Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Susan and Stephen (Judy) Tchundi

As a follow-up to my reviews of two favorite writing guides from my childhood, I thought it might be fun to share some of my own samples with you. They will be from different sections of Gifts of Writing, as well as different stages of my life. Unfortunately, I don’t have any from my students to share, as I’ve been allowing them to take their work home without my making copies. Maybe another time!

HandBoundJournalThe first sample is my most treasured creation. It’s a hand-bound book I created used the instructions in Gifts of Writing. To create such a book, one needs paper, cardboard, scissors, glue, fabric, cloth tape, and a ruler. My having created the journal during my early teens, I don’t recall how difficult the task is or what obstacles I faced. The Tchudis do note that such a process can take a long time. They warn to be careful when using the glue, due to it sticking to everything. Also, they said that a hard-bound book can be used for many of the writing projects they refer to in their guide. I used mine for a journal. You can see that through repeated use and the passage of time, the journal shows wear and time but I still like it better than all my store-bought ones.

The next sample, that of a nature entry, includes two variations: one from my teens and one from my adulthood. Some ideas that the Tchudis listed for such a project included taking note of seasonal changes for animals and plants, writing descriptive poems that draw on the senses, and including photographs or pressed flowers. Both of my entries are a simple combination of words with art. The first is kind of gushy while the second, influenced by reading of full-fledged guides to nature journals, is more objective. Although my entries about everyday nature aren’t all that faithful, one direct result of them were pet journals. Some of those latter now serve as my main source of memories about pets whom I have lost.


The final sample, that of an About Me poster, is one I created as a teacher for school. It’s more elaborate than my students have ever made. That’s because mine includes photographs, while theirs generally consist of magazine clippings. Since the first one, which I’m displaying here, I’ve created others. I enjoy the process of selecting photos, writing captions, and organizing everything onto poster board. My students similarly seem to like flipping through magazines, finding pictures and words that describe them, and creating About Me posters. I display all of our work the first of every new school, as a way for classmates and visitors to get acquainted.

My being hired to teach two writing clubs this summer prompted me to review Gifts of Writing and The Young Writer’s Handbook. Over the next few weeks, I’ll review other relevant books and let you know that clubs go. Stay tuned!

YoungWritersHandbookA few years after giving me Gifts of Writing, a guide which overviews creative projects involving both words AND art, my dad gave me a second book by Susan and Stephen Tchudi: The Young Writer’s Handbook. The focus of The Young Writer’s Handbook is strictly on words, being a guide to the beginner who is serious about writing, but yet this guide has also remained part of my library from adolescence into adulthood. Like its predecessor, a huge appeal of The Young Writer’s Handbook is that it contains many project variations. An additional appeal is that the guide will broaden one’s writing experience, maybe even aspiring one to make writing a lifetime work.

Because of its emphasis on words, The Young Writer’s Handbook might initially seem no different from the dozens of writing guides already on the market. However, the Tchudis who spent twenty years classroom teaching and conducting writing workshops for young people, truly know the type of projects that will interest young people. Hence, they don’t just talk about stories or articles, but also discuss journals, letters, reports, and school newspapers. My earliest attempts to keep a journal proved a struggle, because I didn’t know what to record besides a mundane account of my day. The Tchudis encourage aspiring writers to also analyze opinions, collect sensory experiences, record dreams, collect world news, and explore words, expressions, and dialog. While it might seem dated in our technological age to talk about letters, my elementary-aged students at some point or another all want to write them. If nothing else, The Young Writer’s Handbook can teach the format, as well as point out the numerous audiences that letters can have. Reports is the only project covered which has never appealed to me, perhaps because this is the one most often already frequently-taught in school. At the same time, without fail, I always have at least one writing club student who wants to pick this as their project. Hence, I can see the reason for the Tchudis including a chapter on this writing mode.

A second appeal of The Young Writer’s Handbook are the opening and ending chapters. The first chapter talks about the history of writing, the uses of it in our current world, the future of writing, and the place of writing in each of our lives. Because the entire course of civilization can be traced in and through writing, a brief overview of its history seems like a totally appropriate way to start a handbook on the topic. Although in some ways the rest of the info will seem dated in our technological age, in other ways the info remains amazingly modern. News, laws, agreements, observations, literature, and journals all still rely on words—even if now they’re often online instead of on paper. The last chapter talks about publication, but again the Tchudis draw on their experience in working with young people to cater their suggestions specifically to them. One can publish for family, friends, school, and the local newspaper. Should one want to try a form of publication where one remains the boss, self-publishing is an option with distribution being to local youth groups, church organizations, and the YMCA.

