Not so lazy summer PB reviews…

booksjulyI have to confess: I read the books for this post over two weeks ago, but was so busy I didn’t get to write the reviews.  I spent last week helping direct a professional development week for German teachers and before that have been busy working on my upcoming poetry exhibit at the local library, so I’ve had a lot on my plate. On the bright side, that means my reviews will truly reflect what is the most memorable about those books. Enjoy!

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Storytelling: Finding your “And then…”

MaxRobbiePlayground2017Some writers complain a bit when summer vacation arrives and they suddenly have their kids underfoot to entertain, cutting into their writing time. Me? I’m a teacher, so I’m rejoicing in summer vacation right along with them. Sure, tagging along after two boys is tiring, but life is what brings us the experiences we write about, especially when you’ve got kids.

Today we visited “Planet Playground,” an excellent playground complex in Exeter, New Hampshire. The last time I took the boys there, a few years ago, I spent the whole time running around making sure I knew where they were, that they were playing nicely, etc. This time, I looked forward to catching up on my reading and just letting them run around. The weather was gorgeous, I had a shady bench, an iced coffee, and a good book (my brother’s new novel, Never Alone).  Needless to say, I was a little frustrated to have my reading interrupted, but taking interest in your kids is far more important, so I wandered over and found myself at the adorable wooden puppet theater. Each boy took turns telling me their stories, with their hands as finger puppets, then it was my turn.

As I was retelling one of my latest manuscripts from memory, I realized what an awesome writing exercise this was.  I’ve heard editors say that you should throw out your first draft and simply write the second from memory. I even once read an anecdote by Stephen King that he lost a manuscript and rewrote it from memory– of course if you do that, you’ll live life feeling that your new version can never hold a candle to the original, but it’s probably not true. The fact is, when you are retelling from memory, you are forced to include only the most important parts.  And when you’re storytelling in front of an audience, you quickly learn what holds their attention and what doesn’t. You learn which bits of repetition are boring and which give your work that very slight predictability that kids love.

It’s the “And then…” which drives your story forward. It’s not the beautiful description of springtime flowers. It’s not the sparkling and witty dialog. It’s what happens after someone is hit and falls down. It’s what happens when the main characters are lost in the woods, or when grandma is eaten by the wolf.  Storytelling live in front of little kids forces you to focus on the “And then…”

I also learned that there are essentially 4 types of storytelling with kids:

  1. The straight re-tell:  Max told us “Little Red Riding Hood.” It had a little of his personality, but he was basically practicing how to tell a story. That’s fine, especially if you aren’t comfortable talking in front of an audience. Most kids love hearing familiar stories. (One of my most popular requests when my kids were young was a re-tell of a favorite Spongebob episode. I did not make it my own, but they still loved it. Over. And. Over.)
  2. The “punched up” re-tell:  Robbie told us “The Three Little Pigs.”  It was essentially the actual story, but he added in a lot of snarky side comments about the three pigs’ choice in materials, highlighting the superiority of the third pig who kept chiding the others (“Really? You’re using wood? It’s going to leak, I tell you!”). The first two pigs got eaten, probably as payback for their lack of good building sense. This version is great if you’re telling stories to kids who appreciate a good subversion of the expected paradigm, and it’s a good way to take off the storytelling training wheels.
  3. The “test kitchen”:  Ok, storytellers, get out there with some new material!  No manuscript handy, just me and the stories that have been living in my head, I dove in with two of my latest picture book WIPs, “Fat Banana” and “Hortensia, the Angry Cat.”  My boys had heard them both, but I got at least one passerby kiddo to stop and listen as well. I chose “Hortensia” for the second story and got the little girl listening to make all the cat noises which was a huge hit. Of course then she asked for more, which is when the next type of storytelling comes in…
  4. The “audience participation” story: This little girl wanted another animal story. I didn’t happen to have any in my hat that seemed to work, so I prodded her a bit more– what kind of animal? A cheetah. My son decided it would be a cheetah and a triceratops. No, she insisted. Just cheetahs.  So together we came up with a story about a cheetah who had to outrun a forest fire to warn the other animals. No prior preparation, maybe not a Newbery winner, but all participants were satisfied.

So, next time your kid says “Tell me a story,” try out one of the above storytelling techniques– maybe you’ll end up finding a whole new story idea, or figuring out that spot in your work in progress that has been needing attention. And even if none of those happens, I guarantee your later writing will be better for the practice, and you’ll all be richer for the quality time.

Free as a bird: Summer Picture Book Reviews

books2017School is finally out here in Maine — we’re a bit late to the party, but it sure is nice! This past Saturday, my husband and I also celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary with a dinner date which included a visit to a bookstore. So, naturally, I took the opportunity to catch up on my picture book reviews.  Through sheer coincidence, I found several of them had a similar theme: birds and flying. So freedom fits naturally as a theme for today.

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Guest Post: Ted Manzer on “writing what you know”

My brother, Ted (left), me (in the boat), my brother Jim (in the  back) and my sister, Margie, playing in the waters of Big Lake, Princeton, Maine.

