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  • Jennifer Richard Jacobson talks inspiration.
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    Five Questions With…Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Paper Things)

    by ILA Staff
     | May 29, 2015

    Jennifer Richard Jacobson says she doesn’t look for heavy topics on which to base her books, but she finds them nonetheless. Whether it’s homelessness or just not fitting in, her characters have depth and realism. Inspired by reading great works before embarking on her writing career, Jacobson will share at the ILA 2015 Conference how one book can appeal across any grade in a school and unite the student body and staff.

    You've written across all ages, from children's books to YA novels and resources for teachers. Do you have a favorite group to write for?

    I enjoy writing for all ages. I adore the lap experience with the picture book reader, the sense of humor of the chapter book reader, the ability to explore more mature themes with young adults. However, if told that I had to pick one and only one, I would choose middle grade novels in the same 9–14 age pocket as Small as an Elephant and Paper Things. Middle-grade readers swing between genuine innocence and piercing wisdom, and I love developing characters who do the same.

    How does your writing process differ depending on the age group you're writing for?

    I try hard to look at the world through the eyes of my reader. So sometimes I am 4, sometimes 6, but most often 12.

    Paper Things crosses some pretty tough subject matter, including homelessness. How did you choose that theme?

    I don’t set out to write about tough themes, but I do end up there!

    When beginning a new story, I combine terrains I wish to explore. Like Ari in Paper Things, I was marginalized during my tween years. And like Ari, I constructed homes and families from catalog cutouts. I thought it would be interesting to revisit those feelings of isolation, of losing ground in school, of being left behind.

    At the same time I was imagining Ari, I was becoming increasingly concerned about young adults who “age out” of foster care and lack the support needed to transition into the adult world. I decided to give Ari an older brother who chooses to leave their guardian and take his little sister with him. Unfortunately, Gage didn’t secure a steady job and apartment before they left home.

    What about being a teacher made you adept at writing for children?

    I work in high poverty schools and meet so many children with a strong desire to achieve despite incredible hardship. The resilience of these children never ceases to amaze me. Their stories inspire my own.

    You said you learned to write through a year of reading you did for a job. Is there one book you think is a must-read for an aspiring writer?

    Charlotte’s Web. It demonstrates some of the finest writing in children’s literature—and talk about tough themes! This story deals with the pending slaughter of the main character and the death of his best friend. For a moment, consider the gravity of the first sentence: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”  

    One of the reasons we all love this book is that it respects the reader. It allows us to ponder the vagaries of life and death, love and loyalty, through the eyes of an 8-year-old and a young pig. What more could anyone want from a book?

    Jacobson will co-present with literacy coach Jennifer Allen Saturday, July 18 at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis. Entitled “Creating Unity: How the One Book One School Experience Helps All Readers Feel Like Insiders,” the session will be based on a One Book One School program conducted at the Albert Hall School in 2014. Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.

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  • Lester L. Laminack talks read-aloud inspiration.
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    Five Questions With… Lester L. Laminack (Three Hens and a Peacock)

    by ILA Staff
     | May 22, 2015

    Lester L. Laminack has used every facet of his life as inspiration for writing. From his grandmother’s teacake recipe to his time in the classroom, he has crafted fiction and professional development work. Focused heavily on using read-alouds in different contexts, Laminack’s books teach students “the music in language” and teachers how to use texts to illuminate serious issues like bullying in school.

    In July, Laminack will be at the ILA 2015 Conference where he will be a part of a Teaching Edge session on using mentor texts. Here, he talks about his inspiration and how he makes his fiction great read-aloud material.

    You’ve often discussed the importance of read-alouds in school. Do you write with that in mind?

    I am very conscious of rhythm and phrasing as I write. All through the development of a story, I pause to read and reread and read aloud. I listen for the sounds of words hanging together. I listen for those places where the balance is off, where the music in language just doesn’t resonate. I read with attention to how those words feel in my mouth, noting where I stumble or have to pause when reading aloud. Reading and listening to my own writing is one of my most frequently used revision tools.

    What is it about read-alouds that gets children interested in independent reading?

