Monday, January 26, 2009

The Schmidty Awards

First of all, congratulations Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book was excellent and deserved to win the Newbery Award.   I shall celebrate by seeing Coraline this weekend (we’ll pretend I wasn’t already planning on going!)

Looking over the lists of winners and honorees, I realize I’ve got some reading to do; I haven’t read them all!  It also made me think of the books I’d award – if I had the amount of power that I do in my mind.  I mentally began to compile my lists of can’t-put-them-down books, the books I had talked about so much that I had a waiting list to read it before I’d even finished.  To these books I bestoy The Schmidty Awards!

(Sidenote: I know not all of these books came out in 2008, but that’s when I read them and these are my awards, so I get to make the rules.)

Once Upon a Crime by Michael Buckley
Cross my Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter
Trouble by Gary Schmidt
Drums, Girls, Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
Schooled by Gordan Korman

Young Adult:
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr
Wake by Lisa McMann
The Off Season by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Generation Dead by Daniel Waters

Just because I don’t yet have a novel in the running, doesn’t discourage me – it just means I’ve got a whole new year to polish and shop my book. 

Congrats to the winners (and the readers too!) and to everyone else, good luck next year!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Feedback and Tears (but not because of meanness...)

I had a bit of a teary-eyed moment in the classroom yesterday. Actually, this was my second teary moment this week – but who didn’t get teary watching America swell with Hope during the inauguration on Tuesday? Yesterday’s teariness, however, had nothing to do with politics or presidents.


Yesterday I decided to share with my students the very rough beginning of the new story I’m noodling around with (currently called: the-book-about-alliteration-mixed tapes-leukemia-superstitions-MacGyver-and-cheerleading … I need a better working title). They’ve been struggling within their own feedback groups – too afraid of offending each other to offer any useful feedback – and I decided that this needed skill to be modeled.


I’ve shared with them before, little pithy things I’ve written while they write, but never something big. Never something that I hope to turn into a book. So, it was with a stuttering pulse and tightened throat that I read the first three pages of TBAAMTLSMC (really need to shorten that!).


And their feedback – wow – this is a group of excellent readers, but they still blew me away with their insight and suggestions. Their predictions about what would happen let me know things I’d given away too early versus misdirection that could work. Their discussion of the mood of the story and their analysis of the characters let me know I was on the right track – they’d made the inferences and connections I had hoped.


When they dispersed to go off to their own feedback groups, the conversation was richer, more specific, and flavored with helpful criticism. They got it.



The moment that made me teary occurred hours later, during dismissal when I only had one student left. His bus had been called and he’d started out the door, then turned around and came back to my desk. “Mrs. Schmidt, I really think you should get that book published – when it’s done. And… I’m proud of you.”

Here my inner cheeseball nature comes out:  these are words I normally say to him (and all my students), hearing from his eleven-year-old mouth made me remember how powerful these words are.  *tear*

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The 'Trouble' with really amazing books

I’ll set the scene for you: it’s the Tuesday before school vacation. The students have just passed in their last long-term assignment (strategy records for Shakespeare’s Secret or Chasing Vermeer), they know they’ve just got lunch, recess, math class, and then the holiday party. Things seem manageable. They can hold it together for that long.

And then, something changes. It’s too cold outside. Recess will be… indoors.

Anyone else get a sinking ut-oh feeling in the base of the stomach? I know my class – know that they need an opportunity to run around and burn off their Lunchables if they’re going to be functional for the rest of the day. The combination of the impending vacation + indoor recess = a very long afternoon.

Except it didn’t. (This is the part where the book comes in, for those that are wondering). They were dismissed from the cafeteria and stormed the classroom, but instead of getting out playing cards, paper, logging onto the computer, or complaining that they were bored, they had a request:

"Can you read more read aloud? Please? We promise to be really good."

And they were. So good that you would’ve thought that I was one of the mean, nasty teachers who rules by intimidation. There wasn’t whispering, poking, and there was barely even fidgeting.

And they were able to continue to be that good and focused… until math class.

 Exhibit B: It’s now post-break and we’ve had a two-hour delay for icy roads.

They come crashing into the classroom at 10:15 instead of 8:15 and have just enough time to chat and pledge the flag before we head down to our ‘lunch’ period.

And how do they greet me this morning as they slide down the hallway on snow-wet sneakers? Not with: "Good morning, Mrs. Schmidt" or "How was your drive, Mrs. Schmidt?" or "How are you, Mrs. Schmidt?" (Which is normally how they greet me – I have a very polite class!). Instead it was 26 versions of: "We missed reading, can we read later?" "Are we still going to do read aloud?" "What happens because we missed reading? Can you squeeze it in?" And, I kid you not, "Could we have lunch in the classroom and you could read to us?"

I could add on an Exhibit C and probably all the way to Exhibit Q, but you’ve got the point.

The book this blog is about is Trouble by Gary Schmidt – hence the snappy title. My students love to say, "it’s not just a story, it’s literature." And I agree.

