An educator friend of mine shared the idea of a Writer’s Notebook with me and I love it! I talk with students about collecting words, but I hadn’t considered all the possibilities a Writer’s Notebook could hold.
As an author I have used notebooks or word documents to keep track of ideas, names, titles that pop into my head and the evolving versions of a story.
I am a list maker in my personal and writing life, and for that I love steno pads. The middle division allows me to have more than one type of list on a page.
I have a notebook where I did exercises from books on writing. Sometimes I flip through to see if an idea for a story might emerge.
For the teachers reading this I’m probably preaching to the choir, but parents or other caregivers think about introducing the Writer’s Notebook over the summer. It will keep writing interest and skills alive!
A child (or adult) with a notebook dedicated to writing will start to see themselves as a writer. A nice writing utensil helps too! And writers will tell you they don’t just write on certain days and times. So that notebook should always be handy.
So how might a child use the notebook?
To write thoughts or feelings
React to things they see or hear or that happen to them
T0 play with writing and with language
To keep a list of words
To invent new words
To list names they like
To write down things that inspire them
song lyrics, poems, quotes from a book, movie or TV show
To describe things using all 5 senses
Remember this notebook is the writers. It is not for some else to correct or question. It is a place to experiment, where mistakes can be made. Think of it as a safe. It holds beautiful things that the owner can keep for themselves or choose to share with others.
As you may have gathered I love the Peanuts comic strip. I’ve been reading it since I was a child and was sad when it ended. Shulz had recurring storylines and one I’ve always enjoyed was Charlie Brown writing to his pen pal. Sometimes the humor was about Charlie Brown’s use of pen vs pencil, but sometimes Shulz conveyed profound thoughts.
I think Charlie Brown was on to something. A back and forth of letters allows us to learn about each other, to share things we might not be comfortable saying out loud. And the more we know about someone the easier it is to understand them-to not hate them.
Charlie Brown’s pen pal was in another country, but pen pals in our own country might help us overcome our differences. I love the idea of students writing to other students. It works on writing skills, communication and social skills. It could be in the same district, town, state or different state or region of the country. Sometimes we forget how much we have in common.
I’m thinking adults need pen pals too. After all children are more likely to do as we do! To that end I write a letter to my grandkids each week. At age 2 and 5 months they don’t write back yet, but I hope someday. I know we’ll learn a lot about each other that way.
Here’s a book showing the benefits of a school-to-school pen pal project.
Dear Dragon By Josh Funk Illustrated by Rodolfo Motalvo 2016 Viking
Two teachers announce, in their respective schools, a pen pal poetry project. Students write to each other all year . In June there will be a picnic where they will meet. George is a human and Blaise is a dragon, but they don’t know that. When each receives their letter they picture what is happening from their perspective. So when the dragon mentions skydiving the human pictures himself with a parachute. Before the picnic they decide to keep writing to each other. At first they are surprised they are different species, but then friends. That was the teachers plan all along!
If you start a pen pal project I’d love to hear about it-and you!
Memorial weekend may find many traveling this year as vaccinations are allowing us to visit with family and friends. (Please get vaccinated! Please continue to mask up where appropriate.) We will be traveling 10 hours to Lawrence KS to spend time with our daughter and her husband. They moved there a little over a year ago as the pandemic was changing our lives. This past year even families that lived in the same town weren’t visiting, but somehow having our daughter 10 hours away instead of the previous hour and a half felt worse. For them it meant moving with no in-person good byes to family and friends, no going away parties. And the pandemic made getting acquainted with their new town and making new friends difficult. I’ve mentioned before that books are an integral part of our family, so it was fun to hear that Beth and David started a book club. Just the two of them! I love it and it will be wonderful to see them, their home and their new life, and discuss books.
When I visit our kids I usually bring some kind of baked goods. Eating together was also a big part of our family! So the recipe for today is one that my sister made MANY years ago. Since then, Chocolate Chip Apple Cake is often requested and loved by all!
