Archives: Middle Grade Novels

Poetry Friday: Heartseeker

Join this week’s poetry party at the blog Nix the Comfort Zone. There, you will find poetry reviews, original verses, and favorite poems shared by the Poetry Friday blogging community.

Have you ever picked up a prose novel and — surprise! — at the start of every chapter there’s a poem to greet you?

When prose novelists incorporate poetry in any form, I’m happy.

In Possession, A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel, modern literati uncover a secret Victorian romance. The whole story hinges on verses written by a fictional 19th century poet.

Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien include invented verse — often in the form of songs shared by their characters — in their fantasy novels. Other authors — such as Cornelia Funke in her Inkheart series — use poetic epigraphs from a variety of authors at the beginning of chapters.

More recent examples: Nikki Grimes’ recent Between the Lines is, in part, about teen slam poets writing their own verses. I used poetry in my prose novel Takedown to show another side of athletic Lev’s character.

What are some writing-craft reasons why an author might choose to incorporate poetry into a prose novel?

I asked this question of debut middle grade novelist Melinda Beatty. Her wonderful fantasy, Heartseeker, published in June.  Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

A vibrant fantasy-adventure debut about a girl who can see lies.

You’re a Fallow of the Orchard. You’re as tough as a green apple in summer . . .

Only Fallow was just six harvests old when she realized that not everyone sees lies. For Only, seeing lies is as beautiful as looking through a kaleidoscope, but telling them is as painful as gnawing on cut glass. Only’s family warns her to keep her cunning hidden, but secrets are seldom content to stay secret.

When word of Only’s ability makes its way to the King, she’s plucked from her home at the orchard and brought to the castle at Bellskeep. There she learns that the kingdom is plagued by traitors, and that her task is to help the King distinguish between friend and foe. But being able to see lies doesn’t necessarily mean that others aren’t able to disguise their dishonesty with cunnings of their own.

In the duplicitous, power-hungry court, the truth is Only’s greatest weapon . . . and her greatest weakness.

Each chapter of Heartseeker begins with a poem, song, or piece of religious verse. Not from our world, but from Orstral — Melinda’s invented universe — with its rural farmers, Romani-like barge community, and palace intrigues.

Here is the poem that starts the readers’ journey, right at the top of Chapter 1:

Call out, call out, you loud jays, you honey-throated sparrows!
Sing out the summer as it pours into the valleys,
Into the Hush, the Rill, the Lannock and the Blue.
Cry warmth for the Sandkin plains,
For the Mollier vines.
Life up your voices for gentle Dorvan tides
and cool Folque stone.
You sons and daughters of Orstral,
Join the chorus of the coming long light!

–Jylla Burris, poet, Songs of Orstral

When I finished Heartseeker (I sped through the last 100 pages — couldn’t put it down!), I stopped to think about this technique. Fascinating! Through brief poems and verse snippets, Melinda was able to communicate information about the world of the story, a world that was new to me, but clearly one with a unique history, various cultures and belief systems, ruling families, and social mores.

Here’s what Melinda had to say:

When I lived in Britain, it occurred to me that every culture’s got their touchstones—the things everyone knows, whether it’s old television shows, books, politics or scandal. Once I got a broader understanding, especially of the entertainment, I understood a little more about what shaped the people I interacted with every day. Writing songs, stories and poetry from the different peoples of Orstral helped me get to know them—to know what they all had in common, whether that was a rhyme that everyone knew from the cradle, or a bawdy pub tune.

What do you think of this technique? How does it help you, as a reader, connect to the story? I’d love to hear about some novels you’ve read that incorporate poetry, either as a plot element or to help with the world-building in some way. Please share your favorites in the comments.

Melinda Beatty has had years of practice trying to explain to others why she was just having an imaginary conversation between two people that don’t exist, so becoming a writer seemed like the best way to stop everyone looking at her funny. 

After years of narrowboat living on the English canals, she and her British husband are now back on dry land in Maryland where by day, she’s a mild-mannered Indie bookseller, and by night, she wrangles words, craft projects, a Labrador and two fierce mini-women. HEARTSEEKER is her debut novel.

You can connect with Melinda for news or banter at mmbeatty.com or on Twitter @poorrobin.

#ILA18 “A Sense of Place: Middle-grade Novels on Loss and Connection.”

