Mary Quattlebaum's Blog

September 26, 2016

Guest Post by Claudia Mills
          Just as it can be inspirational for young writers to have a published author visit their classroom, it can be inspirational to read about child characters who love to write and who take seriously the development of their craft.

          My most recent middle-grade novel, Write This Down, stars Autumn Granger, a seventh-grade writer who is determined to impress her scornful older brother, Hunter, by achieving her dream of publication. She is taking a middle-school journalism class from a charismatic teacher. I put various bits of writing advice into the mouth of Ms. Archer and showed how Autumn responded to them in her own writing.
          In Chapter 4, as the class begins their study of the personal essay, Ms. Archer opens with the provocative statement: “A personal essay is not about you.” Instead, “people read personal essays to learn something about themselves.” A personal essay is more than a report of what happened to somebody; it’s also about its larger significance for a more universal audience –what that incident means. She then has the class do a free-write on the topic: “The worst – or best – gift you ever received.” Autumn comes up with her own list of best and worst gifts, finding herself grabbed by one that leads into a reflection on her troubled relationship with Hunter and the bond between siblings.
          This scene could be a jumping-off point for asking students to write their own list of best and worst gifts. Autumn thinks, as she begins her brainstorming: “Bad things are always good to write about.” Ask your students:  Is this true? If so, why is it true? Might it be because the heart of a strong story is some problem or conflict? Autumn writes about a best gift instead – but one that leads her into dark early childhood memories.
          As students work on their lists of “best gifts and worst gifts,” encourage them to do more than simply think about what a disappointment it was to receive, say, an electric toothbrush (as Autumn received one year from her dentist father), or joy to get a coveted video game. What does the best or worst gift say about the relationship between giver and recipient? (When Autumn’s Aunt Liz gives her the same book three years in a row, what does this say about Aunt Liz?) Does a “worst” gift show indifference on the part of the giver? Or desire to send a not-so-subtle message about who the giver wants the recipient to be? Why might the same item be the best gift for one person but the worst gift for another? Why might what seemed to be a bad gift turn out to be a wonderful one, after all?
          Autumn learns that even a simple list of best gifts and worst gifts can lead to powerful personal reflections on the nature of families, love, heartbreak, and healing. Maybe this same exercise can lead your students there, too.
BIO: Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including How Oliver Olson Changed the World (an ALA Notable Book of the Year) and The Trouble with Ants (which just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly), as well as the Franklin School Friends series of chapter books from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Claudia lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her family and her cat, Snickers. Visit

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Published on September 26, 2016 14:00 • 1 view

September 19, 2016

by Laura Gehl
My newest picture book with illustrator Joyce Wan, Peep and Egg: I’m Not Trick or Treating, is the second book in the Peep and Egg series. Unlike Peep and the other farm animals, poor Egg isn’t excited about Halloween. Egg is terrified of witches, mummies, and vampires; there is absolutely NO WAY that Egg is going trick or treating!

Peep and Egg: I’m Not Trick or Treating can be a fun writing prompt in your classroom.  After you read the book aloud, here are a few ideas to try with your students:
1)    Peep and Egg wear coordinated Halloween costumes. Peep is a butterfly, while Egg is a caterpillar. Challenge your students to make a list of other coordinated Halloween costumes that would be fun for siblings or friends to wear. Some possibilities include salt and pepper, ketchup and mustard, or milk and cookie.  For an extra challenge, see if students can come up with ideas that work especially well for an older sibling and a younger sibling, the way a butterfly and a caterpillar work for Peep and Egg.  A seed and a flower, a tadpole and a frog…how many examples can your students think of?
2)    Peep tells Egg Halloween jokes to help Egg feel less scared. What other strategies can your students think of for helping a friend or younger sibling who finds Halloween frightening?
3)    As a class, brainstorm a list of “scary” Halloween characters—monsters, zombies, etc. Then work with your students to make each character less scary by adding nontraditional traits. How about a monster who loves to sing songs from Disney movies, or a zombie who wears a rainbow bikini? 
4)    For many kids, the best part of trick or treating is the CANDY.  Ask your students to invent their own Best Halloween Candy Ever.  Would it be a dark chocolate bar studded with white chocolate chips in the shape of a skull? Or a lollipop that looks like an eyeball, with an oozing red center that tastes like cherry cola?  Anything goes!
5)    Even though many kids find trick or treating fun, there are plenty of kids who are scared by Halloween in general and trick or treating in particular. Can your students make a list of other activities that are fun for some kids but scary for others? Rock climbing? Horseback riding? Ziplining?
Peep and Egg: I’m Not Trick or Treating reinforces the message introduced in Peep and Egg: I’m Not Hatching…that sometimes all we need to overcome our fears is someone we love by our side.  Happy early Halloween!

