Monday, March 28, 2016

WISH: An interview with Barbara O'Connor

I was lucky enough to read a copy of Barbara O’Connor’s latest book Wish (out November 2016) last week.  What a wonderful surprise to open the mailbox and find an advanced reader copy.  Wish is the kind of read I was hoping it would be!  Wish is the kind of book I was hoping my friend would write.  Wish is the kind of book I can't wait to get into the hands of readers. 

If, like me, you are a Barbara O'Connor fan, you know Barbara's writing well.  You know that she invites a reader to live out a character's life through his or her story.  You know that she introduces supporting characters filled with angst and humor.  You know that she creates a setting full of allure and intrigue.  You know that she sprinkles her words with southern charm.  You know that she writes with a rhythm and simplicity that makes you stop in your tracks to ponder.  You know that her books leave a reader changed.

I think is was Socrates who said, “Be as you wish to seem.”  And, that's what I love about Barbara, she is what she seems.  She is a writer's writer.  

Wish is about Charlie, a girl with a special "wish" that she's been making every day since fourth grade (in the most unique ways).  Due to situations at home, Charlie is sent to live with her Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where day after day she continues making her "wish," hoping it will come true.  She befriends a boy named Howard Odom (and his family*) and as their relationship unfolds, they develop a special bond.  Charlie's heart melts when she discovers a stray dog she names Wishbone.  As Wish continues, Charlie learns the true meaning of family, friendship, and love.

In anticipation of Wish's release, Barbara and I had a conversation about her new book and her writing in general.  Here's a snippet of our conversation...  

Me:  What was your inspiration for writing Wish (without giving too much away)?  It seems like you dug deeply into some familial issues that seem all to familiar to many young (and old) people.

Barbara:  I was conducting a biography writing workshop with fifth graders in a school in Massachusetts.  The students interviewed a family member and used those answers to write creative nonfiction (a short biography).  One of the questions on the interview sheet was: What were your favorite interests or hobbies as a child?

A boy in the class had interviewed his grandmother and she answered that question: soccer, ballet and fighting.  Obviously, that struck me as quite interesting and stayed with me for a long time.

So when I got ready to write Charlie’s story, I knew I wanted to start with her filling out a “Getting to Know You” paper for her teacher and listing those three things as her favorite activities.  The rest of the story unfolded from there.

As for familial issues, I’ll spare you the details of my youth and save them for my therapist, but I'll quote the author Joan Bauer, who said: "The great thing about having a dysfunctional childhood is that it never stops giving.”

Me:  You have the uncanny ability to cause your readers to fall in love with the characters in your books.  When you "go after" a character, what do you keep in mind as you develop him or her?

Barbara:  It’s kind of hard to describe my process with characters other than to say I spend a lot of time with them in my head before I start writing, so that I know them through and through.  Dialogue is a biggie for me - the way I really get to know characters and then present them to the reader.  I try to stay so focused on the character that when the dialogue doesn’t ring true, I know it immediately.

I have a harder time with their physical appearance.  I don’t always SEE the character initially.  But I definitely HEAR the character.  So I have to make more of a conscious effort to figure that out and then describe the appearance of a character.

Me:  There's southern charm in your words.  The smells, the sounds, the thoughts... the sensory images you create for your readers are so strong.  What tools or strategies do you use as a writer to create strong images?  

Barbara:  This will probably sound a little hippie-dippie, but I try to get into a sort of zen-like state when I write and then immerse myself in the setting.  Having grown up in the South, I have many memories to draw on.  I try to dredge up those memories when I write and those memories are often sensory. 

Ironically, I have no sense of smell!  A little trivia for you.  Ha haI  But I know that smells are important so I always try to include them.  I rely on trusted readers/critique partners to ensure that I’ve gotten the smells correct.

Me:  What are you hoping your readers will discover about themselves as they read Wish?  What did you discover about yourself as you were writing?

Barbara:  I don’t know if I’d call it a discovery…but rather a reminder: that sometimes what we wish for is right there in front of us all the time….but we are often too busy wishing to notice.  Does that make sense?  The old adage, “Be careful what you wish for” also comes into play.  The main character of WISH, Charlie, was so busy wishing for something she didn’t have, that she didn’t notice all the good things she DID have.  And…if she had actually gotten what she THOUGHT she wanted, things wouldn’t have turned out so well for her.

