Category Archives: Writing

Telling the Reality Behind Fiction

How much (or any) of their research should writers of fiction for children provide?  That interesting question, posed by blogger Betsy Bird yesterday, provoked a fascinating conversation.  The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that the text should speak for itself and that author notes are not necessary — ever.  Yet I have to wonder, is all fiction the same in this regard?  Or nonfiction for that matter?   In fact, as a reader, critic, teacher of children, and author of a forthcoming work of fiction I find that line between fiction and nonfiction to be very porous, one that writers move between all the time.  It happened to me.  Feeling it was important that child readers know that it really happened, I tried to tell the true story of a child on the Amistad as straight nonfiction, but it turned out there wasn’t enough material to do that. And so I fictionalized the story using all the carefully researched facts from my nonfiction version.  So now, although it is a fictionalized true story, I still plan on the same sort of author note I’d had in mind when it was nonfiction.

As I wrote to someone who commented on my post of yesterday on this topic, I’ve learned through many years in the classroom that kids want to know what is real and what isn’t.  Heck, I want to know that too in fiction about real people and events.  So to ease my frustration here’s a chart that roughly shows the continuum between nonfiction and fiction.  It by no means is a comprehensive list of all the types of fiction or nonfiction, just a handful to show what seems to me the somewhat arbitrariness of insisting all fiction doesn’t need back matter while all nonfiction does.

Also at the Huffington Post.


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Whadya (Need to) Know?

Perhaps nothing.

Betsy Bird asks, “How Much is an Author Obligated to Say?” after wondering in a review of a book involving Aspergers why the writer, in her author’s note, hadn’t mentioned her personal connection to the condition.  Kate Messener and quite a few others feel the answer is, “nothing” as everything we readers need to know should be in the story itself.

This then makes me wonder about my response to fictionalized books about real people and unfamiliar cultures.  Generally I do want to know more.  For example, I’ve just read Linda Sue Park’s forthcoming  A Long Walk To Water. This fine book is a fictionalized telling of Sudanese Salva Dut‘s true story and I did very much wanted to know what was real, what made-up, how she researched it, and so forth. And so as excellent as the text was I definitely appreciated the author’s note and probably would have been frustrated if it hadn’t been there.  In a couple of years I will have a book out that is both about a culture that is not my own  — Sierra Leone — and a real person in history — Sarah Margru Kinson who was a child on the Amistad.  Like Linda Sue Park I’ve fictionalized a true story. And so I plan on an author note because I do want readers to know what personal experiences cause me to write the book and what sort of research I did. I want them to know more.


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The Problem of Overwriting

The trouble with overwritten prose is that it takes away from the reader the opportunity to imagine a scene. We do not want to be told everything; we want a few brushstrokes, a few carefully chosen adjectives, and then we can do the rest ourselves. It’s Roget’s fault, of course. I blame him and his wretched thesaurus. Put it away.

Alexander McCall Smith on Writing Concisely –

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Thalia Kids’ Book Club Camp

Today Betsy Bird reminded me of this amazing summer day camp just down the road from me.  One of my students went and from what she told me, what Betsy wrote, and their blog posts — well, it sounds phenomenal for kids who are obsessed readers and writers.  Looks like a nice balance of talking about books, writing, engaging with authors, cool field trips, and more conventional camp fun (e.g. Capture the Flag).  And for those in the NYC area, there appears to be one session starting today with slots left, a YA one for kids 13-15 years-old.  Libba Bray, Barry Lyga, and Kekla Magoon, and Krista Marino are slated to visit.

WNYC did a feature on Norton Juster’s visit; here’s their video (with my student in it!):


Filed under Children's Literature, Reading, Writing, YA

Laura Miller on the Nature of Writing and Linking

All of us may now swim in a vast ocean of interlocking data nuggets, but people can still only read one word at a time, and putting the best words (and the best ideas) in the best order remains the essence of the writer’s craft.

