Best Books of August

Here we go; it’s the end of another month. So, what is the best book you read this month? It could be fiction, nonfiction…any genre. What book did you really enjoy? Or, what book made a major impact on you? Please use the comment space to share the title and author and to tell a bit about your book to whet your fellow readers’ appetites.

As usual, I have more than one. My favorite work of fiction this month was Laurie King’s The God of the Hive. This is the ninth of King’s Mary Russell novels, which pick up with Sherlock Holmes after he and Conan Doyle retire. The book was gripping. (It’s the one I finished in a day.) Russell, Holmes, and Holmes’ brother Mycroft are being stalked by a political opponent in the British secret service. This novel is one of the most closely linked stories to its predecessor, The Language of Bees. If you are a lover of mysteries and Sherlock Holmes, you may want to start with The Language of Bees, or better yet, hold off on these two books and start with the very first book in the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

My other favorite book is a nonfiction title, Ron Humble’s The Humble Essay: A Brief Introduction to College Composition for Actual Students. This was my son’s freshman introduction to college composition textbook, but he enjoyed it so much I had to read it for myself. It is written in a light, breezy voice that reflects a quirky sense of humor, but the information conveyed is serious stuff.

Although I disagree with his dismissive attitude toward the “high school essay” or “five paragraph essay” (as a former high school English teacher, I can tell you, students have to start somewhere and believe it or not some find even the five paragraph form challenging), I agree with everything else he has to say.

Humble examines the thesis, the thesis statement, the difference between the thesis and the topic. He also explains and advocates for a writing process, which as a professional writer I can guarantee I do not know a published writer who does not have one! He provides practical strategies for developing a main idea, sticking to it, and narrowing focus. And he shares strategies for explaining and defending your ideas with details.

I would recommend this book to any teacher of writing, even to those of high school English, and to students who care about expressing their thoughts and ideas powerfully and effectively.

What was your best book this month? Please respond as a comment.

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Happy New Year!

I don’t know about you, but for me the start of school has always been my “new year’s day.” First as a child and student, then as a teacher, as a parent, and as a teacher again, my life always begins anew when school starts.

And, as someone whose passion is to encourage literacy in the home, this September represents, as ever, a new year. Therefore, I have taken a closer look at “Literate Lives” and the rhythm of posts and prompts and worked out a calendar for the upcoming school year.

Each Sunday, I will post a reading response question that can be used with your student’s reading during the week. Reading response questions will address student understanding and evaluation of various elements of literature and if responses are written out, will provide exercise for them stating their ideas and opinions in writing.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I will blog on a variety of topics centering on the development of literacy and reading and writing in the home.

On the first Wednesday of each month, instead of blogging I will post an English/Language Arts assignment. I will include instructions and criteria for completion of the assignment and a scoring guide that can be adapted to evaluate student work.

On the third Wednesday of each month, I will focus on preschool literacy.

Thursdays will continue to be “Play with Your Words!” days. The first Thursday will focus on writing poetry, and the third Thursday will feature an Art writing prompt. Other Thursdays will rotate through imaginative, expository, narrative, descriptive, and persuasive prompts—all forms of writing students are expected to master.

The last blog day of each month, as has been my practice, will be “Best Book of the Month” day. I will continue to recommend a title or two. And I hope you will too. Write about your favorite book you’ve read that month, and tell me about the favorite of any children too young to write. I’d love it if your kids who can write would recommend their own favorites. It’s a good chance for them to engage in writing that is both purposeful and persuasive, and to see their writing “published” in a public forum.

I am so excited about this upcoming year of reading and writing together. Please tell your friends about “Literate Lives” and encourage them join our community!

Read All Day!

This is the blog post I should have written for Monday, but if you read on, you’ll see why I didn’t.

Saturday, I arrived home after visiting friends and family in California. My son and I drove down (twelve hours on the road) and drove all over while visiting. Therefore, when we got home, I was tired!

We went to church Saturday night, and so Sunday the whole day was free to really and truly be a day of rest. How did I rest? I read. All day. I finished a book I had been only 18 pages into when I woke up Sunday morning, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Can you remember the last time you let yourself real all day or you allowed your book-loving child to do so?

Can you remember school days when your nose was too runny and your cough too fierce for you to go to school, but you weren’t too sick to snuggle up in bed and read a book in a day?

