Monday, October 16, 2017

Inspiration from the local "happenings" column

by Sue Heavenrich

For a number of years I wrote a weekly column for the local paper. “It’s a social column,” the editor said, “about who’s doing what in town.” It’s what some of us call “hyperlocal news” and what other people would refer to as town gossip – sans snark.

For those of us in town, the column was a way to share the good stuff that’s happening: the Wednesday evening dinners at the Methodist Church (free eats and good conversation), the snowmobile club meetings, the golf tournament that raises money for the Ambulance Squad. I reminded moms about Tuesday morning Library Story Hour, announced public hearings, and shared upcoming historical society programs. Every week I got to talk to the plain ordinary folks who make our town what it is.

For a writer, social columns in small town papers – and the “about town” items in the New Yorker – can provide a treasure trove of writing ideas. Within the narrow confines of two-point-three-inch wide columns one can discover:

  • The church that provides free meals just got a new dishwasher and stainless steel sinks through a bequest. The guy (as reedy thin as his name would suggest) ran a sawmill in his back yard and sold wooden crates to apple-pickers.
  • The “amigos” are a bunch of special education students who meet every Thursday after school to do something for the community. Their current project: baking dog biscuits for the local animal shelter.
  • A boy scout who discovered an old cemetery hidden beneath weeds and shrubs. He adopted it for his Eagle project, cleaned it up, built an entry way.
  • One of the streets in town is named after a Civil War Hero who died in the battle of Gettysburg clutching a family photo.
  • The bed-and-breakfast was a stop on the underground railroad, and may be haunted by spirits.
  • The guy at the farmer’s market who grew up in the south can tell you ten different ways to eat kudzu.

 Not that one should write biographies about these folks, but they can inform the characters in your stories. These are just ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Turns out, local newspapers are a wonderful source of inspiration. They are written by people who live in the community, people who walk the beat and talk to the citizens. What seems mildly eccentric to the folks in town could make for a character quirk in a story. Street names may lead to biographies or, at the very least, great character names. News stories present authentic life situations that can help when you’re stuck on plot points. Even the obituaries provide a wonderful source for interesting story prompts and names.

So next time you’re in the library, check out the small town papers – or even the city dailies – and go on a field trip through the newspaper archives.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Margarita Engle on Poetry that Crosses Borders

Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, The Lightning Dreamer, her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, and more recently Forest World. Her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel's Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote, a fictionalized first-person biography in verse of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Her upcoming book, The Flying Girl, How Aida de Acosta Learned to Soar will be published this coming spring. You can learn more about Margarita and her writing at her website and follow her on twitter here. And tomorrow, drop by Sally's Bookshelf to read a review on her recently released picture book, All the Way to Havana.

I am so pleased that Margarita could join us today to share her thoughts on poetry and diversity. Thank you, Margarita!
                                               ~     ~     ~    ~

"Poetry that Crosses Borders"
by Margarita Engle

Diverse books from the richly varied cultures of the United States are important, but they're not enough. Americans are notoriously ignorant about geography. When I speak to classrooms, I’m often shocked by how little the younger teachers know about Cuba. That’s because they didn’t learn about this close neighbor of the U.S. when they were in school.

A high school history teacher in California actually asked me if Cuba is a U.S. protectorate like Puerto Rico.  As a result of this widespread geographic confusion, children are more likely to ask, “What is Cuba?” than, “Where is Cuba?”

After Hurricane Irma, television reporters kept referring to the first U.S. landfall as Key West, when actually it was in Puerto Rico, followed by the U.S. Virgin Islands, and then Key West. Americans have a tendency to forget about any portion of U.S. territory that is not part of the primarily English-speaking mainland. I think it’s time for a new era of education in geography.  One of the most powerful ways to teach about our own country as well as other nations is through literature.