    Reading aloud to children is one way of making numerous deposits into the account they will draw from across their lives. It fills their ears with the music of written language, attuning the ear to the rhythms, pacing, and flow of language used in story, essays, expository material, and every other type of text. Reading aloud broadens vocabulary, develops familiarity with the arc of a story, the patterns of beginning, middle, and end, the development of a character. It creates a sense of kinship among those who share the story. Reading aloud to students exposes them to the structure of an essay, the framework for an argument, the reflection of a memoir. It is an engaging and non-threatening way to expose children to various genres, authors and purposes for reading. When a text is delivered on the voice of one who is passionate about language and writing and reading and teaching, the result is a powerful current that pulls anyone within earshot of the banks of onlooking into the flow of language. I believe that experience is necessary to the development of independent readers.

    How has your work in the classroom affected your children’s books?

    I was an elementary classroom teacher and a Title I reading teacher before I was a college professor, and I think of myself as a teacher who happens to be a writer. As a teacher, I have knowledge of the growth and development patterns in children and youth. I believe that helps to keep me focused on what and how children make sense of experience. And while that clearly rests in my conscious mind, it doesn’t constrict or define parameters for me. Perhaps it comes from that academic background, but I believe the more powerful influence is that I have somehow kept alive the child within.

    Do you sit down with a particular lesson in mind or does the plot just lead to the lesson (envy in Three Hens and a Peacock, for instance)?

    I believe my best writing emerges and is fed by the process of allowing a story to grow. I have attempted to begin with a “lesson” in mind and it always fails. When I have taken that stance, the story builds to a point and implodes beneath the weight of that heaviness. There is one particular story I ache to tell and the primary problem with every draft I’ve made is that I am being guided by a particular “lesson” when I need to be guided by the character and let the story emerge. I have learned that the story works better when I give the characters enough room to live in my head and just follow them around taking notes.

    We saw a photo of you in front of a  very large, jam-packed bookshelf. Is that really yours, and if so, how are the books organized?

    Yes, that photo was taken in 2010 in my old loft in downtown Asheville [North Carolina]. I’ve moved since then, but had similar shelving built in the new place so all my friends could come along. Regarding the system for organizing, anyone who knows me well understands my need for organization (I can hear a few of my friends chuckling as they read this). These books are organized in two ways. The majority of these books are shelved alphabetically by author’s last name. I also have several subsets organized by category or topic (bats, honeybees, civil rights, the Holocaust, kindness, etc.) because I work with them frequently and need to pull a collection for some purpose.

    Laminack, along with Ruth Culham and Kate Messner, will host a Teaching Edge session Saturday, July 18 at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis. Entitled “The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing,” the session will be based on Culham’s book, The Writing Thief, and the other presenters’ experiences as authors and educators. Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.

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  • Kate DiCamillo talks about being a literacy ambassador.
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    5 Questions With...Kate DiCamillo (Flora and Ulysses)

    by April Hall
     | Mar 20, 2015

    Kate DiCamillo is the perfect person to tap as an ambassador for literature and reading. As a child with chronic pneumonia, she poured herself into books when she wasn’t able to go out and explore the world. When she turned 29, DiCamillo began to write books herself and racked up the awards for Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and more.

    Writing every day and working for the Library of Congress as a “champion” keeps her busy, but DiCamillo was able to carve out some time to answer five questions.

    Congratulations on becoming the very first National Summer Reading Champion! What are your duties with that position?

    What I'm doing—encouraging kids (everywhere I go) to head to their public library and sign up for the summer reading program—is not really a duty as much as it is a pleasure. I was a kid who loved the summer reading program at Cooper Memorial Library, and I want kids to experience that same sense of joy and safety and possibility.

    You are also the U.S. National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Is that a very different role?

    The ambassador role is about encouraging people to read together—parents reading to kids, teachers reading to kids, kids reading to parents, kids reading together. But the two roles certainly connect. Wouldn't it be great if everyone went to the local public library and read together there this summer?

    That’s two face-of-literature positions. Why do you think you are tapped to represent reading in that way?

    Aack. I don't know. Maybe it is because I get such joy from books, from reading. Hopefully, that joy is visible on my face.

    You write two pages every day five days a week. How do you keep such discipline?

    I have found that it is easier to be disciplined than it is to feel guilty/bad/sad about not doing the work. That is, it's easier to do the work than it is not to do the work. Also, life just makes more sense when I am writing.

    What are you working on now?

    I've got another Deckawoo Drive story coming out this fall (Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon) and a novel coming out in the spring of 2016.

    Busy, busy, busy ...