Among our basic needs is a place of safety and belonging, yet many children face situation where their communities are under threat. A panel of middle-grade author/educators will model how they use literature to spark conversations on home and community, security, and identity. Three brief lesson plans, centered on exploring the meaning of place and designed to appeal to students with different learning styles, will be presented, followed by an opportunity for attendees to try out these activities in small groups.

Ruth W. Freeman, South Portland School Department, South Portland, ME
Karina Yan Glaser, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY
Janet Sumner Johnson, Capstone Young Readers, Logan, UT
Laura Shovan, Random House Children’s Books, Ellicott City, MD
Tricia Springstubb, Balzer and Bray, Cleveland Heights, OH

HANDOUT INFORMATION

A Sense of Place: Middle-grade Novels on Loss and Connection

Ruth Freeman: ruthfreemanbooks.com
Karina Glaser: Karinaglaser.com
Janet Sumner Johnson: janetsumnerjohnson.com
Laura Shovan: laurashovan.com
Tricia Springstubb: triciaspringstubb.com

Mentor Texts (Books that deal with loss & connection in regards to place):

Crenshaw (Katherine Applegate)
Home Of The Brave (Katherine Applegate)
Front Desk (Kelly Yang)
The War That Saved My Life (Kimberly Brubaker Baker)
14 Hollow Road (Jenn Bishop)
The Epic Fail Of Arturo Zamora (Pablo Cartaya)
Counting Thyme (Melanie Conklin)
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel (Firoozeh Dumas)
City Of Ember (Jeanne Duprau)
Last Day On Mars (Kevin Emerson)
One Good Thing About America (Ruth Freeman)
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street (Karina Glaser)
Refugee (Alan Gratz)
The Night Diary (Veera Hiranandani)
The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society (Janet Sumner Johnson)
Amina’s Voice (Hena Khan)
Inside Out And Back Again (Thanhha Lai)
Listen, Slowly (Thanhha Li)
The Exact Location Of Home (Kate Messner)
The Stars Beneath Our Feet (David Barclay Moore)
A Long Walk To Water (Linda Sue Park)
A Different Pond (Bao Phi, Illustrated By Thi Bui)
The House That Lou Built (Mae Respicio)
The Shadow Cipher (Laura Ruby)
Esperanza Rising (Pam Munoz Ryan)
The City On The Other Side (Mairghread Scott)
Paper Wishes (Lois Sepahban)
The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary (Laura Shovan)
Every Single Second (Tricia Springstubb)
What Happened on Fox Street (Tricia Springstubb)
Locomotion (Jacqueline Woodson)

LESSON PLANS CENTERED ON EXPLORING THE  MEANING OF PLACE

Mapmaking Mini-lesson

Place shapes a child’s experiences, relationships, and perceptions of both herself and the wider world. This exercise helps students consider the places they live in a concrete, visual way, and allows them to take ownership of their environments.

—Children think about where they live, usually their street and streets nearby. Children unable to explore their neighborhoods can think about their houses or apartments. Some children may not consider where they live now home and want to draw another place. Encourage students to picture where they most feel “at home”.

—Children draw maps that include their house in relation to places important in their lives: school, homes of friends and relatives, a playground, favorite shops, places of worship….Drawing skills are not important–this is their map!

—Children annotate places where they’ve made observations/discoveries or had memorable experiences. Later, these notes can serve as catalysts for writing personal narratives.

—Children share and discuss their maps. Encourage questions, comparing and contrasting.

Kinetic Discussion Activity

Discussion of a text is always a great way to help students reflect on what they value in their homes and communities. Those discussions are more fun and memorable when a kinetic element is added. One example is an exercise called “Crossing the Line.”

  1. Prepare agree/disagree statements on the themes from the text you wish to discuss.
  2. Make a line, and have all students start on one side of the line. If they agree with the statement, they cross the line. If they disagree, they stay.
  3. Prepare follow-up questions to help them process what they learned/felt through the kinetic activity.
    (Classroom Activities: Discussion With Your Feet, TeachHub.com, Referenced 17 July 2018 from http://www.teachhub.com/classroom-activities-discussions-your-feet)

Additional online resources with ideas for kinetic discussions:

  • The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies by Jennifer Gonzalez: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/speaking-listening-techniques/
  • 5 Ways to Make Class Discussions More Exciting by Dr. Richard Curwin: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/make-class-discussions-more-exciting-richard-curwin

