or archival material can be as inspiring as the meticulous details.”

To read more of this fascinating interview, check out www.artofthepicturebook.com  You can also visit Melissa at www.melissasweet.net

Author Sneed Collard

Author Sneed Collard

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Great news! Our book is a reality! Teaching Nonfiction Revision is currently in production with Heinemann, and my wonderful co-author Sneed B. Collard and I are eagerly awaiting release—tentatively scheduled for early fall. This book takes readers inside the thinking of a working professional writer—Sneed. For anyone who still might not know, Sneed has written more than 75 books for young readers, including Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials, Firebirds, Reign of the Sea Dragons, Teeth, Wings, Sneed B. Collard III’s Most Fun Book Ever About Lizards, and his recently published memoir, Snakes, Alligators and Broken Hearts: Journeys of a Biologist’s Son (reviewed here on sixtraitgurus).

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Snakes, Alligators, and Broken Hearts

Fire Birds

Fire Birds

In our new book, Sneed details his tips and strategies for revising nonfiction both concisely and effectively. He’s a seasoned, imaginative writer who knows his stuff and has a lot to say about the craft. He’s also enormously fun to work with. (I have a rule: Never work with someone who has no sense of humor. Sooner or later, you always regret it.)

 

My part as co-author has been to translate Sneed’s invaluable messages into classroom lessons that teachers can use to help students revise their own nonfiction—with dramatic results. If you teach nonfiction writing, Sneed and I are confident you’ll find Teaching Nonfiction Revision a valuable (not to mention outrageously fun to read) addition to your professional collection. And by the way, my colleague and fellow guru Jeff Hicks has promised to review the book in a future post, and we cannot wait to hear his thoughts. Thank you so much, Jeff! We’ll have more information on the release date as soon as we know it.

 

Just-for-Fun Book Recommendation: Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

Books for Living

Books for Living

I have a simple way of determining how good a film is: Even before it’s over, I know I’ll watch it again. I judge books the same way. Admittedly, I don’t always read the whole book when I return, but I do return, and that’s the point. Books for Living by Will Schwalbe is one of those books I’ll come back to again and again. Because it’s supremely well written, because it’s a profound, heartfelt and often funny (at times deeply touching) look at the meaning of life, and because author Will Schwalbe responds to some of my own favorite books, including The Girl on the Train, David Copperfield, Wonder, Gift from the Sea, 1984, Song of Solomon, and—one that influenced me immeasurably—Bird by Bird.

Each chapter focuses on one book—26 in all—and how that book affected Schwalbe or shaped his view of bird-by-birdlife. In addition, each chapter has a theme, inspired by the chosen book. Schwalbe is quick to point out in his introduction that not all the books are his personal favorites, nor would they necessarily make the “greatest books of all time” list:

What follows are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions. (17)

He adds that any reader can make a list like this, and he recommends it because “it’s a path to creating your own personal philosophy” (18).

just-take-it-bird-by-birdI couldn’t help noticing what a radical and refreshing departure this is from the usual book reports we so often ask students to do. Why, I thought, couldn’t students take this same approach, writing about books that have moved them deeply and made a difference in how they see things—or books that have helped them navigate a troubled time? Read a selected chapter or two from Books for Living aloud, and I can almost guarantee that your students will want to do this very thing. Of course, this is a wide open prairie-without-fences approach to reading—and writing. Instead of defining those books that we think students should find meaningful, we let them decide that on their own. Maybe that’s wiser than we think, though. As Schwalbe reminds us, the idea that there is a “Ginsu knife” book—the book that can be all things to everyone—is a myth. What is true, however, is that there’s always a Ginsu knife book for each of us for a particular time and situation.

By the way, one of the books Schwalbe discusses is Stuart Little. I highly recommend reading this chapter aloud in conjunction with discussing Melissa Sweet’s book Some Writer! It not only captures the complexity of Stuart’s character, but more important, shows why E. B. White’s work is not only timeless, but also reaches an impressively wide range of readers, from five to ninety five. You’ll love Schwalbe’s book, and I’m betting you’ll want to create, along with your students, a similar book of your own.

Until our next post, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

woodward-vickijeff3249a

a-black-hole-is-not-a-hole

A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. 2012. Illustrated by Michael Carroll. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Nonfiction picture book.

Levels: Aimed at grade 4 and up, but appropriate and engaging for any grade level, including adults.

Features: Striking and informative illustrations, strong nonfiction voice, exceptionally thorough glossary, expansive timeline from pre-17th Century to the present—and beyond, excellent resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“A black hole is nothing to look at. Literally.” That playful description gives you a hint about Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano’s irresistibly charming nonfiction voice. But it doesn’t begin to reveal how much information the author packs into her 61-page account of this outer space phenomenon.

In a book written both to inform and amuse, the author manages to be scientific without being overly technical. Her conversational style—reminiscent of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye the Science guy, and other fine nonfiction authors—makes readers eager to pull up a chair and learn everything possible about black holes.

We discover at the outset that black holes are not what we might think. For one thing, they’re not holes. They’re also not monsters, gobbling up everything in the universe. But yes, they can and do pull things in—things as small as dust or as large as stars—and what goes in never comes out. Not even light can escape. That’s because “a black hole’s pull us the strongest pull in the entire universe,” stronger than any “fleet of giant rocket engines” (5). And though black holes may not plot or strategize, DeCristofano imbues them with an unmistakable element of danger that only adds to their allure.

The book is beautifully organized, divided into eight short chapters, each with its own theme. We begin with a description of black holes, what they are and how they operate, then consider the enormity of their gravitational pull, the way in which a black hole is formed, and the unimaginable blackness itself. The author wraps things up by first treating us to an imaginary tour inside a black hole, suggesting how things might look and feel if somehow we could make the journey—which of course we cannot. It’s too far (an understatement) and the effects would be, let’s say, dire: “The pull from the black hole would force your body into a long, skinny, stringy shape” (51). Just what I wanted for the New Year!, you’re thinking—but actually, this undesirable effect, known as “spaghettification,” doesn’t end well at all. When it comes to travel destinations, black holes do not make the list. In the final chapter, we get a peek at the “strange new universe” conceived by Einstein and others, a place where space can stretch and bend (55), and Newton’s law of gravity is given a new twist.

Every great nonfiction book offers readers something to love, and this one is no exception. First, DeCristofano’s voice never settles into the mundane. Throughout the book, she retains a tone of vibrant curiosity as if she were making discoveries right along with us. Second, thanks to the author’s exhaustive research, this book is filled with intriguing, little known bits of information. For example, what’s the likelihood that we ourselves will be swallowed by a black hole? Don’t let it keep you awake. Turns out we’re quadrillions of miles from the closest one. (To find out how many zeroes are in a quadrillion, check out the brilliant chart on page 6.) In addition, the author is a veritable master of similes and metaphors—which I happen to love because they make complex ideas accessible. In one chapter, she compares black holes to whirlpools. Though they may not be exactly alike, we get the idea. It gives us an image to cling to, and that’s important when discussing something as elusive as a black hole that exists in black space.

Finally, this book is brilliantly illustrated—in a range of styles that blend beautifully and fully complement the text. Illustrations include Michael Carroll’s striking paintings and whimsical cartoons, along with stunning photos from NASA and other sources. Together, these illustrations make us feel as if we are on a space flight, searching for mysterious black holes ourselves.

By the way, will our own sun become a black hole one day? Apparently  . . . that’s impossible. Read the book to find out why.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole is an ideal discussion book for a small group, but you can also read it aloud if you divide it into chapters. Please do read at least selected passages aloud since this book offers such an outstanding illustration of nonfiction voice. In addition, use a document projector if you can; students will find the illustrations fascinating and informative.

 

Background. What do your students know about black holes now? You might have them write a definition of a black hole. This isn’t a quiz! It’s a chance for them to see what they know prior to reading or hearing the book compared to what they learn as they go through it. You might also make a class list of the main questions your students have about black holes. Then compare your class list with the seven questions on the front inside flap of the book jacket. How many questions match? And how many of their questions are answered by reading the book? Note: When you finish the book, have students write a second definition of a black hole, comparing it to what they wrote at first. What ideas or perceptions have changed?

Coming to “terms” with the content. Fully understanding the book requires knowledge of a little scientific terminology. The author is very good at explaining new terms and ideas in context, but you can help students get even more out of the book by introducing a few terms from the glossary either up front or as you encounter them. Doing so also gives you a chance to acquaint students with the benefits of referring to a glossary often as you read. Recommended terms to emphasize: black hole, energy, event horizon, force, galaxy, gravity, light year, matter, quasar, radio galaxy, singularity, star, supernova, white dwarf.

Format and genre. Many students—and adults—equate picture books with stories. Maybe your students do, too. Ask them. Then mention that an increasing number of picture books—particularly those aimed at older students—are nonfiction. This trend has literally exploded over recent decades. (Why do you and your students think that might be?) You might also ask how they define “nonfiction” in their own minds. In fact, nonfiction is a large genre that can include everything from biographies and memoirs to histories, news reports, documentary videos, scientific analyses, nonfiction picture books, and much more. In terms of genre, how would your students describe A Black Hole Is NOT a Hole? After discussing this with them, you might share your own thoughts—along with mine: It’s fact, not fiction. We can also describe it as informational writing, based on scientific research. Read Carolyn Cinami CeDrostofano’s “Author’s Note” (pages 70-71) for details on how she compiled her information.

