Sunday, April 27, 2014

Middle Grade Roundup

Which new middle grade titles stand out? Here are a baker's dozen of middle grade books that come highly recommended by the folks on #onefour and #titletalk (in no particular order):

Cupcake Cousins by Kate Hannigan
Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Hope is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
There Will Be Bears by Ryan Gebhart
Nightingale's Nest by Nikki Loftin
The Nethergrim by Matthew Jobin 
The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates (series) by Carline Carlson and Dave Phillips
A Cloud Called Sorrow Overcomes a Bully by B. A. Hamel
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff
Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
Ava and Pip by Carol Weston

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Some Thoughts on Dialogue

One of the things that seems to drive me crazist is writing dialogue. It always sounds too stilted or too informal and slangy to be quite believable, never quite meeting in that happy center. While I suspect that dialogue will be my bane for many years to come, here are a couple of thoughts I had recently on writing (and editing) it.

On writing, the main thing I think (and I am certainly not the first person to say it) is to turn off your internal editor. Yes, most of it is not going to come out right the first time, or even the second or third. That is what editing is for, but editing can only happen if you actually get the words down on paper first.

Even if the phrases sound good by themselves, I also constantly worry about maintaining a consistent voice for each character. This problem is compounded further if, like in one of my WIPs, you have several main characters, all with similar backgrounds (they all grew up in the same small, isolated community) and who are all likely to be talking similarly to each other anyway. At that point, after panicking a bit, I decided there were two things that might be able to save me.

First, find an existing character who sounds like your character. For me, this does not mean someone in a book, but on TV or in a movie. I have to be able to hear the character's voice to know what he or she is going to say. I have to know his or her personality. I would never expect Patrick Stewart to utter the line, "I pity the fool!" any more than I could see Mr. T saying, "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war." Once I know what a character sounds like, and for me that requires finding a real life model, then I can better hear when the lines I try to feed him are wrong.

The second technique is part of the editing process. I pulled out every single line of dialogue from my WIP and put them all into a spreadsheet with page numbers and character names. Now I can put every single line spoken by a character next to each other and compare them easily without having to flip through 240+ pages of text. It has helped me considerably in adding unique quirks to each character, both in terms of what they would and would not say.

So, while I still dread writing dialogue most days, at least I might have a small handle on making it work. But if anyone else has some ideas on how to make it easier, I would love to hear them!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Adventures in Baking

Okay, so I normally blog about writing and writers, but since I actually had a very successful baking experience (which isn't super rare, but is still notable for me), I thought I would share, especially since I was using a modified recipe of my own design.

I love oatmeal butterscotch cookies (sometimes called oatmeal scotchies), but have never made them before. Since I needed to bake something for my family's Christmas get-together (okay, I could have gone with a store-bought pie, but I'm better than that), I thought I would give them a try. It was easy to find a recipe online, but fortunately before I grabbed the first one and started baking, I read the comments. There were three main complaints: the cookies came out too thin and hard; they crumbled/fell apart; and they were too sweet. So, with base recipes in hand and comments in mind, I set out to develop my own formula for perfection.

(Note: the base recipe is the one provided on some packages of Nestle butterscotch morsels, which I found online with comments here.)

My recipe:
1 cup butter, softened (original is 3/4 cup)
1/2 cup white sugar (original is 3/4 cup)
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cup flour (original is 1 1/4 cup)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/2 cups rolled oats (original is 3 cups)
1 2/3 cups (1 11-oz package) butterscotch chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Mix butter, both sugars, eggs, and vanilla until well blended.
Mix flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a separate bowl, then add to butter mixture until thoroughly mixed.
Stir in oats and butterscotch chips.
Roll dough into 1" balls and place on ungreased non-stick cookie sheets.
Bake for 8-10 minutes.

There are two deviations in the cooking directions. First, the original recipe calls for dropping dough in spoonfuls on the cookie sheets. I saw a suggestion in one of the comments that rolling it into 1" balls (about the size of a donut hole) worked better, and after trying both, I have to agree. The spoonful method produced cookies that were too thin around the edges, and which got very dark by the time the centers were fully baked. The ball method produced better looking and more consistent cookies with good, thick edges. I think rolling the dough also helps push the chips inside the cookie, so they do not melt and burn onto the cookie sheets.

The second difference was a very minor one, but is the sort of think that I appreciate when people tell me. The recipe calls for baking the cookies until they are golden brown around the edges. Well, considering the dough and the finished cookies are almost identical in color, that did not work too well for me. What I figured out was they were done when the tops of the cookies were no longer shiny.