    April Hall is editor of Literacy Daily. A journalist for about 20 years, she has specialized in education, writing and editing for newspapers, websites, and magazines.

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  • The author of Dory Fantasmagory talks about art and having her most helpful critics at home.

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    Five Questions With... Abby Hanlon (Dory Fantasmagory)

    by Morgan Ratner
     | Nov 21, 2014

    Abby Hanlon has a rich imagination. She says herself that she “played imaginatively long past the age considered normal” and based her decision to become a teacher on the ability to cultivate other young minds.

    When she left the classroom to write children’s books Hanlon created Dory Fantasmagory and Ralph and realized it was she who could best illustrate them as well and a new career as a self-taught artist blossomed.

    But she couldn’t stay out of the classroom for long and often makes author visits to share her books and answer questions. That way, she still fosters those young minds in person.

    You have 7-year-old twins. Do you test run your stories with them and do they have veto power?

    Yes, I definitely test run everything with them, but they are a little more like collaborators than guinea pigs. They fuel me with tons of ideas and we talk about Dory so much that it’s as if her life is sort of happening right along side theirs. Mostly, I pay close attention to what makes my kids laugh -- they are so joyous and weird, and I want to capture that happiness in my stories. They are my guides and I am merely the spy/recorder.

    Do they have veto power? Yes, I guess they do in a way. In one version of Dory Fantasmagory, I had the chapter where Dory can’t find Violet’s doll much more dramatic and higher stakes for Dory. My daughter hated it—she was upset by it and couldn’t handle that suspense, so I toned it down for her. 

    There’s another Dory book due next year. Are you working on anything else?

    I’m starting to think about a third Dory book, but I’m still deep into working on the second Dory.  As a full-time mom, the home/work balance does not allow for me to work on more than one project at a time.

    Why did you want to become the illustrator for your books?

    That is a question I get asked a lot and I always think it’s because the person asking doesn’t think I should have! Well, I guess that means at least I have the true insecurity of an artist.

    When I first had the idea to write and illustrate a children’s book, I was a first grade teacher.  And I never even for a second had the rational thought, “I can write a book, but since I’ve never drawn before, I can’t illustrate a book.” I often wonder why I immediately leaped to, “I can learn how to draw! I can illustrate too!” And I think it’s because when I first started to think about children’s books, I thought of the relationship between the words and pictures. That seemed to be the whole point of it, the exchange between the two.  And my brain couldn’t think of just the words alone. So as laughable as my drawings were back then when I first started, I still needed to develop the words and pictures together. My drawings are an extension of my writing.

    What’s your favorite part of author visits to the classroom?

    I like when the kids laugh at my book.  And I think it’s so funny when they ask me totally random, inappropriate, and personal questions at the end of my presentation and the teachers look mortified. I also love connecting with teachers and librarians, because I still think of myself as a teacher. 

    Is there a children’s book author who influenced your writing?

    Astrid Lindgren, Beverley Cleary, Roald Dahl, and Betty MacDonald (Mrs. Piggle Wiggle) have all shaped my idea of how to put your heart and soul into a chapter book. But I’ve definitely spent more time with picture books. When I think about the craft of writing, here are some classic picture books that I use as a benchmark for excellence:

    • George and Martha by James Marshall
    • Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber
    • Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel
    • Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish
    • Almost Anything by Kevin Henkes
    • Miss Nelson is Missing and The Stupids by Harry Allard

    Morgan Ratner is a communications intern with International Reading Association.

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  • Rachel Vail writes on all levels, from picture books to The Huffington Post.

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    Five Questions With... Rachel Vail (Unfriended)

    by April Hall
     | Nov 07, 2014

    Rachel Vail has done it all: novels, picture books, short stories. She even recently wrote for The Huffington Post about the complicated lives of middle-school students.

    Her debut novel in 1991, Wonder, received an editor’s choice award from Booklist, as did the follow-up Do-Over. Her most recent book, Unfriended, takes a look at bullying, as do several of her novels. Her characters take on different dimensions, demonstrating that no character has just one dimension, like those characters written by a literary hero, Judy Blume.

    Vail said she sees the act of reading and writing as a weapon against bullying and light to illuminate the conflicts students face every day.

    Why have you chosen to write on the topics you have, specifically bullying?