Do you have a favorite teacher? There are teachers I remember even though decades have passed since I was in their classroom. I think the best teachers help us see the joy in learning and the benefits of knowledge. They see our potential and help us see it too. No easy task.
Teachers aren’t drawn to the profession for the money! Because we certainly don’t pay them what they are worth. I think most want to make a difference. To see a face light up when they’ve reached a student. It’s always been a difficult profession. Teaching a group of individuals, while figuring out how to reach each one takes skill.
In the decades since I was in school the world has changed and those changes have increased the challenges our teachers face. And on top of that the impact of the pandemic students, their families, their communities has added challenges and stress we will be measuring for years.
And so I want to say THANK YOU to teachers past and present. The future of the world truly is in your hands as you teach each generation. (No pressure!) I hope, as a nation, we soon recognize that investing in education is integral to our country truly having “liberty and justice for all” and being a country where ANYONE can achieve their dreams.
And to celebrate… a couple of books!
Dear Dragon By Josh Funk Illustrated by Rodolfo Motalvo 2016 Viking
Two teachers announce, in their respective schools, a pen pal poetry project. Students will right to their pen pals all year but it must rhyme. In June there will be a picnic where they will meet. George is a human and Blaise is a dragon, but they don’t know that. When each receives their letter, they picture what their pen pal is talking about from their own perspective. So, when the dragon mentions skydiving the human pictures himself with a parachute. Of course, the dragon is flying! George and Blaise enjoy writing to each other so much that they decide they will continue after the project is over. They can’t wit to meet at the picnic. When they meet, they are hesitant at first since they are different, but all the pen pals soon become friends which is what the teachers planned all along. (Teachers are smart!)
This is a sweet story about looking past physical differences. I love the idea of letter writing and pen pals. It’s a wonderful way to get to know someone. As Blaise writes, “Who’d have thought this pen pal thing would make me a new friend?”
Because I Had a Teacher Kobi Yamada Illustrated by Natalie Russell Compendium, 2016
A quiet tribute to all the teachers in our lives. The simple text and quiet illustrations show what kinds of things we learn from teachers. Things like that mistakes are part of getting something right, that there are different ways to be smart, challenges can be fun. Most important, it concludes that “because I had you, I learned to believe in me.”
This week I’m putting on my other hat! It’s Better Speech & Hearing Month and I’m a speech therapist. Most people have some idea of what we do but most don’t know the full scope of our profession. We need a more encompassing name because speech is on a part of what we do. We work on speech and language disorders in adults and children. Fluency disorders, including stuttering. Voice and resonance disorders. Swallowing disorders in adults, children and infants. Cognitive-communication disorders including social communication skills, reasoning, problem solving, memory and executive functions. Accent modification for ESL speakers. Both speech therapist and audiologists work with people with hearing disorders.
Being able to communicate want and needs, to socialize and interact with others is an essential part of living. Most of us take this ability for granted. It is what makes us feel connected to our life, our families, our world. It is also how we feel in control of our life. Think about a child as they learn language. Very early they learn the power in words-particularly NO. They learn that if they call you, you come. Remember you couldn’t wait to hear mama or dada and later you wished you could change your name?
Speech therapist try to find the key that makes communication a reality for each person they work with. The client or patient, and often their families, are partners in this quest. Everyone has work to do. Communication is a two-way street. Sometimes when we see someone struggling to communicate our first instinct is to talk for them. Sometimes that’s ok, but most of the time what is most helpful is to show patience as they communicate in their own way.
Eating is another ability we take for granted. It is also essential to living not just because it fuels our body, but it also connects us with others as we break bread together. For some the ability to chew or safely swallow food is compromised. This can affect people of all ages and the causes vary, but speech therapists work to help clients consume a diet that will sustain them and give them pleasure. You may be asking, why a speech therapist? We are uniquely qualified because the muscles, structures, nerves we use to eat we also use to talk.
You can help
If you know someone who has difficulty communicating ask yourself,
How would I feel if that was me?