When it comes to international books, there is no substitute for “own voices,” or at least books written by someone who has grown to know a country from within, rather than as a casual tourist. Kwame Alexander’s Solo is a wonderful book partly because he has spent so much time working with volunteer projects in Ghana. Notable ‘own voice’ works of border-crossing poetry include verse novels such as Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai, and A Time to Dance, by Padma Venkatraman, as well as picture books such as A Different Pond, by Bao Phi, and Somos Como las Nubes/We Are Like the Clouds, by Jorge Tetl Argueta. 

 My own fascination with books about many nations began in childhood. The first book I bought with my own money was Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.  It was 1961, and I was ten years old. I didn’t relate to the whites-only “classics,” and there simply weren’t any multicultural children’s stories available in the U.S., so I quite naturally drifted toward international books written for adults, including travel diaries, atlases, and books in translation. I did not return to youth literature until I started reading to my own children in the early 1980s. Even then, there wasn’t much in the way of variety.

Today, statistics on diverse books are still pathetic and discouraging, but I love the We Need Diverse Books movement, and lists such as the International Literacy Association’s Notable Books for a Global Society,which honors works that cross borders. I would love to see more poetry on these lists, and I would love to see more books in translation become available in libraries, classrooms, and bookstores. As Americans of diverse ancestry, how can we continue to isolate ourselves when it comes to reading? People of all ages need to open our minds to the whole world, not just our own neighborhoods. In addition to serving as windows, mirrors, and doorways, books can also be bridges, connecting us across oceans and borders.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Lights, Camera, Action: It's FAMOUSLY PHOEBE and her author Lori Alexander! by Kathy Halsey

FAMOUSLY PHOEBE thinks she's famous and who among wouldn't like to be famous for a bit? I predict PHOEBE will be famous as she finds her way into the hands of children and parents everywhere. Phoebe and Lori have toured several blogs since the launch last week, but hopefully you'll glean more from our Q & A as she answers my writerly questions. Go scout out Phoebe at your favorite book store/library NOW.  

Oh-oh, this just in... we have a winner from Tina Wheatcraft Cho's post last week. Rebecca Koehn you are now famous for winning  the very famous Alayne Kay Christian's chapter book critique of the first three chapters of your chapter book. Please message me or Tina via Facebook. 


Phoebe's been under the lights for as long as she can remember. Parents, grandparents, her adoring family have surrounded her with love and camera time. From her point of view this means... she's famous. As first born, Phoebe enjoys her portrait gallery and the perks of being only child, until another ingenue steals the spotlight. Little sister Rose now receives the star treatment, but Rose is fussy and demanding. She doesn't even like the camera until big sister Phoebe makes her smile with her antics. 

This is a fun, modern twist on the evergreen topic of sibling rivalry and new baby. Yet, in Lori's hands, the theme of looking at life via the camera or ever-present "device" is also addressed in an engaging way. Lori weaves fabulous vocabulary and star-studded situations into Phoebe's story for great effect. Even though it's a long picture book via pagination, it feels short and bouncy. As a writer, I especially appreciate her spare text, deadpan humor, and use of page turns to develop rhythm. May I say...a star is born with this book.
Q & A with Lori

K: I seem to remember that your son inspired BACKHOE JOE, correct? What was your inspiration for this book?

Lori: Great memory, Kathy! This time, it was my daughter’s turn to inspire. I was a shy kid and still quite the introvert as an adult. Not sure how I ended up with a kiddo who is my complete opposite—very dramatic, outgoing, and perfectly at ease in front of a camera, of course.

K: Is Phoebe based on anyone you know? How did your main character change over time, through revisions?

Lori: See above, but my daughter’s “look at me” personality was just a starting point. With the way parents post their kids’ milestones to social media these days, I got a chuckle daydreaming about a character whose family snaps so many pictures of her, she thinks she might be famous. That’s how Phoebe was born! 

Here’s a mini rundown of the FAMOUSLY PHOEBE plot: The center of her family’s attention, only-child Phoebe feels like a celebrity. But after a new co-star arrives (baby sister), Phoebe feels more like an extra. Or worse yet, a person assistant. The baby only drinks from one kind of bottle, only plays with one kind of toy, only sleeps in one kind of way. What a diva! After lots of adventure, drama, and comedy, Phoebe lands a new role—big sister!

