Teens Gone Wild

Whiney Writer



by Whiney Writer

Writing about teens is hard. I’m doing character profiles for my contemporary prequel to my YA SF/zombie/romance/mystery/thriller, and that means I’ve got teen pre-zombie backstories to build. But not having been a teen for a while (and I wasn’t even that good at it when I was one) I needed a way to know how they think, talk, dress, and behave today. I mean, I took notes after I talked with my teen bagger at the grocery store, but I got the distinct impression she was trying real hard not to act like a real teen. I mean she wasn’t wearing gobs of makeup, didn’t have a piercing anywhere but through her ears, and she called me “Ma’am” and asked if she could help carry my bag of ice cream and potato chips to the car. That is NOT normal teen behavior based on every show currently on TV!

So speaking of TV shows, that night I watched a National Geographic channel special about lions while eating my ice cream and potato chips. The wildlife researchers installed a special blind that blended in with the grasslands. Then they observed lions in their natural habitat. They filmed them and took notes on everything from the pride hunting zebras as a team to caring for cubs to … well, you know, that stuff that lions do to make cubs. Every wildlife special has to show that! Then it dawned on me how I could see and hear the real-life world of teenagerdom. I would observe them in their natural habitat!

I didn’t try to be sneaky at first. I simply lied to the assistant high school principal that my niece was moving to the district and asked if I could sit in on a couple classes. I went to sophomore English and social studies. And guess what? I got to see lessons in sophomore English and social studies—and remember how much I’d forgotten. Then I went to the cafeteria with my Hello Kitty lunch box and tried to blend in, though my handheld parabolic microphone might have been more noticeable than I’d have liked. Groups of kids seemed to get nervous when I pointed it at them. But how else was I supposed to learn how many times a teen uses “like” in a sentence? Or find out what the latest teen slang is? (I mean do teens even say “Holy Smokes!” anymore? Or call each other “Doofus”? Or yell “Far out!”? Those kinds of details can clue kids in that an author doesn’t have a clue about what’s really going on in their lives!) Anyway, I could tell that my presence was keeping them from doing the stuff I know teens do when they aren’t being observed by a barely noticeable stranger with a notebook who’s sneaking up behind them to see what snacks they like to eat. You know, that stuff teenagers do.

I had to try another tack. So after promising to fill up the gas tank, I borrowed my friend’s rusty white van with the windows tinted so dark no one can peek in. I parked it across the street from the school grounds where some kids ate their lunch. I rented a video camera with a powerful zoom lens. I mounted the parabolic microphone on the roof so it looked kind of like a satellite dish. Then I tuned in to observe teens in their natural habitat! I heard two real-life teens talk about a science project! And I got great video of several real-life teens sending real teen texts!

I know I would have gotten a whole lot more and written the most well-researched YA SF/zombie/romance/mystery/thriller ever! But then someone pounded on the side of the van. And someone said “Police! Open up!”

It’s kinds of sad how suspicious people are these days.



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Are Your Books Unintentionally Scary?

McAdam, Claudia Cangilla cropped



Claudia Cangilla McAdam

I was recently in the car, driving a three-year-old passenger. A conversation we had got me thinking about what’s important in the books she reads, in the ones I read . . . and in the ones I write.

Here’s a recap of the conversation that sprang up out of the blue:

HER: “I have big girl books now.”

I read with her frequently, and I’m familiar with her books. So, what exactly was she talking about? I wondered what constitutes a “big girl book” to a three-year-old. Do they have more pages? Are they larger in dimension? Just what did she mean?

“But they’re kind of scary,” she added.

Hmmm. That confused me even more. She can’t read, so I was left trying to imagine what kind of books her parents might be reading to her. Mysteries? Suspense? Horror stories? Oh, the horror of such a thought!

ME: “What’s scary about them?”

HER: “They don’t have any pictures.”

ME: “Oh. With books like that, you need to use your imagination and make up your own pictures in your head.”