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Published on September 19, 2016 14:00 • 1 view

September 12, 2016

Guest Post by Janet Wong
Have you noticed an explosion of activity books in bookstores and box stores? Elaborate coloring books, clever creative journals, and books similar to those in the Wreck This Journal series? These books allow tweens and teens to interact in ways beyond reading—drawing in them, writing in them, and exploring their thoughts and feelings. Why do kids love them? Because they’re fun—and writing in them is an act of ownership.
For those of us who teach language arts: how can we take a middle school student’s excitement for activity books—and bring it into the classroom?
Sylvia Vardell and I are trying to do just that with our newest collaboration, You Just Wait: A Poetry Friday Power Book, published this month by our imprint Pomelo Books. It’s part activity book for tweens and teens; part verse novella; and part writing coach, combined in a way designed to gain the approval of both the school board and your favorite skeptical tween.

Here are the steps that we followed in creating You Just Wait. My part of the book came first.
—I took a dozen “outside poems” (“already-published poems” by eleven different poets, all found in The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School).
—I imagined how these outside poems could be woven together and wrote two dozen new poems that form a story featuring Paz, an Asian-Latina soccer player, her movie-loving cousin Lucesita, and Joe, Paz’s older brother, who dreams of playing basketball in the NBA. These new poems became “Response Poems” and “Mentor Text” poems as the book evolved.
Sylvia Vardell then added her magic touch. She:
—created twelve quick, creativity-spurring, PowerPlay activities;
—paired twelve Power2You writing prompts with my Mentor Text poems; and
—assembled twelve Resource Lists for writers (and readers) for the back matter of the book.
Here’s a look at PowerPack 5, one of the twelve PowerPacks in You Just Wait. You can find downloadable files at

We think we accomplished what we set out to do, but we’ll only know if we start seeing ragged, well-loved class sets of You Just Wait filled with scribbles. Send us your photos at—we’d love to see them!
*********Janet Wong is the author of 30 books including You Have to Write. She is the co-creator (with Sylvia Vardell) of The Poetry Friday Anthology series (

Note: Some vendors such as are offering healthy discounts this month as part of the book’s promotional launch; please consider ordering some copies for your school. 
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Published on September 12, 2016 14:00 • 1 view

September 5, 2016

by Joan Waites
The new school year has officially started, and classrooms are buzzing again!
A fun way to get the creativity flowing after the summer break is to initiate a 30 day creative challenge for your students.

Using 5x7 index cards (or other small pieces of paper), pick a simple one word prompt for children to do a quick drawing or doodle. Emphasize that the drawings don’t have to be realistic; they can be funny, whimsical or anthropomorphized. On the back side of the paper, have students do a short writing exercise. For example, using the word “paintbrush,” have students draw a paintbrush and then on the back of the drawing either describe the object using the five senses, write a poem about the object, or turn the object  into a character for a story and list character traits. 
Do this every day for 30 days allowing about 10-15 minutes per day. At the end of the 30 days, have students look over their collection of challenges. Have them pick out their favorite drawings and creative writing. Ask students to expand these simple exercises into a short story or picture book. These 30 day challenges can be kept in an envelope and used throughout the year as inspiration for other artistic works or writing assignments.
Happy September!

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Published on September 05, 2016 14:00 • 2 views

August 22, 2016

Guest Post by Mary Amato
In my latest book, Our Teacher is a Vampire and Other (Not) True Stories, the kids in Mrs. Penrose’s classroom get advice from their favorite author about how to write a great story. The author teaches them a simple process that she calls writing a WOW story. 

I developed the idea of the WOW story after reading Aristotle in graduate school. WOW is my easy way of remembering what the wise philosopher had to say about what makes stories work. WOW stories have three parts: a main character who w ants something, an o bstacle that gets in the way, and a w in by the main character at the end. Here’s an example.
Want: A cat wants a saucer of milk.Obstacle: A dog gets in the way.Win: The cat sings the dog a lullabye; the dog falls asleep; and the cat wins by getting the milk.
Want to write a WOW story of your own? To write this story, think about what kind of personality traits your cat and dog might have. Is your cat shy or sassy? Is your dog grumpy or mean? Do your characters talk? What do their voices sound like? Think about where the story takes place. Inside a cozy house? In a scary, dark alley? Close your eyes and imagine the story like a little movie in your mind. Then open your eyes and try to write it.
You can also come up with your own ideas for WOW stories.
Make a Wow BookIn Our Teacher is a Vampire and Other (Not) True Stories, students write WOW stories and make them into books over their spring break. You can make a book, too. You will need sheets of blank paper of any size and a stapler.
Fold a few pages of paper in half so that it looks like a book and staple it twice on the outside along the fold line. (If your paper is wider than 3 inches, you’ll need a long-arm stapler to reach the fold line.)