Ode to Place Mini Lesson

Goal: Students will write an ode to a favorite or important place in their lives.
Literary skills: Use hyperbole and imagery to create the celebratory tone of a poetic ode.
Materials: Baggies of everyday objects for hyperbole exercise. (Paperclip, crayons, tissue, etc.) Copies of model poem, such as “Harlem Is the Capital of My World.” (Tony Medina, Love to Langston)

1. Introduce concept: Odes are poems of praise and celebration.
2. Review key tools of an ode: Description/imagery of the five senses, simile, hyperbole.
3. If time: Hyperbole exercise
Groups: examine an everyday object.
Give three reasons why this object is amazing. Exaggeration encouraged!
4. Read and discuss mentor text.
Reactions.
Share description, simile, hyperbole that jumps out at you.
5. Write an ode.
Cross out and replace key words in the model poem to create an ode.
Share drafts with class

NerdCampJR: Choreographing an Action Scene

I’m on the road today, heading back to Maryland from NerdCampMI. One of the best parts of NerdCamp happens on Day 2 in the afternoon, nErDCampJr. That’s when the kids arrive and have mini-sessions with authors.

Because my new book, TAKEDOWN, is about a boy and a girl on a competitive wrestling team, it is full of action. Unlike my first middle grade novel, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, I had to create believable action scenes.

What a challenge that was! I had to relearn the lingo of the sport, study moves a middle school athlete would know, watch wrestlers in competition, and think about how the characters’ bodies move in space and interact with each other. In other words, I had to choreograph action scenes!

This year, the focus of my session with 6th grade NerdCampers was how to create an action scene with words.

The materials for this mini writing workshop are: A pair of Nerf swords, two willing volunteer actors, writing notebooks, and our imaginations.

One important rule we followed as we tried out these scenes comes from the sport of fencing: All practice blows with the sword had to fall between the shoulders and the hips. No swiping at people’s heads or below the belt — not even for play.

Before we got started composing our scene, the kids and I talked about how an author helps a reader picture action in their imagination.

We agreed on: action verbs, descriptive adjectives and adverbs, naming specific body parts as they move, and using the five senses. Oh, and dialogue was a key element in each group’s scene.

Each set of kids was about 20 people. We broke into groups for the initial writing — about six kids in charge of the scene’s beginning, six in charge of the middle, and six writing the end. The actors and one or two additional 6th graders wrote the dialogue. If they needed information, groups were allowed to send “spies” (really, emissaries) to ask what the other groups were coming up with.

This group exercise was a lot of fun. A surprise to me — it turned out to be a good lesson in revision! First, we wrote down ideas. Next, we tested those ideas out on our sword-wielding actors. Then we realized we had to make a few changes, use more specific language, or move a line of dialogue. We rewrote and ran through the scene with two new actors, to see how well it was working.

Here are the fight scenes that my three groups of sixth graders choreographed, wrote, and enthusiastically acted out in just 20 minutes!

Group 1: MM (5:30-5:55 pm)

Felicia:  “You may be rich but you cannot buy skill!  You will never defeat me!”

Skylar lunges at Felicia with her sword, but it’s a fake out. When Felicia goes to block the sword, Skylar punches her in the shoulder.  Felicia falls to the ground.

Skylar:  “I may not have skill, but I am much smarter!”

Skylar lunges at Felicia, but as she does so, Felicia does a roundhouse-kick to Skylar’s sword. The sword goes flying.

“What am I supposed to do?  Fight with my feet?” yells Skylar as she kicks Felicia in the stomach.

Felicia stabs Skylar in the stomach. Skylar falls over and dies.

***

Group 2: LL (6:00-6:25 pm)

There  is a brother and sister on the roof of Knight School.

Brother: “Why are we up here?”

Sister: “I’m through with all this nonsense of boys are better than girls.”

Brother: “That still doesn’t answer my question why are we on the roof.”

Sister: “Enough talking. En garde!”

The girl lunges, slips, and falls to the ground. The sword falls.

Sister: “Oh no! My sword.”

Brother: “Not all boys may be better than girls. But I know I am better than you!”

The brother stabs her in her foot and she dies.

***

Group 3: KK (7:30-8 pm)

There is a fencing tournament at Medieval Times. When Brent steals Macy’s lucky cape, she challenges him to a duel.

Macy: “You stole my cape, give it back!”

Brent (holding the lucky cape behind his back): “You’re not getting it back!”

Macy tries to bribe Brent with a fake cape.  She holds it out and as he goes to get it from her, she reaches around to grab her cape.  She holds it up in the air, then lunges and stabs Brent in the shoulder.