Would I want to be ignored or acknowledged?
How would I want to be treated?
Can I change how I’m communicating to help them?
Are there other ways I can communicate-a smile, a touch?
And of course, a book!
A Boy and A Jaguar Alan Rabinowitz Illustrated by Catia Chien Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
A real-life story with powerful illustrations about zoologist and conservationist Alan Rabinowitz. When Alan was a boy, he was a severe stutterer. His father often took him to the Bronx Zoo because he loved animals. And when he talked to animals he did not stutter. He decides he will be a voice for animals so they aren’t misunderstood like he is. While his family tries to get him help it is not until he is in college that he receives the help he needs and becomes a fluent stutter. Now he can speak, but he says, “I can speak but nothing has changed on the inside. I still feel broken.” So, he goes to nature, where he is at home and studies animals. He studies jaguars in the jungle. He works to get protected areas for the jaguars. He uses his voice to speak for them and the result is the world’s first and only jaguar preserve. He sits with a jaguar and thanks him because he is now whole and at home.
Dr. Rabinowitz has a Q&A about cats on the jacket. He is an advocate for stutters and feels his stuttering put him on the path toward his passion so he credits it.
So if you see a speech therapist or an audiologist this month ask them about what they do and thank them for helping others in their quest to communicate and break bread with you!
I have a confession to make. I always keep a book in the bathroom and I always read a little anytime I’m in there. I’m not sure exactly when this started, but I think for those minutes throughout the day I slip into whatever world I’m reading about. It’s Get Caught Reading Month and we don’t need any bathroom pictures, but what are the strangest places you read a book?
I spent a morning this month gathering picture books at the Garrett Public library. The children’s librarian is a friend and she and her staff helped me find a large stack of picture books about various topics. So I thought I’d review a few and maybe you “get caught reading” one of them this month!
You Nest Here with Me Jane Yolen & Heidi E. Y. Stemple Illustrated by Melissa Sweet Boyds Mill Press, 2015
Soft, earth-color water color and mixed media illustrations bring a variety of birds to life as a mother puts her daughter to bed telling her that like a baby bird her nest is anywhere, they are together. Each bird species is seen in its environment. Pigeons on concrete ledges, catbirds in greening hedges. The mother concludes that birds are safe in nests while they grow, “learning all they need to know. So till you’re big as big can be…You’ll nest right here in our house with me.” Informative back matter gives a few facts about the 14 birds depicted in the text. This would be a great book to read this month for Mother’s Day and if you looking for screen-free things to do, bird watching is fun!
You Be Mommy Karla Clark Illustrated by Zoe Persico Feiwel and Friends, 2020
In a role reversal, mommy is tired and asks her daughter to be mommy tonight. Colorful illustrations show all that mommy has done from working, cleaning up messes, being a chauffeur, caring for pets, and little things like wiping noses and granting wishes! As her daughter tucks her in, going through their bedtime ritual, she gets tired too and wants Mommy to be mommy. So Mommy rallies and carries her little one to bed. As she tucks her in she says, “for you’ll always by my little treasure. And I’ll be Mommy forever and ever.” A gentle reminder to a child of all that parents do in a day, but reassuring too.
A House for Every Bird Megan Maynor Illustrated by Kaylani Juanita Alfed A. Knopf, 2021
Told in the first person, the main character talks with the birds she’s drawn when they don’t choose to live in the bird houses, she’s drawn for them. Then the birds begin to chat with each other and trade houses. But our young creator wants to be in charge. She wants the birds to stay where she put them. In frustration she says, “but I was trying to help. I made a house for every bird. How was I supposed to KNOW what you like?” To which a bird replies, “ask us.” And so, she learns that you “can’t tell a bird by its feathers.” To know birds or people you have to take the time to get to know them! In the final spread the birds are around a table. Before she draws birdseed for all she asks what they like to eat and it turns out her birds like things like nuts, bugs, fruit and veggie burritos!
