Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Golden Sower’ Category

I’m back for a third and final day of reviewing books by Andrew Clements, an author whom I had the privilege to meet and hear speak at the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Incidentally, because I plan to review several books in a short amount of time, my critiques will be shorter than the norm.

Fifth in my round-up is Trouble Maker, a novel of just over one hundred pages that features a “bad” kid. Although the other five books by Clement that I read all have connections to writing, Trouble Maker features a character instead with an artistic talent. Clay likes to draw. In fact, it’s the misuse of this passion that helps get him into trouble.

What do I like about Trouble Maker? Foremost, it’s about a “bad” kid. At some time or another, I have featured kids who deliberately misbehave in my own fiction, as well as worked with them in a school environment. Clements does a nice job of convincing me that Clay is a trouble maker, by having him interrupt classes, launch food at students in the cafeteria, and egg neighborhood houses in the fall. At the same time, he helps me understand him by convincing me that Clay just views himself as having fun rather than hurting anyone. I also appreciate the strong role that family has in Trouble Maker. Clay’s older brother served as the original inspiration for his misbehavior. When he comes home from jail and lays down the law to Clay, he also serves as a real motivation for Clay to turn his life around. Friendship plays an equally strong role, in that Clay finds himself torn between a desire to please his brother and earn the respect of his peers. Indeed, Clay’s peers are a reason behind the police visit to Clay’s home. “Is it too late for Clay?” is a driving question behind Trouble Maker.

Is there anything I don’t like about Trouble Maker? Oh, if I wanted to be picky, I would say that the adults are perhaps a little too quick to accept that Clay is trying to change. Indeed, Clay himself is perhaps a little too eager to allow his brother to take charge. But Trouble Maker is also a novel for middle grade, or young people of ages 8-12. Given its target audience, I think Trouble Maker makes for an entertaining but also thought-provoking read.

Sixth and last in my round-up is Extra Credit, a book recommended to me for its diversity theme. How is it related to writing? The two main credits, Abby and Sadeed become pen pals through a school initiative and mail letters to one another.

What do I like about Extra Credit? I enjoyed reading about two characters who start out being most reluctant to write one another but end up anxiously awaiting each new letter from the other. Abby prefers the outdoors and so doesn’t apply herself at school until faced with the ultimatum of being held back a year. As part of a deal with her teachers, she agrees not only to pull up her grades but also to take on an extra credit project. This happens to be exchanging letters from another country and then reporting on the experience to her class. Saheed lives in Afghanistan and, because of his country’s religious beliefs, shouldn’t even be corresponding with Abby. In fact, he’s originally assigned to help his younger sister to read and write letters to Abby, but pride in his abilities and curiosity about Abby, leads Saheed to initiate his own contact. I also enjoyed the opportunity to view two worlds from different perspectives. For example, Abby hates the flat land of the Midwest, preferring the majesty of mountains. In contrast, Saheed views mountains as dangerous and the cornfields of farming country as being like “a smile of God”.

Is there anything I don’t like about Extra Credit? Absolutely not! Actually, in contrast to the other five novels I have read by Clements, Extra Credit is the most realistic, an aspect I admire. The exchange of letters between Abby and Saheed leads to trouble for both characters. Not everyone in either region approves of their friendship. Nor is there a happy ever after resolution. Yet there is hope.

This week, because I desired the opportunity to read a multitude of books by Andrew Clements, I spent less time on the computer writing the actual reviews. In my breezy introduction to Clements, I hope I have convinced you to check out this best-selling and award-winning author. Certainly, reading his books have made me a fan.

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

I’m back for a second day of reviewing books by Andrew Clements, a new favorite author of mine, who is known for setting the standard for the school story. Incidentally, because I plan to review several books in a short amount of time, my critiques will be shorter than the norm.

Third in my round-up is School Story which I have now passed onto my husband to read. Why did I recommend it to him? Because I related to the ups and downs that the two main characters in School Story face in trying to publish a first book—and thought my husband might too. You see, soon after my husband and I married, I started writing on a part-time basis and he took on the role of being my editor. These roles have caused us both stress and happiness, just as working together as novelist and agent novel caused best friends, Natalie and Zoe.