I know in our nation at this time we are concerned about whether our children are getting enough physical activity. However, school will soon start, if it hasn’t for your family already, and wouldn’t it be nice to let your little book lovers indulge in a whole day of reading just what they want to?

How about embarking on a read-all-day family picnic? Pack a yummy lunch, soft blankets (maybe even a pillow or two), your favorite camping chairs and a stack of books, and head out to a place you love for a day of reading and relaxation.

I realize for some people what I am describing sounds more like a horror movie than a day of luxurious indulgence. However, if you or your children are introverts or book lovers or both, a quiet day with nose-in-book, could be just the refreshment needed before embarking on another busy school year.

Check Out www.novelteen.com

Jill Williamson, Christie Award winning author of By Darkness Hid, was at the Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference this month and taught a two-part workshop on “Creating Realistic Speculative Fiction.” In the workshop she explored various ways of generating ideas, developing a premise, creating characters, and working within a 3-Act story structure, then she shared her own process of world-building for her award-winning novel and its sequels.

In addition, I learned about Williamson’s website, Novel Teen, www.novelteen.com, which is dedicated to reviewing clean teen fiction and discussing topics related to reading and writing.

On just one visit I saw several books I want to add to my “books I want to read” list, and read two interesting articles on Truth in writing and how teens can encourage younger siblings to read by reading aloud to them. Both of which I would recommend.

I know Novel Teen is a site I will enjoy revisiting. If you are a teen or the parent of a teen reader, you might want to check it out too.

Social Aspects of Writing as Art

I’m reading my July/August 2010 Writer’s Digest magazine, and it has an interview with Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi  and the recently released Beatrice and Virgil. After reflecting on a conflict he had with his publisher on an early draft of a novel, Martel says, “You have to be true to yourself, but you also have to compromise. Art is a social activity. Art is about connecting to readers, or viewers, or listeners…and so you have to listen to them. You have to balance carefully being true to yourself and trying to be, to a certain degree, accessible.”

So many times at writers’ conferences I hear editors and agents speak about an author’s need to be unique, bring something fresh to the story or genre, develop a distinctive voice, etc. Yet, they also remind writers that if their writing is too personal, too insular it might be incapable of reaching readers.

I think it is this fine balance Martel is describing. Those of us who are writers writing for a wide audience need to bring our readers something unique, show them something they might never have imagined. Yet we must also create a work that is not so unique readers cannot connect with it, cannot relate to the experiences of the protagonist in particular and those of other key characters. We need to create something fresh that retains some small echo of what is familiar to human existence. And this need increases in relationship to the degree of challenge presented by the settings, characters, ideas, or themes.

I write my first drafts for myself, but I revise with an eye to making my stories and novels accessible and meaningful for readers beyond my small circle of family and friends. It is a drive that is rooted not just in my desire to be published, but more important, in a desire to communicate, to touch, commiserate and assist, or to suggest new ways, new ideas for living and loving in this wide, wide world we share.

Don’t Let the New School Year Scare You: Read on!

Last weekend, I spent three days in Capitola, California. My mom and her best friend have been renting a house on the beach every summer since I was a kid. All us “kids” have grown up and made our lives in various places in the West and Pacific Northwest and many have raised kids of our own. It is such fun to come together and catch up on each others’ lives.

Sunday afternoon, I was surprised to discover that one family had to head home, instead of staying through Monday like the rest of us, because school had already started in their area, and Sunday was a school night. For another friend, a teacher, this was her last weekend before returning to work. My cousin’s girls start school next week.

One friend confided that her older daughter doesn’t like to read, which concerns her. I could not agree more. Reading is such a key to academic success in nearly every area of study, because nearly every area of study comes with a textbook and assigned readings.

During my years in the classroom, I noticed that the students who did not read recreationally struggled much more with both class readings and writing.

Life can get so busy, especially for middle school and high school students with sports, arts enrichment activities, and the increased homework load, that recreational reading often flies right out the window. However, the more students read (or write) the better reading and writing skills they develop.

In addition, the level of challenge in school textbooks continues to increase in both vocabulary and complexity as students advance from one grade to another, while the amount of textbook reading students do is inadequate to continue building their reading skills at the same rate.