The illustrations are warm and inviting with lots to look at and discover-bird wearing hats, houses made of grapes and more. The main character’s drawings looking like a child drew them. I think seeing them in a book will give confidence to other young artists.
Gifts of the Magpie Sam Hundley Capstone Editions, 2021
Very clever book as Magpie (a bird known for collecting objects) makes things for her friends, but she misunderstands what her friends want because of homonyms! So, the mouse wants another mouse for a friend and gets a computer mouse, the goat wants Spring (the season) and gets a metal spring, the squirrel wants nuts and gets a nut that goes with a bolt. At first the friends are disappointed, but they begin to see how useful Magpie’s gifts are. Everything that creates the illustrations were “dug relics”-treasures unearthed by hunters using metal detectors and shovels. End pages explain the scrap art, give information on magpies and homonyms and suggest you make scrap art and send the author a picture.
“Mistakes happen, but creative thinking can turn blunders into wonders!”
And then it’s Spring Julie Fogliano Illustrated by Erin E. Stead A Neal Porter Book, 2012
I love Erin E. Stead’s illustrations in this quiet and hopeful book. The colors are soft and earthy, the faces expressive and there is so much to look at. When the white of winter ends all the world is brown and a little boy, dog, bunny and turtle plant seeds and wait for green. The sun and the rain come but still it’s brown. The boy and his companions engage in other spring activities and wait. And wait. Until finally all the world is green. Waiting is hard, but good things come.
“And it is still brown, but a hopeful, very possible sort of brown.” Haven’t we all seen this in Spring!
AND I love when people get caught reading books from my Flashlight Press family. Check out all their books here!
When my children were young the only screen we had to worry about was the TV. And since we didn’t get cable, the few channels we got weren’t a big problem. But now, as my children raise their children, screens are as much a part of our lives as a refrigerator. Let’s face it, we are all addicted to them. So a screen-free week might be impossible, but maybe intentional screen-free time can be achieved with some planning.
Hide the screens
If you wanted to have an ice cream free week, you wouldn’t keep any in the freezer, so when it’s screen-free time put the screens out of sight. Tablets, iPads, laptops, e-readers, phones-put them in the closet. You could even cover that big screen TV with a white sheet and do shadow figures!
Stock up on substitutes
If you are trying to keep away from ice cream or some other not good for you food, you stock up on food to replace it. So if it’s a screen-free evening plan what you’ll do instead. Will it be board games, crafts, baking, hide-n-seek, a hike to look for birds or pick up trash (hmm-screen-free and doing something for the environment!).
My favorite substitute
AND of course I think books are a wonderful way to fill screen-free time. I read to my children daily, often several times a day when they were young. The picture book age saw us snuggled together on the couch or a bed. Or sometimes at the table while they ate. When we moved on to chapter books and novels, they’d each stretch out on a couch and I read from my comfy chair. And, though not daily, we had a book we read together through middle school. We explored places, topics, feelings, fantasy worlds and had discussions.
A book to get you started
Old MacDonald had a Phone Written by Jeanne Willis Illustrated by Tony Ross Andersen Press, 2021
To the tune of Old Macdonald we learn about a farmer and his smart phone. When he drops it in the lake he orders another one online and buys a hundred by mistake. All the animals take one and suddenly “Nobody would put them down so nothing else got done.” So the farmer takes the phones and locks them in the shed but the animals are mad and still do nothing. Finally his son suggests they use them sensibly. SO there’s a farm meeting and the creatures all agree. Humorous illustrations of animals doing all sorts of people-things with and without phones. A reminder that phones are good, when used correctly!
One more thing…
If you do pass some screen-free time reading, take a picture because it’s Get Caught Reading Month! More about that next week and a book giveaway!
I would have been seven with Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban hit the shelves. Many years later I read it to my children and now my grandson enjoys it. What makes a picture book timeless? It’s the writing and illustrations, but it also has to touch on a universal feeling or truth. Francis is a picky eater. There will always be picky eaters and their parents. It’s frustrating for the adult, but as we see in Bread and Jam, it’s the picky eater that is losing out. Mother and Father know that. They give Frances the space to figure it out. They don’t say “I told you so” or “I knew you’d get tired of it”. Another universal truth,in parenting patience isn’t easy, but it can pay off.