Brent fake lunges at Macy. She tries to block the blow and he punches her in the belly.

Macy falls. Brent stands over her with an evil laugh but she pops up in surprise and stabs him in the collarbone.

He falls to the ground and breaks his back.

Brent: “You cannot hurt me, I’m a god!”

***

Thanks to volunteers Pernille Ripp and Brittney Bones for helping everything run smoothly with my groups. Couldn’t have done it without you!

nErDCampMI 2018

It’s my second year at nErDCampMI and I’ve been having a blast! My favorite thing about this event is that authors and educators are learning together — sharing our best practices, concerns, and experiences with connecting students and books.

As promised, I am posting the slide presentations for both Day 1 panels I participated in.

 

Nine of the 12 members of #BookExpedition led the panel. Top row left to right: Mike Grosso, Brooks Benjamin, Katie Reilly, Amy Wiggins, Cara Newman, Cheryl Mizerny. Bottom row: Laura Shovan, Lorie Barber, Erin Varley. Members not pictured: Susan Sullivan, Patrick Andrus, Alexa McKenrick.

NerdCamp DAY 1: July 9, 2018

Coast to Coast Reading with #BookExpedition

In this session, author/educators Brooks Benjamin (MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS), Mike Grosso (I AM DRUMS), and I — along with several other members of our ARC reading group — talked about how to start up your own reading circle and how reading together has positively impacted our teaching. The title of the panel recognizes the fact that our group stretches from New York to Tennessee on the East Coast, has several Midwest representatives, and one member from California. This gives us all a broader view of what’s going on in education across the country.

Breaking Down Stereotypes and Stigmas 1 Day at a Time

Stereotypes silence and shame our most vulnerable population—children. As authors, librarians, and educators, how can we create an inclusive environment where every student’s voice is valued? Children’s authors, Elly Swartz (FINDING PERFECT, SMART COOKIE), Laura Shovan, and Karina Glaser (THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141st STREET, THE VANDERBEEKERS AND THE HIDDEN GARDEN) discuss using books to breakdown stereotypes, battle stigmas, celebrate differences, build compassionate communities, and create change. You’ll find the recommended reading list session attendees generated at the end of the slides. Huge thanks to educator Lorie Barber for taking notes when we were sharing all of these great book titles.

NerdCamp DAY 2: July 10, 2018

Fractured Fairy Tales with Bridget Hodder (THE RAT PRINCE) and Laura Shovan.

Find the session notes and handouts here!

Poetry Friday: Takedown Launch

Michelle Kogan is hosting Poetry Friday this week. Stop by Michelle’s blog to join the poetry party.

Greetings and salutations, friends. Happy Poetry Friday!

This week, I’m celebrating the launch of my second book for children, TAKEDOWN. (Read a review at the Nerdy Book Club.)

I think of this novel as a friendship story set in the world of youth wrestling.It’s told by two sixth graders: Mikayla, who wants to be a wrestler like her older brothers — until their coach says a girl won’t cut it on his team; and Lev, who is determined to beat his nemesis and make it to the state wrestling championship. Neither one of them is happy when they end up on the same team … as training partners.

The book covers the story of their season, how Mickey and Lev learn to work together.

Though this book is written in prose, its genesis began with poetic sketches.

Wrestling sketches from 2010!

I used to sit with my notebook at my son’s wrestling practices and tournaments, writing down what I observed. I couldn’t *not* include some poetry, so I gave my wrestling notebook to Lev. When he needs some downtime between matches, you’ll find him sitting at the top of the bleachers with a notebook in his lap and a pen in his hand, writing.

Lev has a handful of poems in the book. Here is one that came out of those early poetic sketches. Wrestling season is in the winter. Athletes often spend one or both days of their weekend at tournaments, arriving for weigh-ins before first light, and leaving (if they wrestle well) as the sun sets. This is Lev’s draft of a poem he’s working on for school.

Wrestlers Are Vampires
By Laura Shovan, from TAKEDOWN

Wrestlers are vampires.
Gyms are their caves.
They shut the doors,
stay locked inside,
and don’t come out
until day submits to night.
Wrestlers are vampires.
They never see the sun.
They push your face
into the mat until
your nose oozes blood.
They crush you flat,
break you down, bury you.
***

If you’re local to the Baltimore/DC area, I hope to see you at the book launch event this Sunday, 12 pm. The Ivy Bookshop is hosting.  Launch details and the address are here. We’ve got something really special planned.