What else do I like about School Story? Instead of being about boys, as my two previous reads by Andrew Clements were, it features a couple of girls as the leads. Natalie and Zoe both have their own individual strengths and connections, which are needed for them to reach their ultimate goal. Natalie prefers to write rather than talk and has a mother who knows all about publishing, while Zoe prefers to talk rather than write and has a father who knows all about the law and specifically about contracts. As such, Natalie is the one who writes the engaging novel but also experiences all the doubts about her creativity, while Zoe is the one who attempts to sell Natalie’s novel even when it involves making up an agent name and renting a fake office. I related to Natalie’s anxiety, but also appreciated being given a peek into the publishing industry from an agent’s perspective.

Is there anything I dislike about School Story? Well, while Clements tends to portray even the adults as complex characters, he has yet to paint a secretary in a positive fashion. Also, while most of us do desire a happy-ever-end, Clements tends to achieve them with larger-than-life events. As long as you are willing to believe everything is possible, Clements is a sure win.

Fourth in my round-up is Lunch Money, winner of ten awards. How does it relate to writing? The culmination of all Greg and Maura’s money-making schemes is a comic book, which they write, illustrate, design, and print.

What do I like about Lunch Money? The main character reminds me of Alex from Family Ties, with his love of money but also his growing awareness that there’s more to life than wealth. From the moment he was a preschooler and saw his mom insert a coin into a candy machine, Greg loved money. He did chores for his brothers, recycled the family trash, shined his parents’ shoes, and raked or shoveled yards for neighbors—all in the name of money. By third grade, he had even set as a goal to become rich. Yet despite his love of money, like Alex on Family Ties, Greg is at heart a nice guy. That’s what makes him such an intriguing character.

The plot thickens when Maura is introduced. Now what unfolds is twofold. First, after Greg ruins Maura’s picture book out of envy, he’s forced to reconsider what kind of person he wants to be. Does he want to be the type of person who helps or hurts others in the process of becoming rich? Second, in allowing himself to become a business partner with Maura, Greg comes to realize that there might just be more to life than money. For example, quality products. And friendship.

Is there anything I don’t like about Lunch Money? Not that I can recall. Four books into my Andrew Clements round-up, there’s a reason why I’m considering Clements a new favorite author. 🙂

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Five of the six books by Andrew Clements that I plan to review this week are related somehow to the world of writing. Incidentally, because I plan to review several books in a short amount of time, my critiques will be shorter than the norm.

First up in my round-up is Frindle, the winner of twenty-two state awards, including the Christopher Award. How does it relate to writing? Frindle stars a teacher who is fanatic about words and a student who tries to invent a new word.

What do I like about Frindle? I feel sympathy for Nick, who didn’t plan to start a fad that would gain statewide attention but instead simply wished to waste enough time in class that there would be no time for assignments. Nick is not a good kid or a bad kid but just a kid with penchant for trouble because of all his creative ideas. The rest of the characters are just as true to life too, in that young people like to make up words, group together, rebel against rules, and follow fads. I can easily believe that Nick’s classmates would agree to stop calling the object we write with a “pen” and instead to start calling it a “frindle”. When their initiative leads to disciplinary action, I can also easily accept that Nick and his classmates would rebel against this perceived unfairness and insist on using their new word to the bitter end. I also enjoyed the portrayal of the fifth-grade teacher, whose love of structure led her to forbid the use of the word “frindle,” despite her being the one who students to fall for words in the first place.

Is there anything I don’t like about Frindle? No, but I will caution that the story requires a suspension of disbelief, in that Nick’s actions not only leads to a revolution in all the local schools but catches the attention of businesses and the media. Also, the resolution doesn’t happen until after Nick graduates, and is fabulous but also larger than life.

THE LANDRY NEWS

Next up in my round-up in The Landry News, also a winner of many awards, as well as being a Golden Sower nominee. How does it relate to writing? The Landry News stars a student who aspires to become a journalist and a teacher who serves as advisor for a class newspaper.

