Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New Picture Book is Oodles of Fun!

I just got to preview a wonderful new book by Donna Shepherd. With its delightful language and charming illustrations, Poodle and Doodle is a picture book that can be read and enjoyed again and again. The story of how Angel, the "perfect" poodle, adjusts to the intrusion of Scruffy, the Labradoodle, will make both children and adults laugh. (Check out Angel's blog!) Donna Shepherd's clever rhymes bring Angel's personality to life, and Jack Foster's artwork adds to the humor. Hidden bones in many of the illustrations keep things fun for multiple readings. The story entertains while teaching good lessons about friendship and change. Great for both home and school libraries! You can get the book from Guardian Angel Publishing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

New on the Web

This has been a fun week for me thanks to Pauline Books and Media, the publisher of several of my books. First, an interview with me was posted on their website. I had a great time talking to Sister Christine about writing for kids, and it's exciting to see the interview in print. You can check it out here.

Next, a video about one of my books appeared on Pauline's youtube page. How cool is that? It's cute, colorful, and peppy! (Thanks, Sally!) View the video here.

Happy holidays, everyone, and thanks for all your support!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hook Books

I saw a dog. He was brown. He was cute. I liked him.

Do your students write simple sentences like these? As a special education teacher, I had trouble getting my kids to write more complex and interesting sentences…until a teacher friend told me about hook books. (Thanks, Carol!) I don’t know where the method originated. I’d love to give credit to whoever thought it up as it was quite effective! (And I'd like to know why they're called "hook books." Were the originals hung from hooks? Did they get the name because they "hook" kids on better writing?) Here’s how it works:

Day One: Write a simple and boring sentence on the board or overhead. Then have students come up with adjectives to add to the sentence. (You may have to explain what adjectives are and adjust the number to the ability of your students) Encourage a variety of adjectives. (“We already have a color word. Can you think of another word to describe _______?” After the list of adjectives is finished, choose one and rewrite the sentence. You’ll end up with something like this:
I saw a dog. (original sentence)
1. brown
2. spotted
3. gigantic
4. scary
I saw a spotted dog.
Have each student copy the above in a notebook designated as a “hook book.” For the sentence, have them choose a different adjective from the list than the one you chose.

Day Two: Put yesterday’s transformed sentence back on the board. Now have students think of more interesting verbs to replace the one in the sentence. (Explain/model as needed.) Choose a verb to further transform the sentence. Students copy it all into their “hook books,” except they transform their own sentences from yesterday. (Again, encourage variety. “’Brushed’ is a good verb, but since we already have ‘combed’ on the list, can you think of another word?”) You’ll have something like this:
I saw a spotted dog.
1. chased
2. combed
3. walked
4. rescued
I rescued a spotted dog.

Day Three: Now you move on to prepositional phrases. If your students don’t know prepositions, post a list, and give examples of prepositional phrases to get them going. As before, students copy from the board but transform their own sentences from yesterday.
I rescued a spotted dog.
Prepositional phrases:
1. from the pound
2. with my grandfather’s help
3. on my birthday
4. in a terrible storm
I rescued a spotted dog from the pound.

Day Four: Each student goes to a fresh page in his/her hook book, indents, copies over his/her last, transformed sentence, and uses it as the first sentence of a paragraph or longer story. (You adjust according to students’ needs.)

Day Five: Students help each other edit their stories. (Or on Day Four, you can check and mark their stories or conference with them individually.) Then each makes a good copy of his/her story with an illustration if desired.

This activity only takes a few minutes each day, especially after you’ve done it several times. Kids begin to understand parts of speech and sentence structure, and you can refer to this activity to get them to write better sentences at other times. (“How about adding an adjective?" "Can you come up with a more interesting verb?" "Please add a prepositional phrase.”) Gradually you can require students to do more of the activity on their own. Eventually you can just supply the stimulus sentence, and the hook book can be a daily, independent activity!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

7 Things I've Learned So Far

Even after years of trying to make it as a writer, there's still a lot I don't know about writing. I have learned a few things, however, and I've written about them on Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog. You can check out my article and get lots of good information from Chuck and other writers, too, while you're there.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Could We Have a Moment of Silence? Please!

This was originally published in The Indianapolis Star several years ago, but lately I've been thinking again about the noise of our lives....