Having been published in 1984, how does The Young Writer’s Handbook stand against the guides available today? Due to technological advances since its publication, there are admittedly ways The Young Writer’s Handbook is dated. A more current all-purpose guide would be expected to refer to computers and social media. However, even with technology, the modes of writing really haven’t changed and so The Young Writer’s Handbook can still serve to inspire those young people who desire to do “more writing than is customarily required of them at school”. Moreover, just like with Gifts of Writing, it can remind writers of all ages and levels of the real reason we should write: for the joy of it.

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

How would you rate this book?

GiftsWritingIn the 1980’s, my dad gave me Gifts of Writing by Susan and Stephen Tchudi, and the guide received much use from me during my formative years. When I eventually prepared to move out on my own, and so began to sell books, Gifts of Writing is one that I kept. Even my younger sister entered high school and developed an interest in creative activities, I sought out a second-hand copy for her rather than part with my own. Finally, a few years ago, when I first began to teach after school writing clubs, I developed a curriculum around the guide. As you can see Gifts of Writing has been a constant part of my life. Hence, my wanting to finally review it.

What about Gifts of Writing appealed to me as a both a young person and a fledging writing teacher? Unlike the norm of creative writing books, this particular guide overviews creative projects involving both words AND art. The first section in particular emphasizes this combination, showing how to make stationery, postcards, greeting cards, and posters. Other sections rely more heavily on words, but still draw on art, showing how to make books, graffiti walls, photograph-autograph albums, and nature journals. While I have always loved to write, the guide had high appeal to me because it allowed me to explore other creative modes too. At some point or another, artistic, musical, and theatrical expression have all appealed to me. As for my students, one reason a curriculum that combines two creative modes works is that levels of writing ability and interest can vary, even among those who join a writing club. Being able to integrate art helped those with more average literary talent to still produce fine publications.

A second feature that appealed to me is that like many creative writing books, Gifts of Writing provided a huge variety of variations on each type of project, meaning it serves the same function as a prompt book. Consider that just the section on making your own books contains nine made types of books: scrolls, accordion, quartos, mini-books, hand-bound, books for children, collaborative, stories and mini-novel, journals, and diaries. Within those types, there are also more variants too. For example, under collaborative books, these types of stories are covered: surprise, circle, and collection. My favorite during high school was the hand-bound book. I still have my journal that I created using this guide. The final section in the guide is about holiday projects. Inspired by it, I taught my students not only how to write blessings and curses, and wishes and warnings, but also nature descriptions and scary stories.

The final feature I wish to highlight is that because Gifts of Writing is for young people, the instructions for creating projects aren’t too short or too long but just right. For instance, there’s the section on how to create fortune cookies. To start, it lists materials for the fortunes and then outlines the procedures, which include cutting thin strips of paper and writing a funny fortune on each strip. As part of the procedures, there are also examples of fortunes written by young people. Next, it lists materials needed for the cookies. Then as one would find in a standard cookbook, it outlines the steps for baking the cookies, as well as provides tips on what to watch for and how to know when the cookies are baked. There are even diagrams, showing how to place the paper strips inside the cookies.

Does the guide ever fall short? Sure. Having being published in 1980, some material is outdated. To help my students write epitaphs, I had to look online for more modern examples. Also, as with any guide, one might at times wish for more detailed explanations. When my students latched onto writing stories, I had to draw on other sources for info about how to develop plot, character, setting, and theme.

Negatives aside, for myself as a young person, I always viewed the guide as perfect. Now, as a teacher, I find that very few other guides that focus on crafty writers and so it remains a much-used resource. Available second-hand, Gifts of Writing will prove an invaluable addition to the shelves of any creative person, whatever your age.

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

How would you rate this book?

For this round-up, I read five writing guides new to me. All of them were on how to write fiction, rather than nonfiction or other projects such as letters. As such, they all included a chapter on how to come up with ideas. They also all covered most of the basic elements of stories: plot, character, point of view, dialog, and conflict. The two shortest books omitted the main character’s motivation or the story’s theme. Did you notice there’s another element that I didn’t list? Even in many adult writing guides, information about setting is sparse although adult guides often at least discuss how to build atmosphere. No wonder I struggle with setting! In referring to plot, all the guides I read talked about how to create an exciting opening hook and build tension. Although none agreed on how many problems to burden the main character with, they all emphasized how important it is to create a dire problem and for the solution to take time and effort on the part of the main character. In referring to character, they also all discussed dialog and (in light of their young audience) even gave rules about how to write it. Last, while only one guide didn’t refer to publishing, only the two longest guides chatted extensively about the writing life.