Phoebe didn’t change too much over the course of revising. While developing her character, I aimed for sweetly misguided rather than overbearing or conceited. Phoebe loves her family as much as they love her. There’s a spread where she “gives back” to her fans. 

K: Did you use any mentor texts or plan out how to re-imagine the typical sibling rivalry/new baby trope?

Lori: I did check-in with some mentor texts while writing PHOEBE. The ones I remember using the most were THE BOSS BABY, KEL GILLIGAN’S DAREDEVIL STUNT SHOW, and THE RETIRED KID. These weren’t books about sibling rivalry but they did compare everyday kid experiences to something else entirely, similar to what I was trying to craft with PHOEBE. For more info, check out my blog post on ReFoReMo (a site devoted entirely to reading for research and the use of mentor texts).

 K: This will be your second published picture book. What did you learn from debut to book two?

Lori: I learned having one published book under your belt doesn’t make it any easier to sell book two! There’s still all the work of writing, revising, seeking feedback, and revising some more. And unfortunately, the rejections are still there, too. Another thing I’ve learned is to be flexible. When I was feeling a little discouraged about the difficulty of selling fiction picture books, I tried my hand at writing a nonfiction PB. And when an editor suggested expanding the text into chapter book format for middle graders, I tried that, as well. 

The now 7000+ word manuscript is called ALL IN A DROP. It’s a biography of Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the first person to extensively use a microscope back in the late 1600s. As a cloth merchant, Antony had no advanced education or scientific training. Yet, he was the first to discover microscopic life! Needless to say, it took some time for others to believe him. The story sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2016.

K: I love the humor and spare text in PHOEBE. Art and text work so well with this book. PB writers sometimes struggle with art notes. How did you approach notes and being open to the illustrator? 

Lori: I did include a handful of art notes. Let’s see… the original text I submitted was 410 words and I included about 70 additional words in art notes. Some of my suggestions made it into the final spreads and a few did not. Here’s an example:

“Being famous meant lots of special attention at the grocery store, the bank, or just plain walking down the street. Of course, Phoebe preferred traveling first-class.” [art: on daddy’s shoulders]

I could have added more art notes (Phoebe gets a free cookie at the grocery store, a sticker at the bank, her picture taken at the park, etc.) but those scenarios seemed self-explanatory so I left well enough alone. With the “traveling first-class,” I envisioned Phoebe riding high on her father’s shoulders, so I added the note. That suggestion made the cut!

My editor at Sterling was kind enough to share the sketches and artwork as they were being discussed and revised. I was able to offer a few more ideas but AurĂ©lie didn’t need much help—she did an amazing job bringing starlet Phoebe to life!

K: Suggestions for pre-published writers/those who are submitting work?

Lori: Keep at it! It took me a year of writing and revising to get my debut picture book, BACKHOE JOE, into shape. Another 3-6 months to query agents. My three sales each received their fair share of rejections during the submission process. My lovely agent, Kathleen Rushall, remains positive and encouraging. She always reminds me, “It only takes one!”

K:What projects are you working on now?

Lori: I’ve been busy promoting FAMOUSLY PHOEBE but I’m also working on a handful of new picture book texts. I have a proposal out to HMH for a second chapter book biography. Fingers crossed for good news there!

K: Let's find out about five of your faves:    
A current PB that inspires you
Lori: For an “Aww”: WALK WITH ME by Jairo Buitrago
For a “Ha, ha!”: BROBARIANS by Lindsay Ward
K: A writing craft book
K: Munchie/drink while writing
Lori: Dark chocolate Hersey Kisses & iced tea
K: Motivation technique when you are “stuck” on a story
Lori: Switch gears—start a new PB, catch up on blog posts, offer to critique something for one of your writer buddies, etc.
K: Best revision technique
Lori: Don’t be afraid to chop. You need fewer words than you think!

