I love to read! Because I'm also a writer, I get to read a lot of books. I especially focus on Middle Grade books, because that's what I write. I also love to analyze and critique the books I read. Combine all of this, and I now have 'Chicken Scratch Reviews'.
Under my Chicken Scratch blog tab is the Chicken Scratch Reviews tab. On this page, you'll find reviews of books I've read. Most of them will be Middle Grade, which is for ages 8 - 12, although they are still my favorite books, so really Middle Grade is for everyone 8 and up. I rate each book with one to six chicken scratches, with six being absolutely wonderful.
Please use this page for ideas! I'll add more reviews all the time, so you'll be able to scan and find the perfect book for anyone on your list.
Now I have another excuse to curl up with a good book!
I heard this morning that my friend and mentor Elaine Marie Alphin had passed away yesterday. My thoughts have been full of her memories, and appreciation for all she taught me as a person, and a writer. I posted this shout-out a few years ago, when she first had her stroke. Today, I re-post as a remembrance of a wonderful mentor.
Shout-Out To Writing Mentors: Elaine Marie Alphin
Every writer needs support and guidance as they are learning to hone their craft and navigate the world of publishing. I wrote for several years before I found my current writers group, and with it some wonderful mentors. I never knew what I was missing! One of those mentors is Elaine Marie Alphin.
Elaine joined our writers group not long after I did. She is a passionate children's writer with more than 30 books under her belt, and numerous awards, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award for mystery for her book Counterfeit Son. Elaine took me under her wing. She spent hours discussing my stories with me, offering suggestions and critiques, but always in a strong, positive way. She helped me see my writing in new ways. She worked with me during writers group time, in the car on the way to conferences, over gyros for lunch, and by email and phone chats. She taught me what it means to truly live your writing.
Elaine also taught many other people. She traveled extensively for school visits, SCBWI Conference presentations, and writers retreat collaboration. I brought Elaine into my school where I teach, and she worked with me and the entire student body to write our own mystery. The kids actually wrote a mystery novel, with each grade level providing a chapter. This was an amazing project that inspired the writing of countless kids.
A little over a year ago, Elaine suffered a massive stroke that has left her physically unable to write. She is in the process of rebuilding brain neuron pathways to hopefully bring her passion back.
I imagine there are probably thousands of writers out there who also claim Elaine as their writing mentor, but I claim her special. I'm so grateful for her teaching, her guidance, her knowledge, and her friendship. Here's a shout-out to you, Elaine!
Revision is like solving a puzzle. You've drafted the story, created the characters, woven the plot, tried to use vivid descriptions, tried to show not tell, and done a fairly decent job of dumping out what was in your brain. Maybe. Then you have to step back and try to make sense of the picture. It's just not all right. You analyze the pieces, shift some around, add more, take some out, turn others around, or flip them over. You always need to have other people look at it too, and help you figure out where the image is skeewompus. You keep working, and working, and working.
Revision has been my work for the last while. With 4 manuscripts - good stories all - and rejections now coming personalized, and often after several looks, I know I'm to the place where I am SO CLOSE! But the puzzle just isn't quite right enough. Yet.
I've written before about using Martha Alderson's Plot Whisperer to help with revision. I recently took another look at her four energetic markers: 1) The End of the Beginning 2) The Recommitment Scene 3) The Crisis 4) The Climax. I could readily identify each of these energetic markers in my story. My MC follows these nicely in his arc. But I had a bit of a shift in thinking. What about my plot threads? How do the other characters follow the markers? Do all the side things fit too?
So I took each of the main threads of the story, and drew them out on paper, aligned with the energetic markers of the story. This was a great exercise for me to see how each element interacted with the others along the line. I found some mistakes! I found some places where one character was reaching markers before they should be, or ideas were jumping out of sequence. I found threads not aligned as neatly as I wanted. So I grabbed those puzzle pieces and did some shifting, and adding, and creating new.
I'm happy to report that my puzzle image is looking clearer than it ever has. I'm meeting with my wonderful Writers Group tonight to see what they think of the new and improved product. Aligning the energy of my story with all the parts was the key. And now, we'll see how close the puzzle is to being complete.
I've decided to leap. Actually, the decision has been long in coming, but the time was finally right. I'm leaping into the unknown, downright scary world of 'staying home to write'. I've officially taken a year's leave of absence from my school district to focus on my writing.
I love teaching. I'm a teacher at heart. I've been at my school here in Montana for 10 years. I've seen all my own kids go through the school. I've been there for them, supporting them. My youngest son is starting high school this fall. None of my kids will be at Monforton anymore. I always intended to be there with them, and I was.
