Monday, April 24, 2017

Ready for Inspiration? Try Balloons Lit. Journal

I was first introduced to Balloons Lit. Journal in 2015 when I saw a call for submissions for Issue 2. Investigating further, I was pleased to find a beautifully designed online magazine of writing and art. This rich resource is appropriate for a wide audience and features authors from all over the world, including student writers. As an educator myself, I am immediately drawn to how this magazine could be a boost to classroom instruction. The first selection, “The Best Poem You’ll Ever Read” is followed by a challenge to the reader to write his or her own poem.

So many pieces in this issue would make excellent classroom writing prompts. “Message from a Stone Buddha to Izzy and Benjamin” is a delightfully clever letter from a garden statue. Using this piece as a model, classroom teachers could ask students to write their own letter to a person from an inanimate object.

An inspirational short fiction, “From Chopin’s Memoirs” could spark meaningful discussions of how to get through hard times. The imagery in this story is profound—reminding us that we must use all the keys of a piano, both black and white, “to play a beautiful tune.”

“Untitled” by thirteen-year-old Ava Caudle lyrically compares a blank canvas to “a symphony yet to be played,” capturing the emotional sphere of every young person contemplating the future. The inclusion of student authors alongside adult writers makes Balloons Lit. Journal  an especially unique publication. And if one did not read the bylines carefully, the reader might not be able to identify work created by young people rather than adults. All the selections are thoughtful and finely tuned.

The dynamic artwork in this issue is not to be missed—particularly Alexandra Bowman’s oil on canvas “Pomegranate” and Sam McCready’s acrylic on paper, “Evening Trees.” I can see using these images as prompts in both writing and art classrooms.

Like previous issues of Balloons Lit. Journal, Issue 5 is a visual and textual cornucopia. Every reader will find something to love. Check out this magazine, available online.  Take the time to enjoy it from cover to cover. You will be uplifted by the variety and depth of the material included. And like the last piece in this issue, “Take the Time to Dream,” you will be tempted “to lose yourself in clouds and sky” where your own creativity will soar.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Charlotte The Scientist

Charlotte The Scientist Is Squished, by Camille Andros, illustrated by Brianne Farley, is a cute bunny story with adorable illustrations appropriate for very young kids.  But Charlotte The Scientist Is Squished is also way more than that.  Charlotte uses the scientific method in trying to solve problems, which provides a fun way to introduce the steps of the scientific method to elementary school students. Charlotte is also a strong, powerful girl who will remind kids of any age that girls can be scientists, mathematicians, or engineers…and that girls are problem-solvers in whatever careers they choose.

Charlotte The Scientist Is Squished makes an excellent writing prompt for the classroom.  After you read Charlotte out loud to your students, here are a few suggestions to get kids writing:

1) Scientists try to find the answers to important questions. If you were a scientist, what questions would YOU want to answer?

2) Do you ever feel squished at home, at school, on the bus, or in other parts of your life?  Write about when you feel squished. Or, if you never feel squished in real life, imagine when you might feel squished….when you and all your friends try to cram into a closet when you are playing hide and seek? When you and your eight dogs (remember…you are imagining this, so you can have as many dogs as you want!) try to fit in one sleeping bag on a camping trip?

3) Do you have anyplace in your life where you have your own space? Describe it. Or, design the perfect place where you could have your own space.  Would it be a private island? A treehouse? A boat?

4) Camille and Brianne are working on a sequel to Charlotte The Scientist is Squished.  If you were writing the next book about Charlotte, what would happen?  What discoveries might Charlotte make?  What problems might she try to solve?

5) What if you were illustrating the next Charlotte book…what changes would you make in the sequel?  Would you give Charlotte a new lab coat?  Different safety goggles? Cool earrings? Rubber boots? How would you make your pictures of Charlotte stand out?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Poetry Power: Poetic Language in Signs

Guest Post by Janet Wong

More people than ever are expressing themselves with art supplies. During the week before the Inauguration and Women’s March(es), people spent $6 million on poster boards and paint markers. While some signs were overtly political, many signs were simple affirmations of our humanity.

With a few Google searches (“protest signs,” “protest art,” “kids protest,” etc.) I found over a thousand examples of inspiring and appealing signs. Many of the most effective signs use poetic devices such as rhyme, repetition, rhythm, alliteration, and wordplay to help them stand out from the crowd—and present learning opportunities for writers. Consider the following examples:

Rhyme: This rhyming text is so much more powerful than, say, “No hatred where I live.”

Repetition: She could’ve said, “No ban, wall, or division.” Would that have been as effective? No, no, no.

Alliteration: “Eighty-nine, feisty, and determined” just doesn’t pack the same punch.

Rhyme, Repetition, and Rhythm: This sign benefits from all three devices: rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. 

And look at these clever examples of wordplay: 

With dozens of favorite signs, it was hard to choose a favorite—but the best sign of all, to me, was probably this one, completely universal in its message and held high:

Which brings me to the point of this piece. Let’s empower kids to make signs. 

Look at the pride on these kids’ faces!

