I’m a little late writing about this—other writers, illustrators and educators have been kvelling over it for close to two weeks now. “It” was nErD Camp MI, which took place in little old Parma, Michigan, July 6 and 7. Begun three years ago by teachers Alaina and Colby Sharp, the camp’s attendance has nearly doubled each year.
No wonder. No one pays, or is paid, to come. It’s grass roots all the way, with teachers volunteering to share their concerns, their successes, their hopes and worries for the future of their profession with one another. I went to a session on Strategies for Working with Disengaged, Reluctant and Struggling Writers, taught by Michigan teacher AnneMarie Johnson. The room was packed, SRO, with dedicated, creative teachers looking for ways to make writing a personal, exciting experience for their kiddos. On the second day, it gets even better. There’s no set schedule. Everyone comes together in a sort of town hall, and anyone can propose a session on anything. One dude ran a workshop on protest songs for teachers (Protest? Oh yeah. This was an activist group! Harness their energy and blast off for Mars.)
There were also author/illustrator panels, with superstars the likes of Phil and Erin Stead, Lisa Graff, Lauren Castillo and Matt Cordell talking and goofing around. I discovered that fangirl is a verb.
And then there was nErD Camp Junior. Of course I’d heard that around 5:30 on the second day, hordes of children would descend. But nothing prepared me for the sight of a line of eager, excited young readers and writers stretching out the front door, down the steps and out into the parking lot. (Cue me turning to mush). I tried to take some pictures, but they didn’t capture the kinetic happiness of the night. The kiddos rotated through sessions with us—and a pizza party!—and before they went home, each one got a free, signed book. I always take away far more than I give when I work with children, but this was extra special, because all of them LOVE BOOKS. I mean, jump up and down and twirl around LOVE. It was paradise.
Experiences like that one stay with you. The good will, connections and inspiration they generate is like a bell you can feel vibrating inside you long after it’s stopped ringing. I say, Nerds 4Ever.
Both my new books have gone to copy-editing. That means I have Nothing to Do until I get the manuscripts back, no doubt covered with suggestions and questions (for the record: I bow at the feet of copy-editors. They’re the ones who notice I’ve made a moon go from crescent to full in two days, or inadvertently renamed a minor character, or used the word “but” to start three consecutive paragraphs.)
When you’re used to writing all the time, every day, Nothing to Do is a strange place to be. It feels a little like being suspended in a hammock—mostly pleasant but also kind of precarious. You want to relax and let your mind go blank, but there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t natural. You close your eyes and exhale and immediately worry that you should be describing this experience, taking notes and interpreting and connecting and seeing what you can make of the breeze, the flickering leaves, the mosquito who’s come to whine at your ear. Shouldn’t those happy, bare feet be on the ground? Shouldn’t you be beginning The Next Book?
Writing becomes more than a habit. It’s a muscle that wants exercise. It can be hard to remember that it needs to be rested, now and then. We need to let the world flood in, un-interpreted, purely experienced. When Alice Munro announced that she was retiring from writing, she said she wanted to “live life on the surface”. I think I know what she meant. In that open-ness, that receptivity to the world’s wonders and terrors—that’s where the next stories lurk, where they dodge and duck. That’s where they wait for me to try and catch them.
Munro, to our immense loss, may not make any more stories, but I hope I will. So here I am, suspended. Start that Something New too soon, or wait too long, and I’ll topple out of my hammock and hit the ground with an ignominious, not to mention painful, thud. I’m counting on knowing when it’s time to climb out.
Till then, please hand me my Charles Dickens, and another glass of peach Izzy.
My new books have names now. Next year, HarperCollins will publish “Every Single Second” and Candlewick will publish “Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe”. Who’s the world’s luckiest writer?
Today at the pool I saw a girl (with Dottie-red hair) reading “What Happened on Fox Street”. I flew back to the summer I was writing it, when I’d come to the pool after hours at my desk, to swim my laps and ponder Mo and Mercedes and Dottie and Da. Crawl-backstroke-crawl, hearing their voices, puzzling over who they were and what they wanted–once I climbed out of the water to grab a (dry) kickboard and use it as a lap desk to scribble some notes (never go anywhere, even swimming, without paper and pen). That summer, as I swam up and down, back and forth, day after day, the book was still a secret dream belonging only to me.
And now to see it, held tight in two small hands, a real book out in the world! It startled me. It was as if Mo Wren and her story had always existed, as if she’d just been waiting, between the sunbeams, on the sparkling surface of the water, to be made visible. Now her story belongs to that red-haired reader, too. Happiness and gratitude flooded through me.
If keeping friends is difficult, making them must seem insurmountable for some kids. The truth is that friendship is a work in progress. Best friends move away. Sometimes friends are busy with weekend activities. From time to time, two pals may not see things eye to eye. An occasional child may have a companion you can’t even see. The following intermediate chapter books selected by the editors at Junior Library Guild offer all kinds of situations that will make readers laugh, cry, and feel as if they’ve found new friends.
HARROLD, A.F. The Imaginary. illus. by Emily Gravett. 224p. Bloomsbury. 2015. ISBN 9780802738110. JLG Category: A+ : Intermediate Readers (Grades 3-5). LiveBinder Resources
“Without Amanda to think of him, to remember him, to make him real, he was slipping away. Rudger was being forgotten…Then a quiet voice said, I can see you. And Rudger opened his eyes.” In a Neil Gaiman/Roald Dahl–like world, Amanda Shuffleup has found a friend. Of course, only she can see him. When the sinister Mr. Bunting appears to be stalking them, fate drives the two friends apart. Now Rudger fights for his life, too.
A visit to Harrold’s website reveals a video on the writing process, as well as Gravett illustrating characters from the novel. A teaching guide is posted on Bloomsbury.
MYRACLE, Lauren. Friends of a Feather. illus. by Jed Henry. 144p. (The Life of Ty: Bk. 3). Dutton. 2015. ISBN 9780525422884. JLG Category: I+ : Independent Readers (Grades 2-4). LiveBinder Resources
Ty returns in the third chapter book of the series. Best friend Joseph is out of the hospital and back to school, but things haven’t gone back to normal. Everyone wants to be his friend now, and Ty has a hard time adjusting to that. Maybe he’s even jealous of the attention. He knows Joseph is on his side; it just doesn’t feel like they’re on the same team.
Myracle, who also writes for teens and tweens, blogs, tweets, and maintains a Facebook page while she travels around the country. Follow Henry on Tumblr.
PARR, Maria. Adventures with Waffles. illus. by Kate Forrester. 240p. Candlewick. 2015. ISBN 9780763672812. JLG Category: I+ : Independent Readers (Grades 2-4). LiveBinder Resources
For best friends Trille and Lena, every day is an adventure. When Lena wants a dad, they write an advertisement. Inspired by the story of Noah’s ark, they fill a boat with small animals until Lena has a thought. “It’s time we got a cow.” Seemingly fearless, the two pals move from one disastrous idea to another, with Trille’s grandpa to help save the day. But then sadness comes to Mathildewick Cove, causing Trille to wonder if Lena is his best friend after all.
Listen to an audio sample or read an excerpt on the publisher’s page. Readers hungry for waffles will enjoy following the recipe by Alton Brown on the Food Network.
SCIESZKA, Jon. Frank Einstein and the Electro-Finger. illus. by Brian Biggs. 178p. (Frank Einstein: Bk. 2). Abrams/Amulet. 2015. ISBN 9781419714832. JLG Category: A+ : Intermediate Readers (Grades 3-5).LiveBinder Resources
Blending science with humor, Scieszka and Biggs continue the “Frank Einstein” series. Pals Frank and Watson experiment with electricity, hoping to continue the work begun by Nikola Tesla. If they are successful, free wireless energy will be available to their entire town. Behind the scenes, however, arch enemy T.E. Edison races to complete his diabolical plan to monopolize all energy, leaving customers at his mercy.
Scieszka’s fun website is not to be missed for its links to Guys Read and his Favorite Answers to Frequently Asked Questions. Check out the amazing illustrations on the illustrator’s website. You can follow Scieszka and Biggs on Twitter. A teaching guide with extensive vocabulary and CCSS questions is available on the publisher’s website. The series now has its own website, full of activities and resources for adults and children. Additional resources are posted in the Fall 2014 LiveBinder, such as theWonderopolis lesson “Do Robots Wonder?” and Tobey’s Robot Workshop at PBS.
SPRINGSTUBB, Tricia. Cody and the Fountain of Happiness. illus. by Eliza Wheeler. 160p. Candlewick. 2015. ISBN 9780763658571. JLG Category: I+ : Independent Readers (Grades 2-4). LiveBinder Resources
It’s the first day of summer vacation, and there’s not a minute to lose when Cody realizes everyone is too busy to spend the day with her. A little boy named Spencer and a lost cat change everything. “There is a certain kind of sadness that belongs to someone else, but feels like it belongs to you too.” Cody is determined to find the cat and help young Spencer out of his own doldrums. After all, that’s what friends are for. “Only this is real life. Where things are not so simple. At all.”
Award-winning novelist Springstubb’s charming and diverse new characters are sure to delight young readers. You can find out more about the author and her work at her website, on Twitter, and onPinterest. Share the book trailer or read the first chapter which is posted on the publisher’s website. Read her advice for aspiring writers in an interview on colleague Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s blog. For more on illustrator Wheeler, visit her website, where you’ll find more of her gorgeous work. Readers will fill their own fountains of happiness when they learn that Cody and her pals will return in the new independent reader series.
WARNER, Sally. EllRay Jakes the Recess King! illus. by Brian Biggs. 176p. (EllRay Jakes: Bk 8). Viking.2015. ISBN 9780451469113. JLG Category: I+ : Independent Readers (Grades 2-4). LiveBinder Resources
When EllRay’s little sister suggests that her big brother needs a spare friend, the eight-year-old uses his list-making skills to narrow down the possibilities. Then, armed with carefully researched ideas for recess activities, EllRay spirals down a path that is loaded with good intentions but results in disaster. How can he make a new friend by Thursday if his efforts to be the Recess King continue to fail?
Read about the author’s favorite books and the answers to other questions in Deborah Kalb’s interview. For ideas about recess activities, visit Pinterest or BHG. You’ll find 15 indoor recess games on the Cornerstones’s website. Looking for a lesson plan? Wonderopolis posts an informational text article, “Do You Like to Play Tag?” which includes a short video, vocabulary, and a quiz.
The resources for the above titles have been organized in JLG Booktalks to Go: Spring 2015 LiveBinder. Titles are sorted by interest level, PreK-3, 3-6, 5-8, and YA. All websites are posted within each LiveBinder, along with the accompanying booktalk. As I write more columns, more books and their resources are added. Everything you need to teach or share brand new, hot-off-the-press books is now all in one place. Booktalks and resources are also included on JLG’s BTG Pinterest board.
For library resources, tips, and ideas, please visit JLG’s Shelf Life Blog.
Junior Library Guild (JLG) is a collection development service that helps school and public libraries acquire the best new children’s and young adult books. Season after season, year after year, Junior Library Guild book selections go on to win awards, collect starred or favorable reviews, and earn industry honors. Visit us at www.JuniorLibraryGuild.com. (NOTE: JLG is owned by Media Source, Inc.,SLJ’s parent company.)
(Author! That would be me)
The visits continue after I got home, with letters like these:
(huge orange cat–that would be Habibi*, who the kids meet in my slideshow)
(two cats–that would be Habibi* and Billy–they have a way of stealing that slideshow!)
(from your lips to God’s ear, Dylan!)
I’m home now, happy to have traveled, happy to be back at my desk. Someone * seems to want to make sure that I don’t hit the road again without bringing him…
This week I spent the afternoon with a group of fourth graders who had read–very carefully I might add–my book “What Happened on Fox Street”. It came out five years ago, and in preparation I decided I better read it again myself.
Re-visiting one’s own book is—at least for me—a nerve-wracking undertaking. There’s the fear that I’ll find dialogue clunky, or descriptions tedious, or the whole dang thing embarrassingly in need of revision. But I screwed my courage to the sticking point, and opened the b0ok.
Aah. I still liked it! In fact, I kind of fell in love with Mo all over again. She’s funny, she’s brave, she worries as much as I do. I’d actually forgotten how one of the plot twists plays out, so it was fun to be surprised.
One of the wonderful teachers guiding our discussion asked me, “What do you think Mo might be when she grows up?” That was such a great question I turned it over to the group. Some of their answers: a professor (because she loves to think), an investigator (because she’s good at noticing and putting 2 + 2 together), a forest ranger (because she loves nature, even fox poop).
All this got me thinking: Mo must be a teenager by now, or possibly even older (depending on whether characters age at the same rate as real people) and little Wild Child Dottie must be a fully sentient being. I felt like a proud (if always anxious) mama.
You work and work on a book, and it’s all yours, for better or for worse. You’re the one lying awake in the middle of the night, or standing in the grocery aisle frantically scribbling notes on a cereal box, or shouting out a YES when it somehow astonishingly, mysteriously comes together. It’s yours, the characters and their journey, the headaches and the swoons, until comes the day the book is published. Then it belongs to the readers, for better or for worse.
What could be better than sitting around with thoughtful kids, on a spring afternoon, eating cookies, talking about Mo and Mercedes and Dottie as if they’re real live breathing people? Why did they do this and did you like/hate when they did that? What did you think about her decision, his choice? And what about Dottie and those beer bottles?
Thank you, Grindstone Elementary! You gave my story back to me. I’m so happy we shared it!
This little essay ran earlier in the week at a blog I contribute to, From the Mixed Up Files, www.fromthemixedupfiles.com You can read it (and lots of other good stuff) over there or below.
The Trouble With Happiness
Every story needs A Problem. All writers know that.
So many wonderful middle grade novels re-enforce the lesson. Just recently, I’ve read and relished The War That Saved My Life, Stella by Starlight, Echo and Rain Reign, books that deal with abuse, deformity, war, racism, poverty, autism—problems with enormous consequences for the main characters. Their suffering leads to new, often hard-won knowledge about themselves and their world, and, of course, to change.
Something I’ve learned working in the children’s room of a public library is that plenty of kids love sad books. I’ve been asked, “Where are the books that make you cry?” Any time I teach a writing workshop, there’s always one wrenching story about a parent, grandparent or pet dying. Grief, plain and unadorned, is what those stories are about.
So I felt myself going a bit against the grain when I set out to write my new book, Cody and the Fountain of Happiness (first in a series for younger MG readers). The title alone promises that everything will be all right in the end. Better than all right. Happiness will bubble up and overflow!
Joy is less compelling than sorrow. It’s nowhere near as dramatic. When we’re in the midst of joy, we take it for granted, something that does not happen with problems. Problems we want to solve, to conquer and eradicate, but good fortune? Being loved, being secure? We bask in the light, forgetting how lucky we are.
Cody doesn’t forget. She’s the kid who finds delight in the ants in her front yard, or the grumpy new boy who moves in around the corner, or a brand new pair of shoes . For Cody, many things are beautiful, from marshmallows to turtles with their thumb-shaped heads. I think of her as the optimistic part of me, times a zillion.