As soon as I start pumping my gas, it begins. A small television on the side of the pump comes to life, and a tiny talking head announces the latest news. Luckily, there’s a mute button. Unluckily, the mute button silences the little man for only ten seconds.
I never thought of pumping gas as a quiet moment, but now that I can’t escape a news report that I don’t want to hear, I’m suddenly appreciative of my previous gas station experiences. And I wonder: who decided that I couldn’t have that quiet moment?
Probably the same people who set up televisions in waiting rooms. Waiting around for hours was never great fun, but listening to too-loud cartoons hasn’t made things any better! I used to get this waiting-room zen thing going. It was practically meditation. Now I find myself getting more tense and impatient the longer I have to listen to that grating noise. Another quiet time bites the dust!
I can understand how someone might think it a good idea to install televisions wherever quiet raises its noiseless head. After all, many of us dislike silence so much that we listen to music every possible waking moment. Boom boxes, radios, IPOD systems fill the air with musical selections that one person has chosen to share with the rest of the world. The music in restaurants and bars drowns out not only the quiet, but also any chance of conversation. Oases like the gas station must have seemed disturbingly peaceful to whatever good Samaritan thought of using televisions to save us all from the sounds of silence.
Maybe the ever-present noise of televisions in waiting rooms and bars, music in restaurants, radios in passing cars, and cell phones everywhere annoys me because I still have some hearing left! I haven’t deafened myself with years of wearing headphones and listening to music so loud that the people around me can sing along. I don’t have to rattle the windows with my stereo in order to feel that I’m having a good time. And I don’t go to concerts any more, even for the relatively mild-mannered entertainers I like. My last concert required ear plugs just to be bearable!
I can still hear – and I’m tired of listening! Walking through a mall means being bombarded by constantly changing music as I pass different stores. If a ringing cell phone doesn’t interrupt a movie, somebody’s ongoing commentary will. Other people are always choosing the soundtrack for my life!
Does silence scare everybody? Are we afraid that we might be forced to interact with a stranger in a TV-free waiting room? If we’re not instantly available by cell phone, do we cease to exist? Without music pounding at our brains, would we have to THINK? And who knows what we might have to do with our kids if we didn’t have computers and televisions and video games!
I know we don’t have to listen to real birds since we have singing clocks. And we’re really involved with the lives of our television friends and family. And yes, it’s true that music hath charms to soothe every troubling thought out of our heads. But couldn’t we just try a quiet moment now and then?
Couldn’t we turn it all off?
And listen?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Kentucky Reading Association conference

It was great to meet teachers, librarians, and other authors at the conference! Thanks to the lovely ladies who ate lunch with me -- and to everyone else who listened to me blab about my books in particular and writing in general!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Random Acts of Publicity

Here's a great way for writers to support each other! It's called "Random Acts of Publicity Week." The basic idea is that for one week we help publicize other writers' work by writing those reviews, etc. -- all the stuff we think we'll do someday but never do. For more information and some great ideas, go to Thanks, Darcy!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Kentucky Bound!

It looks like the Kentucky Reading Association is having a great conference this year – and I’m not saying that just because I’m going to be there! The conference takes place September 17 through September 19 at the Galt House in Louisville. Check out all the great speakers at

I’ll be there on Saturday, September 19. I’m participating in the author/illustrator luncheon and book signing, and I’m part of a group of authors presenting a talk about the business of writing for kids. I’m really looking forward to meeting a lot of people, talking to teachers and librarians, listening to other speakers, and learning a thing or two! See you there!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Wait is Over!

I really got lucky when Nikki Shoemaker manned the table next to mine at a business fair. It was great to talk to her about creating kids’ books! (Me – writer. Nikki – illustrator.) When Nikki shared her experiences with What Wrong With Mud? I couldn’t wait to see the book. And now…drum roll please…I have! The book is finally out! And it is just as delightful as its illustrator. Kids will love this tale of pigs and ducks swapping placing and trying out each other’s lifestyles. Nikki’s charming illustrations bring the fun and funny story to life with plenty of action and personality. Now I’m waiting for Nikki’s next book! In the meantime, here’s an interview with Nikki, followed by some info about her virtual book tour and contest:

Q: Tell us about What’s Wrong with Mud?
A: What’s Wrong with Mud? written by Gillian Colley is my first published picture book. The story was judged and chosen along with 11 other stories to be entered into an online vote. To be honest, I am not sure how Rita Mills found out about me, but she contacted me and asked me to participate in illustrating one image to represent the story. The image and the story were posted online and subject to an online vote for two weeks. The story/image with the most votes was named the winner and would then go on to be completely illustrated and published. What’s Wrong with Mud? was the 2007 ABC Picture Book Competition winner.

