Monday, October 28, 2013

Writing Connections with Jennifer Allison

Writing and reading are new challenges for second and third graders, and Jennifer Allison motivates kids to tackle them with her rambunctious new Iggy Loomis chapter-book series.  Short chapters, a fast-paced plot, and Mike Moran’s zany illustrations playfully engage young readers even as they help hone reading skills—and perhaps even inspire kids to write/draw their own superhero adventures.  Jennifer shares her writing process and a classroom writing prompt for Iggy Loomis: Superkid in Training (Dial, 2013), the first book in the series. Check for additional activities.

Welcome, Jennifer!  As you know, my family members are big fans of your Gilda Joyce mystery series for ages 10 and up.  Iggy is a departure from these mysteries.   What inspired you to write a chapter book?

I have three kids in elementary school (boy-girl twins who are first graders and also a 4th
grader), and I was inspired to write a book that all three of them would want to read.
The combination of real-life problems (how to deal with difficult friends and siblings) and science fiction (secret alien technology and curiosity about other worlds) was inspired by the way ordinary life, imaginative adventures, and ridiculous mishaps all blend together in the daily lives of young kids. Quite a few funny details in Iggy Loomis began with me jotting down a note about something one of my kids actually said or did.

How do you see the illustrations enhancing the text & what were some of the
challenges you faced in writing this chapter book?  

In a nutshell, I was reminded that just because a book is “easy to read” does not mean that it was easy to write!

The narrator of Iggy Loomis: Superkid in Training is Daniel Loomis (Iggy’s older brother), who’s approximately nine years old, although I never reveal his exact age. His voice is sometimes challenging for me because Daniel is far less verbal than a teen like Gilda Joyce, who is a self-described “preternaturally gifted” writer. Writing from Daniel Loomis’s perspective pushes me to think visually and to reveal character traits through actions. The verbal limitations of a less-than-bookish elementary school narrator also make Mike Moran’s illustrations crucial to the book – not just as fun enhancements to the text, but to show the reader the range of emotions Daniel, his little brother Iggy, and best friend Alistair experience.

Another challenge for me was the very streamlined form of this humor/adventure genre for elementary school readers: it’s more linear and pared-down than the structure of the Gilda Joyce books, which include several subplots and an exploration of the inner lives of multiple characters. I naively assumed that writing in a very spare form would make my task as a writer easier, but I was wrong. My editor at Penguin, Lucia Monfried, was crucial when it came to helping me refocus my first drafts of Iggy Loomis on only the most essential story elements.

What was your greatest joy?

A few weeks ago, we launched Iggy Loomis with a pajama party for kids at a wonderful independent bookstore in Chicago called The Book Cellar. There aren’t many bookstore owners who will personally make “bug Jell-O” for a children’s book event, and Suzy Takacs did just that in an effort to get kids thinking about the insect theme of the story.

We planned the bookstore event as a “birthday party” for a new storybook character (Iggy Loomis), and the store was packed with a somewhat zany crowd of sugar-fueled kids ranging from 1st graders through 4th graders. I loved how, when I started reading from the book, they all fell completely silent – on the edge of their seats and genuinely listening to this story about a boy whose little brother gets mysterious superpowers. This was also the first book event that included my own three children and lots of their classmates as participants. I will always remember the end of the party: my younger son Marcus came up to me and asked if I would please also sign his book. He took his copy of Iggy Loomis everywhere for the next week “because I love it so much!”

Wow, it’s lovely to be able to inspire your own kids to read and write!  Do you have a writing prompt or suggestion that might connect with the book?  

Iggy Loomis: Superkid in Training is a humorous science fiction book that introduces several “real world” science concepts including the study of insects and DNA. The website includes a list of suggested nonfiction resources for kids who want to learn more about science. The website also includes a complete classroom discussion guide and a list of interdisciplinary projects that will engage visual and experiential learners. Here’s one project that teachers can find on the website:

Paint Your Own Planet! How do you imagine Alistair’s home planet (Planet Blaron) looks? Draw or paint your vision of Alistair’s home planet. Write a paragraph explaining the choices you made (details of the landscape, color choices, etc.) based on details from the text of Iggy Loomis and/or research about planets in distant galaxies.
I love that this prompt includes writing and drawing since kids this age seem to enjoy and get so much from doing their own visuals.  What are you working on now?

I’m currently finishing the second book in the Iggy Loomis series entitled A Hagfish Called Shirley. Kids interested in unusual sea creatures and weird pets should add the next Iggy Loomis book to their reading lists!

This sounds like so much fun, Jennifer!  I’m going to add it to my reading list.  Thanks for joining us at Pencil Tips. 

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