Frances only liked jamon her bread but when I was a child a peanut butter & jelly sandwich was often in the brown paper bag for lunch. And I have memories of my dad eating it right out of the jar, often immediately after dinner! It was his dessert. I still love a PB & J or a peanut butter cookie or a Reese’s cup or any ice cream with peanut butter something stirred in! So, when I ran found a recipe for Peanut Butter & Jelly Cheesecake, I tried it! It was loved by all the PB & J lovers in my family!
1 cup graham cracker crumbs 3 Tbsp sugar 1 tsp cinnamon 6 Tbsp butter, melted 1 tsp cinnamon sugar 1 jar (16.3 oz) creamy peanut butter 2 Tbsp milk Filling: 3 pkg (8 oz. each) cream cheese, softened 1 cup sugar 2 tsp vanilla extract 4 Large eggs, lightly beaten 1 ½ cups seedless raspberry preserves 1 Tbsp lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350. Place a greased 9-in springform pan on a double thickness of heavy-duty foil. Wrap the foil securely around the pan. Place on a baking sheet. In a bowl, mix cracker crumbs, sugar and cinnamon; stir in butter. Press onto bottom of prepared pan. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Bake until crust starts to brown, 6-8 minutes. Cool on wire rake. Reduce oven setting to 325.
Beat peanut butter and milk until combined. Spread over cooled crust; set aside. In a large bowl beat cream cheese, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Add eggs; beat on low speed just until blended. Pour over crust. In a saucepan stir together preserves and lemon juice over medium heat until preserves melt. Spoon mixture by tablespoonfuls over top. Cut through the batter with a knife to swirl. Place springform pan in a large baking pan; add 1 inch of water to larger pan.
Bake until center is just set and top appears dull, about 1 ¼ hours. (Center of cheesecake will jiggle when moved). Turn oven off and leave cake in oven with door closed for one hour. Open door. Seal with plastic wrap and let cool in oven. Chill before serving.
Do you like to be told what to do or how to do it?
Nobody does! Because children are new to life, to the world they are always being told what to do, what not to do, and how to do it. Adults are often solving the problems.
In a book a child can experience things that they normally would not at their age or things that are just new for them. They can think what they might do, learn from what the characters do. That’s why when writing for children we like totake the adult outwhen possible. It’s empowering for children to see someone besides an adult solve a problem.
Beside the fact that we all love a talking-hat-wearing giraffe, animals are often used in children’s books because a child can experience adult like behavior threw the animal character. For example, in my book No More Noisy Nights the main character moves into a house alone and finds that a ghost, boogey monster and pixie already occupy the house. When I was submitting this to editors, a reaction I got was that kids don’t want to read about adults and a child can’t move into a house alone. I knew both those things. I was planning for the story to use anthropomorphism. When animals act like humans. So a reader could feel what it is like to move into a new home where things might be unknown or scary. They could see how Jackson deals with it and think, hmm maybe I could do that too.
I wrote a lot of stories for Pockets Magazine. Each month there was a theme such as honesty, jealousy, thankfulness, etc. The goal of these stories was to show children learning about and dealing with the topics. So I might think of the lesson I wanted the story to portray. For example, honesty is important in big and little things and even adults struggle with it. Then I would think how can I show this without an adult providing the solution. In the story I wrote, the main character’s friend wouldn’t play a pirated video game. So our main character began to think about things he and his family did that weren’t honest. He challenged his family to a week of honesty in all things. So the kid characters learned from each other and had something to teach the adults.