    I didn’t really set out to write about bullying. I always try to approach my characters with respect and honesty about how it really feels to grow up right now. I want to tell stories that provoke thought as well as laughter, and ultimately a nod of recognition, “yes, oh, me too. With Unfriended, I set out to look at the social politics of middle school. Bullying is naturally in there. I didn’t want to make characters to embody the archetypes of bully, victim, and bystander. That felt facile—and not really true to how these things usually play out. I wanted to get inside each character at the moment of feeling disempowered or callously mistreated—and then to turn around and see what the other kid intended. Very few of us plan to be bullies, or see ourselves that way. I love writing in the voices of middle-schoolers, who are just beginning to realize they don’t have the full story, and wonder why a friend’s interpretation of what just happened can seem so completely off. The emerging awareness of multiple perspectives is a big reason I wrote Unfriended from so many viewpoints—letting the form of the book reflect the questions it’s asking.

    What gives you the authentic voice of a middle-schooler in conflict? Is it mostly from personal experience or your experience as a parent?

    Authenticity is one of the most important elements to me in writing. I use many routes in. I started writing when memories of painfully awkward cafeteria snubs and flirtations were still hideously fresh, so I never got to experience the blissful amnesia about adolescence that is the well-earned compensation for achy knees. On the other hand, I have two kids of my own, and the emerging wrinkles to prove it. I also stay in touch with readers and other young teens, who keep me honest. But mostly I use memory and specifically some acting exercises to get to the depths and heights of that crazy tumult of being an adolescent. And then I edit and revise and throw stuff away for a long time, until it reads easy and smooth, like the simple immediate truth.

    You’ve not only written books, but you recently wrote a column for Huffington Post about the 15 things middle school kids want parents to know. What compelled you to write that?

    Although I am a parent myself, and have been an adult for some time now, I still also owe an allegiance to Team Kid. I promised myself while writing my first book that I would always tell the truth about how it really feels to be in the midst of growing up, without sugar coating anything or goosing the consequences in the direction adults might want them to go. I also spend a lot of time each day thinking in the mind and worldview of adolescents, so that voice is as comfortable for me to slip into as my old gray writing cardigan (which nobody gets to see me in, ever.) I thought I might be able to do a valuable thing, if I could express the sometimes hard-to-hear truths that middle school kids wish their parents could hear, and understand. It was a little weird for me, since I usually don’t write directly for an adult audience. But it was fun—and helpful to me as a parent, too!

    Which do you like more, writing series, where you can follow through on big themes over several books, or one-offs, where you can tie up loose ends in a single story?

    I don’t really know how to write series, though I have done it a few times. I’ve recently heard other writers discuss the topic and have learned that I do it all wrong, in fact. When I’ve written series, I tend to think I am writing just the one book, but then there is another character within the story, or another journey within the character I still have left over, tapping at my attention, wanting its chance. My characters tend to get their grips on me, especially when I really love one of them or find that voice especially fun or difficult to write from within. It’s like Michael Corleone says: just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

    You’ve been writing for more than 20 years now. How have you seen the treatment of bullying change in literature over that time?

    I read Judy Blume’s Blubber when I was in elementary school in a single shocked gulp. I remember feeling like Judy Blume got it. She understood that the bully wasn’t necessarily the strongest, prettiest, coolest person in school, and the bullied kid wasn’t simply angelic and perfect. I felt exposed by that book, caught in my complicity in some less-than-kind stuff that was happening in my own school. Paula Danziger, Eleanor Estes, Robert Cormier, and Paul Zindel, among others, also took on the subtleties of cruelty and kindness in kid-world. I think for a while thereafter, the theme of bullying arose mostly in stories of difference and identity—racial, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, class. Bullying may be popping up as a hot topic again now in the context of the rise of social media among middle-schoolers. Authors such as Rebecca Stead, Rainbow Rowell, Wendy Mass, Jay Asher, Mariah Fredericks, and many others are exploring aspects of the social whirl that threaten to consume the kids who don’t always realize how cruel, or how powerful, or even how wonderful, they really are.

    It seems to me that reading fiction together and discussing what choices characters make is a great way for adults to broach potentially uncomfortable conversations about what is happening in the lives of adolescents we love. Also, reading is a way of thinking with somebody else’s mind; engaging with challenging fictional characters makes us more empathic. So reading is inherently an anti-bullying strategy.

    April Hall is editor of Reading Today Online. She can be reached at ahall@/.

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