Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


"Learning to Read as a Writer" by Edie Hemingway

We all read for education, for enjoyment, or for escape.  But as I have become a more experienced writer, I've found that I've also begun to read more critically and analytically.  And I've become more discerning about the books I choose to read.

How often have you started a book, only to set it aside if it doesn't grab your interest in the first chapter, or even on the first page?  Have you ever continued to read it in order to analyze what it is in the style or technique that you didn't like?

I would venture to say that the best writers are also avid readers and were readers before they became writers.  Below are some of my suggestions for learning how to read as a writer in order to improve your own writing.  I'm not recommending copying or imitating other writers, but, rather, studying the techniques used and then applying those techniques to your own voice as a writer.

What should you choose to read?
  1. Classics that have held up through the years
  2. Current award winners
  3. Best sellers within your chosen genre
  4. Those that receive notable reviews
  5. Books with themes, setting, styles, etc. similar to your own interests
  6. The most recent titles in libraries and bookstores in order to stay current with trends
  7. Books recently published or promoted by editors or agents to whom you wish to submit your own work
  8. Books that excel in your own weakest areas (If you know plotting is your weakness, then read books that are plot-driven.)
Specific Elements to Analyze
  1. Emotional attachment--Do you care about the character/s?
  2. Characterization--believable, dimensional, understandable, true to age, gender, and times?
  3. Plot and structure--Does the story make sense?  Is it straightforward or complicated?  Are there subplots?  Is there a clear beginning, middle, and ending with a climax and resolution?  Does it unfold in a linear or layered structure?
  4. Setting--What makes it come alive on the pages?  Visual, concrete, sensory images and details?  Is there a download of description, or is it interwoven throughout?
  5. Point of View--Is the right character telling the story?  Is there more than one POV character and, if so, is the change delineated clearly?  What is the psychic distance?  1st person, 3rd person?
  6. Dialogue--Does it flow, or is it stilted?  Does it convey the diction of the place and times?  Is each character's voice/speech unique and consistent?  Does it drive the plot forward?
  7. Theme--Is it clear or hidden?  Does the author trust the reader to figure it out on his/her own or is it pounded in?  Does the author use symbolism, metaphors, references, and/or imagery?
  8. Opening pages--Does the story begin with action or mood?  Does it grab your attention and elicit emotion?
  9. Sentence-level polishing--Does the writing appear effortless and seamless, or does it draw your attention and make you stumble over words?  Does the language flow?  Is there repetition of certain overused words or phrases?  Is the sentence structure varied?
  10. Does the author "show" or "tell?"
  11. Transitions--How does the author move from one scene to the next?  How does the author show passage of time and growth in character?
You may not have time to look for all that I've listed, but do focus on specific elements that you know you struggle with.  Look for examples of how they were done well in a book you've chosen.  How can you then apply those techniques to your own work-in-progress?  And if you don't like a book, approach this exercise in the opposite way.  What should you try to avoid in your own writing?

The more I read, the more I realize I need to learn about writing.  Here are some books I've read recently and highly recommend:  The Art & Craft of the Short Story, by Rick DeMarinis; A Thousand Never Evers, by Shana Burg; The Miner's Daughter, by Gretchen Moran Laskas, and When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton (to be released in June 2009).


Whidbey Island MFA Program Mock Printz Awards

At the residency this January, we discussed twelve young adult books that librarians have been talking about as possible Printz Awards. We each placed blue post-its (B) on our four most favorite books, and a red post-it (R) on what we thought should be the medal.

Our results:


(BBBBB) NATION by Terry Pratchett RR

(BBBBB-Possible Newbery?) THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins


(BB-R) MADAPPLE by Christina Meldrum


(B)THE LAST-EXIT TO NORMAL by Michael Harmon


(B) LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow

(B) PAPER TOWNS by John Green

IMPOSSIBLE by Nancy Werlin

The actual awards will be announced next Monday morning in Denver,

beginning at 7:45 MT. You can watch the announcements live through

streaming video at http://ala.unikron.com/

Full information about finding out about the winners is on the ALA website at:


This week we have been discussing 2000 Printz Award Medal MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers. Considering that we just got our first black president, this was the right week to discuss this book. There was no doubt in our minds that this book deserved the Printz Medal.