Author Bio

Lori Alexander is the author of BACKHOE JOE (Harper Children’s), FAMOUSLY PHOEBE (Sterling Children's) and the upcoming ALL IN A DROP, a biography of scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She lives with her husband and two children under the star-filled skies of Tucson, AZ. 

Find out more about Lori on her website: and follow her on Twitter: @LoriJAlexander

Thursday, October 5, 2017



     I kind of "met" Penny a year or so ago when
she joined another poet during a webinar at the end of an online class. They were commenting on some first pages the class sent in, and Penny had some good things to say about a manuscript I submitted. Hmmm, I thought. I'd like to get to know her better. Later, I submitted a manuscript to her in a mentor contest. Although I wasn't chosen, she did ask to see more of my work. After a paid critique, it was obvious she knew her stuff. Then, when she asked me to be a part of her blog, A Great Nephew and a Great Aunt, I knew I wanted to know more about this great idea of matching art with poetry. So, here goes:

     How did you get started?

     When I decided to start blogging, I knew there were a large number of blogs about writing, books, and publishing. I wanted to find my own little corner that was unique and came up with the idea of writing a poem and having an illustration to go along with it. I'm not an artist but I have a very artistically talented great nephew. I spoke with his parents and then with him and we decided to give it a go. I named the series A Great Nephew and a Great Aunt because I thought it was fun to have the double meaning of "great." I have to admit that I didn't have Twitter's character limit in mind when I chose the name.
     Here is our very first collaboration:

     At first, Landon and I did a post every other Friday. After doing this for a year I worried about burnout...especially as Landon got older and had more homework and school activities. At that point I decided we would continue our collaborations one Friday a month and I would see if other poets/artists were interested in being guests for the other Fridays. I haven't had any trouble finding people who'd like to be guests! And along the way, some of my other great nephews and nieces have collaborated with me and have been on the series.

     Most of your posts feature young children. How did you decide to go that route?

     I taught school for twenty-six years and the art displayed in the halls of the elementary schools where I taught never failed to take me to a happy place. I LOVE children's artwork and I figure other people do, too. So why not feature child artists and/or poets and take my blog readers to that same happy place.
     Not all of the episodes in the series feature a young child. But there's always the collaboration aspect. I like the idea of two people working together creatively whether they're adults or an adult and a young child.

     Lori Degman collaborated with her adult son and it is a super creative collaboration Here is the link to have a look:

     How does the collaboration with your great nephew work?

     I write a poem and he illustrates it. I let him do his own thing and I'm always delighted with his drawings. We live three hours apart so I email the poem and his mom sends back a picture of his art...well now that Landon is older, he takes a picture and sends it to me. There was one time when we reversed our collaboration. The drawing came first, then the poem. This came about when Landon showed me a drawing he'd done of his family (he even included his dog, Aunie) and I loved it so much that I wrote a poem about his drawing.

     Here is that collaboration:

     What kind of reactions have you gotten to your series?

     The reactions have been so positive. I believe my readers look forward to the posts. My guests tell me that they've enjoyed collaborating and some of them plan to collaborate more with their kids in the future due to this experience. Some people have reached out asking to be guests, and if they meet the criteria (collaboration with a poem and art) then I'm happy to try to fit them on my calendar. I've been very pleased with the reactions.

      What's the most unusual post in the series?

     Goodness! That's hard because all the posts are unique and special. I've collected links to every episode on a page on my website so that people can enjoy them. You can find that page here:

     There are two guest posts that hold a special place in my heart due to my twenty-six year career as a teacher. These posts feature teachers and students collaborating for a project. Ken Slesarik guided his first graders in his after-school poetry club in a project. Here is an artwork grouping and you can view the finished product at this link:

     Have you gotten some surprises along the way?

     Yes! Every time I open emails that contain the materials for the guest collaborators I get a surprise! It's like Christmas over and over again. I have to say one of my biggest surprises was when my friend Elaine Kiely Kearns of KidLit411 fame said yes to being a guest and told me she'd be working with Tommie de Paola. I almost dropped my laptop! Here is their collaboration:

     Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about the series?