In the weeks that followed that conversation, her comment about books without pictures being “scary,” got me thinking on a number of different planes:

Why Pictures Matter in Picture Books

When I read picture books to young children, I enjoy watching their eyes roam over the page, taking in all the illustrations. A good illustrator tells his or her own story on the page, apart from what the writer pens. And good illustrations can bring the reader (or listener) even deeper into the story. Examples:

Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back has a bear searching for his missing red hat. Astute young eyes can spot the hat before the bear does, and kids love knowing something the main character doesn’t.

Wendy Silvano’s Turkey Trouble follows a turkey on the farm who disguises himself in order to avoid winding up on the Thanksgiving table. He dresses as other animals, and his disguises work . . . almost. The illustrations provide a wonderful opportunity to have the kids verbalize what the turkey put on to look like another animal, and why that disguise didn’t work.

There’s much more to a picture book than the words and the illustrations. There’s the discussion that ensues. And when it comes to books that aren’t illustrated, such as novels, engaging the imagination is critical.

Importance (for the reader) of Creating Pictures in Non-illustrated Books

A book that brings the scenes to life in the reader’s mind should do so beautifully and unobtrusively. I love it when I read a scene, and I’m there! But when a book fails to do that, it seems like such a waste of time . . . mine and the author’s.

I’m currently in the middle of such a work (title and author will go nameless). I’m only still with the book because I’m listening to it in the car, and I have a modicum of interest in finding out “who done it.” But the author’s writing doesn’t allow me to picture the settings, the characters, their movements, etc. There’s plenty of “telling,” but very little “showing.”

In order to have the best experience possible with a book, I believe the reader needs to be able to enter into the story, to visualize the surroundings, to sympathize with the characters, to wonder, to worry, to wrestle with the same emotions the characters experience.

Importance (for the author) of Creating Pictures in Non-illustrated Books

There are books galore on “showing vs. telling,” so I’m not even going to go there. I’m just going to try to remind myself constantly that as an author, it’s my responsibility to paint pictures with words. I’m going to try to take every adverb I’m tempted to use (angrily, happily, sadly, etc.) and find a way to express that same emotion through what the characters do or say. And adjectives such as “beautiful,” “ugly,” “boring,” etc., that are used to describe scenes absolutely need to go. As an author, my job is to create a picture in my reader’s mind that enables that person to realize the scene is “beautiful,” “ugly,” “boring,” or whatever, without ever using those words.

Therefore, as I write, I try to remember the wisdom of a three-year-old who knows that books without pictures can be scary. And unless I’m intentionally trying to keep my readers on the edge of their seats, that’s something I don’t want to shoot for in my writing.

I want collaboration with my readers: my writing and their imaginations should join together to create a story that is vividly illustrated . . . without one single picture in the book. It’s only “scary” when I don’t do that.

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Don’t Fear the Core!

Sean McCollum intrepid hiker photo



by Sean McCollum

In the last decade, the Common Core State Standards have been both a source of anticipation and hand-wringing among parents, educators, and yes, writers for children. As a long-time freelance writer of children’s nonfiction and educational content—and a HUGE lifelong fan of children’s literature in general—I want to go on record that CCSS offers some cool opportunities for upgrading the curriculum in many school districts. And young readers and children’s writers stand to benefit, as well.

The Common Core State Standards are exactly that—standards. Teams of experts and educators developed grade-level benchmarks for what kids are expected to learn and skills (like effective writing!) they are expected to have developed in core subject areas. The standards are targets for schools, teachers, and students to aim for in terms of knowledge and skills. There are valid criticisms, in my opinion, that classroom teachers themselves were not as involved in the process as might seem sensible, and that some of the standards are overly ambitious. However, the adoption of CCSS moved the U.S.—or at least the 42 states that adopted the initiative—toward a shared vision of what a quality, well-rounded education looks like.