The message. Nonfiction books should teach readers something important or interesting. Even casual readers will pick up numerous bits of information about black holes, stars, galaxies, and the known and unknown universe. But—is there a larger message here? What central idea (or ideas) does the author hope we take away from reading this book? Hint: To zero in on this, try comparing common myths about black holes to the impressions with which the author leaves us by the end of the book.

The details. One helpful way to think about details is to ask students what information, if any, was new—or surprising. Nonfiction authors—the good ones, anyway—are always full of surprises. We wouldn’t read their books otherwise. You can model this with just the introduction and first chapter. Make a list of things that surprised you. For me, that would include the following (and if you teach science, then probably these weren’t surprises—but you can call them interesting reminders):

  • A black hole is not really a hole
  • It’s trillions of miles from Earth to the closest star
  • Stars look close together in the night sky—but are trillions of miles apart
  • A black hole has the strongest pull in the universe
  • A black hole can pull in stars and asteroids—in fact, nothing whatsoever can resist it

Looking at details in this way—as tidbits of surprising or hard-to-forget information—helps students understand what to include in their own writing. The details that matter, the ones to sift from their own research, are those that will make a reader say, “No kidding? I never knew that!”

Voice. No one without a strong sense of her own voice would dare call Einstein “a radical smarty-pants” (55). DeCristofano pulls it off with nary a blink. She is having a good time thinking and writing about space, and that kind of joy is infectious. If you share the book, or parts of it aloud, you can ask students to point out moments where they hear the author’s voice most clearly. Have them identify strong passages, study them together—using a document projector if you have one—and try to figure out what creates the voice. Is it wording? Humor? Striking details? Something more?

In addition, talk about the role of voice in nonfiction. I happen to think it’s essential in most writing (contracts, medical reports, and the like being exceptions of course). If a writer is excited about a topic, there’s no reason that enthusiasm shouldn’t come through in her writing. In writing that serves an informational purpose, though, what is the role of voice? Talk about this, perhaps by comparing DeCristofano’s book to any nonfiction piece without voice. Encyclopedias and many textbooks provide good examples.

Illustrations. Ask students to notice the different types of illustrations that appear throughout the text. Discuss the various purposes illustrations serve: to amuse us, teach us something, add to the mood or appeal of the book. Was the choice to use a blend of illustrations a good one in this case—for this subject and this author’s approach to her subject? Why? What if the book contained only photographs or only cartoons? What would be lost? Or suppose it had no illustrations at all. What would happen then?

 Drafting an argument. Do your students have any guess about how much money the U.S. spends on space research and exploration? Has the amount gone up or down in recent years? You can check out the facts online at this or another website:

http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/150-people-in-astronomy/space-exploration-and-astronauts/general-questions/921-how-much-money-is-spent-on-space-exploration-intermediate

Discuss this issue with students. Are we spending about the right amount—especially now that China and India are more active in space exploration, along with the European Space Agency and Russian Federal Space Agency? Should we be more competitive and aggressive in our spending? Or perhaps pull back and commit this money to some other endeavor? Give students a chance to research this topic briefly and discuss it in small groups. Then ask them to craft an argument supporting one of the following:

  • Increase spending on space exploration
  • Decrease spending
  • Maintain current levels of spending

Remind them to include strong reasons to back their position and to cite specific data and sources for that data. By the way, if your students are fortunate enough to know someone with relevant information or experience relevant to this topic, invite that person in for a class interview. The results will enrich your students’ writing immeasurably.

 Further research. Want to see a terrific video about black holes? Look up “nonfiction videos on black holes” online for a wide selection. Many are under two minutes long, allowing you to watch several within the span of a lesson. They may answer additional questions raised by the book. And seeing a black hole in motion—even an animated rendition—is an educational experience!

 

About the Author . . .

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano is a science education consultant and award winning author. She has been named a Creative Teaching Partner (specialty: Curriculum and Planning) by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and has developed science programs with NASA and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Early on, Carolyn enjoyed writing and imagined herself as a writer. As her interest in science grew, she found creative ways to combine the two.

“For the past fifteen or so years,” she says, “I have been fortunate to work with teachers, museum educators, and educational researchers on fascinating projects. But I have never really stopped writing. I write poetry—but don’t share it often. I try to write stories, too. And I thoroughly enjoy shaping engaging science books that I hope will capture the reader’s imagination on lots of different levels.”

Carolyn works with educators to help integrate writing—notably science writing—into the broader school curriculum. Visit Carolyn at her website: www.carolyndecristofano.com

 

Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Welcome back! We hope you had a glorious winter break, and perhaps enjoyed a little snow—maybe not as much as we’ve had in Oregon. As I write this, we are working on our sixth foot of powder, definitely more than needed for cross country skiing, especially if you are the one breaking trail.

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Jeff continues his work with fifth graders and is also teaching curling now. If I were in Beaverton, I’d say, “Sign me up!” Meanwhile, when I’m not shoveling (which is hardly ever anymore) I continue to work on my new nonfiction book. And no, it’s not a myth. It’s real—and we will announce it soon.img_2895

What do you do when it snows? Besides wishing for a snow blower? Right! You read! I craved a little break from my steady diet of nonfiction and discovered I love the deliciously dark and gritty mysteries by Tana French. I highly recommend her newest, The Trespasser. Fans of the AMC series “The Killing” will quickly recognize how much the prickly tension between two crackerjack detectives—one male and one female—can add to any story. They’re partners, make no mistake, but they keep each other on point at all times.

the-trespasserI like the format of French’s books. She doesn’t bury readers in a barrage of gory details, or set up clichéd plots in which a sadist stalks a helpless victim who’s cringing in a corner. Her characters are realistic, and so are their motives. But this isn’t “Columbo,” and there’s a lot we don’t know when we first witness the crime scene—including who the killer might be. Gradually, French serves up healthy doses of clues, and lets you work on “the solve,” which is never as easy as it first appears.

Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran persist in digging for the truth, even when taunted by the rest of the Murder squad to get on with it and move to the next case. We get to dig with them, seeing every piece of evidence and every potential witness as a detective would. The level of detail in French’s writing is absolutely astonishing—and thoroughly fascinating. Add to that, French’s knowledge of police procedures is impressive and the interrogation room interviews are as compelling as any I’ve read by any author—ever.

Her characters are real—and gritty. Detective Moran, like the Stephen Holder character in “The Killing,” is consistently smarter than he lets on, and is the perfect foil for Detective Conway, whose in your face style and colorful vocabulary would stop most sailors in their tracks. She takes no prisoners, and luckily is immune to insults since she receives plenty. Feisty, brilliant, intuitive, and unapologetic, Conway is a match for pretty much anything that stumbles into her path, from overbearing superiors to ingenious killers. I loved her—and am hoping she appears in many future books by Tana French. So much for mysteries . . .

Are you a fan of nonfiction? Then, rejoice. We’ll be doing more nonfiction reviews in future posts. Meanwhile . . . Give every child a voice.

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Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans, written and illustrated by Don Brown. 2015. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Genre: Nonfiction graphic history.

Levels: Aimed at middle school and up, but a riveting resource for interested readers of all ages, including both younger children and adults.

Features: Striking graphic illustrations, easy to read text, expansive resource list and bibliography.

 

Overview

“Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water.” That’s the first line on the dust jacket—and will give you a hint about how much you can learn from this highly readable, impressively researched historical narrative.

The story opens with how Katrina began, as a tiny, “unremarkable” wind in Africa. We follow Katrina across the Atlantic as she grows large enough to be given a name, and then powerful enough to ignite terror. In the first half of the book, we witness the 1.2 million citizens of New Orleans receiving news of the approaching storm, then preparing to evacuate—or unbelievably, to stay. It feels as if we’re right there with them as they wait in apprehension, huddling within structures that will be no match for what’s coming. We see them frantically struggle to protect their children, pry victims from sinking cars, and finally—in shocking numbers—lose their homes, belongings, pets, and loved ones. Battling a world that’s become surreal, more than fourteen hundred people die, some overwhelmed by the storm surge, others racing to escape rising floods, a few trapped in attics without tools to break through their own roofs.

The second half of the book depicts rescue efforts on all levels—from federal down to individual. Brown honestly portrays the poorly coordinated government efforts to provide shelter and help to people who have lost everything. Stranded citizens cling to rooftops and floating debris hoping that someone with a boat will miraculously head their way. For too many, that doesn’t happen. Constantly wet and shut off from all communication, survivors find themselves without food, clean water, blankets, plumbing, electricity, medical help—or means of escape. They watch cars and houses float like toys down “rivers” that used to be familiar streets. In the convention center and superdome, where thousands eventually take shelter, conditions are abysmal: overcrowded and filthy, with no fresh air and often nowhere to sit but the floor.