And another old adage comes to mind: Take time to smell the roses.

Me:  Describe your writing process.  What would you say to a young writer (say, 4th grade) who has a story to tell? Someone once said, "There's a writer in all of us."   What would you say to a writer who has a story to tell, but is afraid to tell it?

First and foremost, I would say, “DON’T be afraid.” I always tell kids to never be afraid to write something that they think isn’t very good. Because they can always fix it.  But you can’t fix what you haven’t written. To me, a page full of not-so-great writing is way less daunting than a blank page.

Secondly, I like to remind young writers that each of them is an individual with a unique style and voice. I could give a whole room full of writers the same storyline, but the end result would be different for each one. So I always encourage young writers to embrace their own personalities which come through as style and voice in their writing. 

Me:  One of my favorite lines from Wish is, "Maybe the Odoms' hearts were so good that they didn't care that they lived in such a sad-looking house."  As you reread Wish, what are two or three of your favorite lines?

Barbara:  Some of my favorite lines are: 

“There she was over there on the other side of the table thinking I was an angel, and here I was on my side feeling about as far from an angel as anybody could be."

“Then Jackie came outside looking like Miss America, and I thought Burl was going to faint right there in the red dirt.”

“That night in bed, I laid on top of the cool sheets with Wishbone’s soft, warm body next to me. I thought about my broken family back in Raleigh and wondered if they were thinking about me, a ray of sunshine at the end of a long, sorry day.”

And I can't resist just this one more:  “But Bertha said, ‘You know, sometimes when you’ve had a bad day, eating grits makes you feel better.’”

Me: You know my fourth graders are going to love hearing Wish and are going to devour it on their own.  What would you tell a group of fourth graders about this book?

Barbara:  I’d tell them, “For Pete’s sake, read the dang thang.” LOL

Me: What are your wishes?

  • I wish for my family and friends to stay healthy and happy.
  • I wish for readers to enjoy my books and be inspired to write their own.
  • I wish cheesecake didn’t have so many calories.
• • • • • • • • • 

Note:  Bertha is one of my favorite character's in Wish.  
As I got to know her, I couldn't get my mom, Freda, out of my mind.  
Freda would have loved Bertha!  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

where i live - Eileen Spinelli

As I was preparing to transfer books from home to my classroom today, I ran across where i live by Eileen Spinelli.  I'd forgotten how much I adore this book.  It's a great book of poetry.
      In it, we learn about Diana and her life... with all its twists and turns.  It's classic Eileen Spinelli.  Her words tug at your heart and your mind as you explore the life of Diana... who uses her writing to explain her life and the changes she's going through.
     Simple.  Complex.  Sweet.  Sad.  Happy.  Real.  Eileen Spinelli weaves a wonderful tale of Diana, her best friend Rose, her mom, her dad, and Grandpa Joe.  When Diana learns she has to leave the things she loves, it tugs at your heartstrings. 
      Eileen's words, accompanied by Matt Phelan's wonderful drawings, it's a perfect book to share with young readers who might be experiencing a move... or even a family struggle.  Encouraging children to write for authentic purposes might be an added bonus in sharing this book. 
     My two favorite poems are "Music" and "New Resident."  Sweet and simple.  It's a delightful read.
      There's nothing like finding a hidden gem in your stacks that you can't wait to share with your students...

New Resident

A wren has made
her nest
in the willow wreath 
on our front door. 

Now the yellow house
is her home 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Things Seem Like They're Working


What words would you use to describe our classroom?

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Today after hosting a group of visitors, I asked my students to name a few of the words that they'd used to describe our classroom.  This is their list.  Five minutes.  A quick "Tell me what you're thinking" look at our classroom.  "Just so I can share it with our visitors," I say.

I was struck by the word "seaming."  

Make sure you spell it S-E-A-M-I-N-G, Mr. Allen, as in everything "seems" like it is "seamed."  It's all seamed, you know.  Put together.  It works.  

And so it does, this thing we called learning.  When, together, we take a few minutes to share the intimate reflection of who we are and who we've become.  Along the way, through talk, invitations, smiles, and hard work... we have, indeed, created something that "seems seamless."  

