Monday, February 23, 2015

Celebrating I Love to Read Month

For as long as I can remember, the school where I teach has celebrated February as I Love to Read Month, and this year was no exception. I don’t think I have to sell the readers of this blog very hard on how important it is to get young kids interested in reading, so I’d imagine you’d all be on board with this.

Our calendar fills up with events and activities taking place throughout the month, all somehow related to reading. Each week features some kind of a dress-up day. Sometimes the connections to reading seem like a bit of a stretch, but the kids still love them. Read a Shirt Day, Read a Button Day, Read a Hat Day have all come up in the rotation over the years, and are good inclusive ways to get students participating. We’ve even had a few “Dress Like a Book Character” Days before, which often end up with debates about whether or not SpongeBob can be counted as a book character on the same level as Pippi Longstocking just because he has his own joke book (and someone was super excited about repurposing their Halloween costume in the name of school spirit). This year the events included “Slip Into a Good Book Day,” when the kids, and adults, all had the chance to wear and show off their favorite slippers. “Sports Team Day” made the calendar because...well, I guess athletes read? “Sweat it Out With a Good Book Day” is also known as “Mr. Mulroy’s Favorite Day of the Year” because I can wear sweatpants to school and nobody will even think twice about it. A few times during the month we’ll take a building-wide pause for a “Drop Everything and Read” break, and yes, that includes the staff. I promise you there are few on-the-job moments that get much better than a reading break that is not only sanctioned, but required. If we ever see Drop Everything and Read fall on a Sweatpants Day some year, my life will pretty much be complete.

This year the students can fill out paper Book Circles when they finish reading a new book (or complete a chapter, depending on their grade and reading level). Each circle puts them in a weekly drawing for a Barnes & Noble gift card, along with the potential thrill of hearing their name announced over the intercom as one of the winners. As the month progresses, the completed circles are displayed in the school’s main hallway in an overlapping chain that looks like a comically long rainbow-colored worm crawling along the walls and the ceiling. The whispers and giggles that my students are always trying to sneak under the radar all but die out when we down the hallway now as each each of them scans the circles to find the ones they turned in. In another hallway display, a collection of photos shows staff members posing with some of their favorite books from elementary school, holding open the book and hiding most of their face with the cover. If you ever found yourself in our hallway, you’d see my eyes peeking up from behind a copy of my definitive childhood book, A Wrinkle in Time.

The headlining event of the month is I Love to Read Night, which could best be described as a combination of a family information night and a reading carnival. There’s a book fair, and catered food brought in from our local Buffalo Wild Wings (yes, I had some). Bingo games, technology explorations, story time, family word games, crafts, and a wide assortment of standard carnival games keep everyone busy. All of the activities are run by staff members, school parents, community volunteers, and even National Honor Society members from the nearby high school. I assume the night was a big success this year, but since I spent my two-hour shift chasing down taped-up rolls of toilet paper at the T.P. Toss, I didn’t get out to see much else.

Last Friday every student in the school had a chance to play Bango For Books, which is very much like a perpendicular version of a similar game, but in this one everyone eventually wins and the prize is a brand new book of their choice. Unfortunately one of my students was sick that day and didn’t get to play, but the announcement was made at the start of the game that all teachers should select books for any absent students to make sure each child got one. As the announcement was made, I looked at one of my girls sitting at a nearby table. She read my expression and anticipated the question I was about to ask, saying: “She likes books about pets.” First of all, this was such a perfect third grade kind of thing to say I had no choice but to smile. And I loved that she knew this about her friend. I’d like to think that knowing what kinds of books you like should be near the top of any friendship checklist.

We still have one more week before I Love to Read Month closes, as well as a few more special days and fun events. From there we continue on, and hopefully the students are ready to move through the rest of the year with a renewed appreciation or a new discovery of the joys of reading.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Be Bold! Kill Your Darlings!

If you’ve been a writer for any period of time longer than “I just started ten minutes ago”, chances are you’ve done some background reading on the craft and its processes. When you do that, certain things become absolutely apparent right away. One of the biggest is that writing, no matter what method you use for drafting, success hinges on editing. 

Let me say that again: success hinges on editing.  And not, like, fixing typos and checking commas, but bold, brave editing that displays the kind of stalwart courage usually found in a MG protagonist.

Like it or not, your first draft isn’t going to be the Best Draft It Could Become.  Your masterpiece is going to have be revised.  And even if you’ve only done as little reading as your subconscious thinks you did when studying for that chemistry final it keeps dredging up in the nightmare about taking your finals while naked, late for class, and without lunch, odds are pretty good that you’ve come across the phrase “kill your darlings”.

Sooner or later, you’re going to have to kill your darlings. Every writer faces it.

To be honest, when I first heard the phrase, I was terrified.  I thought it meant I was going to have to make a regular practice of murdering the characters I was most smitten with. And sometimes, it does mean that, but, then, when I first started writing, I was reading Harry Potter and George R. R. Martin, and watching shows by Joss Whedon, so you can forgive me for assuming that Everyone Must Die was the new norm.

Turns out I was just influenced by a host of merciless, soul-tormenting creators with a penchant for characterization that was equal parts genius and ruthless.

Which, you know, I’m still scarred, but I suspect we’ve all been there.

The good news is, I had it all wrong! Killing your darlings isn’t (necessarily) about luring characters into dark alleyways and stabbing them repeatedly. No, murdering your darlings means that to make that book the best it can, be, you’re going to have to take something you’ve written and are positively in love with and hack away at it like you’re wintering at the Overlook Hotel, whether it’s a particular turn of phrase, an intricate, three-paragraph description of the way light hits a set of curtains in the library, or a plot sequence that plays out in your mind like that scene in slow motion The Matrix.

You remember, the one with all the shooting?

Now, being endlessly puffed up by my own ego like a balloon rides a warm draft, I’ve spent most of my fledgling writing career pretty certain that the practice of darling hatchet-ry was something other writers had to deal with, but not me.  Because, see, I always have an outline.  Outlines offer insurance against the sort of barbaric, aimless drafting though the dark, twisty tunnels of your imagination.

My road map—not to mention my immeasurable genius!—would undoubtedly save me such hassles.

Yeah, no. Sorry, buttercup. Turns out my staggering genius is much more like stumbling, and the rules of good editing apply to even me. Which means that sometimes I’m going to write stuff I love that Just. Doesn’t. Work. And no matter how I might hope, pray, push, prod, prune, and tweak it, there’s no shoving my square-shaped hunk of words into a manuscript with circle-shaped holes.

Which is exactly what I found out this week while working on my latest MG novel.

I should have seen it coming to be honest. Normally, I work fast, both when drafting and editing. When I write, I sprint, and tend to finish a MG draft in a month to 6 weeks, and then revise it enough for beta readers in another month.  Lots of different things happen after that and the timetable varies depending on the project,  but before my current project, I’ve dependably delivered books to test readers in three months.

This one, on the the other hand, has been dragging for more six and I’m still not finished. I’m in love with the premise of it more than I can describe, but the plot sputtered out of me like a certain famous ketchup rather than pouring out in a constant flow like with the other books I’ve written. And both while drafting and now in revisions, I’ve found myself tiptoeing up to certain point and then coming to a dawdling standstill, dragging my feet like a six year old forced dress up for family portraits.

That point, the hitch in my new novel, was a plot device I thought would be Really Cool to Read.  Full of action and humor, my readers would be taken in by the awe and wonder of it, and it would be the highlight of the whole novel. Heralds would sing my praises and awards bearing my name would someday be given in honor of this sequence.

Except, um, not so much. Turns out that was as much a figment of my imagination as the time I thought I could run past my dad after bedtime so fast that he wouldn’t see me. Spoiler alert: he could totally see me.

But what I couldn’t see was that I wasn’t doing myself any favors. I needed to be like the characters I want in my MG adventures: bold, brave, and sometimes even ruthless.

Earlier this week, then, I realized what had happened. My book wasn’t working because it was infected with something that needed cutting out. I had myself a dreaded darling, and it desperately needed killing.

So Wednesday night I poured myself a large, bold dose of liquid courage (well, espresso) and took a machete the scenes that I once hoped would be so wonderful.

Afterwards, after I’d hacked them out and stitched the pieces back together, I felt like my novel was ready to run. No more stalling, no more dragging my feet. It’s ready now, rarin’ to go.

Heck, it might even be able to run so fast you can’t see it.

So, yes, Virginia, everyone has a Shiny Darling Idea sometimes. When you find yours, don’t be afraid. Seek out the bold courage that kids so often embody and do what must be done.

I promise you won’t even want to look back.


Monday, February 16, 2015

They read what?

In keeping with my co-bloggers' themes of late, here's a list of what my children have been reading. While it's a small sampling, the comments are genuine and valuable and are delivered directly from middle grade readers.

Me to Third Grade Girl: What are the books you've read most recently, and what did you like most about them?

The Day the Crayons Quit - "I liked that most of them (the crayons) were mad at Duncan or each other and cuz they were saying funny things." (I think she really dug the conflict.)

Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose - "I liked the fact that he let a whole bunch of animals in his antlers and didn't even know that they were about to fall off. And the hunters got all of the animals and his horns, I mean antlers."

Hug Machine - "I liked it because pizza energized him and he liked hugging a lot."

Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs - "Well, um I liked the fact that she thought it was a gigantic bears' house and I liked the fact of what the morals were. If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave. Oh, and for the dinosaurs, always remember to lock the back door."

Me to Fourth Grade Girl: What books have you read recently and what did you like most about them?

The Shadow Children series - "I liked that it's about third children, who are illegal. Lots of unfair things concerning food are happening but rich people called barons eat like nothing happened. Ok, see, there were a few years of famine and the barons are eating like nothing bad happened and like there's plenty of food. And I like that it's from lots of different characters' points of view."

Me to Sixth Grade Girl: What books have you read recently what did you like about them?

The Heroes of Olympus series - They're funny, dramatic, umm, I like how they're all from the different characters' views and they all have their own moods and feelings - like actual people do.

The Ranger's Apprentice series - The romance is way unbalanced. With Evanlyn, Alyss, Will, it's all kind of awkward. It's so obvious how, now that I've read it before, that it's hard to believe I didn't know it before.

Me to Sixth Grade Boy - Tell me about the books you've read recently.

"I'm going to tell you about The Templeton Twins Have an Idea. First of all it's part of a trilogy, therefore it makes you want to read more. One of the reasons I like it is the narrator gets in the story a lot. For example, at the end of most of the chapters, he has questions for review. Some of these questions are "different". For example, 'The author has succeeded I writing an actual prologue. Aren't you proud of him?' The second question for review of that section is 'what do you mean, no?' Number three in that section is 'Explain, in fifty words or less, why you believe the story will actually get started, and why it will be wonderful.' The reason I like how the narrator does this is because he actually gets involved. Sometimes when he gets involved, he explains words you may not know."

Me: And that's a good thing?

SGB: Yeah.

Me: Would that work for every book?

SGB: I do believe that would work for most books, though I do not know if when you get involved it would be funny in every book.

Me: What are you presently reading?

SGB: City of Orphans: The thing I like most about it is how detailed it is and how well everything is explained.

Me: What's it about?

SGB: New York in the late 1800s. Two kids Max and Willa are struggling with finances and survival. Max is an "newsie" - a news boy you know "Extra, Extra, read all about it!" - boy. He works hard each day to earn 8cents. Willa is an orphan who has been living in an alley for five months. Max gets in a jam with a gang and Willa happens to be there and saves him with her mighty stick. Now, Max and Willa have these troubles; the gang is always on watch for them, Max's sister was just sent to jail for no reason, and his other sister has wasting disease - the disease that killed Willa's mother. Will they make in the big city of the late 1800s?

Whenever I corner my children and grill them about the books they're reading, I always get some valuable insights. I hope you did too. Thanks and happy writing! -Rob

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: Breaking the Ice by Gail Nall

Title: Breaking the Ice
Author: Gail Nall
Genre: MG Contemporary
Pages: 320
Publication date: 2015
Publisher: Aladdin

My rating: 4.5 spitwads / 5

I know approximately this much *presses thumb and first finger together* about figure skating. 

Okay, fine. Maybe less than that.

When I was given an ARC of Gail's book, I wasn't sure how much I was going to be able to understand about the moves and technical stuff that accompanies the sport. Worry set in. Before I even cracked open the cover, I wondered if I'd be doing myself and the author a huge disservice by reading it.

So I tried the first chapter. 

The one where Kaitlin's just finished a routine and is waiting on her scores. And when the judges display them? Kaitlin loses it and pitches a Godzilla-sized fit in front of Mom, Dad, friends, and foes.

I actually thought to myself, "Okay, I have no idea what a double spin flipper doohickey move looks like, but I totally get the feeling of gut-wrenching regret that Kaitlin's feeling right now." And then Kaitlin's skate coach kicks her off the team and Kaitlin finds her gold-medal Olympic dreams melting right before her eyes. Kaitlin has no choice but to join the only club that'll take her: the bottom-of-the-barrel Falton Club. Sure, it's run down. Sure, the ice has potholes that a New York City taxi could get lost in. Sure, all the other skaters call it the "Fall-Down" Club. But Kaitlin doesn't have a choice. She's determined to make it to the Olympics, and if she has to do it through the biggest joke of a skate club around, then fine.

That's when I realized that this book wasn't just about figure skating. It's about following your dreams. It's about learning to get back up when you fall. 

And as a writer (heck, as a human being) that's something I know P-L-E-N-T-Y about. That's why Breaking the Ice worked so well for me. Yeah, it had a ton of skating lingo that was completely foreign, but that gets explained throughout Kaitlin's journey. Gail made it so easy to put myself in Kaitlin's skates. She makes Kaitlin accessible for all of us because we've all seen our own dreams get a little fuzzy at times. We've all had those post-tantrum moments where we collapse into a puddle of misery, convinced that we'll never reach our goals.

But we can get right back up. We can try again. Just like Kaitlin.

And if we can do it with a double spin flipper doohickey move . . . even better. 

Happy reading!

Click here to read an interview with Gail Nall and her debut novel, Breaking the Ice.

Friday, February 6, 2015

What Kids Read #2

Today we have the second interview for What Kids Read! Enjoy!

1.) What grades/age groups do you work with?
I am a librarian at a public high school, and I work with grades 9-12.

2.) What are some of your favorite kid lit books?
It's so hard to narrow it down to just a few favorites! I love anything by John Green, and Paper Towns is my all-time favorite YA novel. I also love anything by Andrew Smith; The Marbury Lens and Stick are my favorite of his books.

3.) What genres/topics do kids seem to ask for the most?
It really varies by student, although currently sci-fi and fantasy are the most requested genres in the library. In the last year or so, more and more students are asking for contemporary fiction and romance.

4.) What book titles are the most popular right now? 
I ran the report, and right now, here are our most popular titles: The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska (first three by John Green), Tsubasa (graphic novel series) by CLAMP, Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, The Maze Runner series by James Dashner, Escape from Furnace series by Alexander Gordon Smith, Divergent series by Veronica Roth, Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye, Chronicles of Nick series by Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Gone series by Michael Grant.

5.) What do kids seem to like the least or what do kids complain about when it comes to books?

I have found that students don't like books where the plot is unclear or where they dislike the main character. Also, most students have a hard time getting through books with non-American slang (like British slang, for instance).

6.) What gets kids excited about reading? 
Kids love books with tons of action, likable characters, and funny dialogue. They also like books with edgy components, like those by Ellen Hopkins. Most students enjoy reading series and really getting to know the characters.

7.) If you've had author visits at your library/classroom what worked well and what didn't?
We had a Skype visit with a popular author a few months ago. We wrote out our questions ahead of time, and it went wonderfully well! He was engaging, and had prepared a little motivational talk about reading and writing which he presented before opening it up to questions. The kids loved it and can't wait to get their hands on all of his books! The technology didn't work perfectly, but that had more to do with our WiFi connection than anything.

8.) Are there any other thoughts about children's literature or reading you'd like to share?
Authors should never "hold back" when it comes to writing YA. For  most of the students I work with, the edgier, the better!

If you are a librarian, teacher, or educator and would like to be interviewed on the blog please email MGminded (at) gmail (dot) com and put "What Kids Read" in the subject line. And if you have questions about what kids read that you'd like answered send them to the same email address.    

Monday, February 2, 2015

What Kids Read #1

Today I'm starting what will hopefully be a new series on Middle Grade Minded. Interviews with Librarians, Teachers, and Educators about what kids read. If you are in one of those categories and would like to be interviewed for the blog, please email MGminded (at) gmail (dot) com and put "What Kids Read" in the subject line. And if you have questions about what kids read that you'd like answered send them to the same email address.

And without further ado, our very first interview is with Author and Teacher Marie Meyer.

1.) What grades/age groups do you work with?

I teach 4th grade at a parochial school in St. Louis.

2.) What are some of your favorite middle grade books?
My students and I enjoy the FABLEHAVEN series by Brandon Mull, KEEPER series by Shannon Messenger, HARRY POTTER series by JK Rowling, THE GIRL WHO COULD FLY by Victoria Forester, OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon M. Draper, RULES by Cynthia Lord, AT YOUR SERVICE by Jen Malone

3.) What genres/topics do kids seem to ask for the most?

In my experience, most kids enjoy fantasy the most.

4.) What book titles are the most popular right now?

The ORIGAMI YODA series by Tom Angleberger, the GERONIMO STILTON & THEA STILTON books by Elisabetta Dami, PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS series by Rick Riordan, the FLOORS series by Patrick Carmen, just to name a few!

5.) What do kids seem to like the least or what do kids complain about when it comes to books?

Sadly, The students I work with (9 & 10 year olds) complain most about books that are long. They shy away from books with lots of pages and small print.

Most recently, my students were complaining about the length of the Harry Potter novels. In an effort to bypass reading the books, they begged me to tell them what happened, or they said they'd just watch the movies. This was a travesty to me. Every child needs to experience the joy of reading Harry Potter. To remedy this situation, I started reading HP as a read-aloud. At first, the kids protested with lots of groans and grumbles, but once I started reading (with voices and all), the kids were hooked! They couldn't get enough! They were fighting over Chamber of Secrets, wanting to be the first to read the second book as soon as I finished Sorcerer's Stone!

6.) What gets kids excited about reading?
Read-alouds get kids excited! I always choose read-alouds that are a part of a series. I will read the first book to them, to pique their interest, but it is up to my students to read the rest of the books in the series.

Kids also get excited if I read a book to them and then there's an author visit at one of the local libraries. I've taken several groups to meet an author after we've read their book. There is special kind of magic that turns a kid into a life-long reader when they get to meet the author of a book they love!

After reading FABLEHAVEN to my class last year, Brandon Mull visited the area. One of my students not only devoured the rest of his novels, but has been to every author visit Mr. Mull has made to the St. Louis area. Mr. Mull's stories and ability to relate to kids made quite an impression on my student! I also recall a very fun class trip to the library when Scott Westerfeld visited. Mr. Westerfeld was so personable and the kids just loved him (and his books!)

7.) If you've had author visits at your library/classroom what worked well and what didn't?

I haven't had any author visits to my school. But, I take my students to the city libraries for visits. Being at a small parochial school, there isn't much money to host author visits.

8.) Are there any other thoughts about children's literature or reading you'd like to share?

Kids like books that aren't "dumbed down." Give them an engaging storyline and they will rise to the occasion, difficult vocabulary and all! Kids are smart, they are able to figure out complex stories and characters.

As a teacher, one of my biggest pet peeves is when MG books feature one dimensional characters and a boring plot. A story like this will turn kids off reading. In today's day and age, books are forced to compete with gaming systems, apps, tablets, ect... For a kid to be engaged in reading, an author has to capture a child's interest and hold it, not an easy feat. But, if the story and characters are solid and well developed, a kid will put down their game, for a while, and lose themselves in the pages of a book!

Marie Meyer was a Language Arts teacher for fourteen years. She spends her days in the classroom and her nights writing heartfelt new adult romances that will leave readers clamoring for more. She is a member of RWA and the St. Louis Writers Guild. Marie's short fiction won honorable mentions from the St. Louis Writers Guild in 2010 and 2011. She is a proud mommy and enjoys helping her oldest daughter train for the Special Olympics, making up silly stories with her youngest daughter, and binging on weeks of DVR'd television shows with her husband. - See more at:

Marie's debut New Adult Contemporary Romance, ACROSS THE DISTANCE, releases on May 5, 2015, from Grand Central Publishing/Forever Yours.

Marie is represented by Louise Fury at The Bent Agency.

Marie's Website/Blog:
Follow Marie on Twitter: @MarieMwrites