They are so engrossed in this story that it’s discussed at dismissal, during recess, in the hallways, during math, in social studies, in science, over IM at night… And this is in addition to the half-hour we spend discussing it each day in class. Discussion I have to cut off, despite their fervent protests (and despite my own desire to keep reading and listening!).

And when they talk about the book, I’m amazed again each day. They discuss how in most books and movies there’s a good guy and a bad guy, but in this book (like life) people are a mix of both good and bad. They’re discussing motivation, consequences, racism, classism, stereotypes, and the benefits and dangers of tradition.

As a teacher, I suddenly feel superfluous. My only job is to read out loud, Gary Schmidt’s done the hard work in writing the book, and my students are benefiting – both as people and as writers – as they try out his craft in their own pieces and apply his story’s lessons to their lives.

So the real ‘trouble’ with a good book is that it makes the real world a whole lot less appealing. Who really wants to multiply mixed numbers (or even have recess) when there’s a whole lot of Trouble waiting between two covers?


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Favorite Author Blogs (Time sucking vortexes part 2)

Sometimes I need a little writing inspiration. Or at least to feel like I’m not the only one who types instead of sleeps, thinks of my characters as people, and occasionally considers throwing my computer out the window.

When I do, I turn to my favorite author websites and blogs. I’m sharing a sampling of them below, but consider yourself warned: it’s easy to get sucked in and spend hours clicking link after link.

 Libba Bray – – Each time I read her blog I remember why I love her books so much. Her voice just shouts off the computer screen and I constantly find myself nodding and going, ‘me too.’ As in, you've also been banned from watching House because you diagnosis yourself with every pathogen that appears on the screen? I thought I was the only one!

Ally Carter – – She sounds adorable and she really interacts with her fans. I love that she started a book club for her fans and when she shares information on her upcoming novels. (I can’t wait to not judge a girl by her cover)

Sara Crowe – – Sara’s technically an agent. And the blog isn’t technically just hers. It’s a blog where many of the different authors she represents as well as people throughout the industry share advice and experiences. It’s excellent writing and advice. I share parts of it with my students, and parts I print and share with other writers.

Shannon Hale – – She offers great writing advice and has such a great website. It’s so well organized and contains so much information. Great links and resources.

Susan Beth Pfeffer- – Her blog has been so interesting because it shares all the different directions she’s considered for the third book in the Moon Crash trilogy. She actually has blog posts that include spoilers (but they’re labeled so that people who’d rather wait can be surprised). I haven’t seen another author who has shared so much about the process of writing/publishing – including the bad news, dead ends, and startovers.

Scott Westerfeld – - You know it’s gotta be awesome because Scott named it the ‘Westerblog.’ Although that’s not the only reason I read it! Check it out yourself to find out why.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

Time sucking vortexes and Top Model Marathons

There exist, in the nebulous world of the Internet, magical portals whose sole purpose is to consume large blocks of your life. They’re like the Lotus Casino from The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan; while you’re there, you’re perfectly content; but when you leave, you look around and ask where did my whole day go?

I believe these portals take on different forms for each person. For me, they are: Facebook,, and Author blogs. My non-Internet portals are museums, coffee shops, and House marathons. Well, House, Top Chef, or America’s Next Top Model marathons. Okay, if you make any show into a marathon, I’ll get sucked in. I can’t make the weekly commitment to remember when a show is on – but if you put it on back to back, you can effectively glue me to my couch.

Facebook’s time sucking powers are probably pretty universally known. You start by checking out the photos a friend posted from the New Year’s party. You may or may not comment on a few. And of course you un-identify yourself in any less-than-flattering pictures. Then you decide to check her friends list. From there it’s just a few clicks and you’re cyberstalking the kid you had a crush on in third grade. You’re flipping through his wedding pictures and the photos of his wife’s pregnancy and their trip to Martha’s Vineyard and three months’ of posts on his wall. From the "Hey dude – what you up to?," "We missed you at Gus’s on Friday," and "We still on for Sunday? Go PATTTSSS!" you try and decide if he’s grown up to be a person who was worth suffering through cooties shots and that sitting-in-a-tree song. Eventually the vortex spits you back out and it’s dark outside and your dogs are whining at the door to go out. Everyone can connect with that experience, right?

Author blogs are just as treacherous. For example, take this morning when I finally sat down to write my own long-overdue post. I have lists of things I want to write about scrawled on various post-its around the house, but I didn’t feel capable of retrieving those until after I finished my coffee. So, while I was sipping I figured I’d cruise around and see what other writers were writing about. A good way to spend a few minutes while I got my b.c.l. (blood caffeine level) back up to an appropriate point.

It’s two hours later. My coffee’s cold. I’m still critically uncaffeinated . And I ordered five new books on Amazon. Author blogs are dangerous.

Which author blogs are particularly insidious? I’ll save that list for another day – if I start compiling it now, I’ll be re-ensnared. Who knows when I’d reemerge? Right now it’s time for me to step slowly away from the keyboard and consume large quantities of double-strength java.

What are your time-sucking vortexes? Actually, maybe if it’s safer if you don’t let me know.