Alyssa Sheinmel Interview!

Today I am very happy to welcome author Alyssa Sheinmel to the blog.  Her realistic fiction books always grab me so when I was offered the opportunity to speak with her, I jumped on it. Her new book, The Lucky Kind is the story of Nick, a teen in New York who’s world is turned upside down when he learns that his father had a son whom he gave up for adoption. Suddenly, Nick doesn’t know who he is, and if he can trust his parents.

Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed at thereadingzone, Alyssa! I read and loved The Lucky Kind  and I can’t wait to share it with my high school students. When you first got the idea for The Lucky Kind , what came first? Did characters come to you first, or was the concept/plot the first thing?

Well, first and foremost, thank you for reading and for sharing it with your students! I’m thrilled that you like the book.

The idea for this story had been percolating in my imagination for a while before I sat down to write it. From the beginning, I knew I was going to tell the story of someone on the periphery of adoption; not the person who gives up a child for adoption, and not the person who was given up. The story in my head was of a boy just outside of the experience of adoption, but who was nonetheless deeply affected by it. As far as Nick’s character, I didn’t really get to choose it; as The Lucky Kind took shape in my imagination, Nick’s voice – and through it,his character – came right along with it. It was always Nick’s story.


The Lucky Kind  and your previous book, THE BEAUTIFUL BETWEEN, are both set in New York City. What made you choose NYC as your setting?

I’m a big fan of writing what you know – or at least, writing some of what you know – so I always try to ground my stories in real details. For me, that meant placing The Lucky Kind in New York City. That’s where I went to high school, and those are the restaurants and movie theaters that I grew up going to, the subway I grew up taking, the streets I walked with my friends. That’s not to say I’d never write a book that takes place anywhere else. (I hope that I will!) But New York seemed like the natural setting for this story.


What is your routine like? Do you write everyday? Do you have a specific writing schedule?

I don’t write every day. Right now, writing fits into my life in bits and pieces – I fit it in around my day job, around walking my dog, even around silly things like the TV shows I want to watch and the friends I want to meet for dinner. So, I’m pretty flexible when it comes to when I write; though my favorite time to write is in the morning.


What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?

Somewhere in between. I don’t outline, but I do make a lot of notes, from the minute I get an idea for a story. I generally begin with an idea about where my story is going to start, and where it will end, and a few of the plot points in between. But as I write, some of those plot points are almost always abandoned in favor the ones that manage to pop up along the way.

Your books are so perfect for teens of both genders. What inspired you to write for teens?

I never intentionally chose to write for teens; I just wanted to tell the stories that came to me to tell. But I do love writing for teens. I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but I truly think that no books stay with you like the books you read when you’re young. I still remember the first chapter book I ever read (The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo), and I still remember how proud I was when I finished it, exactly where I was sitting in my grandmother’s house, my father at my side. I considered myself a reader from a fairly young age, but never more so than as a teenager. The books that I loved then are the books that I read over and over; I can recite passages of those books from memory to this day. Now, I try to write for the teenager that I was, who loved her books so much that she begged her mother for bookshelves the way most girls beg for clothes. (Though, I begged for plenty of clothes, too.)

And the most important question- what is your favorite go-to snack when you are writing?

Does gum count as a snack? I chew a lot of gum while I write. Sometimes I can’t start working until I have a piece of gum in my mouth (though I spit it out after about 60 seconds).


Thanks so much, Alyssa!  Readers, be sure to pick up a copy of her new book, The Lucky Kind , in bookstores today!  It’s fantastic and you can count on a review very soon.

Writer’s Notebooks: Literacy Outside of School #sas2011

Many children love to doodle, write stories, and decorate empty notebooks found laying around the house.  How can we capture this energy and help kids develop their literacy skills outside the classroom?  We know how important it is to read, and we’ve talked a lot about reading this week. But what about writing?

There is nothing better than a writer’s notebook!  Every child should have a notebook, that they can decorate, doodle in, write down their stories, and cherish.  This should not be something that is graded, checked by mom or dad, or made to be a burden in any way.  A writer’s notebook is a special place, and individual place.

A writer’s notebook isn’t a diary.  It isn’t a journal.  It’s something different.  Something special.  A writer’s notebook is a place to jot down ideas and sketches, to write stories and paste in ephemera.

And the best part?  Lots of published authors cherish their writer’s notebooks and use them daily!  Some of those authors have been kind enough to share a photo of their notebook(s) and a little bit about how they use them.  I hope they inspire you to start keeping a writer’s notebook, and to hand a writer’s notebook to a child in your life!