But like all seams, there are times it's worn, and so we restitch with stronger thread. There are times it "bursts" and we step back and say, "What can we change?"  There are times we've moved too fast and the stitches are tight and unyielding.  There are times that things aren't working and we rip things apart and start over.  There are times we have to think about which stitch will work best...

Straight Stitch - for those times where we know exactly where we're going.

Back Stitch - for those times when we have to try again.

Chain Stitch - for those things we link together.

Couching - for those pieces we need to hold in place to admire. 

Feather Stitch - for those times we need to embellish.

Seed Stitch - for those times we cluster things together.

Long and Short Stitch - for those times we can't agree.

French knots - for those times we need to get a bit fancy.

And so we work with nimble fingers and open minds to create learning that can be, in fact, seemingly... real!


What words would your students use to describe your classroom?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Line Lifts - A Great Strategy Still

Hey, Mr. Allen, listen to this… 
I love this line, listen…
Close your eyes for a minute.  Ready?  Listen to these words… 
Wow, Mr. Allen, listen…

     My students and I have been paying close attention to some of the fantastic lines we are noticing as readers.  We’re knee-deep in a study of how wise readers ask questions to better understand, remember, extend meaning, and make readers experiences memorable (Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop, p. 28).  As writers, we’re honing in on exquisite lines to nudge our writing work—a parallel notebook study of  “What does a wise writer do to nudge his/her writing?"  (One of the strategies we're playing around with is "lifting a line" to coax our own writing.  A strategy I first learned from Linda Reif and have loved since.)
 Questions abound!

     In Write from the Start, Donald Graves reminds us, "Whenever there's a connection made between old knowledge and new knowledge, that's where the new growth is.  Those are the green shoots out of the old stock, the shoots that will bear fruit.  But it takes a fair amount of pruning to get new growth.  The dead wood comes when children pay attention to what they think the teacher wants instead of what, in fact, they see."

     So as writers were working toward the "shoots that will bear fruit."  Helping see that we have a lot to learn from mentors.  A lot of young writers these days seem "prompt-bound" or "Is this good? bound" or "I don't know what to write-bound."  They've been stifled by outside forces of programs and perfection... of skill and drill types of writing.

     But if I can encourage my students to develop a sense of agency as writers... to open their notebooks and start writing from a great line that they've discovered, they'll have one more authentic tool to help them develop independence during those times when writing ideas aren't coming easy.  Giving them a chance to break chains that are, sadly, already cramping their young writing lives.  To encourage purpose.  To encourage play.  To encourage risk.  To encourage thought.  To encourage putting pencil to paper.

     I've shown them my own notebook with the lines I've borrowed... lines that are waiting for me when I'm stuck or need a jumping off point.  

  Helen Frost - Salt
"Fireflies light up the edge of the dark forest."
"Our fire will keep us warm inside while we tell winter stories."

Kate Banks - Max's Words
"I'm going to collect words."
"When Max put his words together, he had thoughts."

Ruth Ayres - Celebrating Writers:  From Possibilities Through Publication
"Sometimes leaving things unsaid is more difficult than knowing what to say."
"Sometimes rejoicing is quiet.  It's a nod of encouragement."

Barbara O'Connor - How to Steal a Dog
"I closed the notebook and watched the moths flutter around the streetlight outside the window.' 
"I pushed my face against the screen and peered inside.  My stomach did a flip-flop."

Gary Paulsen - Brian's Hunt
"A perfect day among many perfect days and the last thought he had before slipping into sleep was that he was in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time in his life."

Gari Meacham - Watershed Moments
"A true watershed isn't to be hoarded; rather, it is to be shared, to spread it's gift of insight from our life to the lives of those around us."

     So what?  Now I have a notebook nudge.  Parts that can lead to wholes.  If I'm sitting with my notebook, facing a blank page, I have some great lines from some of my favorite writers that might just lead me into a piece of my own.  Not stolen.  Just borrowed.  Lines that spark a memory.  Lines that encourage me to write.  Just a little "tidbit" borrowed from a mentor that invites me to move words across a blank page.  A tool for a specific time for a specific purpose that fits into the "big picture" of being a writer.  Practice.