Laura Miller’s got some very convincing ideas about reading, writing, and linking. Instead of the standard practice of embedding citation links throughout her essays, she’s putting them at the end.  I like all of what she says, most of all how the practice helps her to be a better writer.

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Wise Writers

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. (Elmore Leonard)

4 Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy. (Roddy Doyle)

9 Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting. (Jonathan Franzen)

2 Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious. (PD James)

5 Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there. (Hilary Mantel)

4 Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing. (Joyce Carol Oates)

6 Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is. (Zadie Smith)

Just a taste of the advice proffered by a bunch of very experienced writers in the Guardian’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.”

In Part I, you’ve got: Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy

And in Part II, there are: Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson

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Hunger Mountain Online

The latest issue of the VCFA’s journal of the arts is full of superb stuff including:

Check it out!


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In the Classroom: Sixteen Years Later

I just found this unpublished essay from 2004 about my teaching with technology.  What a leap from the word processors we were using in 1994 to the wireless netbooks all our 4th graders have today.  This coming Tuesday we will be introducing my current class to blogging — each child, as we’ve done for the previous three years — will be getting his or her own blog.  They and I can’t wait!

So what follows are my 2004 thoughts along with some additional comments from today, January 2010:


My article, “Empowering Young Writers with Technology” was published in the April 1994 issue of Educational Leadership.  In it I described my fourth grade students’ use of portable word processors for writing.  Ten years later I’m still a fourth grade teacher at the Dalton School and my students are still using portable word processors for writing.  So what is the same and what is different?  And what can I expect in ten more years?  (January 2010: still a fourth grade teacher at the Dalton School and my students are still writing on computers more than ever.  As for what I can expect in ten more years — see my notes in red below.)

A Look Back

Convincing my school’s administration to put those initial portable word processors into my classroom was challenging.  After all, I wanted enough so that every child would have access to one during our writing periods and that meant not only a substantial monetary commitment, but a pedagogical one as well.   At the time the school’s technological focus was on collaborative projects oriented around specific curricular content. The 6th grade, for example, worked one team to a computer, excavating a virtual archaeological dig as part of their study of ancient Greece.  Writing was done in response to such projects and was not seen as an end in itself.   It took much persuading to convince those in charge to buy that first set of portable word processors for our use in the 4th grade.

Fortunately, as I described in my 1994 article, my students quickly proved the worth of this purchase.  Given the choice between writing with a pencil and writing on a portable word processor, most soon preferred the latter.  Initial frustrations due to minimal keyboarding skills and technical knowledge gave way to delight as the children discovered how much easier it was to plan, draft, revise, and proofread their work.  Students became much more independent as they discovered that they could move around text, add and subtract information, and even correct spelling without adult help.  The level of their writing soared now that the arduous nature of handwriting had been removed.  More children began seeing themselves as serious writers, taking their portable word processors out during free time to write stories on their own.  It was clear that the introduction of the word processors had been a great success.

Using Portable Word Processors Today (That is, 2004, not 2010)

Ten years later not only is the idea of using computers in the teaching of writing much more accepted, but the technology is much better and less expensive as well.  Currently, each of our 4th and 5th graders is given an Alphasmart to use at home and school.   (January 2010: As I wrote above, we now have netbooks for each child.  Not only word processors, but easy Internet access, something we used much more occasionally six years ago.) After a focused course in keyboarding, the children use them in a myriad of ways.  Some take them to the science lab to use when writing up an experiment.  Others use them when doing interviews for the school newspaper.  When writing in journals, some chose to write by hand and some on their Alphasmarts.  During recess it is not uncommon to see pairs of children busily writing stories together on their Alphasmarts.  And of course, they are still used as I described in my article a decade ago — for intensive writing instruction.  These inexpensive computers have become part of the fabric of our classrooms, almost as ubiquitous as pencils.  (January 2010.  Fascinating to read this now and be reminded how far we have come.  Not only are computers part of the fabric of our classroom, but the current group of children come with the skills to dive right in to using them. And, as I wrote above, the easy online access they offer is a huge difference.)