In the face of all this despair, Brown reminds us, there is light. Hospitals do what they can. Coast Guard men and women hoist people from rooftops. The Red Cross opens over five hundred shelters across twelve states. Texas, Arkansas, and other states take in refugees, once they are able to leave the city. Even as rain thunders down, brave volunteers venture out in their own small boats. Some wade or swim through toxic flood waters, risking lethal infection, to save friends, neighbors—even strangers. They persist in the face of explosions, fires, snakes, and gunshots. Gradually, the storm subsides, and the deadly waters that drowned New Orleans seep away, inch by inch, leaving horrifying mounds of detritus in their wake.

At 91 quick pages—they fly by—the book is a dramatic and intense portrayal of what can happen when we are unprepared for the worst that nature can deal out. And when government agencies and officials fail to respond quickly despite evidence of abject suffering. In stunning contrast, though, the book also shines a welcome light upon the courage of everyday Americans who risk everything to save others. In his direct, unflinching style, Don Brown shows us America at its absolute worst—and best.

Drowned City, which marks the tenth anniversary of Katrina, is a fitting, brilliantly written, visually stunning tribute to the people—residents, rescuers, and some who were both—that fought bravely against insurmountable odds. Though many evacuees never returned to New Orleans, it’s worth remembering that others continue to rebuild, even to this day.

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In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Drowned City is an ideal discussion book for a small reading group—or for the whole class if you have enough copies to share. Despite the length, it’s a quick read, but expect students to spend extra time studying the illustrations. You can also read it aloud with the aid of a document projector. This book MUST be seen, not just heard. If you share it this way, plan to spend several class periods because you do not want to rush. Invite comments as you go.

Background. Do your students have knowledge of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath? How many have heard of Katrina, and know when it struck and where? Do any of them know someone who was affected? This is a highly sensitive question, of course; but if any of your students have personal histories to share, their insights can greatly enrich your discussion.

If you live in Louisiana or a neighboring state, your students have likely heard many accounts relating to Katrina. For students who are not familiar with the facts or circumstances, however, it may be helpful to provide some factual background about hurricanes in general and their deadly power.

A check under “hurricane facts” online will lead you to such informational tidbits as

  • The wind speeds of hurricanes in categories 1 (weakest) through 5 (strongest)
  • The number of hurricanes to hit the U.S. in the last 100 years
  • The states most often struck by hurricanes
  • Dates of the hurricane “season” on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans
  • Origin of the word “hurricane”
  • How the tradition of naming hurricanes began
  • The forecasting of hurricanes
  • Meaning of related terms, such as “surge” . . .

 

. . . and much more. Such information will give students a deeper appreciation of the book.

Format and genre. The first thing you’re likely to notice about Drowned City is the format. It’s a graphic nonfiction history, a genre greatly appealing to many young readers. Over the past three decades, graphic novels and histories have grown immeasurably in popularity and attained an impressive level of sophistication. Language and art blend to recount events with a power neither could match on its own.

Brown has his own artistic style, simple and raw. The facial expressions, which he brilliantly depicts using only a few brush strokes, indelibly capture Katrina’s impact on people of the Gulf Coast. These are not photographs, but if they were, we’d be saying, “How did he manage to get that shot?” He seems to know precisely what to illustrate—and just what details will intrigue, touch or startle us. Before actually reading the text, leaf through a portion to give students a feel for the overall “look” of the document. What emotional response do the illustrations arouse—even before students hear the author’s words? How would your students describe Brown’s highly individual artistic approach?

Not comic books. Though they share some similarities, graphic novels and histories are not comic books. What is the difference, though? Look at them side by side, and discuss the similarities the two genres share—and any differences you identify.

A footnote: In the publishing industry, books in this genre are typically called “graphic novels,” though the term can be somewhat confusing since novels are fiction and tend to be lengthy. This book is neither. Help students understand that “graphic novel” is a publishers’ term and quite different from “novel” as we usually think of it. The history of the graphic novel, by the way, makes a fine topic for informational research.

 

Color and mood. As you page through the book, notice the colors Brown chooses for his artwork. Ask students to reflect on the ways these colors influence the message and mood of the narrative. How does Brown want us as readers to feel? Also look for occasional hints of bright color. When and where do they appear—and what might they represent?

The big idea—or message. Every good nonfiction book has a big idea. Behind all the facts and anecdotes, there’s a message, something the author wants us to think about. As you share Drowned City, ask your students to think about the underlying message, or messages. There could be more than one. Talk about this as a class—or have students share their own thoughts in writing journals.

Organization. Unlike many books of comparable length, Drowned City is not divided into chapters. Yet it reads almost as if it were. It is easy to transition from one discussion to another. What organizational devices does author Don Brown use to keep us on track? Note that you may need to review the book more than one time to notice how he achieves this smooth topic-to-topic flow.

Following are some elements you may want to share with students once they’ve had a chance to express their own ideas about organizational structure:

 

  • Time: Time is a critical organizational device in this book, and with good reason. The people of New Orleans—and indeed people throughout the world—know the hurricane will strike long before it happens. This allows the author to take us through a period of tense anticipation, followed by the climax of the actual storm, and then an aftermath when many of the city’s most serious problems are just beginning. With respect to dates, the book opens in early August 2005 and rushes headlong toward the moment of crisis on August 29. Though the primary narrative concludes on October 2, when New Orleans is finally dry again, there’s also an epilogue on the final pages, a look back from the perspective of 2012.

 

  • Scene shifts: We move from place to place, and from one perspective to another. For example, we shift from Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, from the struggling victims swimming or clinging to rooftops to the rescuers in boats and helicopters, from the streets rapidly becoming rivers to the convention center and superdome, from the frantic chaos of New Orleans to the complacency of the White House. Such shifts give us a sweeping perspective on a complex catastrophe—like watching several films all at one time—and help us understand the multiple and simultaneous ways in which human lives changed when Katrina hit.

 

  • Pacing: With so much to tell, Brown has to keep things moving, and he does. In the half hour or so it takes to read and reflect on this book, he touches on numerous events, leaping quickly from one to another, helping us experience the frenzy the people of New Orleans must have felt. One moment we’re watching neighbors rescue one another from rooftops, and the next we’re standing in unbearable heat outside the convention center, waiting to board an over-crowded bus. By holding himself to a few lines for each scene, Brown covers an impressive amount of territory with a few words.

 

  • Lead and conclusion: I used to tell students that a good lead and conclusion are like bookends, holding details together. They work just that way in Brown’s book. He opens by telling us how inconspicuously a hurricane begins—it’s scarcely more than a small, seemingly innocent puff of wind. This surprises us, and compels us to read on, to find out how a small gust of air becomes a force of death. The conclusion is equally striking. We learn that many people have, remarkably, survived this wretched bout with nature, and it’s a testament to human endurance.

 

 

Voice. This book resounds with voice. It’s powerful, but controlled. There’s enough tension that Brown doesn’t need to embellish anything. He lets the facts speak for themselves. He is present on every page, though, present in the details he shares, the illustrations he creates to enhance them, and the words he chooses to engage us: Hurricane Katrina “crashes” ashore just post-dawn on August 29 and “erases” the town of Buras, Louisiana. Later, when the electricity goes out, night “swallows” New Orleans, and the next day people “melt” at an overcrowded convention center where it’s hard to breathe and the air reeks of human waste. On every page, we remain in touch with human panic, despair, and frustration. Occasionally, the people of New Orleans speak to us, and their words are authentic. As Brown’s source list shows us, he has pulled his quotations directly from books and news accounts of the disaster. They’re real, not invented, and we can feel the difference. In one scene, a mother stranded on a rooftop hugs her child and says simply, “Oh, baby, I don’t think we’re gonna make it” (from Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, 2008, 10).

Personal response. Some of us identify with books like this because we have been through a similar situation or know someone who has—or because the author’s writing causes us to empathize with the characters. After reading the book, but before discussing it in depth, give students a chance to express their own feelings in writing. They may also wish to share these responses in small writing groups of three or four students.

Choosing facts wisely. One of the biggest challenges in writing a book like this is deciding what to tell—and what to leave out. Have a look at the bibliography, page 95, and share some of the sources with students. Talk about the kinds of sources Brown relies on, and the breadth of his research. Are students surprised to learn that for a book this length a writer would conduct such extensive research?

Ask them to imagine the notes and facts Brown must have collected as he investigated Katrina. With such an overwhelming amount of information at hand, how does an author decide which facts to share—and which to simply abandon?

Here are two things to consider in addressing this question:

First, ask students what they learn from the book. What information is new to them? Were there surprises? Are there facts or anecdotes they will not readily forget?

Second, go through the book slowly, looking for the most striking details, those that stand out or go beyond what we might hear in nightly news accounts. For example, check out page 41, which shows people in their own boats dodging swarms of cockroaches or “knots” of poisonous snakes. What other details make a similarly striking impression?

In discussing factual highlights that capture your students’ attention, talk about the criteria that nonfiction writers—including your students—should use in selecting details to share with readers. List some of those criteria and have students refer to them as they research and write nonfiction pieces of their own.