     It's a simple strategy that can serve as a guide to more complex pieces, more personal pieces.  Teach.  Model.  Empower.  

Hey, Mr. Allen, listen to this… 
I love this line, listen…
Close your eyes for a minute.  Ready?  Listen to these words… 
Wow, Mr. Allen, listen…

Let the pruning begin...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ice Bear - Nicola Davies

I've been rereading a bit of Nicola Davies lately.  There's something reenergizing to thumb through my stakes.  Among her books, I ran across a favorite of mine... Ice Bear: In the Steps of the Polar Bear.  
     I love her narrative... but what attracts me most to her writing is the way she interweaves bits of nonfiction, lines that float through the text.  I've been sitting down to contemplate a writing project lately and I'm using her as one of my mentors (along with Don Brown and Louise Borden).  
     One of the things we know as teachers of writers is how important it is to surround them with the types of writing we want them to explore... the types of writers who can become their mentors.  Of course, the more I work with young writers, the more I realize that often times they are the ones who have to match themselves to a mentor; they are the ultimate decision maker.  They find their own mentors.  Someone they respect.  Someone whose writing inspires them.  Someone who intrigues them.  Someone whose writing nudges them.
      And I've realized that I have an important job:  to expose them to writers, to help them discover great writers, to encourage them to "have a go" with interesting examples of text, and to demonstrate my own passion for writers and great writing.  Expose.  Discover.  Encourage.  Demonstrate.  That's just good teaching, right?  
     So Nicola Davies is one of my "go to" mentors and by sharing what I learn from her with my students, perhaps they will, in turn, find a "go to" writer that inspires them.  Consider this line...
"Its ears sit close to its head, 
neatly out of cutting winds, 
and its feet are furred for warmth and grip."

     What can a young writer learn?  What can I learn?  In 21 words I notice the power of three, the strength of noun modifiers, the effective use of "and" as a coordinating conjunction, the musicality of rhythmic words.  If I read Nicola Davies to my students (and myself)... once for the heart and once for the head, how can her words not engage them in the wonderful thing we call writing.  
     It's time to pull together a Nicola Davies basket... my students will love her.  IF I don't beat them to the basket first.

Friday, November 8, 2013

God Got a Dog - A Gem

Cynthia Rylant and Marla Frazee.  Another perfect combination.  Using sixteen poems from God Went to Beauty School, they've created a beautiful collection in God Got a Dog.  Who doesn't love these two talented women?
     What I imagine most is Marla chatting with Cynthia about this book, these poems, during their collaboration.  And, me only wishing I could have been a fly on the wall... okay, actually a fellow reader/writer sitting with the both of them at the table as they chatted.  Can you imagine?  Cynthia Rylant, a writer's writer/illustrator.  Marla Frazee, a writer's writer/illustrator.  Two talents that God has put together to create this book... two talents that we all admire.  Imagine.
     Now there might be a few biblical scholars who would disagree with Rylant's interpretation of God.  But, they can't argue with the fact that she's a brilliant writer who writes from her heart, a wordsmith beyond compare.  And her words, coupled with Frazee's illustrations make a reader's heart happy.  And who doesn't need a heart that's happy?  God himself said so in Proverbs 15:13 and Proverbs 4:23.  A happy heart is good medicine! 
     My favorite poem in the entire collection is "God Went to India."  Perhaps it's because it reminded me of my mom and her love for elephants (I have two from her collection).  Perhaps it reminded me of my daughter and her recent life-changing trip to visit the orphanages in India.  But, perhaps it's because of this beautiful section:
 God understands mourning
better than any other emotion,
better even than love.
Because He has lost
everything He has
ever made.
You make life.
You make death.
The things God makes
always turn into
something else and
He does find this good. 
But He can't help missing all the originals.
So, Rylant fans.  So, Frazee fans.  We have a new gem for our collections.  Two of our friends have come together to create this special book.  God does do good work.  And, we can only hope that these new-found friends collaborate and come together on the pages of another book... sooner than later. 
     In the meantime, I'll be sitting at my table with the two of them, reading God Got a Dog. Imagining that they, too, were wishing that were HERE!  Imagine.  

... and our hearts are happy!