Therefore, it is important to help your student continue to read for pleasure. How do you do this when your child is not interested?

One thing you can try, which is a twist on the reading aloud to your children that I have been promoting all summer, is doing a shared read aloud together. Just as with a regular read aloud, find a book you think your child will enjoy. Get his or her input on the kind of book you read. If she has no idea what she’d like to read, check out some of the books recommended on this site and others, or chat with your child’s teacher or a school or public librarian. Select a few titles to propose, and give your student the choice of which one you’ll read together. Then, take turns reading. If your student is an extremely reluctant or struggling reader, alternate paragraphs. If your student is comfortable reading and just doesn’t make time for it, alternate pages. If you read together for twenty minutes a night, your child will be reading over an hour per week. Increase your minutes together, and your shared one-on-one time can be a powerful tool to increase your child’s success in school.

Also, let your children see you reading. Maybe you can set aside a time in the evening when you all sit down as a family to relax and read quietly together. I know, as a parent, how incredibly busy life can become, and if you are conscientious about your responsibilities, it can be really easy to deny yourself the pleasure of reading until the kids are all in bed and you’re nearly asleep yourself. So let me give you permission. Sitting down and reading that novel, or magazine, or how-to book is NOT a luxury. It is a characteristic of quality parenting. Let your kids see you read and see that you value the time you can read. It will help them to value reading as well.

Finally, write about or discuss what you’re reading as a family. You could keep a family reading journal, where you and your kids take turns writing about what you’re reading and then pass it on for the next family member to read and write in. Or, you can discuss what you’ve read around the dinner table or while you’re riding in the car. Encourage your kids to express their ideas and opinions. It’s a great way to bond as a family and to bond with books. To support you in this, I will begin posting Reading Response prompts Sunday, August 29. Each Sunday I will provide a new prompt focusing on various elements of fiction and active reading skills. I would be thrilled to read your comments about you and your children’s reading.

Also, encourage your children to recommend their favorite books here on “Literate Lives” at the end each month. If your child is too young to do so, please share his favorite title with your fellow readers, and we can build up a great resource for parents seeking good books to read to their children and to encourage their children to read. So don’t let the new school year scare you. Read on!

A Belated Visit with Miss Jane Austen

When I am reading magazines, I love to make note of websites you and I might find interesting. I highlight them, or draw a crazy array of arrows pointing at them, or mark them in some way, dog-ear the corner of whatever magazine I found them on, and eventually cut them out of the magazine and place them in a file. The file is filling up!

So, the other evening, I decided it was time I pull one of those website notations out of the file and check it out. I spent a delightful hour with Jane Austen, or perhaps, more appropriately with her papers and others’ thoughts and feelings about her.

New York’s Morgan Museum held an exhibition of artifacts and her papers last winter that contained an online component, A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy. There is a short film about the position Austen and her work holds in the hearts of scholars and the world in general, facsimiles of manuscript pages you can look at, an audio reading accompanying the manuscript facsimile of Lady Susan, and technical information on papers and inks of her time.

Novelists Siri Hustvedt and Colm Toibin are two of the six people who pay tribute to Austen in the file. I found their awe at looking at and examining the letters and manuscripts, and their thoughts on writing quite moving.

The Many and Varied Ways of “Telling”

I submitted the first ten pages of a fantasy novel to Jeff Gerke, of Marcher Lord Press, for critique at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference.

Much to my delight, it came back showing I had mastered the point of view weaknesses he had highlighted when critiquing the manuscript in the past.

Much to my surprise and chagrin, this time he highlighted problems with “telling”, this in spite of the fact I have been publishing this last decade and writing for even longer! Show, don’t tell. It is probably the most famous piece of fiction writing advice, and I still had not mastered it!

So what kinds of telling does a writer need to look out for? Here’s a list. Not all of these were my particular weakness, but believe me, I own enough of them to want to keep the list by my side as I do revisions.

~Backstory. Let your story start where it starts. Only include background information in little bits where it is absolutely necessary. The less you sneak in, the better.

~Exposition. Pure explanation. Don’t explain, let your reader figure things out.

~Explanation of Character Motives. Show your characters in action, speaking, thinking etc. Let readers infer the reason for it.