What is the Same?

We still use the writing process approach. The children work hard to plan, draft, revise, proofread, and publish their work.   Come into my classroom during a writing period and you will still see children doing what children have always done during this time— working on writing in a variety of ways.  Over there is a child by herself busily typing away.  And over there, another child with a pencil, reading over a draft and marking it up.  Two children sit on the rug sharing stories while I sit with another child discussing a glitch in his story. The process hasn’t changed, only the tools.  (January 2010 I’d say this is pretty much unchanged.)

What is the Same and Different?

I’ve been publishing student work for three decades.  I still have copies of mimeographed books and magazines done by classes when personal computers were the stuff of science fiction, not reality.  As delightful as they are, I must admit that I have no wish to go back to the days of purple ditto sheets and sore arms from cranking up those big old mimeograph machines!  Today, not only does each of my students have an Alphasmart, but we have access to a class set of laptops and sufficient printers as well.  Once the children are ready to publish their writing, they are able to use these laptops to produce high quality final products.   So even though I still do as many publication projects as I did before I had access to computers, I must admit they are much easier to do today. (January 2010: One BIG change since I wrote this — we do most of our publishing now on the blogs!  Becoming more and more paperless. Just the easy Internet access for all sorts of things is another big change.)

A great example of this is our immigrant oral history picture book project.  I start, as I would have thirty years ago, immersing the children in the study of immigration with a variety of materials: books, videos, primary sources, museum visits, visits to immigrant neighborhoods and more.  Next I model the process of doing an oral history for the children and together we study a variety of picture books based on oral histories. (January 2010: This year one of my colleagues did this as a DVD, a lovely overview of the process that we can reuse in the future.) So far this is all that I would have done pre-computers. The children then tape record their own interviews and then transcribe them, usually by hand. (January 2010: I think we are close to kids doing these interviews on computers. Not there quite yet, but very close.) You would think, as I did initially, that this would be overwhelming for them, but remarkably they enjoy doing it. They then decide what parts of the transcript they want in their final picture book and type those into their Alphasmarts.  From that point on all is different as they use computers to revise these drafts for their picture books. Some children completely retell the oral history in third person, others keep the interview exactly as is, and still others experiment with a variety of writing formats for their books.  Conferring, multiple drafts, and proofreading are now a breeze with the Alphasmarts and laptops.  And then there are the illustrations.  With the Internet available on the laptops, the children can easily research their subjects’ countries of origin to be sure their illustrations are accurate.   Further, those children who do not like or do not feel comfortable drawing happily make collages using images from the Internet.  And so a project, pedagogically like those I’ve done my whole teaching career, is transformed with technology. (January 2010. We still do this project and the children end up with beautiful books.  This year I saw something a bit different from previous years, something only possible with the netbooks. This was a greater use of collage — more children found, printed out, and used images from the Internet than in previous years.  I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not.  Were kids would could have drawn, avoiding it?  Certainly, those who used images spent huge amounts of time looking for just the right one.  Will be interested to see what happens next year. Is this a blip with this year’s cohort or not?)

What is Different?

The Internet is probably the biggest difference in how I use technology in teaching everything, especially but not only writing.  Publications, for example, can go on the Web as easily as in a class book.  And do — over the past ten years my students and I have produced many Web-based publications for their families, friends, and those all over the world to enjoy.  Research is now done online as well as from books.  Communication is as often by email as it is by letter or phone call.  (January 2010:  It is now 99% via email.  The school now expects parents to read their email.  What is new since I wrote this is that the children have email too.  I have many children emailing me already with their own email accounts.  In a few weeks their school emails will be set so they can communicate with their teachers and I will ask them to write me weekly about their reading instead of in a dialog journal as they do in the fall. Last year some kids were great about this and some not so great.  I then added a little note at the end of my responses to those who wrote regularly telling them to come to me and to whisper a secret word.  When they did they got a lollypop.  They loved this and those who weren’t keeping up with their email suddenly did.)