10% off both books if you buy one, donate one.

Don’t know anything about wrestling? We’ve got you covered! Young athletes from Beat the Streets Baltimore will be on-hand to give a wrestling demonstration. We’re running a “Buy a Book/Donate a Book to Beat the Streets” program, so kids at Beat the Streets summer camps will receive a copy of the book.

Because food is very important to wrestlers, we’re going to have Lev and Mickey’s favorite tournament day treats: Twizzlers and donuts. ASL interpretation will be provided.

Thanks for all of your support during this book’s progress, Poetry Friday friends. It’s been two years since I first shared a poem from TAKEDOWN, which was not even a complete draft! You can read “Tournament Rap” here.

Laura’s Bookshelf: The Frame-up

This week’s Poetry Friday host is Jone at Check It Out. She’s got big news about the Cybil Award for Poetry!

Happy Poetry Friday! Thanks for visiting the Poe House with me last week. I pulled a random name from the comments and Jama Rattigan is the winner of the Poe Keepsake Journal. Congratulations, Jama!

Before I get to this week’s post, I want to thank Arnold Adoff and the Virginia Hamilton Conference. Last week, I learned that my debut novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, was named the Arnold Adoff Poetry Award for New Voices honor book. “Surprised” is an understatement! It is a huge honor and I’m so grateful for the recognition. Please do visit the full list of award-winners. There are some phenomenal books among the 2018 awardees.

It’s been over a year since I started keeping a personal bullet journal. (If you’re not familiar with bullet journals, start with this post.)

Inspired by my educator friends, one of the new things I’m trying with my 2018 journal is tracking my reading. I’ve kept track via Goodreads before, but charting books is allowing me to take a close look at my genre preferences and how many children’s novels I read, versus YA or adult.

So far, it looks like this:

I am very excited about my most recent read.

Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s The Frame-up is about  boy who — spending the summer with his art-gallery-director father — discovers a great secret. Paintings are alive!

Let’s say you are a portrait. You keep all of the memories of your living person (the subject of the portrait) until the moment the painting is finished.

From that point on, you become your own entity, keeping quiet and still during the day, so museum goers won’t guess the truth. At night, you visit friends and neighbors in other paintings. And by visit, I mean going into a painting of a pub to drink and dance with your buddies or, if you’re a child, hopping into a seascape with a soothing pier for you to walk around. If that seascape is so soothing that you fall asleep in the painting — the wrong painting — no worries … as long as you’re back in your own picture by the time the museum opens.

But let’s say the gallery director’s son, Sargent Singer, happens to come along to the gallery one night and notice that your portrait frame is empty. And then what if he spots you, fast asleep on a pier, in the wrong painting?

This middle grade contemporary fantasy will be available in June. Pre-order now from Indiebound.

This is how The Frame-up opens. The painting that Sargent catches is that of a girl about his age, Mona Dunn. (You can view William Orpen’s Mona Dunn here.) The two of them spark a secret friendship, chock-full of adventures and mishaps.

How serendipitous that I’d have a chance to read the ARC right now, when our February Poetry Project is in the midst of writing in response to art! I know that members of this group are going to love how vividly MacKnight imagines the personalities of several paintings — all found at the real-life Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada.

It’s also a super fun book. The climax (involving nefarious goings-on at the gallery) is exciting, both in our world, and in the world of the paintings. And the resolution? It totally tugged at my art-strings. (Get it?)

I went back to the first February Poetry Project, looking for a poem to pair with Wendy’s book. The theme that year was vintage post cards.

Many of those poems were portraits of the people pictured on the cards, but only one imagined that the people in the image are awake, thinking beings.

Luckily, this poem is a good fit for Valentine’s Week.

Cartoon Boy Meets Cartoon Girl
By Laura Shovan

You have no lips to kiss or speak.
I have no ears to listen.
Let me lean on this picket fence,
watch you hover
over a loop of jump rope,
your braids drawn up
by bat-winged ribbons.
You cannot see my baseball cap
or read my cautious expression.
Your lashes fell a moment before
the cartoonist imagined us.
But I will wait. The next panel,
with your fluttering lids, must come.
The artist — would he leave us
forever like this?

Sadly, these two are frozen in their art, unable to move or communicate. They’d much prefer being in the wonderful world of The Frame-up. Find the original post with this postcard and poem at Author Amok.