~Telling in Quotation Marks. This kind of telling involves placing information your reader needs to know in a conversation between characters who already know it. You need a character who, like the reader, does not know the information in order to include it in the conversation in a realistic way. Otherwise, find another way to inform your reader.

~Sneaky Telling. When you sneaky tell, you slip just a word or phrase of telling into an otherwise “showing” sentence. Don’t do it.

Last, my personal favorite:

~Showing + Telling. A friend in my critique group has periodically pointed out my tendency to do this. This is where you show something in the text and, “just to be safe”, include an explanation of the very thing you already showed. (This can also be done in reverse—Telling + Showing. It’s still a no-no.)

I learned that I, as a writer, need to trust my readers to pick up on the clues provided in the text rather than whacking them over the head with the information. And, of course, I need to be sure to provide those clues.

So, how can you tell if you are telling, rather than showing? if what you put on the page cannot be perceived by one of our senses, heard aloud, or in a character’s head, that’s a red flag for telling.

My goal this year? Develop my awareness of both showing and telling, and master the art of showing without telling.

Ode to Raspberries

About a week ago I went berry picking and wrote this post knowing I would need something when I got back from the Oregon Christian Writers’ Summer Coaching Conference. So I went berry picking a little over a week ago. My quest was for blueberries. There is a U-Pick place nearby, and I’d been waiting for their blueberries to come in. Well, it’s been a weird season this year and the blueberries just hadn’t ripened up, so my friend, Tracy, and I returned to the raspberries where we’d each picked a bag-full two weeks ago.

It was a beautiful day, and the bushes were mature so the rows towered over our heads, and there were plenty of ripe berries.

Now having been raised in the city, berry picking is still new to me, and I couldn’t help marveling at the wonder of it. The ripe berries were such perfect little gems! And each berry was a cluster of miniature globes, each globe glowing like a glass of fine claret held up to the light. They were so beautiful! The process of picking was like a treasure hunt, peering beneath cascades of leaves, reaching for that perfect berry through wreathes of branches and greenery. And the berries were so warm and ripe they practically fell into my hand as though they had been waiting just for me.

I now understand why still life artists love to paint berries—the colors are so rich and the process of catching their crystalline glow one that would surely showcase their talent. As for me, I was inspired as well…

Ah, Raspberries!
Rich glowing globulets of claret flame.
A treasury of gems
Weaving round and in between.
Glimmering in sunlight,
Tucked neath leafy lap rugs.
An explosion of beauty and…
mmm…
sweet, sugary delight.

Take your kids out to pick something fresh!

Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference Report

Last week I attended the Oregon Christian Writer’s Summer Coaching Conference. I, and three other members of my critique group carpooled to the event and shared a cabin at the beautiful Canby Grove Conference Center.

Classes started Monday afternoon, shortly after arrival and didn’t end until lunchtime Thursday (Well, with the exception of having the option to sleep from 9:00 P.M. until breakfast). What a whirlwind time it was! And how informative.

For my coaching class, I opted to take Marcher Lord Press Publisher, Jeff Gerke’s Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop. (I had also submitted a manuscript to him for critique. The very first session helped me to understand the weaknesses in my manuscript and how to fix them, but more about that another day).

Gerke discussed plot driven and character driven writing, and taught us how to develop strong characters and strong plots. We spent a full morning on character development. The next day we learned about plot and three act structure (something I’ve taught to middleschoolers when I was an educator—only nowhere near to the depth Gerke did!) AND, the character development arc that runs parallel to it, which no one had ever taught me before. As we worked through the idea of  applying the plot and character arcs, I was able to practice a step-by-step process of planning on an idea for a novel I’ve been thinking about for some time. Now I can’t wait to start writing it! I think I’ll participate in National Novel Writing Month this year and throw down that rough draft! I’m so excited.

There were afternoon workshops and classes for fiction and nonfiction writer’s, classes on editing, poetry, researching, marketing and many other topics related to writing. Bill Myers’, who created “McGee and Me” gave an awesome three-part keynote address. And I attended a workshop led by James Scott Bell, whose writing advice I’ve been reading for years in Writer’s Digest. My brain felt so stuffed with new information by the end of the four days that I felt like I needed to sleep for a week just to process it.

But believe me, I have no regrets. The conference was fun. It was educational. It was all about writing! What could be better than that?