As with all big initiatives, Common Core has its significant faults. For one, I think it places too much emphasis on college-prep and neglects students whose learning styles are not well-served in the traditional classroom. Secondly, CCSS quickly got co-opted by the testing industry that saw dollar signs first and student development significantly lower on the balance sheet. The conflating of CCSS with high-stakes testing has been one of the biggest misconceptions about Common Core, and I hope school districts will take a stand and emphasize genuine learning over test scores. I’m also hopeful that some of these shortcomings will be tweaked, revised, and even abandoned wholesale in the years to come. (To see a send-up of anti-Common Core attitudes, check out the Funny or Die video here.)

What’s intriguing for children’s writers is the emphasis the Common Core curriculum places on reading. Students are called on to study more nonfiction and primary source documents related to social studies and science. That will leave less time for creative literature, a shift that has upset its fair share of English teachers. At the same time, if you drill down through the standards you will find much-needed emphasis on critical-reading and critical-thinking skills; students are not just taught to recount the plot or make a judgment of whether or not they liked the book, but to back up their reasoning with textual details and evidence. For those of us who have been paying attention to current election cycle, these are definitely skills that could use some refinement.

Good writing for young people will never go out of style, and will always have a place in our schools and in children’s hands. Historical fiction like the I Survived series by Lauren Tarshis and the upcoming nonfiction narrative history series Lost by Tod Olson are just two exciting examples of children’s lit that land in the sweet spot of the Common Core. Telling a good story is still the essential ingredient in writing for kids, and I see no evidence that CCSS is an obstacle to that. Rather, I believe it opens new avenues for a wider-variety of quality books and articles to touch the minds of well-taught readers.


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Comforted by Dreams

Laura K. Deal


By Laura K. Deal

A friend of mine from dream retreats shared this link to Maria Konnikova’s piece, “How to Beat Writer’s Block,” in The New Yorker. As a dreamer and a writer, it resonated with me on several levels. I highly recommend the full article, and I also want to share my response here.

Konnikova tells us that Graham Greene found solace in keeping a dream diary during a period of writer’s block. I’ve felt that comfort too. Even if my waking life doesn’t feel particularly creative, my mind still offers scenarios, with unexpected visitors, repeated themes, and always the invitation to imagine something different from my waking life. My fiction, too, contains unexpected visitors, repeated themes, and the invitation to imagine my own world. Dreams and stories arise from the same fountain of creativity at the heart of being human, and sometimes my mind craves one expression over the other.

Konnikova also explores the history of the idea of “writer’s block” and its treatment by psychoanalysts and psychologists. At the root is the question: Why do we get blocked? I would argue that we unconsciously block ourselves for any number of complicated reasons, but the article doesn’t go that direction. Instead, Konnikova describes four types of unhappy writers and treating their writer’s block with a two-week intervention of guided imagining. Though not a panacea, creativity often flowed and many writers cheered up. Addressing the symptom of writer’s block itself proved therapeutic for emotional distress.

From a practical standpoint, what matters is that we writers can find ways through these blocks. Personally, my favorite way is pulling half a dozen random words from my “word hoard,” and writing whatever comes for ten minutes. This is done with the focus on the process, not the product, and with the understanding that because I had to follow this silly, absurd prompt, I’m not responsible for the quality of whatever comes out of my pen. (What I call Juxtaprise.) Konnikova’s conclusion is that taking a break from judgment (by only writing a dream journal, for example, and not showing it to anyone) is a useful tool.

I invite you to try this: Set aside five minutes, and on a piece of scrap paper or on your computer, write whatever comes to mind, including a few of these words from my word hoard: silence, nosegay, shantytown, shell, languor, touch. If you like, share your resulting “waking dream” in the comments below. If you’d rather, tear up your paper or delete your file, but by all means, if you stumble on a fun idea, don’t limit yourself to five minutes. Run with it as long as it carries your attention.


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