What do I like about The Landry News? I feel sympathy for Cara, who didn’t plan to start a newspaper that would gain district attention but instead simply wished to post an editorial that criticized their teacher for not doing his job. Once again, Clements has a created a main character who is neither good nor bad but just a kid with penchant for trouble because of her outspoken opinions. He has also created classmates who are just as fun to read about, because of their excitement to learn about newspapers and to create their own. In a twist on the norm, however, Clements features a teacher (rather than a student) whose life is changed. Clements being a teacher himself knows how educators can eventually become burned out by apathy, regulations, among other issues. Mr. Larson had once won “Teacher of the Year” three years in row, but then he allowed himself to become the type of instructor who simply sits back and allows his students to fend for themselves with their education. Then along comes Cara, whose editorial inspires him to change. In the end, not only is he changed, but so are his students when the newspaper comes under attack for publishing a true story by a student about how divorce impact him.

Is there anything I don’t like about The Landry News? No, in fact, the book is also enhanced by the overt theme of revealing truth while also showing mercy.

The next two days, I’ll be back with more reviews in my round-up of books by Andrew Clements. Save the dates: October 22-23!

How would you rate these books?

“What have I learned so far about being an author?” This was the question that children’s book author, Andrew Clements, addressed at the 2015 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Clements won annual book awards by the vote of American school children in about twenty different states for his debut novel, Frindle. In June of this year, Frindle was named the Phoenix Award winner as the best book that didn’t win a major award when it was published. What follows are the highlights of Clements’ presentation. The rest of the week, I’ll post brief reviews of six of his novels, including Findle. Save the date: October 21-23!

“What I think I have learned so far. Since we don’t have fifteen years, I’ll tell you about one thing…. I’ve learned how to suspend my disbelief.”

The above statement is how Andrew Clements opened his presentation. He then proceeded to talk about how a reader knows within ten minutes whether to go with a story and forget about everything else. The idea is drawn from the phrase, “willful suspension of belief” a term coined in 1817 by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.

A year ago, Clements was struggling to write a book entitled, The Loser’s Belief, which will be published soon. It has given him trouble longer than most of his other books. The idea is good or so others have told him. He himself also holds confidence in his belief in it, because he’s gotten other books published. Still, he has sat writing the first chapter, over and over. He can see the shape, but can’t get into “the darn thing”. Sometimes he’ll write 15,000 to 30,000 to get the first chapter right. His first chapters are normally only about 500 words. In rewriting and rewriting, Clements realized that he was trying to suspend his own disbelief about the first chapter. “If I can’t suspend my own disbelief, no one else will suspend theirs.”

There have been other times Clements has needed to suspend disbelief. For example, that of being a fourth-grade teacher in a self-contained room. Nothing had prepared him for that first moment of his being a teacher. On the first day, he couldn’t believe that there he was, having to be a teacher not a student. His first few weeks were disastrous. There were eighteen boys and not enough girls. He was given all the hard-case boys, despite two veteran teachers being next door. When asked by colleagues how it was going, in his head he thought, “I don’t know.” To others, he would simply state, “I’m making progress.”

Clements eventually learned that he didn’t need to create all his own teaching stuff; there were already resources available. He also learned management was about being in control of oneself. He even had a whistle. If behavior was getting crazy, he reached for his whistle, and everyone put their fingers in their ears. He learned to love the kids and childhood.

Living through your own does not acquaint you with childhood; being an adult around kids does.

In talking about the above statement, Clements explained that kids don’t go to school to get ready to life; they’re already living a huge part of their life in the classroom. Teachers try to keep up with them, and the curriculum, but what teachers are doing is being part of their world. Eight years in self-contained, three years in English, and seven more in English, all of these experiences has trained Clements to be the writer he is.

Why does Clements keep writing about kids? Obviously, he enjoys it. But the main reason, he contends, is that the most important thing happening on any given day is school. You know that everything is okay when kids are in school.