To dip my feet into writing guides, I started with the shortest ones. Neither impressed me, but perhaps this is how older guides were. The oldest of the bunch, Write Your Own Story by Vivian Dubrovin, was written in 1984. In grade school these days, students learn that voice is one of the traits of writing and they are graded on their ability to inject personality into their essays. This guide lacks any voice. Another way of thinking about it is that people can often tell when a home has a woman’s touch or belongs to a bachelor. This guide with its abundance of questions, admonitions, and charts sometimes feels as if written by a teacher; it never feels as if written by an author. This guide is also the shortest, which is probably why the author glosses over certain topics. For example, Dubrovin advises young writers to follow this plot formula: Character + Problem + How Character Solves Problem = Story. Most standard writing guides acknowledge that even simple stories have a layer of problems. For character, Dubrovin recommends limiting a story to one main character, without ever explaining the role of secondary or minor characters. Ironically, Dubrovin spends an entire chapter on the miniscule topic of titles. Even if it’s only two pages, I can think of better ways to fill that space: How about a chapter on setting? Not to be totally negative, I enjoyed the chapter on revision. In it, Dubrovin talks about how to expand old ideas and to add new story elements.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?


The next shortest guide is a hybrid. Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More by Nancy Bentley and Donna Guthrie tries to cover the writing life, short and long fiction, genres, and even publication all in a mere eighty-five pages. When reading this and Dubrovin’s guide, I felt tempted to think that perhaps short and skimpy books are best for young readers. Then I remembered that most of the writing guides that I devoured during my childhood were intended for adults. If one is passionate about a topic, doesn’t one crave that in-depth coverage that can only come with longer books? And truly who reads writing guides, except those who aspire to become authors? The problem with a short guide like Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More is that explanations of stuff like the elements of fiction are stripped to definitions that one could find in an encyclopedia. Chances are if I’m an aspiring writer, albeit a young one, I already know that theme is the larger underlying idea of a story. Moreover, from school, I probably already know how to identify themes in stories. What I need to know instead is how to develop, explore, and integrate themes seamlessly into my stories. The heart of this guide therefore is its chapters on genres. In them, I learned about some subtypes of mysteries and fantasies that were new even to me. I also liked the overview of genre ingredients, although I wish more examples of the genre would have come from books for young people rather than adult books or even movies. Then too, in one breath the authors in tone and brevity seem to be aiming at a younger audience, but then in the next when giving length requirements for publishable fiction they seem to be aiming at adults. While the strength of this guide is its focus on genres, even here the adults fail because of their selection. The title Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More might be catchy, but here are the problems. First, movies are not a genre. Why leave out genres such as romance and westerns to write about movies? Just as bad, horror (which is where monster stories fall under) isn’t even covered. Sadly, this book didn’t live up to my high hopes for it.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?


Then there are the longer guides. What’s Your Story? by Marion Bauer was written in 1992 and I liked it, thus proving that older guides can have voice and depth. Here’s where perhaps I need to take a step back to recognize that those readers who prefer just the facts may find Bauer’s personal examples intrusive. Moreover, those readers who seek out abridged books may find themselves annoyed by Bauer’s conversational tone, which is broken up only with subheads and only every few pages. However, I like that she uses a light tone and spent a page defining story: “Let’s try this definition. A story, any story, is about someone struggling….” In this same section, Bauer goes on to explain that her definition fits both short and long stories with the difference between stories lying in their complexity and of course length. I felt as if we were chatting, rather than her standing at a podium and giving me a lecture. How fun too that before she even got into the elements of writing, I’d grabbed a pencil and paper to write down all the ideas that were popping into my head from her serious and silly examples. I appreciated that while Bauer does talk about a formula for plot, she also elaborates to explain the reasons for each step and to offer ways to get unstuck at each step; she recognizes that writing is an art. When Bauer talks characters, she focuses on how to create interesting ones and even encouraged contradictions: “I am uncomfortable at big parties. Still, I can give a speech to a thousand people without feeling particularly nervous…. Your characters, especially your main character, need some element of contradiction built in too.” This proved more useful information to me than being told all the types of characters (protagonist, antagonist, etc.) that might appear in my story. Basically, I liked everything about this guide including the tips in the last few chapters on how to revise, accept criticism, and to polish for publication.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?