Q: What were your favorite picture books when you were a kid?
A: Where the Wild Things Are, Pokey Little Puppy and The Elves and the Shoemaker (which was funny, because my married name ended up being Shoemaker!)

Q: What advice would you give other artists who are hoping to become illustrators?
A: Go to art school or take as many training courses from local colleges as you can. Learn to handle criticism because you cannot grow as an illustrator without it. NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK!

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am currently working on three picture books now. Keep an eye for Lemur Troops & Critter Groups coming in fall of 2009 and it’s sequels Stork Musters & Critter Clusters and Pony Strings & Critter Things in the year 2010. I am also illustrating each month for Stories for Children Magazine, which is an online e-zine that has new issues each month. Go check it out at

Q: What do you do when you're not working on your art?
A: I spend most of my spare time with my pets and my husband. I have a day job as a graphic designer now, so after the 9 - 5 thing I come home spend some time with them and then head to the studio. I also try to fit in as much exercise as I can, bike riding, the gym, walking, etc.

Q: What's your greatest challenge as an artist/illustrator?
A: Right now, feeling comfortable about making the jump to being a full time freelancer. I am not yet confident in leaving the day job yet. It is a tough economy right now, and the decision has been the biggest challenge as of yet.

Thanks for stopping by the What’s Wrong with Mud? Virtual Book Tour.

Nikki is giving away 3 themed tote bags and there are 3 ways to enter to win!

Copy/paste the book tour schedule onto your blog and leave a comment on Nikki’s blog to let her know that you posted on or before Saturday, July 11.
Create your own blog post promoting What’s Wrong with Mud?
(You can contact Nikki for the Cover image and an interview to post if you want to)
Stop by each blog on the Book Tour and leave a comment on each including Nikki’s blog (on or before Saturday, July 11), to let her know to enter you into the drawing.

If you enjoyed the book tour and would like a autographed copy of What’s Wrong with Mud? please email Nikki Shoemaker, for more details.

Tour Schedule

Sunday, July 5 -
Nikki Shoemaker announcing the book tour

Monday, July 6 -
Rena Jones

Tuesday, July 7 - Crystalee Calderwood and Mandy Hedrick

Wednesday, July 8 - Wendy Martin and Roberta Baird

Thursday, July 9 - Carli Moua

Friday, July 10 - Diana R. Jenkins
Saturday, July 11 - Nikki Shoemaker wrapping up book tour and announcing winners.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Building Self-Esteem -- The Real Thing!

Someone I don’t want to know has just revealed sordid personal details I did not need to hear. Not only do I know the sad story, so do millions of other viewers. A studio audience member stands and intones knowingly, "Honey, you need to get some self-esteem."
I scream and consider changing channels. (I don’t switch because I want to know how things come out, but I think about it really, really seriously.)
"Self-esteem" has become America’s buzzword. It’s thrown around on talk shows, in magazine articles, and at school as if it’s something you could order by catalog. ("Hey, my self-esteem came today! Now get out of my house you lying, cheating, scum-sucker!")
It’s just not that easy!
So if you can’t give your children self-esteem in a gift-wrapped box, how can you help them learn to love and respect themselves?

l) Don’t try to buy self-esteem.
Rewards, when handled appropriately, can be a big help in teaching a child. Unfortunately, they can also suck all the
self-esteem-building value out of anything.
You probably know parents who reward their children all the time for doing almost nothing. I once had a student who received six different-colored pairs of canvas high-tops in less than a month. Each time his parents were rewarding him for something relatively minor, like passing his spelling test (he could have made A’s!) or picking his clothes up off the bedroom floor. As you might guess, he was a demanding child who was always milking his parents for bigger and better rewards for doing less and less.
Misused rewards cheapen the value of what a child has done. The teacher who gives her students candy for every little thing they do takes the emphasis away from the value of learning and the satisfaction of a job done well. The parents of Shoe Boy taught him that schoolwork, doing chores, and the like were terrible things that a person would do only if bribed -- not things that had any use or could give him any satisfaction.
How do you use rewards effectively? Always keep in mind: a reward should be as intangible as it can be and still work. It’s surprising how much kids will do for rewards like praise, a special personal time with a parent, a chance to call Grandma and brag, and the like. (Try it!) When a child needs a tangible
reward -- and be very sure he does -- keep it as small as you can. (Often something like a sticker or a checkmark on a chart will do.) Always accompany the reward with comments about the value of the child’s behavior:
"That studying really paid off! You’re learning how to spell better and better!"
"You’ll be able to do your math more quickly now that you know your facts."
"Your room looks so neat! It makes it nice just to come in here and talk with you."