To make your WOW book have a special look and feel, use one sheet of thicker, colored paper on top for the cover. After you fold it, put black masking tape on the fold to make a decorative reinforcement. Then you can staple it on the outside of your book along the fold line.

 Write your title on the front and your WOW story inside.

BIO: Mary Amato is an award-winning children’s and YA book author, poet, playwright, and songwriter. Her books have been translated into foreign languages, optioned for television, produced onstage, and have won the children’s choice awards in Ohio, Minnesota, Utah, and Arizona. She teaches popular workshops on writing and the creative process around the country. Visit her online at
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Published on August 22, 2016 14:00 • 2 views

August 15, 2016

by Karen Leggett Abouraya
During every Olympics, we have a chance to see young athletes excelling as individuals and as teams. A recent bestseller with adult and young adult versions provides a compelling story as well as writing prompts from the infamous Berlin Games of 1936: The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown .

Much of the book’s focus is on one particular team member – Joe Rantz – and his determination to surmount a difficult childhood. But all the boys on this University of Washington rowing team were from working class families that suffered through the Great Depression. Keeping a seat in the lead boat was their ticket to staying in college. First they defeated the elite schools of the East and then it was on to Berlin.    “All at once, sixteen arms must begin to pull together, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold in unison, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must begin to bend and straighten. Each tiny action must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman.”
Brown shows just how broad a successful team can be – and the importance of people who may never actually wear a medal - when he writes about the skills of boat builder George Pocock and difficult decisions made by team coach Al Ulbrickson.
“Each had entirely given himself up to being a part of something larger and more powerful and more important than himself.”
The 1936 Olympic rowing shell, the Husky Clipper, is now on display in the Conibear Shellhouse at the University of Washington.  Photo by tedadavis/CeativeCommons

Many young people will have spent the summer on athletic teams, at summer camps or simply watching the 2016 Rio Olympics – any of which can open the door to writing prompts.
·       What were you able to accomplish as a team this summer – and not necessarily an athletic team (perhaps a theatre or singing group)?  If your team was successful, why? What did each person contribute to the team’s success?  If not, what might have changed the outcome?·       Where did you see teamwork helping athletes achieve success in this year’s Olympic games?  How did the athletes demonstrate that teamwork?  Even younger children who may not be able to read The Boys in the Boat can see and write about the camaraderie (or lack of it) among athletes.
“They had learned that there were things they could do far better together than alone. They were starting to row now for one another, not just themselves, and it made all the difference.”
PBS articles and videos
University of Washington photos and facts
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Published on August 15, 2016 14:00 • 2 views

August 8, 2016

by Jacqueline Jules

Vámonos! Let’s go! In her newest adventure, The Beach Trip, spunky 7-year-old Sofia Martinez packs for a beach trip. She doesn’t want to take clothes; she wants to take board games. And she doesn’t like the long car ride with her squabbling sisters. On top of all that, it rains on the first morning of vacation.

Family vacations are a great source of material for personal narratives. Teachers often ask their student to write about the trips they took during the summer. In the elementary grades, these writing pieces sometimes sound like lists. First we did this. . . . Then, we did that. . . . There is often not too much reflection on the experience other than a little description of how the ocean was fun or pretty.  
To help young writers expand their family vacation writing, read The Beach Trip and spend some time talking about funny inconveniences of travel. Was the car too small for all the suitcases? Did kids whine in the backseat? Did a sudden rainstorm make everyone run for cover? How did they handle those situations with their families? Did they come up with creative solutions like Sofia and her family?
Approaching a tried-and-true topic from a different angle can add depth to student writing. It might also provide a few giggles as students remember how they solved a backseat squabble or packed the wrong things for a vacation.
Happy Travels!
Jacqueline Jules  
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Published on August 08, 2016 14:00 • 3 views

August 1, 2016

by Laura Gehl
The Night Gardener, by Terry and Eric Fan, is the story of a town where something magical is happening.  Each night, a mysterious Night Gardener trims a tree into a wondrous creation—a cat, a bunny, a dragon.  And then one extra special night, a little boy named William is invited to help!