After sharing about his teaching experiences, Clements returns to talk more directly about “suspension of belief”. The concept can be restated in the positive as “acquisition of faith”. Coleridge says this condition constitutes poetic faith. Think of the Psalms. Think of the second last chapter of Charlotte’s Web. In the books you love, you’ll find the moment an author leads you beyond the suspension of belief to the acquisition of faith. Faith is something all teachers know about it. So do parents. Clements notes how his own teaching and writing life became a matter of acquisition of faith. If we trust that students can love reading, then students will begin to believe too. If parents will instill the value of reading, a teacher’s job is largely done.

Clements calls childhood a constant. When he starts to look for ideas, he reflects on his past experiences. He doesn’t watch modern shows or hangout in current schools. To him, as long as he remembers his own childhood of the 1950’s, his own children’s life of the 1970’s, and his own teaching life, everyone seems to believe he has his pulse on today’s school. Clements doesn’t believe he does, but notes that when he walk into a modern school, he sees the same things that he did in the past. Childhood is still childhood. Yes, there is 20th century technology, standardized tests, and other changes. However, schools don’t shape childhood, even if more and more they seem to be trying to shape children.

To end his presentation, Clements shares his personal writing process:

  • a lot of thinking to come up with an idea
  • a lot of thinking to come up with a narrative
  • a lot of thinking to make it become real
  • the submitted draft is a tightly-wound element
  • his editor has no investment in it and will tell me about the book’s flaws
  • at first he will emotionally rebel; his logical mind normally agrees
  • eventually he sees his novel as a long, loose ribbon of words, then he can snip and trim as needed

Keeping his audience in mind, Clements also offers concluding advice to teachers. If you look at the students, he says, you’ll know what you need to do. Childhood hasn’t changed. Children still need love, instruction, and guidance. When he thinks back on teachers from his youth, he doesn’t remember instruction; their kindness is what mattered. Teachers are being stretched to act more and more as parents. In the midst of everything, Clements encourages, remember to care for the kids. That’s what they will carry forward.

After his presentation, Clements accepted questions. From these, I learned about more of his background as an author. For example, his timeline of books began in 1985 with picture books. Frindle itself started out as a picture book called Nick’s New Word. His editor told him to change it into a chapter book. Clements replied that he wasn’t a chapter book author and proceeded to send his picture book to other editors. After five told him the exact same thing, he asked himself, “Is it possible? Could it be that I am the idiot here?” He turned his picture book into a chapter book and received a contract for two more books. After those were published, his life changed! He received a contract to let him stop doing everything else.

How did his most famous novel, Frindle, come about? In 1989, Clements was a visiting author at a school. The first two presentations worked. Then in a small hot room of over 100 young kids who had just returned from recess, his third presentation proved a struggle. Clements had his Websters unabridged dictionary. He dropped it on the floor. All the students sucked in their breath and fell silent. Clements said I’m standing on thousands of words. One student asked where do words come from. Clements replied that the truth is that people make up words and that if we all called a pen a frindle the dictionary folks would notice and put frindle it in the dictionary. (According to Clements, if 15 million people are using a word, it’ll get put it in the dictionary.) Years later, while wondering what to write, Clements decided to turn the above into a story.

In his final few moments of this presentation, Clements told how on June 5, 2015, his career arrived. Less than six months before, a deranged young man had methodically killed teachers and students at an elementary school. Within two weeks, the school was transplanted. There were police everywhere. Teachers put aside their own trauma and soldiered on. As everyone worked to show that goodness is normal and evil it not, a new motto was picked: We choose love. They wanted to show that good can drive out the bad. When the school needed a book without hate, guns, death, one would unify the school, the book chosen was Frindle. When Clements visited, he was asked not to make sudden noise or movement. An air of kindness pervaded. State standards was not on anyone’s mind. His wife and him agreed that their time there was among the best they had ever spent.

I am grateful that my every effort to sustain childhood has been appreciated. It’s an honor for me to be in the business of literacy and childhood.