Drafting an argument. Look again at the information Brown shares on pages 8 and 9. We learn that the people of New Orleans had a 24-hour warning to evacuate before the city was hit with a storm surge “twenty-five feet above normal.” Yet many chose to remain. By the time the mayor issued a mandatory evacuation, it was too late (10). Though some people had no means to escape—having neither a car nor money for any sort of transportation—many made a deliberate choice to stay. Was this right? What would your students do? Have them write about this, creating an argument based on the following—or a related topic of their own:

 

  • Are people in a danger zone obliged to evacuate if they can? Or should that decision be completely their own? Why?

 

One of the primary issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina is the role that government, local or federal, should play in protecting citizens from disaster—or rescuing them later. After sharing Brown’s book, talk about some of the things that went wrong with the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Could the government have done more? After discussing this, have students formulate an argument based on this or a related topic:

 

  • What role should the government play in protecting citizens from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina? And what, if anything, is a citizen’s own responsibility?

 

Further research. For additional information about Hurricane Katrina or the rebuilding effort, students can check online under New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and Army Corps of Engineers. Don Brown’s bibliography lists many useful sources. Your school, city, or county library can also suggest books or articles to help writers further their research. Numerous films are available as well, and you may wish to view one as a class (see “Films on Hurricane Katrina” for ideas). You may also want to consider interviewing someone with relevant knowledge or experience . . .

Conducting an interview. One good way to learn more about any topic is by interviewing someone with special knowledge. Sometimes a writer is lucky enough to arrange a personal interview—but if that is not possible, an interview via phone or email (or Skype) is the next best thing. Here are a few people your students might want to consult—and likely you can think of others:

 

  • A current or former resident of New Orleans with firsthand knowledge of Katrina
  • A relative or friend of such a person—or anyone knows the history of Katrina well
  • A local meteorologist with insights about current technology used in forecasting hurricanes
  • Someone with a background in conducting or managing rescue efforts—for example, a member of the Coast Guard, a firefighter, or an emergency medical specialist
  • An engineer who can discuss what towns or cities do these days to make themselves more flood-resistant
  • Anyone who has been part of an evacuation effort
  • A mayor or other official who can respond to questions about the role government plays in preventing or handling disasters
  • A journalist or writer who has researched or written about disasters such as Katrina

To learn more about setting up an interview, check on line under “How to Set Up a Phone Interview” or “How to Set Up an Email Interview.” Ahead of time, lay out the kinds of questions you’d like to ask. Give students a chance to practice their interviewing skills, with you playing the role of the “interviewee.” Remember to ask for permission to record the interview or to take photographs, should you want to do that.

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About Author Don Brown . . .

Don Brown is the award-winning author and illustrator of more than two dozen picture book biographies and other history books for children. Throughout his career, Brown has introduced young readers to such well known figures as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Dolly Madison.

His books have also explored important events, including the Battle of Lexington & Concord, the sinking of the Titanic, and the duel of Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr. One of his most recent publications, America Is Under Attack, offers readers a sensitive look at the tragic events of September 11th.

Don’s books have received numerous starred reviews and awards, including a Horn Book Honor and the William Allen White Award. One of the author’s histories, The Great American Dustbowl, has been nominated for the Texas Blue Bonnet Award. Drowned City was published in August 2015 on the tenth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It is a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, and recently won the 2016 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award, which recognizes excellence in nonfiction writing for children. Don Brown also makes presentations to students around the country. You can follow his work on www.booksbybrown.com

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Thank you for returning! We hope you had a wonderful summer, and squeezed in time for family, travel, pets, reading, hiking, or whatever creates the joy in your life. Speaking of pure, unadulterated joy . . . congratulations to the Chicago Cubs. Even if you’re not a fan—heck, even if you don’t like baseball all that much—you have to feel good about a team that finally, finally puts an end to a 108-year drought. And by the way, congratulations to Cleveland as well. The Chicago victory would not have been nearly so sweet had the Indians not played their hearts out and made all those score crushing homers and gravity defying catches. What a Series. In other news . . .

Jeff continues his work with fifth graders, and will soon, I am sure, have stories to share on his experiences.

In the meantime, I am searching out the very best in nonfiction books as background for a new book I’m writing—to be announced soon! Drowned City was to my mind one of the best nonfiction books for young readers that I’d come across in a while. I hope you like it as much as I did.

A quick, personal note . . . I saw a lovely middle school student interviewed on the morning news. She was writing a letter to her older self to be opened about ten years from now. It was a moving and thoughtful letter, filled with the kind of humor and wisdom that made me wish she lived right next door and would stop by and visit while I’m out gardening. The advice she gave to herself ran along these lines . . . Don’t be swayed by others. Trust yourself, your own mind, your own heart. I liked that. Behind her on the classroom wall was a six-trait poster. No implied connection whatsoever. Just a good moment.

Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff Hicks at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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Be a Better Writer, 2nd edition by Steve Peha, with Margot Carmichael Lester. 2016. Carrboro, NC: Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

Genre: Student and Teacher Resource

Levels: Steve himself says “for school, for fun, for anyone ages 10 to 16,” but honestly, you can adapt ideas in this book for just about any grade level. It would make a terrific gift for kids heading to college—and I also recommend it as a resource for adult professional writers as well as for teachers or writing coaches.

Features: Easy to use lists, charts, and techniques for handy reference; writing samples to show what works and what doesn’t—and how revision unfolds; interviews with well-known writers who offer their wisdom and suggestions; numerous activities to use on your own or in the classroom from Day 1.

Introduction

I had a hunch I would like this book as soon as I saw the cover—and no, I don’t pay any attention to that old adage. Truth is, you can tell a lot about a book by its cover. From this one with its bright colors, whimsical art, and encouraging little notes, I could tell I would be in the hands of someone who (1) probably has a sense of humor about his own writing, and (2) genuinely cares about helping writers of all ages, especially those who find writing difficult at times (and that’s most of us). Some professional resource book authors are so eager to dazzle us with their own genius that they forget how intimidating, how overwhelming writing can seem to readers. Authors with attitude always make me want to say, “Hey, pssst!! Remember us? Your audience?” After all, the underlying purpose of a resource like this should be to answer questions real writers, especially students, ask most: What should I write about? Where can I get ideas? How do I begin? How do I end? What’s a detail? How do I organize all this information I dug up in my research? Who the heck will read this and what do they care about? How do I make my writing sound more like me?

 This book answers every one of these questions, and countless others—and does so in a way that makes the information entertaining as well as easy to understand and recall. It’s not a lecture; it’s a conversation. What’s more, Steve Peha and his co-author Margot Carmichael Lester (who also happens to be Steve’s wife) have gone out of their way to make sure it’s easy to find what you’re looking for—tips on sequencing, ideas for good leads, sample endings, thoughts on transitions, guidelines for solid sentences, and more. The secret lies in the layout, which is masterful. Subheads in big—really big—print, charts, lists, and other eye catching features make it easy to take in and process volumes of information. Ever go into a store that seemed to have everything you wanted, all arranged right where you could find it? That’s how it feels to read Be a Better Writer.

The book is written right to students (or any readers looking for guidance on writing well) in a voice that’s friendly, often humorous, and always knowing. You can tell immediately that these are seasoned writers, that everything you struggle with they’ve struggled with, too. Steve is refreshingly honest about his own learning curve: “I know that for some of us, writing is hard. That’s how it was for me in school. I was good at math. I could read. But writing was a mystery, one I didn’t solve until I started helping other people solve it for themselves” (p. 4). Someone who’s fought his own writing demons gives good advice because he knows exactly what advice we’re most likely to need, from topic choice right down to dealing with those pesky commas. Steve and Margot know their stuff, and know how to make a book on writing fun to read. thumbnail_steve-peha-headshot-with-background.jpg

I sat down with this book intending to read a sample chapter or two, and was immediately delighted to have the author tell me two things I never expected to hear: (1) You don’t have to read this whole book, and (2) You don’t have to read it in order. I don’t? Gee . . . It’s always a relief to get permission for something you were probably going to do anyway—like skim. While savoring this newfound freedom, I actually did read the whole book—all of it, in order, and in one sitting. Yes, it was that good. Yes, it was that engaging. And yes, you are going to love it, too.

 

Everything That Matters

Too many resource books try to cover everything. I have a few of those. They’re too big to lift, but ideal for door stops. This book thankfully takes a more discretionary approach. It concentrates, very effectively, on “what matters most.”

In the opening chapter, Steve gives us a stunning “world of writing” overview. He writes about logic, good beginnings, effective description, using easy techniques to get yourself moving when you’re stuck, applying the ingenious “what-why-how” strategy when writing an essay test, getting and using good feedback, and ways to know when you’re finished writing: in short, the “most important” issues writers encounter in their everyday lives. This big picture chapter provides the foundation for the enormously rich discussions that follow, but equally important, it offers a beginning writer assurance: Yes, you can do this. Even if you learn and use just three or four strategies from this book, Steve tells us, you’ll be a better writer. Three or four? you say to yourself—Heck, I can do that! Yes, you can, and now you’ve grasped the underlying theme of the book: making writing do-able, one strategy at a time.