When I was in grade school, my big brother Teddy graduated from college and went on to graduate school in West Virginia. As his car drove away, I bawled:  despite the fact that he’d often teased me mercilessly, I idolized my big brother.  Years later, that hasn’t changed much: I’m still amazed by him and the way he captures the hearts of his students, his skills in everything from home repair to fly fishing, and now I’m proud to promote him as an author. His first novel, Never Alone, was released last month and is now available on eBook as well.  It’s easy to be biased as his sister because the book includes descriptions which clearly hint at family members and describe familiar places such as our family’s camp in eastern Maine. But there’s more to “writing what you know” than just putting your surroundings on paper. I asked Ted to share with my readers just a bit about the process of crafting this story, which is part of a larger saga, and about what he loves and hates about the writing process:


“Never Alone has been a part of me for a long time. I began writing it back in 2004 when the Red Sox won the World Series. The book has evolved tremendously. In fact, it has split into three books. Strange Courage and Second Chances have peeled off from the original (Originally titled Forgotten Virtues). Two more books now follow (Promises Kept and Grandfather’s Way), so it has evolved into a 5-book family saga. I felt it necessary to split things up to add more detail. Part of it was originally told by a father to his son. I didn’t think that worked very well.

I originally got the idea for the survival book from a dream. I dreamed I was the only survivor of a plane crash in a desolate rugged snow covered place. After that, I thought a book might be in the works and Carl Shae was born. He was a big Carl Yastrzemski fan, but young Carl was born before Yaz became a member of the Red Sox. I don’t really consider myself Carl. I’m more of a composite between Carl and Red. I have Red’s corny sense of humor.

The only character who is a true replica of my family is Carl’s grandfather, Ernie Murphy. Ernie Murphy is Frank (Lawrence) Robinson through and through. Although some of Carl’s experiences closely match things my family did when I was young, Carl’s siblings don’t really match up with mine very much. I figured if they did I might offend someone.

In the thirteen years since I first started writing this I have seen my writing skills evolve. Still, I don’t consider myself some kind of wordsmith, nor do I really wish to be. I like to write manuscripts that are easy to read. If I have to read a sentence three times to understand it I have no desire to continue. Reading should be fun. Back in 2010 I began writing a weekly newspaper column. It started as a foraging column but seven years later I’ve have to expand things a lot. I think the newspaper experience has helped me to become a better editor. It’s made me tighten  my writing and make my words count.

Being a teacher, I’m inundated with writing material every day. Several of the later books are peppered with my teaching experiences. Names have been changed to protect the innocent of course. I also plan to use many of my columns to write a series of practical suburban foraging books called Backyard Treasures. I want to break things out into different geographical regions. My biggest obstacle right now is taking additional pictures. I’ve also written a tragic love story (Virginia) set in rural West Virginia just to prove to myself I can be versatile.

I think if I had to encapsulate the whole process, writing is the fun part. Enjoy that and never let the rest of the process make you quit. Submitting manuscripts is tedious and frustrating. I hate it.

I’m a storyteller. I’ve come to the conclusion that I write a better story than I do a query letter. If Never Alone and the books that follow are successful I’ll be thrilled. If they aren’t I’ve had a wonderful time writing them.”

-Ted Manzer

Never Alone is available through Amazon and other booksellers. You can read Ted’s newspaper columns archived on his website and blog:  He is also on Twitter at @TedManzer.


So, I gave a little speech yesterday…

AATGTea2017cThis spring I was voted in as president for the Maine chapter of the AATG (American Association of Teachers of German).  It’s work I’m proud to do, but it’s not quite as glamorous an honor as it sounds, since ours is a small chapter, so there are few of us to do the work. Nevertheless, it puts me in touch with German teachers across the state and it’s a wonderful way to develop in my profession.  Yesterday was an annual event we hold at the governor’s mansion (called the Blaine House) to honor the achievements of our German students. Our main speaker was Dr. Jay Ketner, the World Languages Specialist for the Maine Department of Education, but I gave a few remarks before his speech and seeing as this blog is all about a love of writing AND languages, I thought I would share it with my readers.

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Mother’s Day PB Reviews: Inspirations

booksmay2017One of my Mother’s Day gifts today was time: a few uninterrupted hours by myself including time to read a slew of picture books at the local bookstore. Although it’s been a while since my last PB Review blog post, I have been reading a lot of picture books, I just haven’t had time to immerse myself in them enough to write quality reviews. So my family’s gift to me becomes my gift to you.

There’s a theme to these books:  they are all written by people I consider as inspirations for my writing, two of whom I’ve actually met, and all of whom I follow on Twitter. I’ll say a little more about those connections in my reviews, so let’s get right to them:

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When the “reluctant reader” is your kid…

RobbieReadsWhen I was about 12, my parents and I went on a 3 week road trip across the country to visit my older sister in Colorado. In addition to my suitcase, I had a “carry-on” sized bag which was FILLED with books. I slowly went through them all on the course of the trip, reading my way though Indiana, Nebraska, Kentucky, etc. As a teenager, I remember staying up until 2am finishing a book one New Year’s Eve. Years later, I still consider myself a book lover, even though I don’t read nearly as much as I would like to. (I’m a teacher, so it’s really hard for me to find time outside of summer vacation).

The point here, is that when I hear people say they “don’t read” or “don’t like to read,” my heart sinks. I hear that from my students a lot, and it is like a punch to my gut, but since I don’t teach English, I try not to take it too personally.

When it’s your own kid? It’s a whole different story.

Thankfully, I haven’t yet heard the “I don’t like to read” line from my boys (they are 8 and 11), but the truth is, they are not yet truly “readers” in the way I would like.  Up until recently, getting them to read was a real chore and there were many afternoons when I had to cheat a bit when filling out the dreaded “reading log” for school. It hurt.

Mind you, reading aloud before bedtime was different– from picture books to Harry Potter to our obsession now with Percy Jackson, they love hearing me read to them. They clearly have respect and interest in storytelling, so that helps.  But a passion for the feel and smell of books? An addiction to grabbing the next book in a series and devouring it in a sitting? Not so much.

Until now. Without wanting to jinx anything, I can share that I’m starting to see the beginnings of a real love of reading in my boys, and for that, I am truly grateful to the authors of several fantastic series:

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