Thursday, June 27, 2013

My classroom library is a car dealership, by Mike Winchell

Although yet another school year just ended—my fourteenth year teaching—I find myself rather excited to get next year started. Wow, it’s weird typing that. Don't get me wrong; I’m ready to relax and enjoy a well-deserved break this summer, but I’m itching to start the new school year at the same time. There are reasons, though, for my feeling of rejuvenation. See, I’m moving into a new classroom that has a new SMART Board, a great location in the building, enough space for any creative activity (I’ve been stuck in a room with a giant pillar in the middle that had essentially cut the room in half), and enough computers and laptops for every student. I have always said that if I ever had enough computers for all students that I would try going completely digital. I plan on doing just that, with perhaps 90% of my activities and assignment done digitally (assignments emailed, dropped in our shared drive, and handed in via web resources). And then there is something else I’m super psyched about: my classroom library.

I, like many ELA teachers, have my students read independently (on a monthly basis). And like many teachers, I allow my students to choose their own books. There is no required genre, no required book length, no reading level or reading range, nothing that might restrict them in choice. The point is for them to be inspired to be lifelong readers by allowing them to choose and enjoy their own books. There’s something to be said about students owning their own selections when it comes to reading. When you allow them to choose on their own, there’s an intrinsic motivation that comes with the choice.

This is not to say I don’t help, or sometimes guide, students to help them find books that are right for them in terms of reading level, or help them find books that might be of interest. The school librarian and I always offer suggestions, and we utilize the state-of-the-art school library to give students an extensive selection. Our library is outstanding! This said, I still enjoy having my own classroom library that is stocked with some classics, along with a ton of new MG and YA page-turners. It allows for a better student-teacher/reader-reader discussion when I can highlight  a bunch of recommended books and even pick them up, turn to a page, and say, “Read this!” It’s like a car salesman standing inside a huge dealership full of shiny rides, offering multiple test drives, and then pointing out all the bells and whistles of each car. "These books are priced to sell, folks! Just sign and drive!"

This leads me to a question for you all: what 1-2 books would you say are, without-question, must-haves for any middle-school classroom library? And why?

* * To help round out my classroom library, I have turned to many of my writer friends and asked if they’d like to donate a book to add to my "dealership." So if you are a writer or publisher and want to donate a copy of your book(s) for my classroom library, feel free to email me: I am toying around with the idea of starting a kids-only review blog (with my school librarian) and having our students give honest-to-goodness reviews (no “good-things-only” reviews for us…just honest opinions from kids). If you’re game to throw yours in the dealership for a kid-driven test drive, go ahead and email me. **

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Exile, by Shannon Messenger - First Impression, by Matthew MacNish

Before we get started, here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Sophie Foster thought she was safe. Settled into her home at Havenfield, surrounded by friends, and using her unique telepathic abilities to train Silveny--the first female alicorn ever seen in the Lost Cities--her life finally seems to be coming together.

But Sophie's kidnappers are still out there. And when Sophie discovers new messages and clues from the mysterious Black Swan group, she’s forced to take a terrifying risk—one that puts everyone in incredible danger.

As long buried secrets rise to the surface, it’s once again up to Sophie to uncover hidden memories—before someone close to her is lost forever.

In this second book in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, Sophie must journey to the darkest corners of her luminous world in a sequel that will leave you breathless for more.

Furthermore, you can read Shannon's Project Middle Grade Mayhem blog tour stop for the release of book 1 in this series, or you can read my daughter's impression of the first book.

Anyway, Shannon was kind enough to include my daughter in the informal tour for the ARC of Exile (AKA Keeper 2). So today we get a look at the first page!

It opens with a Preface (not a prologue, because it's a kind of look-ahead), that reads like this:

* * *

Sophie's hands shook as she lifted the tiny green bottle.

One swallow held life and death--and not just for her.

For Prentice.

For Alden.

Her eyes focused on the clear, sloshy liquid as she removed the crystal stopper and pressed the bottle to her lips. All she had to do was tip the poison down her throat.

But could she?

Could she give up everything to set things right?

Could she live with the guilt, otherwise?

The choice was hers this time.