Admittedly, part of what I like about writing guides is getting to read about authors. Truth to be told, I didn’t pick up Writing Magic by Gail Levine to discover how to write stories. I’ve read so many writing guides that now I learn most by the actual process of writing. Rather, I wanted to know how one of my favorite fantasy authors writes. For that reason, I loved the first section! In it, Levine shares all her reasons for being a writer. Just so you know, she writes to be in charge, to tell herself a story, and to make discoveries about her feelings. Regarding the latter, she explains that she once wrote a book about an orphan. When she reread it years later, she realized that it was less about her father who had been an orphan and more about how she felt orphaned when her parents died. Because Writing Magic isn’t an autobiography, the emphasis of course is on how to write. Even though I didn’t expect to learn anything new from yet another writing guide, I filled a page with the insights I gained from reading Writing Magic. For example, when Levine writes about beginnings, she talks about the types of beginnings but also gives examples along with reasons for why they do or not work. Then she follows-up by challenging readers to pull favorite books off their shelves and look for the ways the authors hooked them. Besides writing several chapters on plot structure, Levine writes several on character and in one of them she includes a questionnaire. What made the questionnaire pop for me is that she shares when she is most likely to use it and even how it helped her when she couldn’t figure out one of her characters. Within every chapter Levine tosses out activities for readers to try and I particularly liked the one for details: Your main character is participating in a scientific investigation of a magical object. She must choose an object, and wear it, eat it, or drink it. Then she must speak into the microphone and tell the scientists everything that happened. Bauer had me grabbing my pencil and paper to write down ideas; Levine had me itching to experiment with my stories. My review of Writing Magic is getting long and so let me leave you with two analogies that worked for me: Levine argues that authors must both show to slow down action and tell to speed up action. She compares telling to looking down from the window of an airplane or decreasing the magnification on a telescope and showing to being on the ground or increasing the magnification of a telescope; Writers often write about things that haven’t happened to us and Levine compares this to method acting, when actors remembers events and feelings in their own life that are similar to what their characters experience. They use these recollections to shape a scene—as must writers. One last thing! In the final section, Levine shares more about her own life. For example, this is where I learned about her worst rejection letter and that she has a folder two inches thick of rejection letters. Obviously, I could blather on and so suffice to say this guide is “magic”.

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

How would you rate this book?


Having never heard of Anne Mazer or Ellen Potter before, their writing biographies initially felt a little less important than the tips about writing that I could pick up from their guide: Spilling Ink. Ironically, I’ve now added their novels to my reading list. Such is the power of a good writing guide! (It also doesn’t hurt that Mazer has written a series of books about a girl who wants to be a writer.) This is the second guide I’ve read where authors collaborated. In contrast to Writing Mysteries, Movies, Monster Stories, and More where only the byline on the front gave away the dual authorship, Mazer and Potter identify which one of them has written each section. If you aren’t a fan of novels where the character viewpoints switch back and forth (and I’m generally not), you might think this method might feel confusing. In Spilling Ink, we are instead blessed with short and snappy sections that are entertaining to read, nestled within lengthy and detailed chapters that provide tons of insights into the entire writing process. In one chapter, Potter talks about how she and Anne bounced titles back-and-forth for this writing guide. In the end, they choose Spilling Ink because it sounded fun and slightly rebellious and so made clear that the book is about writing without sounding like a textbook. In another chapter, Mazer describes how her fantasy novel The Oxboy began with an idea from a poem, which she unsuccessfully tried over and over to write a story about, and how her novel only worked when another unrelated idea merged with the poem to make one unified idea. In the same way, Mazer and Potter share their unique insights on multiple topics to form a cohesive guide. Perhaps this is why their book is also the longest and most exhaustive in its coverage. No topic is ignored; even the story element of setting and the nature of a writing life are explained. They also include writing activities called “I Dare You”. Okay, while they do talk about sharing and editors, they don’t really talk about how to publish. Instead in the appendix, they include an exchange of interviews with each other. If after reading through their writing guide one desires to publish, just check out a dedicated market guide.

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

How would you rate this book?

Near the start of this post, I said I’d read five new writing guides for young people. Even though I did develop a fondness for writing guides while growing up, mostly I read ones for adults. I actually still own most of them, because they met my need for a serious and in-depth study of my writing passion. Yet there are two for young people that my dad gave me during my teens, which I’d encourage you to seek out. Both are by authors Susan and Stephen (Judy) Tchundi: Gifts of Writing and The Young Writer’s Handbook. The ideas for both books grew out of ideas that the couple used in writing workshops for young people and emphasize making creative projects with words. Gifts of Writing is designed to encourage young people to create an attractive presentation of their words and talks about how to make cards, posters, stationery, and books. The Young Writer’s Handbook came about because the authors discovered that students have an interest in writing beyond schoolwork and so the authors wished to encourage them to grow into adults who write. The handbook talks about journals, letters, stories, along with school writing and nonfiction writing, and even advises how to publish these for family, friends, or other audiences. I have kept these books, because they remind me of the real reason we should all write: for the joy of it.

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