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The Top 10. That first chapter and all others open with what is hands down my favorite feature: “10 Things You Need to Know Even If You Don’t Read This Chapter.” I’m certain—I’d bet on it—that you can name six writers right off the top of your head that you wish had used that approach. The “10 Things You Need to Know” opener works on so many levels. First, it gives me a quick preview of the upcoming chapter—which makes my reading infinitely more efficient. Second, it allows me to focus on the sub-topics I need most. And finally, it gives me a simple way to review later so I can recall key points or look something up.

Targeting good writing. Six of the other eight chapters cover topics that define the heart of good writing: “Better Topics,” “Better Ideas,” “Better Organization,” “Better Voice,” “Better Words,” and “Better Sentences.” The book doesn’t cover everything you ever wanted to know about conventions plus a few things you didn’t (just one more thing to love about it), but does offer excellent chapter on “Better Punctuation” that also includes an editorial nod to paragraphing and capitalization. Steve, with his characteristic sense of humor, has a good time showing how punctuation can alter meaning in even a short sentence like Herman Melville’s classic opening line from Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” (Think about it until you get your own copy; try punctuating it as many ways as you can.)

I cannot say whether this was intentional (and it doesn’t matter), but Be a Better Writer is extremely “trait friendly.” If you teach the six traits to your students, you will find this book filled with activities you can use for that purpose. But wait, there’s more . . .

The book also devotes a whole chapter to “Better Fiction,” so just in case you’re reading it not so much to teach writing as to get your own work published, here’s a chapter you’ll savor—and if you’re like me, it will have you rolling up your sleeves and revising in your head even before you finish reading it.

Organization Plus

The book is beautifully organized, and next to the confident, upbeat voice, this is the characteristic I appreciated most. The pacing is quick and lively, and chapters include recurring features that I quickly learned to look for, like these five:

Feature 1: Terrific checklists. Every chapter features an enormously useful checklist related to the subject at hand. For example, Chapter Two offers us “Your Checklist for Better Topics.” Like most writers, I am constantly in search of a good topic, so I devoured this list. Steve is particularly good at coming up with questions students can ask themselves and he embeds these into the checklist: “What ideas and details will encourage readers to follow my piece all the way to the end? What will make them feel like it was worth the time and effort they get to spend there?” (p. 35) Questions like these remind me that writing well requires us not only to think like readers but to offer our audience something in return for the gift of their time and commitment.

Feature 2: Samples—and lessons in modeling. Each chapter includes one or more writing examples, some written by Steve and many written by students. In this chapter, Steve uses a piece of his own writing, titled “My Father’s Gift,” to illustrate the difficulties inherent in “Tackling Tough Topics,” things that are just plain hard to write about because our emotions get in the way. He helps us understand how pushing ourselves into topics that make us uncomfortable forces us to learn new skills and sharpen old ones. Here’s a quick summary of Steve’s story:

Steve’s father, a man without a lot of money to spend, has given 10-year-old Steve a gift in a manila envelope, and waits eagerly for his son to open it. They are not close, and there’s a palpable tension between them. Days go by, and Steve still has not opened the gift, so has to lie when his father questions him about it. When he finally does look inside, he discovers that the envelope contains valuable photographs of his favorite team, the Washington Huskies. Even though he likes and appreciates the photos, he doesn’t safeguard them, nor does he fully acknowledge the value of the gift. Years later, needing to raise money in a hurry, he remembers the photos and decides to sell them—only to discover he has inadvertently sent them off with the trash while cleaning out his room. Realizing what he has done, and imagining how his father would react if he knew, sets off a chain of conflicting emotions that make this story of giving and receiving hard to resolve—but Steve writes a strong ending about “where giving and forgiving meet, and grace abides” (p. 52).

When I show teachers how to model writing, I encourage them to do something that doesn’t come easily to most: to think out loud, sharing the way writing unfolds in the writer’s mind. Students need to know why we begin or end a certain way, why we add a phrase or delete a word. Most teachers understand this instinctively, but somehow the act of actually sharing their thinking aloud with students feels awkward, and makes many self-conscious. That’s why I wanted to cheer when I finished the story and then read Steve’s description of his own writing process. It’s precisely the kind of sharing that helps kids understand how writing works: “I had an easy time with the beginning,” he reveals, “but it took many tries to write the ending” (p 35). He explains that he had to realize his story was about forgiveness before he could get the ending right. “When I was thinking only about the fact that my piece needed an ending, I wrote many endings, but never one that captured what I wanted to say because I hadn’t thought at all about what that was.”

There are two lessons here: One, an ending needs a message. And two, students learn so much by getting inside a working writer’s head. This book takes them there—to where the writing happens. I cannot think of another writing resource book that does this so well.

Feature 3: The Unexpected. Everyone loves surprises, and Be a Better Writer delivers. Though it has recurring features, it’s never formulaic. Chapter Two, for instance, includes a section that made me sit up and take notice: “Topic Choice When You Have No Choice.” Think “on-demand writing.”

Back in the day, when my writing assessment team and I were reading literally thousands of stories and essays for county, district, and state writing assessments, all of us wondered how it could be that though students were often writing to the very same prompt, some managed to make their writing irresistibly engaging, read-out-loud funny, or heart stoppingly moving, while others were clearly so bored it was a wonder they could push their pencils across the paper. The secret lies in learning to personalize a topic. How does a writer do that?

Try Steve’s “Topic Equation Strategy,” in which Interest + Subject = Topic. Without giving away too much of Steve’s thunder, let me say that this equation simply calls for coupling your assigned subject—say it’s climate change—with something that interests you, like whales, perhaps. Instead of writing in a broad brushstroke kind of way about climate change, you might ask, How is climate change affecting whales, and will they survive it? Will warming ocean waters disturb their migration cycle, and what will they eat if all the krill die? Now you have a topic that will keep both you and your readers awake. Solving a problem (e.g., the dreaded assigned topic) that has plagued students and teachers for generations is a stroke of genius, and for me, this solution alone makes the book worth its purchase price.

Feature 4: Interviews. Among the book’s most intriguing features are interviews with various writers of note who talk about how they became writers and offer advice to beginners in the craft. The authors chose their interviewees well; each has something memorable to say. Among my favorite moments are these lines from Luis J. Rodriguez, known for his books of memoir, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Asked why he writes, Rodriguez says, “To heal. To dance. To wake up something beastly as well as something beautiful. I write to stay alive.”

Feature 5: Activities, activities. All chapters wrap up with a list of activities you can try (as a student, or as a teacher/coach working with students), and they range from easy to challenging, quick to extended. Sometimes Steve invites us to journal a character or try transforming a telling statement to a showing one, and other times we’re asked to write a letter, experiment with organization, collect beginnings and endings, or write a piece in a whole new voice. What makes these activities so authentic and appealing is that they’re things Steve himself has tried as a writer. And as he reminds us at the beginning of the book, we do not have to do all the activities. We can pick and choose. But this is guaranteed: If we do enough of them, our writing will improve.

Miss Margot’s Role

Co-author Margot Carmichael Lester is a journalist and author. She offers her journalist’s perspective throughout the book, and it’s a great balance because by her own admission, she leans toward nonfiction and opinion writing. Like all good journalists, she knows the value of writing concisely and cutting what isn’t needed. Though she offers us many good pieces of advice throughout the book, I think this one has to be my favorite: “When I have too many details, I re-evaluate them. If a detail doesn’t support the main idea, it’s out. If it doesn’t lead people to think feel, or do what I want them to, it’s gone. If it doesn’t answer a critical question or objection from the reader, it’s toast.” I love a ruthless editor, and ruthlessness is a quality more students need to cultivate as writers. Hack away, Miss Margot (p. 73).

Hidden Gems

You may have noticed that you can always tell which resource books were worth your while because the best ones are eventually filled with highlighted passages and raggedy sticky notes. That’s because readers have highlighted, circled, underlined, and commented on the book’s hidden gems, little bits of wisdom that aren’t paraded before us in any obvious way, but just wait there tucked inside the folds of text, waiting to be discovered. Here are just a handful of the quotable moments I noticed while reading Be a Better Writer. Have a highlighter and pencil handy when you read your own copy because you will find many more moments like these:

  1.  “The key to descriptive writing is making a picture in your mind and using words and phrases that help readers make the same picture in theirs” (p. 11).
  2. “Getting feedback isn’t just finding out why some people like your writing and others don’t. It’s about getting precise information about how to improve your work” (p. 27).
  3. “Life experience is the greatest source of topic ideas you’ll ever have” (p. 33).
  4. “Think of your teachers as editors” (p. 36).
  5. “If you’re like many writers, you’ll come back to the same topics again and again” (p. 57).
  6. “Voice is the most important quality in your work because it influences all of the other qualities” (p. 157).
  7. “Draft like you talk and revise like you read” (p. 189)

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Not surprisingly, Be a Better Writer has enjoyed overwhelming popularity since its release. If you’d like a copy of your own or want more information, here are some links that will help:

 To get the book on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon

To get a free PDF copy of Chapter 1:

http://bit.ly/babw-free-ch1

To see Steve’s newsletter:

http://bit.ly/steve-peha-newsletter

To visit Steve’s Author Central Page on Amazon:

http://bit.ly/babw-amazon-author-page

Steve and Margot are offering a huge discount (40%) thru June 30 for schools ordering 25+ copies by PO.

http://bit.ly/babw-po-discount

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Jeff and I say goodbye for the summer–just for the summer!!