2) Make ‘em wait.
I tell my husband that I know I would be truly happy if only I had a refrigerator that made crushed ice. I sigh and say, "Then I would want for nothing."
I know that easy access to crushed ice will not give meaning to my life, but kids don’t understand things like that. They think that this toy, that video game, all those high-top sneakers are necessary to their happiness. They must go to the park, ride a rollercoaster, see Grandpa, or die! And whatever they want, they want it now!
Instant gratification is, well, gratifying, but only for an instant. The child who too often gets what he wants right when he wants it never really feels good about himself. How can he when all he does is futilely chase after that perfect toy, perfect place, perfect activity that will make him happy? The thrill of instant gratification lasts just a moment. True happiness will only come from things that are worth waiting for, like a job done well or following through on a difficult decision.
Loving parents can find it hard to say, "No," or even "Not now," but it’s actually good for kids to have to wait for what they want. Yes, you will buy them fast food again some day -- but not today. And maybe they’ll get that new video game later -- for their birthday. You’ll see how they like the red high-tops awhile before you spring for the blue ones.
And maybe in fifteen years, I’ll get a refrigerator that makes crushed ice!

3) Challenge them.
As a teacher, I had children bounce off the ceiling with joy at the prospect of an art project only to have them whining and quitting three minutes into it. I prodded, encouraged, insisted, urged, and pushed until they finished. When they did, they were so proud of their work. Week after week, we went through the same scenario before they began to understand the pride of working on something and carrying through till the end.
You see, real self-esteem cannot come from doing something too easy. I am not proud of how well I know my math facts --it’ll take more of a challenge than that for me to think highly of myself. And for your child to be proud of himself, he has to accomplish something challenging.
"Challenging" does not mean "frustrating." A challenge is making your child reach--just a little bit. For example, read aloud books that are just a little too hard for your child to read himself. Give him a model that’s just a little bit more complicated than the ones he’s been doing. Add just one more responsibility
to his weekly chores. (He does do chores, doesn’t he?) Challenges like these
keep him growing and learning and let him build real pride of accomplishment.

4) Teach respect.
If your child is going to respect himself, he has to know what respect is. He learns that by learning to respect others. In the olden days we showed respect with manners. We believed that everyone deserved to be treated with courtesy, especially parents.
From time to time, parents try to engage other adults in conversation. Their children, having an amazing radar that immediately tells them when they are no longer the center of attention, interrupt with vital information like "A leaf fell off that tree!" If corrected, these children can learn not to interrupt people who are talking. If not corrected, they will prevent their parents from having a decent adult conversation for the next twenty years.
Children aren’t born with a manners gene that makes them automatically respect the rights of others. They have to be taught that other people should be treated in a thoughtful way. We do not interrupt. We do not take what’s not ours. We do not insult. We do not hurt others. Teaching these lessons is a tough, dirty job!
On a trip to Eureka Springs, a little boy bopped me in the leg with some kind of stuffed critter on a stick. His mother had a perfect opportunity to teach him that we don’t hit people with our toys -- it is wrong. Her response: "Watch out! You’ll break your toy."
Of course, the kid did care more about his toy than some strange woman in a sunflower hat. His mother’s appeal to his natural selfish instincts probably
worked well enough that he didn’t bop anybody else all day. However, he also didn’t learn anything about respecting others because his mother didn’t....