Here is a picture of the finished results. The two cookies on the left were rolled, the two on the right were dropped.

I may make some additional changes to the recipe next time (I think taking out 1/4 cup of flour and adding 1/4 cup of oats back in might be good), but for now I am very happy with the results.

Now back to writing. Have a happy and safe holiday season.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Voice Recognition Software

For some time now I have been considering buying voice recognition software because it seems to me that I'm likely to be able to talk faster than I can type. Okay, it doesn't just seem to me that I can do that, I happen to know it for a fact. So today I started looking for voice recognition software. I started by looking for freeware because I work on a limited budget and if I could find something that would work for me at least half decently and I could get for free, it would probably be my best choice. I was not surprised to find that there are very few freeware options when it comes to voice recognition software. However, I was very surprised to find out that there is actually free voice recognition software built in to Windows 7.

This has to be one of the best hidden secrets that I have ever encountered. It seems like this is the sort of thing that they would widely advertised (and looking back, maybe they did) but obviously it did not stick too well in my mind. In any event, now that I'm aware of it I plan to use it. Only time will tell if this will work out as a good solution for me. There are no doubt better engines out there, but for now it is free and I'll see if I can make it work.

And yes, I did record this blog entry using the windows 7 speech recognition software (and with relatively few corrections needed).

Monday, August 26, 2013

Five More 5-Star Picture Books

Here are five more excellent picture books that have been released in the past couple of months:

Matilda is a very good cat, but Hans is very naughty. Yet somehow, when Hans goes too far and a reward is offered for information about him, Matilda knows exactly where he can be found. In Matilda and Hans, Yokococo masterfully blends a simple story with striking illustrations. While the story teaches the basic principles of naughty and nice, it also shows that everyone contains at least a little bit of both. Matilda and Has makes a great read-aloud for preschool children.

In No Fits, Nilson!, Amelia and Nilson go everywhere and do everything together. The problem is, whenever something goes wrong, Nilson throws a major fit, and Amelia must do whatever she can to calm him. OHora has crafted a short but highly relatable story of temper tantrums that recognizes how little it can take to spark one but which also offers encouragement for controlling them. The acrylic paintings have a cartoon-like quality to them and effectively support and expand upon the story. The final illustration may confuse some children, but makes a great starting place for discussions (what was really throwing the fits?). This is a great book to share with preschool to early school-age children, especially those who might need a little help with their own tantrums.

Zoe's Room (No Sisters Allowed) tells the delightful story of Zoe, self-proclaimed Queen of the Universe. Every night after the lights go out, she builds empires, explores uncharted territory, and holds tea with the royal court. But when her little sister moves in, everything changes. Murguia has written a very short but lovable story that will resonate with any child who has a younger sibling, or who is facing any sort of big change. Her ink and watercolor illustrations are uncluttered and inviting, with just the right tones to set the mood and ample white space where appropriate.

Clementine receives exactly what she wants for her birthday: a nurse's outfit and a first-aid kit. As Nurse Clementine, she is ready to leap into action at any sign of injury, no matter how small. But she is not ready to deal with the biggest problem of all--when no one needs her help. Simon James' watercolor and ink illustrations are cartoon-like but expressive and full of action. The situations throughout the book are entirely realistic and will resonate with any child. It is also very easy to empathize with Clementine when she has no one left to help.

Dozens of Cousins is the story of a huge family reunion, complete with uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers, and of course dozens of cousins. The story is told by the cousins, who scramble, race, jump, dive, stuff their faces, get muddy, and generally have a fun, noisy time. The story is actually a free-verse poem, and as such has some wonderful word choices and arrangement. It begs to be read out loud. The illustrations are wide, double page spreads covered from edge to edge with color and action, along with plenty of details to examine through multiple readings. One of the best new picture books I've seen this year.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Flash Fiction Contest

Columbus Creative Cooperative is running a flash fiction contest through August 31. Your story must be based on three randomly assigned images and cannot be more than 500 words (less, if you use any sort of formatting, so keep is simple--it's about the writing, not the presentation).

You can see my entry here.

Also, if you want to read my entry in the last contest (which was a Judges' Choice winner), you can find it here.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

August 10 for 10 Picture Books

Here are my August 10 for 10 must have picture books (in no particular order). For more info on #pb10for10 and links to other lists, see Reflect and Refine and Enjoy and Embrace Learning.

1. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

I could actually fill the entire list just from Dr. Seuss, but I decided that I would only include one book by each author. While Dr. Seuss has many wonderful books that I could have picked, I decided to go with The Lorax. Not only is it an excellent example of Seuss' work, but it contains a timeless message that should be shared with every child.

2. Tuesday by David Wiesner

Tuesday is a (nearly) wordless book, but Weisner's illustrations more than carry the story (and won him the Caldecott Medal in 1991). There is so much to discover and share in every picture that students enjoy going through it again and again. Not only are the illustrations exceptional, they contain a lot to find, and convey a wonderful sense of humor.

3. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin
I love reading this book aloud (especially the moos), and students love to hear it. But more than just being a great and fun read, I use this book to introduce students to the concept and format of formal letters: how they are opened (Dear Farmer Brown) and closed (Sincerely, The Cows). As a follow up activity, I have the students write their own letter to Farmer Brown (I usually do this with first graders, so a one sentence body asking for something they want seems to work well).

4. The Full Belly Bowl by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin

One of the things that I enjoy reading and sharing are books that have a solid story behind them. The Full Belly Bowl is written in traditional folkloric style, making it well-suited for folklore units. The illustrations are lively and complex, with multiple panels and borders full of activity. While the story is a cautionary tale, it does have a happy (or at least, happy enough) ending and is written and illustrated with plenty of humor.

5. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith
Another story that I like to use with folklore units, this book puts a double twist on the well-known classic, both by making it more modern and by telling it from the wolf's point of view. Naturally, the wolf considers himself the victim of circumstances beyond his control, though children will love pointing out clues that this may not actually be the case. This book makes a great centerpiece for discussing how traditional stories change over time and from teller to teller, either deliberately or unintentionally.

6. Miss Hunnicutt's Hat by Jeff Brumbeau, illustrated by Gail de Marcken

Miss Hunnicutt usually doesn't like to make a fuss and always does what everyone wants her to, but when the people of Littleton object to her wearing her new hat (complete with a live chicken on top), she stands her ground. If you have never read this book, you must find a copy now. The story is excellent and is supported by beautiful watercolor illustrations full of action, minute detail, and hidden bonuses. One catastrophe after another befalls the townspeople, not so much because of Miss Hunnicutt's hat but because of their reactions to it. This is a great book for children and adults.

7. Not Your Typical Dragon by Dan Bar-el, illustrated by Tim Bowers

This book just came out in February, but I had to include it on this year's list. It tells the story of Crispin, a young dragon who breaths just about anything--except fire, that is. Students will love trying to guess what will come out of his mouth next. Acrylic paintings in a cartoon-like style support and expand upon the story, and contain some interesting twists of their own (such as when the edges of the illustrations get scorched at one point). This is a great story of friendship and acceptance that works just as well for independent readers as it does for a read-aloud.

8. Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Janet Stevens
A modern retelling of a traditional African folktale, Anansi represents the Trickster found in nearly every folklore tradition. The story is well-written, and students will love seeing the other animals being fooled by Anansi, as well as Anansi getting a small taste of his own medicine. Bright, energy-filled illustrations with anthropomophized animals add to the telling and make this great both as a read-aloud or for independent reading. (Note: I almost went with Gerald McDermott's classic Anansi the Spider here instead, but while the illustrations of that book are wonderfully representative of traditional Ashanti art, the story is told too traditionally for some students to really relate to it.)

9. Lily's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

Wow. That's just about all I can say. Wow. And if that doesn't make any sense to you, you need to read this book. Lily has a purple plastic purse that she thinks is just wonderful, and she can't wait to share it with everyone, even if it interrupts her teacher. When the purse proves to be too distracting and is confiscated, Lily seeks revenge. This is an excellent story that is so completely relatable for any child. Beautiful, expressive illustrations (including one not so nice one drawn by Lily) intermingle with the story to provide a nice blend of pictures and text.

10. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, Illustrated by Ray Cruz
This is, and will always be, one of my all-time favorite books to read aloud. One disastrous event after another befalls for Alexander, though most of them are not quite so world-shattering as he might make them out to be. The book reads almost as stream of consciousness, which I think is a large part of what makes it so powerful: it reads just like a young boy telling you about his day. The black and white illustrations are simple but detailed and expressive. In the classroom, I use this book to discuss the concept of a sequel: what if Alexander had another bad day? Students each write and illustrate a page for the sequel, Alexander's even worse day.