Thank you for returning—and for recommending our site to friends. We have gained many new fans over recent months, and we have you to thank! Like many of you, Jeff and I are going to take a summer break to do some traveling and spend time with our families. We will return in the fall with more reviews and thoughts about teaching writing well. Writing isn’t just our occupation—it’s our passion. Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demo lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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I know that the end of another school year is just around the corner—I’m sure that none of you are counting the days. You’re all too busy teaching your fingers to the bone, keeping students engaged, focused, and learning, squeezing the most out of the last weeks (or days) of school. Soon, very soon, your mind will be able to shake itself loose from teacher mode. Thoughts of summer, carefree relaxation with an icy beverage or two will take over and you’ll begin the important process of recharging your professional batteries, gulping it in like an all-electric vehicle at a charging station. But we all know that it’s possible, after the initial phase of summer’s mind-scrubbing decompression, because of who you are—a reflective professional—that you might permit a few thoughts of August and September to creep in and get you thinking about next year. To make sure you are ready for that moment, I’m going to recommend an excellent writing contest for your next batch of students and a few book ideas (to read aloud or recommend to students) for your post-murder mystery/romance/spy thriller summer reading. After all, you’re a teacher! You know you can’t block it out for very long. Admit it–it’s who you are. It’s how you roll.

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Writing Contest—Letters About Literature: Read. Be inspired. Write Back

Once I discovered this contest years ago, I never missed getting my students involved. It’s sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. You can find all you need to know about how to enter and important deadlines at: www.read.gov/letters/ Here’s a sample from the website to give you the basics—“Letters about Literature is a reading and writing contest for students in grades 4-12. Students are asked to read a book, poem, or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally. Letters are judged on state and national levels.”

The letters students write for this contest are not the typical fan letters students often write to favorite authors where they ask the writer questions—Where did you get the idea for this book? Did you always want to be a writer? Do you think there will ever be a movie bout your book? The purpose of these letters is to talk directly to authors—reader to writer—to let them know how a book impacted the reader’s life—how the book got inside the reader’s head and heart, how it may have changed some aspect of their life. Here are example letters from two of my former students, both eighth graders. (The judging categories are Level I—grades 4-6, Level II—grades 7-8, Level III—grades 9-12.) The first letter is from a student that you might call an avid reader/writer and the second is from a more reluctant reader/writer.

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Letter #1 (Winner—Honorable Mention, state level—Oregon)
To author Han Nolan
Book: If I Should Die Before I Wake
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Han Nolan,
Your book “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” made me look at the people around me in a different way. Chana’s strength and perception made me start focusing more on peoples’ actions, ideas, and views rather than what they own, who they know, or what their dreams are.
When Chana and her family are in the concentration camp, their thoughts and actions are magnified, because that’s all they have left. The Jews are put in a place where they are forced to work without food, to obey commands and given no clothing, to sweat, starve and die under the cold, watchful eyes of the Germans. Chana had to have strength of character and the courage of her convictions to survive. The harsh conditions of the damp brought out the best and worst in people — character traits that never would have shown up otherwise. The part of the book that really got inside my head was when Chana found herself in a position to kill one of the German guards who had caused her and everyone else in the camp so much pain.
               “I was not a girl with dreams of someday becoming a great violinist, or of getting married and having children. I was not a girl with a family, or a house, or fancy clothes. I was not someone who belonged to a shul, or was known for her brown wavy hair with a strand that always jutted out in the back. I could no longer identify myself by what I owned, or who I knew, or what my dreams were. This—my body, my mind, my soul—was all I was. It is all any of us ever are, and without the camouflage of my dreams and possessions, I realized that everything I did, every thought i had, was all I was. It was all very simple. If I killed the guard, all of who I was would be a murderer, not a murderer and a violinist who lived in a house and had a nice family—just a murderer. If I showed love, all of me would be a lover. Who then did I want to be?”
                 Separated from their families, stripped of their clothes, and living in tiny, freezing barracks with greasy kitchens, the hearts of the Jews are revealed.
Their thoughts and actions become all they are. It is all we ever are, but we never learn to see that because we live in disguise, masked by our possessions, our dreams, our position in society.
This got me thinking…without my possessions and dreams, who would I be? I would not be a girl who had a nice family and went to school. I would not be a girl who loved books and art, would not be a girl who had a dog called Tillie and lived on a house on a hill that was best for sledding.
After I thought about this, I began to put more emphasis on my actions, thoughts, and views on things. I started question in the people around me. What if we all wore school uniforms? What if we lived in a world where every thing was invisible, and all that showed were your words? Would people choose the same friends?
People have always told me “It’s what on the inside that counts” but the real meaning of that statement never got inside my head until now. When Chana was in the concentration camp, the importance of her thoughts and actions was magnified. I realized that without having to get to that point, I can still look at people through their actions and words, and cherish my own.
Thank you.

Sincerely,
J.N.

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Letter #2 (Winner—Second Runner Up, state level—Oregon)

To author Carl Deuker
Book: Painting the Black
Whitford Middle School
Beaverton, OR
Dear Mr. Deuker,
I feel that you have written the book, Painting the Black just for me. I believe this because at so many different periods in the book, I was able to relate back to a time where I have felt the same excitement, or the same doubt. This year I have read more books total then I have in my whole life. My total this year is six and counting, from kindergarten until now I had read probably four books. Thanks to authors like you I have finally been able to feel the excitement of a good book.
I am a big sports guy, always playing a sport, and if I’m not playing, then I’m watching. The last two years have been a big switch for me; I went from soccer to football. Last year was my first year I played football, starting at tight end. I felt that I was fairly decent; I enjoyed playing this position as well. Going out for a deep pass or crushing my enemy with a huge clock—I loved it. But deep down inside, I was a quarterback. I could bomb the ball in the tightest spiral and make it look like it was not even spinning. I was a QB. There was only one thing that was keeping me from achieving my goal, and that was my best friend Greg. He was like Josh in the story—he was perfect. If he was going to throw deep, it was going deep and right on the mark every time. If I wanted to be QB next year, I was going to have to work, and work hard; work as hard as Ryan did in the story. He wanted to be the starting catcher on the team and he achieved his dream. So why couldn’t I? I worked all summer long throwing the football constantly. I threw through a tire that hung from a play set in back yard. I wanted to be a QB, so that’s what I was going to be. I told myself that every night.
Now it was finally time, football season; it was finally here, and I was ready. At practice, I worked at QB hard, and let me tell you I was doing a good job. I was living the life I always wanted and it was only my second year. After that practice, I proved to my self and to my coach that I should be the starting quarterback for the Beaverton Metro Junior Beavers.
During the year I had feelings, just as Josh did the first game he got to play. I felt on fire, with everything going my way, a masterpiece at work, dodging tackles, and diving for first downs. It was great. I worked just as hard as Ryan did, and I was successful, too. There was a time when one of my fellow teammates did something against team rules. I did not choose to tell, and I did this for the same reason as Ryan. He was hesitant to tell on Josh in the story. We needed this player, and we may have lost without him. The same for Ryan and Josh; Josh had a shocking incident with Monica in the story. Ryan did not want to tell at first for the same reason as I, but Ryan ended up doing the right thing. I didn’t. It turned out to be not that big of a deal, but to this day, I still think about it.
               Painting the Black is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Let me tell you Mr. Deuker, I will never find a book that matched my life in the same way.

Sincerely,
N.B.

*Important Note*

I do hope you take a moment to visit www.read.gov/letters/ and look at both the contest details and examples of national level winning letters. You will find information about entering (and how the letters will be assessed) and a helpful teaching guide to supplement your own ideas. November is the month when you may begin submitting entries, and each level has it’s own submission deadline.

Since the new school year is several months away (and many miles beyond your current radar), I will post a reminder here on STG and on Twitter (@JeffHicks156) sometime in September/early October.

Some School Related Book Recommendations

The books that follow are three of my favorite recent reads. And I believe they’re the kind of books that, in the hands of student readers, could launch a whole bunch of the type of letters the LAL contest (above) is all about. I could say a lot about each of them, but I won’t. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information or classroom ideas you may be too busy to absorb at this point in the year. I just want to let you know about a few worthwhile books to check out for yourself. But don’t be surprised if I come back to one or more of them in the fall when your teacher engine is fully charged.

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Book: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Grades 5 and up

352 pages

http://alibenjamin.com/site/

Passage—pages 109-110

            The next thing I want to tell you about jellyfish is this: They are taking over.