* * *

Pretty epic, right? Certainly just as tense as the opening to Keeper of the Lost Cities. What do you all think? Has anyone read Keeper 1? Are you looking forward to when Exile is released on October 1st this fall?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Cloak Society Review + Giveaway by Shannon O'Donnell

  The Cloak Society 

by Jeramey Kraatz

The Cloak Society: An elite organization of supervillains graced with extraordinary powers. Ten years ago the Cloak Society was defeated by Sterling City's superheroes, the Rangers of Justice, and vanished without a trace. But the villains have been waiting for the perfect moment to resurface. . . .
Twelve-year-old Alex Knight is a dedicated junior member of Cloak who has spent years mastering his telekinetic superpowers and preparing for the day when Cloak will rise to power again. Cloak is everything he believes in.
But during his debut mission, Alex does the unthinkable: He saves the life of a Junior Ranger of Justice. Even worse . . . she becomes his friend. And the more time he spends with her, the more Alex wonders what, exactly, he's been fighting for.

Okay, middle grade book lovers, this is a can't-miss series for all fans of fantasy adventure--that means all of you Percy Jackson fans out there. Full of action, great world-building, and likeable characters, this is a sureto please series. I received an ARC of book 1 and really enjoyed it, so I shared it with  my 10-year-old son (now 11). I had NO IDEA he would respond the way he did! To say he loves this series would be an extreme understatement. He has devoured my book 2 ARC and is already "dying" for book 3. Wow.

The second book, The Cloak Society: Villains Rising will be released by HarperCollins in October.and the e-ARC is currently available from Edelweiss.

And because I know you'll love them, I am going to give away my ARC of the first book to one lucky commenter. Just make sure you're a follower of this blog--here and on Facebook--and leave a comment. I'll announce the winner next week.  Good luck!

Alex Knight was raised as one of the Cloak Society's most fiercely loyal junior supervillains. He proudly dedicated himself to this elite organization—until he met Kirbie. A junior member of the Rangers of Justice, Kirbie opened Alex's eyes to Cloak's true mission. Now, Alex is determined to bring Cloak down. And there's no time to lose.
The Cloak Society has just pulled off the greatest takedown in Sterling City's history. Justice Tower is in ruins. And the city's superheroes, the Rangers of Justice, have vanished.
Alex and Kirbie's only hope for defeating Cloak is to bring together the Junior Rangers and the other junior Cloak members who have turned their back on their former leaders. But after years of hatred and enmity, fighting for the same side is easier said than done.

If any of you give these books a try, please let me know what you think.

Have you been shocked by the reaction of a child or students to a particular book or series? 


Monday, June 24, 2013

Terrific Titles

I recently read a writer friend's manuscript, and while I though it was a wonderful story, I was honest with her about the fact that I thought she needed a better title. The one she had chosen felt a bit generic to me and didn't really capture the exciting nature of the book.

Titles can be a tricky business. You only get a handful of words to represent the entirety of your story, and these words will be the first impression many readers get of your work, whether they encounter it online, in a catalog, or on a spine on a bookstore shelf. It could pique their interest, make them take a closer look, or turn them off altogether. It's so important to choose your title carefully.

Some tips I think are helpful:

  • The title should reflect the tone of the book. You obviously wouldn't want to slap a humorous title on a book with a dark, serious tone. The title should hint to readers what they can expect inside. I think Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events titles (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Austere Academy, etc.) do this perfectly. Not only do you get a sense of the rather bleak tone of the books from both the series title and the individual book titles, but these also hint at the dark humor and playfulness of the stories themselves.
  • Specific is better general. The title of one of my favorite childhood books, The Pokey Little Puppy, wouldn't have nearly the same charm if the author had just called it The Puppy. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a highly specific title, making use of both the main character's name and the object forming the main storyline. It's much more personal, exciting, and appealing than a generic title. Can you imagine if it had been called something like The Wizard School? Not nearly as catchy, or, to segue into the next bulletpoint, unique.
  • Unique is important. If someone googles your book title or searches it on Amazon or types it into a library catalog, you want it to come up. Something like Little Lamb is going to bring up a gazillion hits. Something like From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is going to hit home--not to mention it really makes the book stand out.
  • Titles that create suspense or intrigue are doing their job. If it piques the reader's interest, arouses curiosity, or creates suspense, a reader will pick up the book or read its description to find out more. One of my childhood favorites was The Secret Garden. The word "secret" gives that title a wonderful air of suspense. Why is the garden secret? Who would make a secret garden? It is secret because it's dangerous or hidden in some way? Perhaps I should pick up the book to find out more...
  • A lot of middle grade books seem to include the main character's name in the title. The Tale of Desperaux, the Harry Potter books, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. This seems especially true when the character is particularly colorful and distinctive, perhaps hinting that the character is going to be driving force behind the story. This might be a good technique if you have a real stand-out main character--or a character with a really interesting or unique name.
What are your favorite tips on titles?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Fan Mail by Dianne K. Salerni

Every year, I have my students research a favorite author. Often, while exploring an author’s website, a student will decide to contact the author, and over the years my students have been thrilled when they get a response. Three years ago, Katie Alender answered a lengthy list of questions for one of my students in a 3 page email. And that same year, another student got a brief response from Rick Riordan thanking him for his fan letter and mentioning that he was working on a new series.