The Night Gardenermakes an excellent writing prompt for the classroom.  After you read the book aloud, here are a few ways to use this beautiful picture book with your students:
1)    What if each student in your class had the chance to become a night gardener?  Challenge students to make a list of the tree creations they would wish to produce. In the book, trees are trimmed into animal shapes, but your students need not limit themselves to animals.  What about a tree in the shape of a lollipop? A robot? A dress?2)    In The Night Gardener, the townspeople are changed by the beauty that the Night Gardener brings. Ask your students, “Other than trimming trees into fantastic shapes, what are other ways that you could beautify your neighborhood in the middle of the night?”  Students can write their own ideas, which might range from picking up trash to painting happy faces on parking meters to planting flowers in vacant lots. 3)    This book is written by two brothers.  Ask your students to think about whether it would be easy or hard to work with a family member—a sibling, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or cousin—to create a book, a painting, or another type of work of art. Ask each student to write about which family member he or she would like to collaborate with, and why.4)     Give students the chance to look closely at the illustrations in the book, and specifically at all of the townspeople. Do your students see people of varying races or ethnicities? Ask each student to write about why including diverse characters in picture books is important.

The Night Gardenerreminds us that small actions can have big consequences, and that it only takes one person to change an entire town forever. Each one of your students can make a positive difference too!

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Published on August 01, 2016 14:00 • 2 views

July 25, 2016

Guest Post by Laura Krauss Melmed
I wrote my latest picture book, Before We Met, while channeling the remembered wonder and anticipation of awaiting the birth of a child.  In the book, an expectant mother imagines the baby’s smile, the feeling of its skin, the sound of its cry.
In Before We Met, sumptuously illustrated by Jing Jing Song, an expectant mother tells of her hopes and dreams while waiting for her child to be born. Just as adult life often entails waiting, children too must wait for all kinds of exciting events, such as a birthday party, a vacation trip, the first day of school, that first loose tooth, or getting a pet.  Using Before We Met as a prompt, children can learn that writing about an anticipated event and its imagined outcome can be a fun way to deal with having to wait.
Here’s the set-up:  Your students are enrolled in the Intergalactic Home Visit Program. In one month, a Star Visitor from a distant planet will be coming to spend a week with them at home.  Because of Intergalactic security rules, your students won’t know any details about the Star Visitors or their home planets until right before they arrive. 
Ask students to draw a picture of their imagined visitor and the visitor’s home planet. Then ask students to write answers to these questions.  
How are you feeling while waiting for your Star Visitor to arrive?How will you and your Star Visitor greet each other?  Where will your Star Visitor sleep?  How will you make your Star Visitor feel at home?How will your pets react to the Star Visitor?What does your Star Visitor like to eat?  What Earth foods would you like to introduce them to?  What games might your Star Visitor teach you?   What games will you teach them?  What special powers might your Star Visitor have?What parts of your neighborhood will you take them to, and how might other Earthlings react to meeting them?  What will it be like when your class brings their Star Visitors to school? What gift will your Star Visitor give you when they leave?What will you give your Star Visitor to take back home?
A follow-up exercise could be for students to write about what the visit was “really” like compared to their expectations, and how they felt after their Star Visitor left. 
May the Force be with your student writers as they aim their imaginations toward the stars!
Laura Krauss Melmed is the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction picture books for children, including the New York Times bestsellers, The Rainbabies and I Love You as Much.  Her books have garnered many awards, including the ALA Notable Award, National Jewish Book Award, Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, Parent's Choice Award, Oppenheim Gold Award, Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Master List, and the American Bookseller Pick of the Lists.  She holds an M.Ed. in early childhood education and has been a kindergarten teacher.  Laura loves connecting with students and teachers face-to-face through school visits and writing workshops. She tutors in the DC Schools with Reading Partners, a national organization committed to helping children find the magic key to literacy.  Visit Laura online at
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Published on July 25, 2016 14:00 • 2 views

July 18, 2016

by Joan Waites
Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a workshop at the Highlights Foundation in Boyd’s Mills PA, in the northeastern Pocono Mountains. The Highlights Foundation’s mission is “to improve the quality of children’s literature by helping authors and illustrators hone their craft.” Workshops are offered year round, often with guest faculty leading sessions on a wide range of topics and genres.
Working together with like-minded writers and illustrators along with workshop mentors can be invaluable. As writers and illustrators, we often work in solitude. Sharing ideas, critiques and industry experiences all help to take your work to the next level.

While it’s not always possible to participate in a workshop, attending events such as SCBWI conferences,  free bookstore and library lectures featuring guest authors and illustrators, or just organizing a group of writer and/or artist friends at a coffee shop or park to share work can help inspire and motivate you on your path to publication, whether it’s your first book or your 50th.
Wherever you live, it’s likely there are other like-minded people willing to gather and work together.  Finding your tribe can be one of the most important ingredients to realizing your publishing goals.

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Published on July 18, 2016 14:00 • 2 views

Mary Quattlebaum's Blog

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