            Did you know that? Not many people do. It’s our own fault, but no one is even paying attention. People pay attention to other things. They pay attention to videos of cats playing pianos, or to which movie star is in rehab, or to who stole who else’s boyfriend. They pay attention to shades of eye shadow and online games and which angle makes them look best in photos.

            But meanwhile. Out there in the sea. Jellyfish blooms are on the rise.

            Isn’t that a pretty phrase? Jellyfish blooms, like garden flowers opening up to the sun.

            There are more jellyfish than ever. At least, that’s what some scientists say.

 

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Book: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Grades 8 and up (If it were a movie—PG-13 rating)

320 pages

http://www.brendankiely.com/all-american-boys/

http://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/

http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Jason-Reynolds/403685768

Passage—pages 144-145

             I knew exactly what I was drawing. The only thing I could. I was going to re-create the scene, what had happened to me, what was playing constantly on the news, on the page.

            First the outline. A teenage boy. Hands up. No. Erase. Hands down. No. Hands behind his back. Outline of a figure behind him. Bigger than he is. Holding him around the neck. No. Not that. Fist in the air. No. Not that either. Hands pushing through the teenage boy’s chest. A building behind him. A store. Person in the doorway. Cheering.

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Book: The War that Save my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Grades 4-7

320 pages

http://www.kimberlybrubakerbradley.com/

Passage—pages 183

            I knew I couldn’t really stay. The good things here—not being shut up in the one room, for starters, and then Butter, and my crutches, and being warm even when it was cold outside. Clean clothes. Nightly baths. Three meals a day. That cup of Bovril before bedtime. The ocean seen from the top of the hill—all of these things, they were just temporary. Just until Mam came for us. I didn’t dare get too used to them.

            I tried to think of the good things about home. I remembered Mam bringing home fish-‘n’-chips on Friday nights, crisp and hot and wrapped in newspaper. I remembered that sometimes Mam sang, and laughed, and once even danced Jamie around the table. I remembered how when Jamie was little he spent his days inside with me. I remembered the crack on the ceiling that looked like a man in a pointed hat.

            And even if it felt like Mam hated me, she had to love me, didn’t she? She had to love me, because she was my mam, and Susan was just somebody who got stuck taking care of Jamie and me because of the war.

 

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

We know your school year is in full gear even as it winds down. It won’t be long before we take a short summer break, as well. Before we do, Vicki is going to tell you about Steve Peha’s new book, Be a Better Writer. It’s filled with all sorts of ideas for your classroom—a few to try now and many more for the fall.

Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

 

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I have a friend, a retired university English professor, who is my reading role model because of both his reading habits and the books he chooses to read. Every winter, he selects a Dickens novel to read—it’s the perfect season for reading Dickens (and he has read all of them), and while he was teaching, he would “treat” himself at the conclusion of spring term to one of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. His recommendations have steered me to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Wilke Collin’s The Moonstone, and Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, to name just a few. My good friend has even inspired me to do something I usually don’t like to do—“binge” read more than one book consecutively by the same author. I haven’t done it quite to his level—e.g. he read the entire John Le Carre novel catalog in order (I think that’s around 23 books). I’m not even sure why I don’t like to do it, but recently broke from my pattern and read four books in a row by YA author Andrew Smith, one after the other before coming up for air: Winger, Stand Off (the sequel to Winger), Grasshopper Jungle, and Stick. And I have three more waiting on the shelf—100 Miles Sideways, the Alex Crow, and Ghost Medicine (Smith’s first novel).

There’s something (actually there’s a lot of somethings) about Andrew Smith’s writing, storytelling, characters, and honesty that just speaks to me, and I figure that if that’s true, then his books will also resonate with a grade 9-12 student audience. I do want to provide a bit of a warning to readers who may be sensitive/nervous about reading or recommending YA novels containing salty language, sexual references, and sexual situations. These books are all coming of age stories focusing on male lead characters, and yes, they contain some strong language and sexual situations. None of this seems gratuitous or included for shock value because Mr. Smith’s characters speak authentic “boy.” The hook for me, as I think it will be for student readers, is that each of Mr. Smith’s books features fully realized characters drawn from real life, facing real problems, and dealing with them using their real teenage brains. Real teen characters are going to use foul language, and they are going to have family issues, friendships, romantic relationships, they’re going to question authority, and make some bad decisions. And because they are teenagers, they’re going to think about sex, talk about sex, and act upon sexual impulses. But they’re also going to surprise the adults in their lives by thinking and doing amazing things for themselves, the people they care about, and even for their world. (Both my teaching and parenting experiences will vouch for that.)

In case I haven’t scared you off, what follows is a brief summary of three of the four Andrew Smith books I read ( I don’t want to overwhelm you or somehow limit the joy you might feel at discovering the rest on your own), some short passages from each to give you a flavor of his writing, and an idea or two about how all or part of the books might be used by grade 9-12 teachers. (Stand-Off is a fully realized, very satisfying sequel to Winger, a continuation of the main character’s coming of age. I thought I would start you off with the first book, and let you go from there.)

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Winger. 2013. Andrew Smith. New York: Simon & Schuster BFYR.

439 pages (Hardback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age novel

Summary: Ryan Dean West is fourteen, excels at school, is kind of scrawny, and the youngest 11th grader at Pine Mountain, a fancy private boarding school in the mountains of Oregon. At Pine Mountain they play rugby, a sport for both behemoths and undersized fast kids like Ryan Dean. He plays winger, hence his less than creative nickname, “Winger.” To begin his junior year, Ryan Dean is placed in Opportunity Hall, a special dormitory for students who have broken one of the many strict rules at Pine Mountain. Ryan Dean was caught stealing/borrowing a teacher’s cell phone and hacking into the account so he could make “undetected, untraceable” calls. (Cell phones are off limits to students.) He’s not a bad kid though he does make several questionable decisions, fueled by self-doubt. He’s often aware they’re bad decisions, yet makes them anyway—“I’m such a loser!” is his frequent, sad mantra.

The story, told by Ryan Dean, is enhanced by the inclusion of his cartoons, where he lampoons teachers, friends, enemies, and himself, along with humorous charts/graphs of his innermost thoughts and feelings. Ryan Dean believes in telling the truth, and let’s readers know that though he swears frequently in his narration, he almost never does it in front of people. He’s got an awful roommate, a rogue’s gallery of teammates, and to top it off, he’s in love with Annie, his best friend, and yearns for her to see him as more than a little kid. To tell much more would be verging on spoiling some wonderful character and story developments. As always, I suggest you read the book yourself before recommending it or using it with students.

Three Short Passages from Winger—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I’ll be honest. If someone asked me am I in love with Annie Altman, I’d have to say I don’t know, because I really don’t know. I have nothing to compare with how I feel about her. But I do know that I feel this kind of a need where she is concerned; I need her to notice me more than she does; I need to think that I make her feel lighter when she sees me. And there’s no way I could ever believe that was possible, because it was just little me, Ryan Dean West, fourteen years old, walking around in the exact same clothes and tie as four hundred other guys at Pine Mountain, every one of us so much the same, except for me, except for that one thing she noticed that she couldn’t get over, that made me so unattractively different from every other eleventh-grade boy in this shithole. (Page 108)
  2. Running through the woods north of their house, it amazed me how green things grew on top of green things that were still green and growing. Trees were covered with ferns and vines and mosses, and everywhere it looked as if nothing had been dry in centuries. And in the dark woods as we ran, I could smell that living-ocean scent of the island, and I heard nothing but the sounds of our feet on the wet ground, our breathing, and the static-spark sizzle of rain dripping through the forest cover. (Page 261)
  3. Okay.

                 Let’s call this an intermission.

                 With a bit of an apology, I guess.

                  You ever hear of Joseph Conrad? He said, “One writes half the book: the other half is up to the reader.”

                 Mr. Wellins might say that I have made you a conscripted audience. That I didn’t give you a choice as to whether or not to believe me, and, believe me, sometimes I can’t believe myself.

            Or something. (Page 410)

In Your Classroom

This (and the sequel, Stand-Off, as well) may not be a book you want to use with your entire class, but it may be just the thing to recommend to a student or select group of students for independent or special project reading. This is where your relationships with your students—knowledge of their interests, reading habits/patterns, etc.—really come into play. I always kept a stand of books on my desk for students to borrow and for me to recommend. It never seemed to matter what books I had, if they were on my desk, students would ask to see them, like I had a lock on all the “cool” books. I hate to label books as “boy” or “girl” books, but as I said, Andrew Smith speaks fluent boy, especially to boys who have spent some time on the edges of school/social circles. Here are a couple ways to use selected parts of the book.