5) Aim for a higher level of consciousness.
Just like you can’t make a seed grow, you can’t force a kid to mature. You have to work with kids as they are. However, you can help your child mature by keeping in mind that higher level of self-esteem you’re working for.
When your child is having a screaming-meemie fit in the store, all you can do is take him out. Later you can explain how you won’t let him act like that in the store because you know he’s a big boy and big boys don’t act that way. When he throws a toy, you may put it away awhile as punishment, but be sure to talk about how Mommy and Daddy work hard for the money that buys his toys and he must take care of them. When he hits a strange woman with a toy, you might keep him from doing it again by appealing to his own selfish interests, but you also might stop and apologize -- and insist that he do so, too.
Tie the higher moral lesson in with the action you take. At the moment, the kid might just be learning that kicking the dog gets him a time-out in a kitchen chair, but as you talk again and again (not meaning on and on!) about principles like not hurting others, he begins to understand. He learns what it means to be a moral and worthy person. When he does the right thing, he feels good about himself -- he builds his self-esteem. Not one based on bribes or instant gratification or easy accomplishments or any of his own selfish wants, but real self-esteem.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

25 Ways to Help Your Child Do Better in School Next Year -- Starting Now!

Soon another school year bites the dust, and summertime fun begins. For your child, summer is a l‑o‑n‑g time. In three months, she can forget many of the skills she learned this year. You can help give her a head start on success next year by following the suggestions below:

1) Maintain your child's counting skills and help her learn to estimate by asking, "How many?" Ask her to guess how many radishes are in the bag you're opening or how many songs will play on the radio by the time you reach the store. Then have her count to see how close her guess was.
2) Skip counting (counting by twos, threes, etc.) is helpful in learning multiplication. Your child can skip count any time she is grouping objects. For example, she can practice counting by twos when rolling socks or by five when stacking books.
3) Use a calendar to practice counting, adding, and subtracting. Ask your child questions like: How many Saturdays are in this month? What will be the date in three days? How many days is it until your birthday?
4) Have everyone dump change in a cute bank each day. Let your child help you roll the coins and keep a record of the money collected. When there's enough for a family treat, take her to the bank to cash it in.
5) Whenever you measure something, let your child help. Cooking has its own rewards, but measuring for drapes or bookshelves also gives a child math practice and shows her math is useful.
6) Understanding graphs is an essential math skill. You can make graphs of: the growth of a plant, the weather, or scores in sports.
7) Many games involve math skills. Keeping score uses addition facts as well as other addition skills. Have each player keep her own score so everyone gets practice!
8) Use "wasted time" to quiz your child on her math facts ‑ in the car, while doing chores, waiting at the dentist's office. Keep things on a game‑like level. Let your child quiz you, too!
9) Counting games can help with multiplication facts. For example, if your child has trouble with her four‑times table, assign a point value of four for each of a certain object passed while driving ‑ say, for each red car. Change point values on different trips to give your child practice on different tables.
10) You can buy motivating computer games that will help your child practice her math skills. At the store, ask to see "educational software," not just "games." No computer? Teacher stores sell card games and board games that practice basic math skills. Many of these games cannot be played by large groups, so you can actually make better use of them than a teacher can!
11) Use broken clocks to practice telling time. Set the hands of the clock and ask your child the time. Sometimes tell her a time and let her set the hands.
12) Work in your checkbook, balance your bank statements, and do the family budget in your child's presence. Show her that math is important in "real life."

Language Arts:
When teachers talk about "the language arts", they mean listening and speaking, reading, spelling, and writing. Here are some ways you can help your child keep her language arts skills:

13) Write notes to your child about chores, plans for the day, or what a great kid she is. Set up a central place for family notes. Encourage your child to write notes to other family members or to herself.
14) Use word play to help your child learn about and enjoy our language. Puns, riddles, and jokes can be fun for everyone. Challenge your family to think of words that rhyme with a particular word, all the meanings of a word like "run", or words that are associated with a certain topic.
15) Copy poems or quotations and put them at your child's place at the table or in her lunchbox. Save these and repeat during the summer. You may find your child requesting favorites!
16) Get your child and yourself library cards. Take her or send her to library activities. Let her check out books she can read and books that can be read to her. Check out books yourself ‑ remember ‑ you are your child's most important role model.
17) Set aside some time each day for reading. Everyone in the house should read whatever she wants for at least ten minutes ‑ longer as the summer progresses. Your modeling will teach your child the joy of reading.
18) In the car, at the supper table, or wherever you can, tell stories. Share your childhood, books you've read, and old movies with your child, and let her do the same. Retelling a story or program is good for your child, and shows you how well she remembers and understands. Discuss why things happened as they did and what lesson the story or show was trying to teach.
19) Read aloud to your child each day. You can read to her as she does chores. Car trips go quickly if an exciting story is being read aloud. Being read to allows your child to experience stories beyond her present reading ability and to hear what good reading should sound like.
20) Be sure your child sees you write. Keep lists and write letters. Write for the editorial section of your newspaper, and send letters to magazines.
21) Get your child a penpal ‑ a relative or friend. When she writes her penpal,
encourage her to use complete sentences, capitalization, and punctuation. Do not sit beside her spelling out every other word. This practice distracts her from getting her thoughts down and reinforces feelings of inadequacy about writing. Tell her to spell the best she can, then leave her alone while she writes. If she is very concerned about her spelling, ask her to look over the finished letter and pick out a few words she thinks are misspelled, then help her "fix" them
22) Encourage your child to write stories if she's interested, but don't force the issue. If you write, your child may want to write. Or you may interest her by suggesting she write down a story she's told you.
If you can, make typed copies of your child's stories. You can correct errors as you type, since you are a "publisher", but do not change the story. Let the author illustrate her story, too!
23) Be your child's secretary sometimes. Let her dictate a story while you write her words down. This gives her the freedom to be more creative. Read back what you've written, and have your child read it to you daily for a week.
24) Buy your child a blank‑paged book to use as a journal. Talk about how journals are private, and encourage your child by writing in your own journal. Occasionally share something from your journal with your child, and let her share with you.
25) Have your child tape herself reading and send the tape to an appreciative audience. Let her record, listen, and retape several times before sending off the tape. This can help her learn to read in a natural voice.
And one more: Have fun! You're just trying to maintain what your child already knows. Don't make her and yourself miserable by pushing too hard or spending hours a day on "schoolwork." Summers are for kids to be kids!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hitting the Funny Bone

Kids love funny stories.
So do editors! They know that funny stories make reading fun for their readers, even the kids with poor skills or little motivation. They understand that humor can make age-old themes seem fresh. And they appreciate how moral lessons become more palatable and less preachy when served up alongside a serving of laughter.
How can you give editors what they’re looking for? Just write something funny.
If only it were that simple! Writing humor is serious business – and more difficult than most people realize. No one can tell you how to write a funny story, but here are a few practical suggestion for getting humor into what you write.

1) Make your main character interact with a "little" kid. In a children’s story, a "little" kid is anybody younger than your readers. From the lofty reaches of your readers’ greater maturity and experience, a little kid’s mistakes, character flaws, and reactions are terribly funny. A further element of humor comes in with your main character’s frustrations dealing with the little kid. The Fudge books by Judy Blume are, of course, masterpieces in the use of this method, but it works well in short stories, too.
For example, the humor in my story, "Horse Fever," (My Friend, February, 2001) comes from both little sister Ruthie’s belief that she can grow up to be a horse and big sister Amber’s difficulties convincing her of the truth. In the following scene, Amber tries to use a book about horses to get Ruthie to understand reality:

When we came to a picture of a colt, I said, "Why is that horse so little?"
"Because," Ruthie said, "it’s a baby horse."
"And one day it’ll be a grown-up horse, right?"
"Unless is wants to be a efelant," she said.
"A what?"
"Efelant! You know, with a long nose!"
"Ruthie!" I cried. "A baby horse isn’t going to grow up to be an elephant!"
"You’re probably right," she said thoughtfully. "Being a horse is the best thing. I bet that baby horse doesn’t want to change."
"It can’t change!" I shouted.
"Amber," said Ruthie very seriously. "The baby horse has to decide for itself."

2) Let your main character dig himself a nice, deep hole. Whatever wrong thing the main character is doing, don’t let him get caught too quickly. Build humor by allowing him to succeed awhile, making ridiculous excuses, and fooling himself (but not your readers) that he’s going to keep getting away with things.
For example, in my play "Would I Lie to You?" (Just Deal With It! Funny Readers Theatre for Life’s Not-So-Funny Moments, Teacher Ideas Press, 2004) the main character tells big stories to impress the other kids. Of course, they eventually realize that she’s lying, and she loses everybody’s trust. Pretty deep hole, huh? But the main character digs herself in even further
by pretending to be her own twin sister in order to get a fresh start! This situation provided lots of opportunities for funny interactions between the girl and the other characters before she had to do the right thing and ‘fess up.