(January 2010: Biggest change since I wrote this would be blogs.  I adore and love using them with my students.  I’ve done some presentations at conferences about this. Here’s a wiki and slide presentation my collaborators and I did for a conference last year that gives a good sense of how we approach individual blogs with this age group.)

A good example of change is my Alice in Wonderland unit. Ten years ago, after studying the book and its illustrators, my students would do their own illustrations of the story, which I displayed on the bulletin board outside my classroom.  In 1998 I started putting them on the Web.  Today technology has further transformed the unit.  After studying the book as always, the children create small toy theater productions of the book’s different chapters, which we film, edit with Imovie, and finally show at an assembly. Most of the script writing is done on the Alphasmarts and laptops. The children move easily and confidently back and forth between the 19th century text of Alice (available online), their Alphasmarts, and the laptops as they work on this project.  At the end they create individual Web pages complete with their movies, original scripts, puppets, scenery, and more for anyone to see. What a change!  (January 2010: And now we are doing Alice Comics!  I think this many be my favorite way yet to bring Alice alive with 4th graders!)

Some Reservations

Ten years ago I was completely focused on convincing others of the value of giving every child a portable word processor during the writing workshop; a bit of a zealot, I can’t recall having any reservations.  However, having now used computers extensively in my classroom for ten years I’ve had more time to observe, talk to others, and reflect on their pros and cons.

One concern ironically is handwriting.  Ten years ago, in my school, we decided that 4th grade was the right time to focus on keyboarding and urged the lower grades to be sure they saw to it that the children were comfortable with handwriting before they came to us.  That has been an uneven situation. The lower grades now also use computers for writing and there have been years when the children arrived in 4th grade with weak handwriting skills creating quite a quandary for us. Should we focus on handwriting and forget the keyboarding?  Try to do both confusing the children?  Or just focus on keyboarding and give up on handwriting? Because of our tremendous focus on writing on the Alphasmarts we have chosen to focus on keyboarding with only brief remedial attention to handwriting.   Unfortunately, the result has been that upper grade teachers often complain justifiably about illegible handwriting just as they, due to the alarming increase of cheating and Internet-based plagiarism, require that their students do more handwritten work in class.  Because of this, I’m beginning to rethink allowing the children to use their Alphasmarts at all times.  For the last couple of years, for example, I’ve insisted they handwrite in their journals unless they have a clear grapho-motor disability. Balancing the need for children to confidently read and write by hand with the empowerment the computer so clearly provides is a challenge indeed.  (January 2010:  Still a quandary.)

And then there is the digital divide. Some children in the upper grades bring their own laptops to school and there has been discussion of requiring them of every student, as has been the case in other schools.  However, not all have the same economic circumstances. Some students can work on a project comfortably at home because they have the latest and fastest computer with all the possible bells and whistles including the fastest possible Internet connection.  Others stay late at school to work because they may have a four year old computer at home, one telephone line (used by the whole family), with a slow dialup connection.  How do we deal with this iniquity in our schools not to mention in society?  (January 2010: My school has partially solved this by starting a one-to-one laptop program in the 6th grade and will be introducing the same in the high school next year. So all our students have the same computer and software on it. I’m not sure though what sort of connections they have at home — do they all have Internet access at home, I wonder?  And of course, this is just in my private school. While it seems kids do have more access than four years ago, I suspect there is still a divide.)

And in Ten Years?