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any that speak to you from your reading of the book) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used as a model for students to reflect about something/someone they care about, or as a model for self-description. The passage blends long sentences with shorter ones and even violates some “rules”—beginning sentences with conjunctions (and, but, etc.)—as a stylistic choice to create interesting sentence fluency.
  2. Using Cartoons/Graphs/Charts to Explain a Key Life Moment—Ryan Dean punctuates moments in his story with the inclusion of a cartoon drawing—like the one of the door to his dorm room on page 13—or a graph/chart to visualize or quantify something he is feeling—page 55’s pie chart of “Ryan Dean West Brain Capacity Allocation,” page 117’s bar graph of “Things Ryan Dean West is Afraid Of.”
  3. The Game of Rugby—Ryan Dean plays rugby and loves it—the physicality, the camaraderie, the traditions, and the fact that it’s a sport where skinny, fast, tenacious guys like him play an important role. (One of my roommates in college played rugby, so I have watched countless games and understand at least the basics of the game. I even traveled in a van with his rugby team from Eugene, Oregon to Carmel, California for a huge rugby tournament. It’s a game that attracts really “interesting” characters of all shapes and sizes.) I would use some of the rugby talk (there are passages about rugby practice, games, and rituals) in this book as a springboard to researching and explaining the culture and rules of rugby (or any sport that interests your students). 

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Stick. 2011. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

292 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age (Sexual identity, physical/verbal abuse)

 Summary:

This story is told through the eyes and ear (just one) of thirteen-year-old Stark McClellan. He’s called Stick because that’s the way he’s built—tall for his age and rail thin. He was born with only one ear and has been told by his abusive parents, in many ways, that he is ugly and deformed. Stick and his sixteen-year-old brother Bosten are survivors. Their close relationship keeps them going as each suffers beatings, confinement, and verbal abuse. When their parents find out that Bosten is gay, he leaves home after suffering a terrible beat down at the hands of his father. Stick summons the courage to go after him, to keep their all important connection alive, and finds his way to his Aunt Dahlia’s in California, a safe haven where he figures Bosten will end up.

Three Short Passages from Stick—Just for the Flavor:

  1. When you see me at first, I look like just about another teenage boy, only too tall and too skinny. Square on, staring into my headlights, and you’re probably going to think I look nice, a handsome kid, even—green eyes, brown hair, a relaxed kind of face (from not smiling too much, probably). But then get around to that side, and you see it. I have what looks like the outline of a normal boy’s ear, but it’s pressed down into the flesh, squashed like potter’s clay. No hole—a canal, they call it.

            Nothing gets into my head that way.

            I can’t easily hide it because my dad won’t let me grow my hair long. He yells at me if I wear a hat indoors. He says there’s nothing                        wrong with            me.

                                                                                                                        But I’m ugly.

            You see what I’m doing, don’t you? I                        am                         making

                                                                                                                        you hear me.

            The way                         I                         hear the                                     world.

            But I won’t do it too much, I                                                promise. (Page 6)

 

  1. “Let me see. Okay?”

            I pulled the sheet down, away from Bosten’s shoulders, so I could see his back.

            We’d both been beaten plenty of times before. This was one of the bad ones. It happened every so often.

            “It’s pretty bad,” I said.

            From the middle of his shoulder blades, past his butt and onto his thighs, Bosten was streaked with purple welts. Some of the marks that were raised had actually bled; all of them, angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.

            I whispered, lower, “Turn flat. I’m going to put something on it to make you feel better.”

            Bosten rolled flat onto his belly. He rested his chin on his forearm and stared at the wall at the head of the bed.

            “I hate them.” (Page 62)

 

  1. Sometimes I wondered why she treated us that way, why she accepted us the way she did. It wasn’t a sterile kind of tolerance, like kids could expect from PE coaches and nurses who gave you tetanus shots; it was something else.

            One time she told me about how her husband died when she was only twenty-five years old. I said he must have been a real nice man, but I couldn’t look at her when I said that. It made me sadder that just about anything. It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.

            She was a wondrous person, I thought. (Page 132)

In Your Classroom

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Any/all of the selected passages from above (or any other that catch your eye and ear as you read) are perfect models for students to imitate. #1 could be used with students as a model for self-description—“When you see me at first…” The writing could be done as poetry, where student writers consider how they see themselves compared to how others see them. The passage explains how Stick, because of his missing ear, hears/processes when people speak to him. He wants us to experience the slower, delayed pace of incoming speech. Your student writers could experiment in their own poetry with spacing gaps, line breaks, and formatting as a way to control the way their readers encounter their messages.
  2. Figurative Language—Similes—In passage #2, Bosten has been severely beaten by his father, again. Andrew Smith, through Stick, describes this moment between brothers quietly, almost casually. It may be shocking to us, but to them, it’s routine. As a reader, this makes the moment seem even more horrifying. He punctuates it with a pair of vivid, related similes, coming one after the other, “…angled up like slashes, like fractions with no numbers.” Students could experiment with this idea of simile stacking.
  3. Discussion/Opinion Writing— I think that the second to last line in passage #3 would open the door to an interesting class discussion followed up with a reflective piece of writing: “It was hard to understand how things that make some people mean and cruel don’t work on everyone.” It’s a variation on the classic Nature v. Nurture conundrum. What forces, experiences, circumstances, choices, lead people to behave the way they do? Is it possible for people to be all good or all bad? Is it possible for people to change?

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Grasshopper Jungle. 2014. Andrew Smith. New York: SPEAK/Penguin Group.

388 pages (Paperback)

Grade Levels: 9-12+

Genre: Coming of age/sexual identity/science fiction/giant grasshopper apocalypse novel (This is a difficult one to pin down.)

Awards: 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor, Carnegie Medal Longlist, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award

Summary:

I’m not sure if I can actually summarize this book. It may be the coolest, strangest, funniest, creepiest book I’ve ever read, and I’m not quite sure how to explain the wild storyline. Remember all of the things I said earlier about salty language and sexual references/situations? They really apply to this book. Even though the story takes some bizarre turns, the main characters seemed real—real teenagers immersed in a surreal world. Austin Szerba, his best friend Robby, and his girlfriend Shann unwittingly loose upon the world a horde of savage, giant praying mantises interested only in eating and multiplying. This insect apocalypse begins in a small town in Iowa but has links to Austin’s Polish ancestors and a series of strange scientific discoveries, past and present. And, of course, it’s up to these three to save both their world and the world.

Based on what I’ve just said (or any of the book jacket blurbs), you may decide not to read it or even look at it. But I can think of several reluctant reader-teenage boy-students—past and present—who would eat this book up and ask for more. One student in particular comes to mind. He is a fanatic follower of The Walking Dead graphic novel series and television show, and has struggled with all sorts of issues. This student would find a connection, both as a reader and as a young man, with Austin, Robby, and Shann. You might not want to use this with an entire class, but having books like this one in your pocket, so to speak (or on your desk), empowers you to perhaps keep a few students reading.

Two Short Passages from Grasshopper Jungle—Just for the Flavor:

  1. I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

            We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

            But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

            This is my history.

            There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

            Just like it’s always been. (Page nine—opening lines of the book)

 

  1. The Unstoppable Soldier looked confused, if such an expression could manifest itself on the face of a six-foot-tall beast that looked like a praying mantic. Hungry Jack’s left arm fell off first. The right arm disjointed and plunked down onto the ground seconds later. The tooth-spiked claw arms rattled around on the pavement of the parking lot, spastically opening and closing, opening and closing, as they scraped along the ground with no coherent mission.

            Where the claw arms had detached from Hungry Jack’s thorax, a gooey stream of slick yellow fluid burbled like twin pots of boiling unstoppable cornmeal mush. Then Hungry Jack’s chin lowered and his head rolled away from his body, landing on the ground between the two flailing arms.

            What was left of Hungry Jack scampered away on four gangly legs, which soon became three, then two, and the entire Unstoppable Soldier collapsed in puddles of oily mush.

            Robby Brees saved my life.

            Being a historian naturally has its dangers, but this is my job. I tell the truth. (Pages 354-355)

 

  1. Exemplars for Imitation—Because this is the book’s opening, passage #1 could be used as a model for students to begin a written reflection/story from their history—a brief scene from their lives so far or moment where they acted stupidly and didn’t actually learn from it. You could even use the last line of Passage #2 to open their reflection, emphasizing that what follows will be “the truth.” The second passage is a clear example of the power that strong verbs have to give movement/motion to scenes describing action.

More About Andrew SmithVisit www.authorandrewsmith.com for all sorts of information about Mr. Smith and his books.

Reading Recommendations

As a reminder, these are books we recommend for your reading pleasure. We are not planning to review them, and they are not suggested as books for students. We think they are worth your time, but we urge you to look them up online for summary information or to see what other reviewers have had to say. Here are our three picks for this post:

  • Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume
  • The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
  • The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why it Matters by Sean B. Carroll

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Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Sadly, the deadline for the 2016 Letters About Literature contest for grade 4-12 students, sponsored by The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, has come and gone. I was only recently reminded of this wonderful writing contest that I used to invite my students to enter. Shortly after the winners (state and national levels) are announced in April, I want to put in a plug for both the contest and the type of writing it inspires. And, of course, Vicki and I have been reading all sorts of wonderful books we’ll want to share with you to inspire you and your student writers.

Thank you for joining our discussion once again—and for recommending our site to friends. We are so pleased to have so many new visitors, and thanks for your comments and questions.  Remember, for the BEST workshops or innovative classroom demonstration lessons combining traits, workshop, process and literature, please phone Jeff at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.