Now there are adults in kids stories. Sometimes they are childlike and sometimes they do impart the wisdom. The goal is for them to lead to the “aha” moment, but not provide the solutions. In The Day I Ran Away, Grace tells her dad about her day as he tucks her in. In her mind it was a bad day and so she decided to run away. Mom is an integral part of the story and she does suggest the popup tent as an alternative to running away when Grace realizes she’s not allowed to cross the street. However mom still allows Grace to explore her feelings of anger and her need to run away, just in a safe way. And that also is something we want kids to see in stories. Adults that listen, try to understand and keep you safe.
So as you write or rewrite a story really exam the adults in the story. Are they necessary? Can you remove them? Can you keep their role to a minimum? Can another child help your character discover the solution? Or will your characters be talking hippos, beavers and porcupines!
April is National Humor Month so a trip to the library and I found a few books to share. Humor in kids’ books can be the in-your-face laugh-out-loud kind or more subtle. It can be a dance between the pictures and the words as they contradict each other or used to soften the blow of more serious moments in the book. Here’s a few I liked.
Written & Illustrated by Corey R. Tabor Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins 2020
Snail spies a luscious cabbage patch, but he needs to cross the road to get to it. His attempt is not without adventure. He saves some ants from the rain by inviting them into his shell home. We only see dark and eyes until “click” and the home is the wondrous snail home I’d love to crawl into. In his attempt to evade a crow he gets turned around and ends up back where he started. In the end kindness pays off as he sees a head of cabbage coming toward him across the road, carried by-the ants, of course! The illustrations were warm and inviting and showed the world from Snail’s perspective. One of the things I love about picture books is that the vocabulary can be rich as an adult is present to help explain unknown words. Snail was full of wonderful words like ponder, grumbling, antsy, evasive maneuvers and had a lesson in persistence and kindness.
Book’s Big Adventure
Written by Adam Lehrhaupt, Illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell A Paula Wiseman Book, Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021
Book is brand new. He finds himself on the best shelf in the library where he is sought after and taken on many adventures. In time his newness wears off, his cover fades and he is moved to less and less prominent shelves and has fewer adventures. He is lonely and ignored for new fancier books. Eventually he falls under a shelf and loses hope, but he is found and put in a box of books that are donated. Book is loved again and goes on new adventures. The text is simple with much shown in the inviting illustrations that show diversity of people and communities. The feelings Book is experiencing are perfectly depicted by just two eyes and a mouth. It is a heartwarming story that helps the reader experience sadness, empathy, hope and joy. Bonus-the author included information on where to donate books so they aren’t forgotten. After all, a book’s purpose is not to live in a box, but to share adventures with readers!
We Found a Hat
Written & Illustrated by Jon Klassen Candlewick Press 2016
This is a story in three parts told with simple text and illustrations. Klassen is a master at dry humor while showing honest emotions. Part 1: two turtles find a hat and decide it looks good on both of them. Since it is not right for only one to have it they decide to leave it. It is made clear one turtle still covets the hat. Part 2: they watch the sunset and one turtle thinks about the sunset and the other is still thinking about the hat but doesn’t share that. Part 3: they are going to sleep. The turtle that wants the hat is trying to confirm that the other turtle is sleeping so he can go get the hat, but when he finds out the other turtle is dreaming about them both have a hat he goes to sleep too and dreams they both have a hat. A lot is packed in a simple story that leads to discussions of sharing, making good decisions and thinking of others.
How to Catch a Clover Thief
Written & Illustrated by Elise Parsley Little Brown & Company, Hachette Book Group, 2021
A boar named Roy finds and claims a clover patch. His neighbor Jarvis, a gopher, quietly steals the clover while distraction Roy with various books-a clover recipes cookbook, a book about camping and one on aerospace engineering. Roy finally realizes Jarvis has tricked him and he goes to the library where he reads and looks up words. Later we see Jarvis tunneling under to get to Roy’s clover but Roy has built a machine (Rube Goldberg style) that shoots Jarvis to the sky on a rocket. And Roy is seen holding a book, How to Catch a Clover Thief. The full-page illustrations and expressive faces are a great example of how the illustrations tell the story with the words. The story shows ingenuity, that you can find answers and solutions in books, and is very funny.