     There is an unexpected element that Landon added early on. He did this on his own. He started adding a hidden object to his drawings.


It's always the same object. Every now and then he's forgotten to add it but it's in most of his artwork. I had some readers that could never find the hidden object so I wrote a riddle that gives very obvious hints. You can find it here:   

     Penny Parker Klostermann is the author of A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale and There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight, both from Random House Children's Books. She loves all kinds of books, but especially loves very silly picture books that make her laugh. Penny has been known to hug her favorite picture books and seriously hopes that someday her books will gain huggable status too. You can learn more about Penny on her website at 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Five Elements of Text Structures By Suzy Leopold

In my college level course at Lincoln Land Community College we discuss and evaluate text structures. Doing so supports the students to become proficient, strategic readers and writers. A variety of nonfiction picture books are used as mentor texts to study the five elements of text structures.

“When teachers combine picture book instruction with teaching text, 
students gain a better understanding of how texts are 
organized, strategies for recalling information, and approaches 
to use in their own writing.”

Tracey S. Hodges, Assistant Professor of Elementary Education & Literacy, University of Southern Mississippi
Sharon D. Matthews, Clinical Assistant Professor of Literacy, Texas A & M University

Text structures are tools for readers and writers. 

Text structures are the way in which a reader organizes information in one’s mind while reading. This helps a reader to better understand the text and supports comprehension recall. While reading, thoughtful and  strategic readers make predictions and connections. Interactive readers are thinking and asking questions.

In our class, students ask, What is the author’s purpose for writing this piece?

A nemonic device is used to determine the text structure used and identify the author’s purpose.

P: Persuade
                                                       I: inform
E: Entertain

Text structures are useful to writers and readers.

Many writers consider a text structure as a road map for the reader. Using a specific text structure is an excellent tool for all writers. Selecting the just right text structure keeps the reader engaged and turning the pages.
Nonfiction Text Structure
Key Words 
Nonfiction Picture Book Suggestions
Cause and Effect
Shows the relationship
among events
because, as a result, therefore, since, so NURSE, SOLDIER, SPY: THE STORY OF SARAH EDMONDS, A CIVIL WAR HERO by Marissa Moss & John Hendrix
Compare and Contrast
Shows the ways in
which two or more
subjects are similar and different.
differs from, in contrast, alike, same as, on the other hand, either, both WHO WOULD WIN? WHALE VS. GIANT SQUID by Jerry Pallota & Rob Bolster
Gives many details
about a topic
for example, such as, like, in comparison to, in contrast to, first, second, last SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD The Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson & Marina Budhos
Presents details in time
order— from first to
last or sometimes from last to first.
first, next, not long after, while, at last, later FINDING WINNIE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORDL’S MOST FAMOUS BEAR by Lindsay Mattick & Sophie Blackall
Problem and Solution
Identifies a problem
and then proposes a
because, as a result, therefore, since, so  THE RIGHT WORD: ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS by Jen Bryan & Melisa Sweet

Credit: Picture Books Aren’t Just for Kids! Modeling Text Structures through Nonfiction Mentor Books by Tracey S. Hodges and Sharon D. Matthews


Understanding these five nonfiction text structures are mutually beneficial for both a reader and a writer. Studying text structures give readers and writers a deeper meaning. 

As we move on in our course work, my students’ the understanding of these complexities are applied to longer textbook readings, scholarly articles, and chapter books. The students' writing shows improvement as their writing benefits from this knowledge, too.

The element of text structure is important for all writers to consider. Writers who study how texts structures are constructed and why an author chose a specific structure supports a writer’s understanding of how to use text structures effectively and approaches to use in writing nonfiction stories. When rewriting and revising a manuscript consider how one structure may work better than another to tell the story. 

There are numerous text structures to consider. Hopefully, these five elements are helpful to your writing. Share in the comments other text structures that you find important.