Parents can help kids make signs at home, as language arts exercises. The following sign even satisfies a Common Core requirement to teach students about the use of quotes.

I am not a particularly “political” person, but I am making a greater effort to inform myself, to engage, and to volunteer for all sorts of activities in an attempt to make a daily difference. To inspire you to get involved in whatever inspires you, here is a prewriting exercise and the title poem from my latest book with Sylvia Vardell, Here We Go: A Poetry Friday Power Book.  I hope that you are inspired to do something like starting a walkathon at your school—and, if you do, make sure to bring sign-making supplies for everyone!

BIO: Janet Wong ( is the author of 30 books for children and teens, and the co-creator (with Sylvia Vardell) of The Poetry Friday Anthology series and Poetry Friday Power Book series. (

Monday, April 3, 2017

Writing Connections with Adam Gidwitz

Adam Gidwitz’s new novel The Inquisitor’s Tale is proving as popular as his well-known “Grimm” novels, including A Tale Dark and Grimm.  In an interview with the KidsPost section of the Washington Post , Gidwitz talks about his research process for this novel, which is set in the Middle Ages.  As he traveled in Europe with his wife, a professor of medieval history, Gidwitz read about knights, saints and even a sacred dog.  All these things became part of his fictional tale, but he added many of his own intriguing details.  For example, the young peasant girl Jeanne is loosely based on St. Joan of Arc, of whom little is known of her childhood.  And a farting dragon makes an appearance!

Below are writing lessons for the classroom or for individual writers ages 8 and up.  Gidwitz’s website includes a teacher’s guide

EXPLORING HISTORY:  Classroom Discussion:  Gidwitz makes the past come alive by centering historic events in the lives of three young people and a dog on a dangerous quest for sacred objects.  You might apply his process to the classroom study of any historic time period—or even to the study of current events.

Classroom Writing:  Depending on what issue or historical time period you may be studying, you might help kids to connect to it on a more interactive, dramatic level.  Have each student make up a character who is involved in a historic event.  For example, a girl or boy involved in a suffrage march or Civil Rights Era eat-in.  Or a young neighbor helping the Wright brothers to fly the first airplane.  Or a youngster trying to grow food in a weedy Victory Garden during WWII.  What makes Gidwitz’s novel particularly compelling, though, is that the child characters must deal with uncertainty and danger, which creates suspense.  Sinister knights try to kidnap Jeanne; quicksand creates problems for travelers.

Ask students to put their characters in a moment of realistic danger or in the midst of a big problem that they must figure out how to solve/deal with.  Have them brainstorm some possible dangers/problems, alone and as a class.  What does the main character do?  Have students close their eyes and imagine this scene in their heads, focusing on what their kid character might see, hear, smell, taste, and touch as part of this experience.  What do their clothes look and feel like?  What’s their mode of transportation?  Do they have a pet?  Are they scared? Angry? Confused?

Students might do some internet or library or classroom book research.  For example, looking at historic photographs might give them ideas of details of clothing or historic items to include in their Historic Moments pieces.

Ask students to read their pieces aloud.  As a group, discuss what they learned by researching/writing these pieces—and by listening to others’ pieces.


Monday, March 27, 2017

“All Talk and No Action”

guest post by Claudia Mills

          Oh, that boring word said. We do need to have some way to know which character is speaking in a stretch of dialogue, but to hear said, said, said, said, said, said is almost unbearable.

          The only thing worse, alas, is to switch out said for a bunch of “fancy” speech verbs. An occasional shouted, whispered, complained, retorted is a welcome relief, but a long string of hundred-dollar speech verbs calls attention to itself much more than plain old said ever did. Worst of all is modifying each said with an adverb: said sadly, said angrily, said wistfully.

          Solution: introduce brief bits of action into dialogue. Letting us know what characters are doing as they speak not only identifies speakers, but places readers fully in a scene. Instead of talking heads, we have living, breathing, moving human beings.

          For example, in my recent book about an aspiring seventh-grade writer, Write This Down, here are some instances where a speaker is identified simply by my showing what she is doing as she speaks:

 “That isn’t funny.” Now Kylee’s distressed enough that she puts down her knitting.


Kylee shrugs. “Okay.” But she crinkles her forehead in a skeptical way.

           One way to demonstrate this technique to your students is to create a short dialogue, written as in a play, just the words spoken. Here’s one I use when I teach:

“How are you?” 
“I’m fine. How about you?”
 “Just okay.”
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s my mom.”
“What about her?”
“I think she’s sick, like really sick.”
“Oh, no!”

          Have the students name the two characters. Now edit the dialogue (on the board) with each line tagged with, e.g., “John said” or Mary said.” Read it aloud so the students can hear how deadly this is. Next try replacing each said – every single one – with a fancy speech verb, or speech verb plus adverb. Read it aloud. Ouch!

          Ah, but now let the students offer suggestions about where the dialogue should take place: in a shopping mall, at the pool, in the school cafeteria? Once a setting has been established, a few of the speech tags can replaced by brief bits of action, specific to that setting. Vary their placement by sometimes having action precede a line of speech and sometimes follow it.