Courtney Sheinmel:

Like most authors I know, I write my books on a computer.  The problem is, some of my best ideas come at completely inconvenient times – like when I’m on the subway and nowhere near my computer, or when I’m in bed with all the lights turned out.  Late at night, so warm and snug under my down comforter, the last thing I want to do is turn on my computer.  I used to think, Well, this idea is so good there’s no way I’ll forget it.  I’ll just write it down later. And then, invariably, I’d forget my brilliant idea.  In the morning, all I’d remember is the fact that I’d had a brilliant idea, and it would leave me devastated that the book would have to exist without it.  So I started keeping a notebook by my bed, and carrying it  around with me when I left the house, small enough so it fit in my purse – the book under the BlackBerry in the picture is one that’s all filled up now.  My handwriting is especially messy in it, since so often the notes were jotted down in the middle of the night.  Now I’ve graduated from an old school notebook to something way more technological, i.e., the “notes” application on my BlackBerry (that’s why the BlackBerry is atop the notebook in the picture).  I’m completely addicted to the device, so it’s never too far away.  Not sure you can see it in the picture, but I have all sorts of categories, and I’ll type in whatever idea just popped into my head.  They’re certainly not all brilliant, but at least there never has to be another idea lost.

Megan McCafferty:

I did research for about a year before I began writing Bumped. I jotted down passages from relevant books in my black and white speckled composition notebook and ripped out dozens of articles and put them in this “IDEAS” folder. On the clipping titled, “16 & Pregnant: No Fairy-Tale Ending” I wrote,”What if society DID encourage sex? Why?” These are the questions that inspired the novel. The whole story can be traced back to that torn piece of newspaper.

Mitali Perkins:


I start the mornings with a good cup of coffee and a time of reading and reflection through journaling. My preference is a standard composition book and a good, fine-tip pen. I write only on one side of the paper, avoiding backs of pages, always in messy, free-flowing cursive. What do I write? Poetry, ideas for stories, prayers full of angst and anxiety, gratitude and celebration. My journal is supposed to be as private and safe as a fire escape, and one of the reasons I like to use that metaphor in my online life. Recently, however, my dog Zipper (with my son as scribe), violated that privacy to leave an interesting request (see photo).

Barbara Dee:

I have a blue 4X6 spiral notebook that I bring along most places, because you never know when you’ll have your next idea for a book! Here’s what I scrawled one day on a bumpy train ride into New York City: the inspiration for my new tween novel, TRAUMA QUEEN. On the upper left, you can see the names of the characters (the main character is Marigold, but apparently I was also considering Zinnia.) Below it is the plan for the first chapter, which is pretty faithful to what actually got written. On the right page, I’d started to work out Marigold’s/Zinnia’s mother, a performance artist in the Karen Finley mold who “teaches improv workshops-colleges.” After that it gets weird– I’ve written “thumb/bendy straw/ self-esteem.” Huh? I’m completely baffled by these scribbles. Maybe they reflect some idea about where I meant to go in Chapter Two, and the train arrived at Grand Central Station before I could flesh out my thoughts. That’s one of the hazards of writing on trains, I guess: you can lose things even when you write them in your notebook.

Jonathan Auxier:

The first is just my closed Journal. I’ve been using one type for the last ten years (Canson 7×10 field sketch) and same pen (pilot v7

clipped into the spine).  I’ve got about 25 of them now on a shelf.

The second picture is putting down an idea for a book character. I happened to tap
e some old paintings I found online in the corner (which I often do). This character — like many I draw — didn’t make the cut.
The third pic is an example of what I like to do when I read . I take down quotes, new vocab and images that struck me. These notes are all from Roald Dahl’s TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED.

 

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As you can see above, writer’s notebooks are differentiated and individual  Each person treats theirs differently, so there is no right or wrong way to use your writer’s notebook.  It is a great habit for kids to get into, and a great one for adults, too.  If you are interested in learning more about writer’s notebooks and getting some additional ideas, you must check out Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You!
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Do you have a writer’s notebook?  I would love to see some photos in the comments!

Learning to Take Risks- Jumping into Literary Analysis With My Freshman

A few weeks ago, I participated in the English Companion Ning‘s Webstitute “Work with Me”. (By the way, if you teach English and are not yet a member of the Ning, get yourself over there ASAP and sign up. It is free and full of ideas, networking, and just plain fun.) The best session in the webstitute, for me, was Penny Kittle’s “Craft Analysis”.  This year, I have been struggling to get my freshman to take risks in their writing.  I teach at a math, science, and technology magnet-like school and all of my students are brilliant.  However, many of them are very analytical and black-and-white when it comes to writing.  They tend to write a lot of plot summary and avoid any type of analysis.  I figured out that they were afraid of being wrong and losing points, but nothing I tried was working- they were still regurgitating plot and not analyzing and thinking on their own.

Lately, I have also been reading a lot about our students’ deficits with close, deeper reading.  (Too Dumb for Complex Texts?)  Colleges have been lamenting that students are unable to read complex texts and end up in remedial courses.  I want to make sure that my tech-driven students are readers who are ready for the rigors of the rest of high school and college.  I have spent weeks (maybe even months!) brainstorming ways to bring this to the forefront in my classroom, too.

Then I participated in Penny’s portion of the webstitute.  She shared a craft analysis project that she did with her students and I was immediately inspired.  It was exactly what I had been trying to come up with, but had been unable to pull together in any type of organized manner.  Penny was kind enough to share her handouts and I immediately downloaded them.  Over the past few weeks I have been working on tweaking the project for my particular students while also working through the project myself, in order to model it for them.  I am rereading Judy Blundell’s National Book Award winner, What I Saw And How I Lied. I’ve storyboarded about half the book while also writing my thoughts, noticings, and questions. It’s really made me work hard and notice Blundell’s craft moves, things that didn’t jump put at me on my first-draft reading. I was so excited to share this with my students and see what they came up. This past week, we started the project.

I am so thrilled with what is happening in my classroom right now!  We started with storyboarding earlier this week and it really clicked with my kids.  While they were hesitant at first (rolling eyes, mumbling about how it was for little kids), it was fascinating to watch them storyboard William Maxwell’s “Love” and then share their pages with the class.  Not one page looked like any other student’s page.  They all thought differently and displayed their ideas differently.  It was so cool to see them standing at the document camera and explaining their thinking, engaging each other. Later in the week, one of my students met me at lunch for some writing tips/help and he told me that storyboarding is really helping him because, “it’s making me stop and think a lot, and when I think about the story it’s easier to have ideas about it. Then I don’t have to just write what it’s about.”

Right now, each student should be working on storyboarding the book(s) they chose to reread.  I had each student respond to an assignment on Edmodo telling me what book they would be analyzing.  They picked some great ones!  Examples include The Book Thief, The Shadow Children series, Between Shades of Grey, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Thief, Impulse, Paper Towns, The Hunger Games, And Then There Were None, Ender’s Game, Twelfth Night, Of Mice and Men, The Outsiders, Thirteen Reasons Why, North of Beautiful, and so many more great books!

Next week, I will have them working on the project in-class one day, sharing their craft noticings with other readers and comparing their books.  I am dying to know what they are coming up with and I can’t wait to see their storyboard notebooks.  I will be sure to share their progress here!  By the first week in March, each student will produce for me a 2-page paper analyzing the author’s craft and sharing their analysis with me.  Absolutely no plot summary is allowed!  They will use their text notes/storyboarding to draft the paper, along with any notes they take from their peer discussions.  They will share drafts with each other on Google Docs/typewith.me, assisting one another.  Spending the next four weeks doing this will hopefully help them to become better risk-takers in their writing.  I am so looking forward to the results!

Spilling Ink by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter

Every middle school and high school teacher should go out and buy Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook RIGHT NOW.  For years I have been looking for the “Ralph Fletcher” books for my middle schoolers.  I have used Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You for years but it seems that many of the primary teachers also use it, so I struggle to make it relevant to my middle schoolers. Well, my problem has been solved. I can not wait to share Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook with my 6th graders!  Potter and Mazer have put together a fantastic guide to the craft of writing that doesn’t actually feel like a guide.  There is no textbook-feel to this book.  Instead, it feels like two friends sitting down over coffee and spilling secrets.

Throughout the book, I found myself wanting to stop reading and try out some of the ideas and suggestions.  This isn’t a book that teaches grammar and conventions.  Instead, it teaches the nitty-gritty of writing, like how to actually sit down and get words on paper.  Each chapter is filled with practical advice and “dares” that push the reader to sit down and start writing.  At the same time, there is tons of practical advice.  I found myself learning things as I read without feeling like I was being hit over the head with boring writing talk.  In other words, if it worked on me, it will be awesome for my 6th graders.

Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook is an inspiring book that is perfect for aspiring writers of all ages.  I would hand this to middle schoolers, high schoolers, and their teachers.  I wouldn’t hesitate to hand it to adults looking for a little inspiration, too.  And make sure you check out thecompanion website.  It’s full of fun ideas and extensions of the book!

*ARC courtesy of the authors

Memoir Writing

This past week my class has been mining their writer’s notebooks for possible memoir ideas. Memoir is a hard concept for my kids to wrap their heads around, because it’s so different from the genres we have studied thus far this year. But as we finish reading The Giver and talking about the importance of memories, it seemed apropos.

 

I’ve been working on my own examples to share with them, too.  We’ve read examples of memoirs from Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka, Knots in My Yo-Yo String (Jerry Spinelli), and When I Was Your Age, Volume Two: Original Stories About Growing Up (various memoirs by children’s authors), but my own examples always seem to ring truer for them.  So this weekend I will be writing a few of my own memoirs to share this week when they choose their seed ideas!

Quick Writes

I spent a lot of time over the last few weeks analyzing how my students were using their writer’s notebooks. While they completed the HW I assigned in writing workshop, I wasn’t seeing a lot of enthusiasm for writing and they definitely weren’t carrying their notebooks with them outside of my classroom. After hearing about My Quick Writes: For INSIDE WRITING by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle, I decided to give quick writes a try in my classroom.

I began by introducing the idea to my students. I told them that I would be projecting some ideas for writing, but they did not have to use them. They could write about anything they wanted, as long as they wrote for ten minutes, without stopping! To my surprise, they were actually very excited. I think that a lot of my students struggle with what to write, as they have very little experience with writing workshop. They still have the feeling that writing must be about something big and important and that their lives are neither big nor important. The moment I gave them suggestions, I saw a light bulb go off in their heads.

That first day, we all wrote for 10 minutes, with the lights off (at their request). We then shared. The enthusiasm in the room grew by leaps and bounds as each child decided to share their writing. About half of the students took the ideas I gave them and used them as a starting place. The rest had their own ideas. Regardless of what they used to get started, their writing was great! I was so proud of them and they were just as proud of themselves.

The next day, they asked if we could do quick writes again. I agreed, and the results were just as enthusiastic. It seems that due to their lack of experience with a workshop setting, quick writes really help them feel comfortable with writing. Needless to say, I decided to take this idea and run with it!

I remembered that Stacey at Two Writing Teachers had mentioned giving one of her students some quick writes when they struggled with writing Slices of Life. After a quick search, I found her post and was inspired.  Knowing that winter break was coming up and wanting to keep my students writing, I decided to assign a few notebook entries over break.  As much as I hate assigning entries as “work”, I have to come to terms with the fact that I am teaching my students how to function in a workshop.  I can not teach as if they have had years of experience with writing workshop!  So, I typed up a quick packet.  And using prompts from Graves and Kittles book and very other sources, I put together what I hope will inspire my 35 students to keep writing over break,

As most of my students will be celebrating with friends and family for the holidays, I figure that quick writes are simple enough to complete during the odd moment of downtime.  While they groaned at first (homework?  over break?), most were satisfied when I pointed out that I would not allow them to spend more than 10 minutes on any quick write!  They are to complete at least four entries over break, and can use the suggestions/prompts as needed.  I know that some students won’t need the prompts and ideas at all, while others will be very grateful for the guidance and inspiration they provide.

Come January 5th, I am very interested to see the results of this.  It’s the first time I have assigned writing homework over an extended break like this and I am hopeful that it will be a success!

Living a writerly life

During Writer’s Workshop, I am always telling my students to live a writerly life.  I share my own writing with them (and this was especially successful during our poetry unit), and I even share my fear of sharing with them.  I think it models that adults aren’t always perfect and that we have fears, too.

However, I realized last year that if I really want my students to value writing then I have to show them how much I value writing.  I need to prove to them that writing isn’t something I do just to model examples for them.  So, this summer I set a goal to work on getting something published.  Thus, last week I began sending out query letters to various magazines to promote an article I am writing about my trip to Michoacan, Mexico.  When I applied for the travel fellowship, I promised to promote the Monarch Teacher Network, and one idea I contributed was to get an article published about my experiences.  Well, we are off and running!  Now it is just a matter of sitting back and waiting to hear from the editors.  Wish me luck!

It’s funny, but now I have a new experience to share- the waiting game!  What is it like to send out a manuscript and just wait for an editor to make a decision?  Hopefully, this will encourage more of my students to be brave and attempt to get their own writing published.

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