Monday, August 22, 2016

Write your own WOW story

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 wants something, an obstacle that gets in the way, and a win 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 Book

In 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

Monday, August 15, 2016


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.”

Monday, August 8, 2016

Family Adventures on the Road

Vรกmonos! 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

Monday, August 1, 2016


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 Gardener makes 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 Gardener reminds 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!

Monday, July 25, 2016

May The Force Be With Your Creative Writers

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Importance of Finding your Tribe

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.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Writing with Animal Scientist Alexandra Horowitz

Many kids think that scientists work with beakers and microscopes, but Dr. Alexandra Horowitz is a scientist who works with her pets.  By carefully watching her dogs, she gains insight into how dogs in general behave and learn.  In a recent interview with the KidsPost section of the Washington Post, she talks about her newest book Inside of a Dog, a fascinating nonfiction account about the way dogs learn, how they descended from wolves, and why they behave as they do.

Below are writing lessons for the classroom or for individual writers ages 8 and up.  They are adapted from suggested activities in Dr. Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog.

EYES OPEN, PENS READY:  Some scientists study exotic animals—like pandas and lions--in the wild, but Dr. Horowitz thinks we can learn a lot about animals that are part of our everyday life, such as squirrels, sparrows, pigeons, and our pets.  Brainstorm a list with students of possible “everyday” animals. 

Classroom Writing #1:  Ask students to choose an animal at home and observe it closely for 15 minutes every day for a week.  Have them write down what the animal does during that time.  At the end of the week, ask students what they observed about their animal.  What did it do?  Why do they think the animal did that or behaved in that way?  Were students surprised by any specific behaviors?

Classroom Writing #2:  A dog is not a person in a furry suit.  Humans experience the world by seeing it; dogs smell it.  Imagine walking into a room and being extremely aware not of the lamp or the book on the floor but of the many smells therein.  Have students close their eyes and concentrate on their sense of smell.  What are all the different smells?  Have them try this in two different rooms (perhaps one could be a kitchen at home) and record what they smell.  They also might get down on their hands and knees and pretend to be a dog and move through the rooms for about 10 minutes, experiencing things at the dog’s level.  How does the room look/feel different to a dog than a human?

Ask students to do one of two writing projects: (1) Based on what they learned/recorded in Classroom Writing #1, they might choose a particular behavior they observed (sleeping in certain postures, eating a certain way, barking, tail wagging) and do some additional research to learn why this species of animal does this behavior.  The first paragraph might focus on what they learned by watching this one animal, with the second paragraph providing information on why this particular type/species of animal does this behavior.   Or (2) Based on what they noticed about smell/perspective in Classroom Writing #2, they might pretend to be a dog (or their dog) and write a story or poem in the first person (using “I”) from the dog’s point of view.  What do their dog-selves notice about the world?