This year, not a single student in my class received a response from an author, and Rick Riordan’s website states that, due to his busy writing schedule, Rick is unable to respond to any fan mail. He will not respond to emails, Tweets, Facebook messages, or paper and pencil letters.

I get it. When you think how many thousands of kids must try to contact Rick Riordan per month, it’s easy to see how it would be impossible to respond to them all. The fact that he was still responding to fan mail three years ago demonstrates that he’s not unwilling to reach out to his readers. The statement on his website is probably literally true. He can’t find the time.

There is something very sad about the idea of becoming a blockbuster MG author and then being unable to respond to fan mail.

I’m certainly no Riordan, but with a full time job, a family, and a modest writing schedule of my own, there are times when I can’t keep up with the social media component of being an author. I cut back the number of times I blog per week, and while I try to respond to comments individually, there have been a few times recently when I looked at my in-box and just deleted all the comment notifications. Can’t handle it this week, I told myself. Maybe next week. Of course, my fellow bloggers understand this, I think. And blog comments are not the same as fan mail for your books. I always respond to those messages, but of course, I don't get thousands of them. 

(Nor hundreds. Can't even say scores.)

I imagine that successful children’s authors had their hands full with the old-fashioned type of fan mail – the kind that came in the mailbox. But social media has made authors more accessible than they ever were before, and young readers don’t need to break out paper, pencil, and a stamp to contact their favorite writer.  If you’re reading this blog, then you probably have the same dream I have: to become a wildly successful MG author. 

What happens when you achieve that dream and your in-box explodes with messages from your readers?

Let’s all take a moment to imagine it. You’ve hit the big time.

How would YOU handle the fan mail?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Keeping the Reader Reading - Analyzing the first 50 pages of a Manuscript

I've heard the rule of thumb for adult fiction is that all the elements of the story have to be in place by page fifty of a book to keep a reader reading. For kidlit, it's probably much earlier than that. As writers, how to we know we've got the first fifty pages where they need to be? I’ve been doing some critiquing and some editing of my own work, and came to some realizations in the process. We know it’s hard to see the flaws in our own writing, but critiquing others has helped me know what to look for now. I’ve made a list of some things I use whether I’m reading my own story or someone else’s work:
1. For each character introduced, do I have a picture in my head of them besides their name and occupation/role? Will I be able to remember something about them when I encounter them later? I read fast, like many others, and if a character comes into the story and then disappears again for awhile, it’s frustrating to me when that character reappears and I can’t remember who they are and what point they serve to the story. Somehow, they need to be memorable enough the first time around to stick.
2. For the important characters, how do I feel about them? Do I like them? Dislike them? Don’t care?  Too often, when a story starts out where the main character is unhappy with their current situation, it may make sense plot-wise, but the reader needs to feel more than sympathy for a character to really be hooked. I want to know something interesting about a character. It doesn’t matter what, but I like to know how at least some tiny distinction that would make me want to keep reading about them.
3. Do I have an inkling of what the main character wants or what they are going to face? This may seem obvious, especially in middle grade where the pace moves faster, but sometimes you can get hung up on dreaded backstory infodump. It may feel like everything about the character’s world needs to be defined, but neglecting the plot to do so can kill the pacing. Relating this back to #2, it’s a fine balance to get into the plot fast enough while not neglecting the character development. If the first few pages are about your characters about to fall into a pit of boiling lava, that’s exciting, but I have to care a little about them too. 
4. Is the world in the story interesting enough to make the reader either want to be in that world or at least be able to easily imagine it? If your story is set in an ordinary place, you still can engage the readers’ senses so they can feel they are part of the story. If it’s an unusual place, again, anything you can do to make the reader believe it’s real, the more the reader will be drawn into the story. For me, the best stories of all are ones in which I want to be in that world, if only for a little while.
Any other tips for critiquing or editing? I'm always looking to add to my list!
~Dee Garretson