This decision was tough for me. I love teaching. I love writing. I finally decided it was time to shift from one thing I love to another. I took a year's leave to ease myself out, keep a safety net. I'm not sure how I'm going to handle it. When something is such a huge part of you, it can be hard to let go.
But. I can't even express how excited I am to be able to Write Every Day! I have so many active projects, and great ideas, and layers of support. I'll finally be able to focus on THIS love, and really see what I can do.
So I'm leaping into the dark. Right into my big cushy chair with my touchscreen computer. Wish me luck!
I believe that teachers have the capacity to kill writers. Especially elementary school teachers. Their young charges are eager to please, eager to share, and sometimes end up getting stabbed. How many kids say, "I'm no good at writing. I got a 'C' on my essay." Or, "The teacher didn't think it was funny."
I created a writing curriculum for my 5th grade class. I was able to do this because I teach at an independent, rural school district that lets me do my own thing. So I did. My entire focus was to build confidence in writing, provide success, teach vital skills, and have a lot of fun. Every week my students write, share, and smile. My goal is to create writers, not successfully rubriced products.
We begin the week with a pre-writing worksheet. Each worksheet includes brainstorming, and graphic organizers to think through the planning. There are bullet lists of things to include or watch for. Each student has choice within a structured plan. Then they get to write.
Each week I'm impressed with the variety of ideas, no matter if we're writing fiction or non. I get excited when I see the hints of more advanced structure or more vivid imagery, and I see it at all levels of 'ability'. Even reluctant writers morph into satisfied workers, anxious to try each new technique.
The students love to share their stories on Fridays, and comment on what was good about their group members' writing too. I comment. I guide them to notice the pacing, the mixture of emotion, action, and thought. I point out the great hooks, and laugh at the humor. I especially praise the use of whatever skill focus we had that week, be it topic sentences, or building suspense. I nod my head as they finish, and smile. They get it.
Then I don't grade it.
When I was in 5th grade, I was skinny as a bean-pole, and short. I had close-cropped dark hair, and long legs that could run faster than any other kid, except maybe Andy Johnson. He beat me sometimes, but only if I had a bad start.
One day at recess, I decided to try football. Usually, I hung out near the tetherball poles, or the bars, but that day I was feeling spunky. I didn't know much about football, but it didn't look too hard. I joined a team, ran around for a few minutes, and was feeling pretty good about my new sport.
Out of the blue, I had the ball in my hands, and a wide open field. I ran. Shouting voices behind me filled the air. I was amazing! No one could catch me! I crossed the goal line at breakneck speed, then turned to find my teammates yelling in shock and anger. I had just scored a touchdown for the other team.
Each year, I tell my 5th grade class about this experience I had. We talk about character descriptions in our writing, and about how to bring the elements of emotion into play. A good writer helps the reader feel the emotions of the character and the character's experiences. The reader wants to feel as if they are there at the recess football game.
I still vividly remember the stab of confusion, which quickly morphed to denial, then slid into humiliation. I don't remember if I ever played football again. We've all been there. How good are we at getting our readers to be there with us?
Middle Grade readers are infinitely picky. If the author doesn't have the perfect blend of character depth, believability, emotion, quirkiness, predictability, spunk, empathy, interests, and just plain realness, a middle grade reader puts the book back on the classroom library shelf after just a few pages. Believe me. I see it every day.
Think back to your own 5th grade emotions. Find that tiny connection for your character to link to. That's how your book will go into the desk at the end of Literature Explore time, instead of back onto the shelf. Score a touchdown for your own team.
Anyone who has ever been involved in fundraising for their children's activities, understands this whole different world. Everywhere you go, and everyone you see, sparks thoughts of, "Have we hit them up yet?" or "That would work well to help us out." Every information portal of your brain suddenly has new pathways that connect somehow to fundraising.
My youngest son is preparing for a class trip to Washington D.C. and New York City. It's going to be a great trip! A wonderful experience! But first, we all have to raise a huge amount of money. At his school, the fundraising is largely done as a group, for the whole. Our goal is a collective of $50,000. And we have until the end of the year.
Welcome Duck Derby. Since May, the students have been selling sponsorships of rubber ducks that are going to race down the Madison River. We'll be floating about 3200 ducks. The winning duck earns its sponsor $5000 in prizes. It's a great idea, fun and different, and pretty easy to sell. The down side? I'm in charge.