“How are you?” John asked Mary, as they walked toward the pool.
“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about you?”
“Just okay.” John fiddled with the towel draped over his shoulders.
Mary stared at him. “What’s the matter?”
After a long pause, John said, “It’s my mom.”
“What about her?” A kid on the high board dove into the water with a huge splash, but Mary didn’t turn to look.
 “I think she’s sick, like really sick,” John whispered.
          “Oh, no!”

          Don’t let dialogue be “all talk and no action.” Small bits of interspersed action make the talking real. Action makes talkers come alive.

Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including How Oliver Olson Changed the World (an ALA Notable Book of the Year) and The Trouble with Ants (which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly), as well as the Franklin School Friends series of chapter books from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Claudia lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her family and her cat, Snickers. Visit her at

Monday, March 20, 2017

Comparison Poem--One Minute Till Bedtime

How do you inspire students to write beautiful poetry? Share beautiful poetry in your classroom! A wonderful new resource is One Minute Till Bedtime selected by former Children’s Poet Laureate Kenn Nesbitt. This extensive collection features new poems from Jane Yolen, Jon Scieszka, Nikki Grimes, Jack Prelutsky, Lemony Snicket, Mary Ann Hoberman, Eileen Spinelli, and dozens of other well-known children’s authors. Each poem is a minute in length, perfect for a quick transitional moment before lining up for lunch, dismissal, or specials. It’s also perfect for calming a class down to begin social studies or math. Dreamy illustrations by Christoph Niemann will invite young readers to cuddle up with this book in a corner. If you are looking for poetry to add to your classroom library, this should be on your wish list.

For the writing workshop, One Minute Till Bedtime provides a wide selection of poems on various topics to use as models. You will find poems on virtually any subject of interest to your students. Family relationships, school, home, food—it can all be found in this 164 page compendium of rhyme, rhythm, and figurative language. Particularly notable are poems on the seasons, which could tie in to the science curriculum. Poems on animals also abound. My contribution to this collection is a poem called “Pigeon.” 

Illustration by Christoph Niemann
from One Minute Till Bedtime

Read this poem to your students and discuss how the poem compares pigeons to other birds. Challenge them  to write their own comparison poem. How does a flamingo compare to a penguin? How does a frog compare to a toad? This activity requires some science related research to compare two animals. Integrating language arts with science expands critical thinking skills and creativity!

Happy researching and writing!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Encouraging Nonfiction Writing in School

When I was a kid, I read fiction with two very limited exceptions: I read books about dogs and ballet. As an adult, it was pretty much the same story. So when I started writing for children, naturally I wrote only fiction.  Then, a number of years ago, I was asked to write a series of nonfiction books about civil rights figures in Virginia.  Hmmm.  I didn’t think there would be a lot of dogs or ballerinas involved. And it sounded a little like homework. 

I thought about it for a while. I didn’t mind the research. In fact, I was ready to learn new things. But it was the thought of note taking on small white index cards, one thought and source to a card, made me feel faint. I absolutely hated doing that in school. But fortunately, before I said, “NO,” I had an epiphany: I can take notes in a way that works for me.

I realize that piles of index cards with one or two lines on each one may be a great organizational tool for some. But for me, a visual learner, that stack, with all that wasted space, is totally overwhelming. If I could take notes in my tiny handwriting, on colored legal pads, with page numbers in the margins, I would be much happier. Then I could star things that I liked, use pink highlighter on facts I wanted to be sure to include and annotate others with cross-references. I could even color code things. It worked. In fact, I kept writing nonfiction and I haven’t looked back.

Writing nonfiction teaches the writer so much. So why not encourage your students to write nonfiction?

GETTING STARTED: Before setting children to the task of writing nonfiction, it’s important to have them read nonfiction. Next, pick topics that they can research easily. Writing about animals is a good starting place, because animals, in general, are less mired in conflicting information. Then consider moving into cultural and biographical subjects. I would suggest that you save history, especially long-ago history, for later, as it is hardest area in which to verify facts.

RESEARCH: This is a great time to teach children that not everything they read is true. It’s not about finding three sources that say the same thing anymore, like when I was a kid. And not all internet sites are reliable. Finally, sometimes it’s a question of saying “experts differ.”

NOTETAKING: Obviously it is crucial to keep track of where a particular bit of information comes from. But it doesn’t have to be done on white index cards. I would suggest providing children with several options.

OUTLINING: It’s a good idea to ask students to outline their stories, but only in a general way to give the story some structure. Then comes the really fun part. A writer I really respect told me that when you are researching a topic and come across something that makes you say, “Wow!” include it in your story. If it surprises you, it will surprise others as well. I encourage you to share this idea with your students. And then let them put pencil to paper!
BIO: Moira Rose Donohue has written over 20 nonfiction books for children.  The Invasion of Normandy from North Star Editions came out in January 2017. Dog on a Bike from National Geographic was released in February 2017. Moira offers a school program called "Writing Interesting Nonfiction" that she loves to present to elementary schools. And she still loves dogs and ballerinas. Visit