So what about the big problem? Well, a beloved cat gets lost. Her mother has a hard day at work. Her friend accuses her of tricking him. Cody has her troubles, and to her they are plenty big. She makes mistakes, feels guilty, puzzles over the right thing to do. Yet her whole world, like so many children’s, is her family and neighborhood, literally the (ant-inhabited) ground beneath her feet. The trick of writing her story was to handle her small yet no less real concerns with a light but empathetic hand. To respect her worries and struggles while also keeping the tone reassuring. Writing Cody was as challenging as writing a book with much more serious issues at its center. Kids are figuring out their world every day, every moment. Giving the ordinary its due requires a different, tender kind of attention. For examples of a writer who is a true master at this, see Junoniaand The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes.
I confess: this is the kind of book I loved when I was in the middle grades. I hated to be (too) frightened or (too) sad. Surprised was good, but above all I wanted to recognize myself in the story. I’m hoping the same kind of readers will find themselves in the unsinkable Cody.
(I’m giving away two signed copies over there at Mixed Up–you have till Sunday night, 4/19, to enter!)
This is going to be a busy spring. To keep myself organized, I made a list of places I’ve said I’ll be. If you’re in the vicinity, please stop and say hello. It can get lonely sitting at those tables, and I’d love to see you!
April 11, 1 PM
Teacher Appreciation Event—Fun activities open to ALL!
Barnes and Noble
28801 Chagrin Blvd
Woodmere OH 44122 216-765-7520
April 18, 1 PM
Celebrate the launch of Cody and the Fountain of Happiness and the opening of the Coventry Library’s super new kids’ room with readings, crafts, refreshments and more
1925 Coventry Road
Cleveland Hts 44118 216-321-3400
April 21-22, All day
Visiting writer at Gesu Parish School
University Hts OH
April 25, 10—4:30
Ohioana Book Festival—more than 100 authors, with readings, panels, kid activities, you name it
Sheraton Columbus at Capitol Square
75 East State St.
Columbus OH 43215
Joseph-Beth Gifts and Books, the Cleveland Clinic
9500 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland OH 44195 216-444-1700
The Learned Owl
204 North Main Street
Hudson, OH 44236 330-653-2252
Grindstone Elementary School
Berea OH 44017
May 9, 3—5
Barnes and Noble, Youngstown OH, with Rebecca Barnhouse, Cinda Williams Chima, Shelley Pearsall and Megan Whalen Turner-wow
381 Boardman Poland Road
Youngstown OH 44512 330-629-9436
Visits to Toledo area schools
Claire’s Day Festival—full day of family book fun
Maumee Branch Library
501 River Road
Maumee OH 43537
May 30, 5:30-?
Kids Author Carnival—20+middle grade authors—more fun than a barrel of monkeys!
Jefferson Market Library
425 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10011 212-243-4334
Whew. More events coming this summer (including Colby Sharp’s infamous NERD CAMP!)
Kids still do write REAL letters. Recently I got one from a girl who wrote, “I have a brother named William. But don’t worry. I’m gonna change the subject.”
So many of the letters come illustrated. A few I’ve gotten in the last weeks:
Spring is coming. No, this time it really is! Along with flowers and birdsong, hope these make you smile.
The snowdrops are up and school visits are on! It’s time for World Read Aloud Day, Right to Read Week, Young Author Workshops and general thank-heaven-those-standardized-tests-are-over euphoria.
Some highlights from a wonderful visit to St. Dominic’s School in Shaker Hts. Ohio last week…
The poster that greeted me…
The Fountain of Happiness the littlest kids and I made together (further proof I should NOT attempt to draw, but the kids were very gracious and didn’t make fun). My favorite is probably The Liberty Bell.
(Just so you know, it was a teacher, not a child, who added “coffee”.)
And here is my meticulously detailed portrait, down to my cupcake earrings. Now if I could only get Habibi to walk on a leash like that!