My house is filled with bags, boxes, barrels, and more bags of ducks. We have duck posters, duck fliers, duck charts, and duck pictures. All forms are in hard copy and digital. We have yellow ducks, pink ducks, and blue ducks. I have ducks already sold, extra ducks, recreated missing ducks, and even a decapitated by bicycle spokes duck. We have ducks in the front room, ducks in the kitchen, and ducks on the porch. I've collected about half of the ducks so far, and will collect them all by the end of next week.
One more week. The ducks float on Friday. And I'll be standing in the river, just past the finish line, frantically scooping ducks up with a fishing net. I imagine it will all be quite a sight to see.
All in the name of love for my son. Anybody want to buy a duck?
I just got back from my annual Writers Retreat. Each year, my writers group starts planning months ahead. We search for the perfect cabin and location. We plan what we'll be learning there, and doing with our time. We plan food, and movies to watch, and snacks to bring. Then, when the time is right, we leave our everyday lives behind for five days and head to writing paradise.
This year we stayed in a cabin just outside of the little Montana town of Ennis. This is fly fishing country on the Madison River. The mountains were right outside our windows. We each brought out laptops, and notebooks, and favorite pens. We also brought boxes and coolers of tasty food to make and share with each other. Plus chocolate.
Usually, I spend my week at Writers Retreat completely oblivious to my real life. I immerse myself in craft and creativity, barely remembering my former routines. And I always get an incredible amount of writing progress made. I leave feeling completely refreshed and energized, accomplished and hopeful.
This year was a little different. Right before I left, my youngest son got quite sick. I hauled him to the doctor, got the antibiotic, and left him home with Dad. Only, he didn't get better. I spent quite a bit of time this week on the internet researching medical conditions, or on the phone talking to doctors. He's doing some better now, but it's been a tough week for him, and my husband who took the brunt since Mom was gone.
I'm also the fundraising coordinator for the same son's 8th grade class trip coming next spring. We're in the middle of a massive fundraising effort - which I'll probably blog about someday. Fundraising doesn't pause for writing retreats. So each day, I had to devote some time to emails and calls, making sure the ducks were in a row. Literally.
So, with all the distractions, and intrusions of reality trying to grab me, my week wasn't quite as I'd expected or planned. Was it successful? You bet. Despite it all, I met my writing goal. I am a writer that has learned how to take full advantage of pure writing time. I get it so rarely, that when I do, it's all I need. I may not feel as relaxed or refreshed as most years after our retreat, but I am feeling hopeful.
And grateful to a wonderful writers group who support me through it all.
This past week I met with my wonderful Writers Group for our twice-monthly meeting. We had life to fill each other in on, pictures to look at, Girl Scout cookies to distribute, and a manuscript to critique. I sat in my chair, watching these extremely talented friends of mine discuss what makes a story work.
A children's novel is such an intricately woven dance of character, setting, story, rhythm, reader's inference, style, imagery, and ultimately author's passion. I marvel constantly about how much work it takes a writer to weave their masterpiece tightly, beautifully, and right.
We've all read novels that we finish, so we can figure out what happened, but really we'd just been skimming by the end because the weaving just wasn't right. And we've all read the novels that had us so enthralled by the flow and imagination that we found ourselves woven right in to the plot. We didn't want it to end. The story worked.
So there I sat, watching the work of a group, and an author stretching to weave the story out of her brain onto paper. Our group is good at pulling on threads. We have been together long enough to grab where needed, twist at just the right time, and recognize when colors need to be toned just a bit differently to tie it all together. We talked, and grabbed, and wove, and worked.
This is writing. This is critiquing. This is art. This is work.
Many years ago, my sister in law gave me sign to hang in my quilt room. It reads, 'When life gives you scraps, make quilts'. Since then, as life has moved on for me, and my quilting time has diminished, I don't get to make as many physical quilts as I used to. Someday I hope to again, but in the meantime, I try to remember to make 'quilts' anyway.
I've always viewed a quilt as a sincere representation of love. Precious time, energy, talents, passion, inspiration, whimsy, hours of thoughts, and personal sacrifice are all wrapped up in a cozy package for someone I love. I hope when they wrap up in it, or tuck it in on their bed, they know how much of me is right there with them.
So when life is giving me scraps - in the form of high stress situations, or downright injustice - I hope I can carefully take those pieces, analyze their pattern and color, and work out a plan. Hopefully, with time and inspiration, I can build something unique and beautiful to carry with me and eventually share with the ones I love. This can be another part of me, of who I am becoming.
The sewing becomes as sweet as the wrapping in.
Writing for children is a passion - along with reading kid's books, writing plays for kids, and teaching kids how to write!