In a presentation at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival entitled “A Year with Who?”, Jeff Kurrus talked about the life of a writer and photographer who has taken the motto “know your audience” to an entirely new level. Associate editor of the award-winning wildlife publication NEBRASKAland magazine, Kurrus lives in the Midwest and is the author of the Golden-Sower nominee Have You Seen Mary? and The Tale of Jacob Swift. What follows are the highlights of his presentation.

THE APPEAL OF PHOTOS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJeff Kurrus began by saying that he is no different from a seven or eight year old kid. When he looks at readers, he wants them to love his books.

On the heels of this statement, Kurrus talked about how photos are an optimal way to teach art and stories. Kurrus displayed a dazzling array of photos and explained that one can stop a room with an image that hasn’t been seen before or with an angle that hasn’t been done before. For example, kids like his photos of a deer that is making a face and of a snake with a head in focus but with the rest of it blurred. Bringing this idea closer to the classroom, Kurrus observed that a popular topic that kids write about is Disney World. He suggested that instead of students writing about the amusement park rides, why not write about the long lines?

When he teaches writing, Kurrus also shows his photos. This makes it personal. He also presents multiple variations of those photos. For example, he might show a photo of a flower and then zoom in on the bee, or he might show a fish but then present it from an underwater perspective. This to him is an ideal way to teach revision.

After this introduction, Kurrus proceeded to give examples of specific activities that teachers might try. Most of them relate to animals, because Kurrus wants to generate an interest in the outdoors.

  • Students can create a photo story. One will be a supervisor. Another one will be the photo editor. And another will be the writer. Students will create a story that others will read and critique. The activity addresses content and audience.
  • Teachers can also photos to talk about research and about animals that kids normally take for granted. For example, one topic could be robins. Teachers could lead students into a discussion of history by connecting robins to the passenger pigeons.
  • Finally, teachers could quiz students to encourage them to learn about animals. By asking leading questions about animals, and requiring students to research the answers, teachers can prompt them to ask: WHY???

THE PROCESS OF WRITING

After listing various activities for teachers to share with their students, Kurrus talked specifically about his two books. He enlisted about forty students to critique Have You Seen Mary? and about a thousand for The Tale of Jacob Swift. Initially, he was petrified. There are an abundance of chapter books. Most young people don’t know anything about sand hill cranes, the topic of Have You Seen Mary? How would they react to his manuscript?

In teaching students to do peer reviews and to work with one another, Kurrus starts out with two rules:

  • Be nice. I’m sensitive.
    (I have a desire to write but only average talent.)
  • Be specific. Explain why something should be changed and how.
    (I will listen and evaluate. I’m looking for patterns.)

Next, he shares the writing process:

  • Draft
  • Research
  • Organize Photos (10,000 to 40)
  • Revise
  • Polish
  • He stressed that students need to know that writers don’t live on a magic farm. Authors have to revise.

With these basics out of the way, Kurrus will talk with students about the conceptual ideas for a story. From there, they will focus on smaller aspects of the story. And, finally, they will get down to titles.

Kurrus advises that when teaching students to write, the idea is to give them the tools they will need and then have them look at topics in a different way. However, they also need to learn to critique and revise. The writing process is a philosophy for life too.

MORE ABOUT KURRUS

His presentation over, Kurrus took questions from the audience, starting with one about the inspiration for Have You Seen Mary? He watched the sandhill migration and realized there were hundreds of cranes. He started to think about the individuals. As he researched cranes, Kurrus realized that they mate for life. He began to ask questions from a research-minded point of view: What happens if a pair becomes separated? From there, he kept chasing ideas, having fun with an outline, and then turned to figuring out the structure for a story.

Although Kurrus is a professional photographer, he enlisted others to take photos for his two photo-fiction books. Having others photograph allowed Kurrus to focus on just the content. However, unlike with some picture books, Karrus did have control over who he picked for a photographer and what photos he used. He maintained control of the whole process.

One might think his books would just appeal to those from the Midwest, but specialists from all over the United States will buy hardcover editions to keep and paperbacks for the kids to use. One example of an outside purchase was that of a snow goose festival in California.

As for young people, they relate to the big picture of Have You See Mary? For example, how do you handle losing someone? And what lengths will a person go through to be there for the one they love?


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