Inspired reading

The book I am currently reading has not been published. It is John Coy's most recent draft of the second book in his series for middle graders.

John is in my writing group (as well as being a fellow Potato Blogger!). I watched as he contemplated signing the contract for a four-book series. I saw how he tackled the first book in the series, giving himself daily writing goals which he dutifully achieved. I read and heard early, middle, and late drafts of his first book, TOP OF THE ORDER, which will be on the shelves in just a few months. And now with this second book in the series, I'm seeing how John has polished an earlier draft into a smooth, fast-paced story that will capture the interest of sports-loving kids.

I find all of this highly inspirational for me as I struggle with completing my own middle grade novel, a story I have been working on for years. As I stumble and stall and get bogged down, John is a reminder of what can be accomplished with perseverance and hard work. As Christy said in her New Year's blog, "slow and steady" can achieve great things. Far from slow, John is very steady which is one of the reasons for his many successes.

I am grateful for John, and my other writing friends (including all of the other Potatoes) who through their example, keep me going when the task of writing seems too monumental.


Atticus, Obama, Scout and Christy

Who didn’t see Gregory Peck in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? The American Film Institute chose Atticus Finch as the greatest hero in 100 years of film history. The book was voted best novel of the century. It’s no surprise that throughout the recent presidential campaign there were slogans suggesting “Atticus Finch for President!” This weekend I finished reading Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic for the first time. The story is set in the segregated southern United States of the 1930s. Harper Lee’s hero is an attorney who fights to prove the innocence of a black man unjustly accused of rape. “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we start is no reason not to try to win,” Atticus says. The racism of that period was too powerful and the jury condemned an innocent man to death. I wish Atticus, along with all the others who fought for racial equality could have watched today’s inauguration of Barack Obama. Yet it was not Atticus, but rather Scout who provided the incentive to finally pick up this book.

Over a year ago I enrolled in a Stanford Continuing Education class “Writing Poetry and Fiction for Children.” Our first assignment was most likely a common one. We were instructed to begin writing each day that week with the words, “I remember” and then continue for at least five minutes. There was no intimidation, no writer’s block involved—a great assignment for a beginner like me. The process was exhilarating. I made connections never before considered while reliving experiences from my childhood. A unifying theme became apparent and I wondered if maybe I could shape these exercises into a book. But what kind? A memoir? A middle-grade novel? As an illustrator I have always focused on picture books.

We did not share this first assignment in the writing class, so I decided that I would get some response from my own critique group. One member said my writing reminded her of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I checked it out from the local library and had a delightful read. Cisneros somehow gave me “permission” to write vignettes in a non-linear way, pulling episodes together to tell a story.

Last summer I signed up for another Stanford Writing class, this time “The Art of Memoir.” Part of me struggles with the very idea of writing a memoir; it seems indulgent, and self-important. But I wanted to explore where writing from memory writing would take me. This time classmates had opportunities to “workshop” writing in class. Most wrote from adult perspectives; I wrote events as I experienced them as a child—with only partial understanding of things happening around me. I alluded to adult infidelities and family secrets, wrote of our sudden move across the country 3000 miles away from the father I adored, told of my mother’s struggle to make ends meet and eventually the revelation of my parent’s divorce in a time when divorce was uncommon. I wrote of the buoying power of friendship through all of this.

I’m confused about who my audience would be? An adult reading the work could read between the lines. Could a child digest this work? Is memoir a form for children? I like writing in first person with the innocence of a child, but am curious how to present complex adult concepts and stay in a child’s voice. I asked an editor-friend and she recommended To Kill A Mockingbird as a great novel written from a child’s perspective. It is powerful to watch a sense of conscience grow in Scout and her brother, Jem. Harper Lee did not write a children’s book or a memoir. Categorizing is limiting by definition. I welcome suggestions of other titles written from a child’s point of view whether they are memoir, young adult, middle-grade, or adult fiction. I haven’t figured out yet a form for my memory writing, but I’m enjoying the process.