3) Annoy your main character. If you want to really crack up your readers, bug the heck out of the main character while he deals with his troubles. For example, a story about a kid whose parents send her to summer camp even though she hates the outdoors has great potential for humor. But the story becomes even funnier if she has to partner up with someone who’s a camping fanatic. That secondary character can drive her nuts by relishing everything she detests!
A lot of funny things could happen in a story about an only child staying with a swarm of cousins, especially if the main character has a hard time adjusting to being around so many people. However, more humor might develop if the cousins live in a teeny house where the main character has to share a barracks-like bedroom and one little bathroom. The extra layer of aggravation could push the humor over the edge from amusing to hilarious.

4) Write in first person. In a third-person story, you can report what your main character is thinking and feeling, but you can’t flavor the whole story with the character’s attitude. Compare these two examples, written about the same incident:

For the next week, Sophie’s brothers hid in their room, working on their Christmas gifts for her. They often borrowed art supplies from Sophie. And they told her that she would never guess what they were making. The boys were excited about their gifts, but Sophie didn’t expect to be impressed by anything they made.

Over the next week, the boys acted so-o-o secretive about the gifts they were making. They kept borrowing things from me like crayons and markers and other supplies. And they kept saying "mysterious’ stuff like, "You’ll never guess what I’m making, Sophie!" Like they could be making anything good with old tissue boxes and cardboard!
("A Handmade Christmas," My Friend, December, 2001)

The second sample has a more humorous tone because every sentence is filtered through Sophie. Her underwhelming enthusiasm for her brothers’ homemade gifts couldn’t be clearer. Her attitude makes this paragraph funny – and sets the stage for later laughs when Sophie’s gifts are even worse than she expected.

5) Use a funny event from real life as the seed for a story. The humorous anecdotes that people tell you...the family stories that crack everyone up...the embarrassing moments that eventually become cocktail party stories...Don’t write about them just as they happened. Almost NEVER does a real-life event make a good story when told factually. However, a funny happening can inspire a funny story.
For example, my grandfather visited my parents the night before their first Thanksgiving together. When he found they didn’t have the money for a feast, he insisted on buying them a turkey. The store had closed just before they arrived, but Grandpa got my parents their dinner by flapping his elbows and gobbling loudly until the store workers cracked up, reopened the store, and sold him a turkey.
In my family, we always laughed when my dad told that tale, and I often thought I might write about it. The problem was: it made a nice anecdote, but there wasn’t really a whole story there.
Eventually I realized that I could just use the incident as an inspiration. I wrote a story (and later a play) about a boy whose grandfather moves in and does all kinds of embarrassing things. ("My Roommate - Grandpa!" story - Pockets, May, 1993; play - Just Deal With It! Funny Readers Theatre for Life’s Not-So-Funny Moments, Teacher Ideas Press, 2004.) When the family’s financial troubles keep the boy from having the special feast he wants for his birthday, his grandfather does my grandfather’s turkey act with the same results. The real-life incident became the pivotal moment that showed the main character the love behind Grandpa’s antics.

6) Remember that the humor isn’t the point. Sure, kids enjoy reading funny stories, but a good story doesn’t just make readers laugh. A good story makes them think and feel. Setting out to "write a funny story" without any purpose or direction usually won’t work. The story doesn’t hold together well, and the humor often falls flat because it doesn’t have a real point. Before you write, decide what you want your readers to get out of your story. If you can communicate those ideas and feelings through humor, then go ahead and write a funny story. If not, stick to a more serious style. Editors need good stories of all kinds!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Easier Theatre

Easier Theatre
When you consider using theatre with your students, don’t think of it as THE-AH-TAH! You don’t have to stage huge productions of Shakespearean dramas with hand-made costumes, award-winning sets, and Oscar-worthy performances. You can keep things simple and your kids will still get the benefits of theatre. (See “Ten Reasons Why Using Theatre in Your Classroom Isn't as Nuts as You Think” on my website Here are some suggestions for making the use of theatre easier:

Keep it to yourself.
There’s no rule that says you must perform in front of an audience – you can use theatre just as a classroom experience. You’ll find that simple theatre activities can be fun, rewarding, and educational!
A little bit of theatre makes a good filler at the end of a period, in the few minutes before lunch, or just before going home. You can have kids play charades – either what I call “Big Idea” charades or the traditional game. In “Big Idea” charades, kids act out a whole concept at once. For example, a kid could pretend to paint on an easel for “artist” or act out hitting a ball and running the bases to get across “Babe Ruth.” In traditional charades, kids act out individual words or even syllables and the audience must put all the pieces together. A student could do something like hold up fingers for “three” and pretend to be a beast for “Three Bears.” Both activities make kids think, build their confidence, and help them become more comfortable standing up in front of people.
You can also work theatre into your subject areas. In Social Studies, kids could act out famous events like the Boston Tea Party, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, etc. In Science, ask a student to pretend to be Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, or another scientist and explain his or her discoveries. In English, have students ad lib new endings to stories or write short skits based on something they’ve read. These are valuable activities even if nobody in the outside world ever sees your kids perform.

Use readers theatre.
See “Readers Theatre -- The Shortcut to Dramatic Success” also on this blog.

Make it up as you go.
Maybe you want to have your students perform plays (in your classroom or for the outside world), but it just seems too complicated, time-consuming, etc. Readers theatre can help. (See above.) Or you might find it helpful to use the make-it-up-as-you-go method.
Choose a story familiar to your students. A folk tale or fairy tale works well, but you can use any story. Quickly assign parts, and then ask the kids to tell you how the story starts. Send the appropriate actors to the front of the room and have them act out the first scene. Then ask the kids about what happens next, add or remove actors as needed, and move on to the next scene. Continue on until the whole story has been acted out. You may need to ask leading questions or even model roles until kids get the idea.
After they’ve experienced this process a number of times over weeks or months (same story with different casts or different stories), your students will be able to put together some surprisingly well-developed scenes. And you might feel like you want to try performing something for an audience. If so, finalize your cast and let them rehearse enough that they’ve pretty well established what they’re going to say and do.
Maybe you’re thinking that a putting on a performance without a script is like doing a trapeze act without a net. There is a certain level of anxiety with the make-it-up-as-you-go method, but it has a lot of pluses, too. For one thing, kids have a real understanding of plot, motivation, and other aspects of the story, so they often give better performances than they would with a memorized play. And since they made the play up themselves, they’re not as likely to forget something important. Even if something does go amiss, it’s easy for other actors to adjust and fix the problem since they understand what should be happening, what the characters are feeling, etc.

Put together a Poetry Extravaganza!
A Poetry Extravaganza makes a great public performance, but it’s really easy to do -- especially if you use poetry throughout the year anyway! It also has the benefit of practically eliminating your worries about performance day absences. Here’s how to do it:
Expose your students to poetry regularly – even for just a few minutes here and there. Read poems to them, put poems on your bulletin board, pass out poems, and have students read and reread the poems in your reading or literature book. Whenever my students came to a poem, we read it several times and went back to previous poems in the book, too. Sometimes we took turns on verses or did choral reading. And now and then I tried to fit in poems in the last few minutes of class. Eventually, the kids began to become familiar with particular poems and we’d play around at reciting a few lines by heart. Some would even attempt to memorize whole poems.
Eventually, I’d suggest we put some poems together in a program. Kids would select poems they liked, either ones we’d already had in class or completely new poems. (I steered the students who had difficulties to the familiar poems and more capable students to something new.) We’d practice standing up in front of the room and reciting the poems. If a student wanted to do his poem by memory, he could. If not, then we put the poem on a cool-looking scroll, inside an appropriate book, or on a prop. Sometimes kids would come up with costumes that fit their poems, and sometimes other kids would appear on stage, too, acting out the poem. When everybody was pretty comfortable, we invited an audience to see our Poetry Extravaganza. If someone was absent…oh, well! We just skipped their poem! Missing background performers were easily replaced or eliminated.

Relax – right now!
Theater with kids can be nerve-wracking if you try to control things too much. Sure, you don’t want them running wild, but you need to accept that theater just isn’t as organized, calm, and rigid as some other activities. You can gently guide kids to be better performers (See “Is That a Woodpecker on Your Shoulder? Or How to Get Good Performances Out of Young Actors” also on this blog), but don’t squelch all their creativity trying to achieve perfection. Take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy!