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Over the last year, my family has read the seven Harry Potter books out loud to each other. We have spent many hours curled up inside the world J.K. Rowling built around her boy wizard, his friends, and their journey. Harry Potter has traveled with us – to our winter vacations the past two Februarys, to weekends away, and, last summer, we loaded all the books onto Kindle and took them with us to Scotland and Switzerland. One of my favorite memories from our trip was reading to each other on the sprawling lawn of Urquhart Castle as the wind came off the rolling waters of Loch Ness. Recently, we closed the book on the last page of book seven. My daughter looked at us, tearful, and asked, “Now what?”

I was telling this story the other day and a friend remarked, “Wait, Ana read them all?” This surprised her because she knows my daughter well and knows that she won’t read anything dark. As a little one, she refused to watch most Disney movies on the grounds that “Disney hates mommies!” and wouldn’t watch Tangled until several weeks ago because that witch “totally freaks me out. I mean, she steals a baby and pretends to love her. That’s messed up!”

But she’s fine with Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. That makes sense.

I asked Ana, “Why are you okay with the Harry Potter books, but you don’t want to try other stuff?” She shrugged and said, “No matter what, no matter how dark, there is always hope. Besides, JK Rowling is funny. She always throws in something funny.” Ana’s right. She does do that. Over the past year, my husband and I found ourselves cracking up as we read, especially because as educators we appreciated her commentary on schooling via the wonderful Hogwarts world.

But I’m a Potterhead now even more than ever for a personal reason. Rowling’s books have acted as a gateway for my child to explore some darker themes, some more complex concepts. We’ve had amazing discussions about racism (all the Mudblood, half-blood threads), about slavery (Ana was Dobby for Halloween last year), about death and love and compassion and betrayal and sacrifice. The list is endless.

Harry Potter has given Ana a literary reference point, one she has embraced with her whole heart. Now, when we read things that are tough, we find her saying, “That reminds me of that scene in Harry Potter …” and she’s able to process more difficult content. I’m not going to be throwing Stephen King at her anytime soon but I’m thrilled to know this series has given her a way to process the harsh things she encounters in the world at large.

The other night, she snuggled on the couch, re-reading book six for about the fifth time, and she said, “Mom, sometimes I feel like these characters are with me even when they’re not.” Then, she giggled, “I know, that’s kind of weird.” I told her it wasn’t weird to me at all. It’s why I’m a reader, why books matter so much to me. I am the sum of all the books I’ve read in my life, all those stories and characters and triumphs and failures help guide me through a world that often doesn’t make sense either. I told her how happy I was she had Harry and Ron and Hermione and Neville and Luna as friends to help her.

I want to end with one of my favorite quotes from Albus Dumbledore. It sums up the reason I love writing YA Fiction, why it matters so much to me to write for this age group: “Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.”

Author Crush

January was author crush month in my Creative Writing class.  I’m always telling my students when I’m crushing on new authors (they are very kind and indulge me), so I like to give them opportunities to dive into an author they love and read a book closely for style, voice, structure, etc.

At the start of this project, one of my favorite things to do is have the students call out books they love and I write them on the board.  This year, the list was resoundingly YA heavy. (Is their teacher biasing them?  Perhaps.)  I asked them what they loved about each book and they thoughtfully spoke about how the voice, setting, plot, and other elements made the book a must-read (insert proud teacher smile here).

Next, I had them each choose a book that might be a potential crush and study it closely by looking at the craft of the book – all the things the author does to make the book work for them.  They also took some time to get to know their author by studying webpages and websites devoted to their author.  Last, I had them create a piece of original writing that mirrored the work of their author in some way.

On the due date, students brought their projects into class in the form of Author Crush Binders and shared their authors with each other.  We agreed ahead of time on some guidelines for share day.

  1. We don’t apologize for our crush.  We just love what we love.  No apologies.
  2. We don’t criticize other crushes.  No haters allowed!
  3. We would each try to find a book someone else read that we would consider reading, even if it seemed outside our comfort zone.

I had a blast watching them share their crush binders.  Some of the titles shared were Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill, Crazy by Amy Reed, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Crank by Ellen Hopkins and I shared my crush on Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy.

That day, I was struck by how passionately these students talked about the work they’d read, how clear they were about what they loved about these books, and how eager some of them seemed to read the books their classmates had read.  Lately, I’ve read a lot about how grim the statistics are about reading, about how many people don’t really read books anymore.  It felt like a sort of paradise to sit in a room full of thoughtful teenagers and hear them crush on these authors and books.

Writers, try this:  Choose an author you really love and read a chapter of one of their books.  Create a piece of writing in the spirit of that author’s voice.  Pay attention to their sentence structure, their use of specific detail, and the way they use dialogue.

YA Novel Review

The Language of Love

On November 2nd, I had the opportunity to attend the Vegas Valley Book Festival and sit on a wonderful panel called The Language of Love moderated by the fabulous librarian Nikki Bylina-Streets. First of all, I want to send out a huge thank you to Crystal Perkins for the invitation to the festival. I sat on the panel with eight other authors who write contemporary love stories, and while each of our books features an element of romantic love, the conversation of the day very much focused on how love in a broader sense provides the driving force behind what we write. To paraphrase Terra Elan McVoy, we write about relationships. And love, whether between a parent and child, or between siblings or friends, fuels the exploration of these relationships in our work. Sitting there, I listened to these incredible women discuss the reason they write, share stories of love in their own lives, and talk about their excitement for future projects, and it struck me: I’m so freakin’ lucky to be sitting here with these authors! Sitting in my folding chair, a warm desert breeze on my face, I realized: I love these people. I love that they write books about love. I felt drenched in a deep sense of gratitude for what they do, what they share in their books, for their individual voices all coming together to write about the power of love.

And since it’s the holidays – a time for reflection and gratitude, and, let’s face it, buying stuff – I thought I’d give you a list of these amazing authors and their books so you could check them out too and maybe find one or two that you want to stuff into some stockings. This holiday season, give the language of love.

Amy Plum (Die for Me series, HarperCollins)

Lauren Morrill (Meant to Be, Random House)

Katie McGarry (Pushing the Limits, Harlequin Teen)

Stephanie Strohm (Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink, Graphia/HMH)

Terra Elan McVoy (Being Friends With Boys, Simon Pulse)

Robin Mellom (Ditched: A Love Story, Disney Press)

Jennifer E. Smith (This Is What Happy Looks Like, Poppy)

Leila Howland (Nantucket Blues, Disney-Hyperion)

Writing Exercise

Write a poem called “The Language of Love.”  What specific, sensory language do you use to describe love?  For me, love smells like wet autumn leaves and sounds like my daughter and husband laughing at something unknown in the next room.  Think about all the language we can use to describe love.  Write, write, write.

Outside Reading School Project

Create a holiday book list with books that show the language of love.  For each entry, chose one or two lines from the book to show how this author showcases love.

YA Novel Review

I took the summer off from writing this newsletter but I didn’t take time off from reading.  I read wonderful novels this summer (Matt Haig’s The Humans, Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, J Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements to name a few).

Perhaps my favorite YA of the summer was Jessi Kirby’s GOLDEN (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers).  I’ve loved Jessi’s other books and this one just proves she keeps getting better and better.  The story follows “golden” girl Parker Frost (she has that famous last name for a reason), who, at the end of her senior year realizes she’s always taken the road most expected. When she uncovers the secret journal of a former golden girl of her small town (a girl with a tragic story), Parker has to decide if the road less traveled truly is worth exploring.  Jessi weaves lovely Frost references throughout this sweet coming of age tale as Parker picks her path and takes her chosen journey (with the help of her best friend and a darling boy, of course).

Writing Exercise

In the novel, Parker’s English teacher asks them to keep a journal at the end of their senior year detailing their dreams, wishes, hopes, fears, etc.  Then, at the end of the year, they turn the journal into him and he’ll mail them back ten years later.  I’m not sure I’d love to get a time capsule from my senior year (oh, the bad poetry!) but it’s a clever idea.

For this writing project, have students write a “Letter to Future Me”
They can write it as a list poem or as an actual letter.  Most importantly, encourage them to focus on what it is they hope for themselves; not just the normal practical things (I hope to have a job) but also the little, specific things they love (I hope to still be eating mint ice cream while watching the stars).

Outside Reading School Project

Jessi peppers the novel with snippets of Frost’s poetry.  Have students look up three or four of the complete poems she uses and discuss the way they relate to Parker’s character throughout the novel using specific examples from both the poems and the novel to support the argument.

YA Novel Review

I can smell summer…
We hit the eighties this week in Nevada County and we’re all starting to walk around in summer clothes.  Of course, while everyone is dreaming of swimming or BBQs or stargazing, I’m dreaming of summer reading lists.  I know, I know…I’m getting professional help, I promise.

The book I’d like to recommend for your summer reading  (it makes an especially good read-aloud to discuss with your kids) is Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley.

REMARKABLE by Lizzie K. Foley ( Puffin Books, ages 8+)
Jane is just a regular kid.  This should be fine, except she lives in the town of Remarkable.  Where everyone is, well, remarkable.  Except Jane.  She’s ordinary.  In fact, she’s so ordinary, she’s the only one who goes to the regular public school.  Everyone else goes to Remarkable’s School for the Remarkably Gifted.  Her brother’s a remarkable painter.  Her sister’s a math-whiz.  And, Jane – she’s not sure she’s remarkable at anything.  Of course, though, she is.  It’s just not so obvious and doesn’t need the label. Or the attention.

Foley’s book is sweet and whimsical (there are pirates and a sea monster named Lucky!), but simmering beneath its playful surface is a strong commentary on a society that seems to need all of our kids to be….well, remarkable.  Exceptional.  What about the plain Jane’s of the world?  In a school system obsessed with rankings, test scores, competitions, and levels, what about a kid who doesn’t quite know yet what she wants from her life, what she wants to put into the world, or even doubts that she really wants much attention at all?  In her meanderings about town where no one notices her, Jane meets Captain Rojo Herring and when he asks her about her talent, she replies, “I’m not good at anything and I probably never will be.”  He tells her, however, what a gift it is to be ordinary.  He had a chance to be ordinary once, but laments, “no, I had to run off to do something special.”

Jane has an opportunity, too, to find out that being ordinary can be its own brand of specialness.  Anabella and I laughed out loud while reading this book, but we also talked about what it means to be “remarkable” and why people seem to not only need it, but also to figure it out so young.  It’s tuned my ear to how often we pre-professionalize our kids.  “Oh, maybe he’ll be a scientist” or “Maybe she’ll be a party planner!” as if childhood is just one big try-out for future economic security.

While Anabella and I read Remarkable, I was also reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, which is a grown-up novel that asks the same sorts of questions as Foley’s book (in fact, I’m paraphrasing one of Wolitzer’s observations about how we often treat the joys of childhood as a sort of pre-professional program).  Both books have stuck with me and made me ponder this need with my own child and with my students.  Heck, it’s made me ponder it for myself.

Perhaps, they both seem to be arguing that joy is simply enough without the need to parlay it into something.  That seems to me the essence of summer.

Writing Exercise

Foley’s book is essentially about seeing the remarkable in the ordinary.  I think in many ways this is what writing does; it’s what an individual author’s voice does. Whether we’re writing poetry or prose or scripts or keeping a scrapbook or journal, it’s the individual quality of our lens that makes our subject remarkable.

1.  Take out a piece of paper and make a list of the ordinary things in your world that you find remarkable.  2.  When you’re list is long, start to think of each of these things as a poem, as a possible story, or as a jumping off place for your novel writing. 3.  Choose one and expand.  Create something remarkable out of your ordinary observation.

Outside Reading School Project

My Remarkable Journal of Ordinary Things.
While students read REMARKABLE, have them keep a journal.  Each entry should be an ordinary thing (their dog, their swim lesson, the night sky) but for each entry have them explain what makes this ordinary thing remarkable in their lives.  Have them write using descriptive, specific language to showcase their choices and have them concentrate on using their own voice.

YA Novel Review

First, sorry to everyone for sending the newsletter from last time!  Clearly, I’m spending too much time gazing out the window. Here’s the one I meant to send:

The Earth is Painted Green:  A Garden of Poems About Our Planet edited by Barbara Brenner (Scholastic)

So in case you haven’t heard yet (you know, from my shouts on Twitter, Facebook, or from my rooftop to the wide sky), my next YA novel CATCH A FALLING STAR will be published by Scholastic in Summer of 2014.  You can’t quite hear the cartwheels in my voice from where you’re reading, but, needless to say, I’m thrilled.  So, my family and I have been playing our own sort of springtime egg hunt:  We’ve been searching the house for the red SCHOLASTIC bands on our books.  “Look, that one’s Scholastic,” my husband will point out. “So is that one!” Anabella loves to shout, “Scholastic!” when she spies one and I imagine it’s much how the miners sounded when they said, “Eureka!”

For this Point of View newsletter (in honor of  my new publisher, national poetry month, and also Earth Day) I wanted to talk about one such gem from Scholastic that my family and I return to year after year called The Earth is Painted Green: A Garden of Poems about Our Planet edited by Barbara Brenner and Illustrated by S.D. Schindler.  Here’s an example from the collection:

The Garden Hose
In the gray evening
I see a long serpent
With its tail in the dahlias.

It lies in loops across the grass
And drinks softly at the faucet.

I can hear it swallow.

– Beatrice Janosco

The book is full of these earthy meditations and Anabella and I love to open it at random, read a poem, and then write whatever that poem inspires.  Schindler’s illustrations are both lush and watercolor-washed, cradling the poems on each page.  With our neighbor’s tree bursting with color, with the daffodils poking up through the brown ground, (and with my gaze clearly out the window), now is the perfect time for a garden of poems.

Writing Exercise

Look out your window.  What do you see bursting there?  The light comes later now, is sharper somehow in the evening, and everywhere there is suddenly color – white, pale pink, red.  Find one slim piece of the blooming world and choose it.

Title a poem with the name of this bit of the spring world you found.  Using “The Garden Hose” as a guide, write your own addition to the garden of poems, giving a simple thing a singular life.

Outside Reading School Project

Mary Oliver wrote:
“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

What is in your garden of poems?  What about the world astonishes you?  Write a series of poems about your earth, your outside places.  Then, include photographs, create art, find illustrations to support your poems.  Be astonished.  Tell us about it.

YA Novel Review

Book Love

My students and I have been having a lot of talks lately about books.  About reading them, liking them, hating them, being indifferent to them.  We’ve agreed that some books just connect and others are a slog (but that both have their place in reading).  The other night, I watched a movie by Josh Radnor called Liberal Arts.  In it, the main character Jessie comes to the aid of a young man in crisis, and when asked why, Jessie responds, “I have a soft spot for good readers.  They’re hard to find these days.”  I loved the line, but thought, is that true?  Are readers becoming harder and harder to find?  So (with Valentine’s Day looming, all that red foil and chocolate-dipped love around us) I thought I’d ask my students about book love:  do we still love books?  And if so, which ones?  Here are some of their answers:

“I love The GIver by Lois Lowry because of the theme and idea of it; it was one of the first books that I drew inspiration from…” –Aliyah

“I love the book Ferdinand.  Every time I read it, it brings me back to my childhood.  Ferdinand doesn’t like to fight and compete; he likes to sit quietly and smell the flowers.  I love how simple yet full of feeling this book is.  I can read it over and over.” — Quinna

“I love Maximum Ride by James Patterson because it let me escape. I have always imagined what it would be like to fly and this book let me live this.”  — Annie

“I love Paper Towns by John Green because I could identify with both of the main characters.  John Green manages to be funny, yet still deeply reflective, which I love.”  — Autumn

“I love the Game of Sunken Places by M.T. Anderson because it has interesting, imaginative, genuinely dark aesthetics and imagery.  It’s evocative.”  — Simon

“I love Hard Contact by Karen Traviss because it has everything I want in a book – Star Wars, complex plotting, varying personalities, action, and suspense!”  — Owen

“I love Harry Potter because the world is vivid and I grew up with the characters.”  — Luna

(And this following student obviously has fabulous taste)  :)  “I love Songs for a Teenage Nomad because I could see the whole story through my own eyes.”  –Kristy

Writing Exercise

Make a list of all the books you love (or as many as you can in ten minutes).

Outside Reading School Project

In my last newsletter I wrote about our “What We’re Reading” wall in the classroom I share.  It’s a place for students to write reviews and showcase the books they have read throughout the year.  As I said last time, for me, reading should be about building a life-long romance with stories, with different worlds and characters.  Mostly, though, as C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

I’m finding the wall slow going.  We’re busy.  We forget to hang things up.  We forget to ask questions of each other about what we’re reading.  But I’m not going to give up on it.  I looked up the other day at the diversity of titles on the wall, as diverse as these wonderful teenagers I teach, and it made me smile.

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