Twenty years ago I was using the first Apple computers to teach Logo and just beginning to explore the potential of writing and technology. Ten years ago I discovered how children could be empowered as writers when given simple portable word processors.  What do I see for 2014?  I imagine computers replacing notebooks and textbooks. (January 2010: We are heading to that in my school.  I think it is very likely that in the next four years we will have textbook content online. I know that the school is looking at ereaders with this idea in mind.) I see students carrying them everywhere and doing much of their reading and writing on them. (January 2010: this is happening already and I think that textbook reading will be more and more online.  Not so sure about literature though. I think we teachers will still want real books that kids can mark up and consider in a different way from a digital book. Maybe in twenty years though we may be more digital with all reading material. Who’s to say?) I see teachers and students communicating almost more extensively on email.  (January 2010: Definitely the case.) I see media becoming more a part of traditional writing projects — film, music, images, and more. (January 2010: Definitely.  Our teachers are becoming more and more eager to do stuff.  Voicethread, movies, podcasts  — seeing way more of this.) I see more collaborations — even beyond the school to the world beyond. (January 2010: We are also doing more of this at my school.) I see writing continuing to be transformed in ways I can’t even imagine.   And I can’t wait!  (January 2010: Still can’t for whatever is going to happen next!)


Filed under In the Classroom, Reading, Teaching, Writing


Extras — acknowledgements, flap copy, and back matter — they’ve been under scrutiny of late.

Let’s start with acknowledgements.   A  couple of weeks ago Elizabeth Blumie presented her feelings about them in this thoughtful post. Over the years I have worked on my Margru book many people have helped me with the research and I’d always assumed that I’d thank them in some sort of acknowledgement.  So reading Elizabeth’s post and the many comments unnerved me at first.  But then last night I started to read a forthcoming work of adult fiction and the very first thing I encountered was a three page acknowledgment and I got it. That is, having that to read even before the novel started took me out of the world before I was in it.  A work of historical fiction, most of the thank yous were personal, only a few were for research sources.  At the very least it should have been at the end of the book, not at the beginning.  But that is how I feel now; who knows how I will feel closer to my book’s pub date (which, by the way, is a few years off).

Then there was a fascinating discussion about flap copy over at editor Cheryl Klein’s blog.   The copy in question was a direct letter to the book’s readers from “The Editors” and received many, many comments pro and con.  Here’s mine:

This puts the editors right up front for a work of fiction and I have to say it doesn’t work for me. It makes me think about what READER is being addressed and who those EDITORS are exactly rather than the book and its characters. It is, for me, distracting. Unless, of course, that is tone of the whole book (al a Lemony Snicket) in which case I’d say go for it. If not, I’d say stick with something less pulling-me-out-of-the-book-before-I-even-begin-reading-it. That is, I think flap copy should provide just enough for the reader to know what to expect, not a testimonial or endorsement which this feels like to me.

Finally, this morning I read Imogene Russell Williams on ” Why Back Matter is So Often a Waste of a Book’s Space.”  Williams describes problematic back matter from a variety of fictional works for adults and children, say this one:

And my American edition of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a Newbery-winning stalwart of middle-school lists, demands that you choose and defend one interpretation of the magnificently ambiguous ending seconds after you’ve finished reading it. This is woeful. One of the most interesting things about the book is that it makes you deal with not knowing how it ends.

This concern about being dragged out of the story this way seems similar to me to the ones raised by Elizabeth Blumie and many of her commenters about acknowledgements.  While some seemed to feel having those at the end of the book was okay, Williams probably wouldn’t concur.


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Throwing and Catching Voice

Mr. Rey was plump, in a brown suit; he wore glasses and was balding and round-faced and kind. He knew about the stars; he took me into the back garden and pointed out the constellations in a way that made me see them; he had a manner with children that was easy and unforced. We joined the party in the living room, and he stood off to the side. Suddenly, I heard a high voice squeaking, saying “Nicky. Help! It’s Curious George and I’m stuck in the chimney, just here inside the fireplace. Come help me get out won’t you please?”

Nicholas Delbanco considers voice by way of his childhood memories of Hans Rey.

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