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Thickety Book Tour: New Jersey

For just two weeks, I am going to be changing the format of this blog from a “writing lesson” blog to a “book tour” blog. For you teachers who have signed on solely for the purpose of lesson ideas, I won’t be offended if you jump ship for a little while, and I promise I’ll share a few more lessons before summer vacation. As a parting gift, here’s a link to an AWESOME lesson about creating a blog from the point-of-view of a fictional character:

http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/creating-character-blogs-1169.html?tab=1#tabs

Now onto the tour stuff…

Part of the reason I’m writing this is because I want to record all these once-in-a-lifetime experiences before I forget them–which, given my memory, means I better write fast. The other reason is so the students that I abandoned back home can read about what their teacher is up to at other schools.   (Hey kids! I miss you! I hope you are listening to Ms. Rodrigues! Rhino Romp and Field Day soon!)

My first stop, on May 9th, was my very own Ridgewood Avenue School, where I teach third grade. I wanted to start my tour here because I anticipated being somewhat nervous, and I thought having a home field advantage would make things easier. This ended up being true and…not so much with the true. It was nice knowing my locale so well, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the MIND STAGGERING outpouring of support from parents, teachers, and students. The Home and School Association purchased one copy of the novel for every family in our school and all teachers, via Watchung Booksellers, an awesome local independent bookseller. The Home & School also printed Thickety t-shirts to sell to the kids, and gave a t-shirt to each teacher! In the week leading up to the event, food inspired by The Thickety was cooked by the fabulous Sharon and sold in the cafeteria, including beef stew (yum) and apple pie (double yum).

Sadly, there was no hushfruit, but I’ll forgive Sharon, because hushfruit doesn’t actually exist.

The books were handed out to students on publication day (May 6th) so they could have three days to read as much as they could before the author “visit.” And man, did they ever dive in! Walking through the hallways and seeing all these kids reading my novel was just such an incredible experience. As an author, I don’t think anything can top that.

On the day of the event, Harper Collins provided Thickety buttons for each student.   Parents designed an amazingly elaborate entrance to the auditorium so students could “enter the Thickety,” and even rented something called a gobo (which sounds like a creature from my book but is apparently a real thing) to create shadowy tree effects on the walls.

enter the thickety
Enter the Thickety!
Behold the power of the gobo!
Behold the power of the gobo!

The front row was packed with my family and friends, who were kind enough to log in some serious travel time in order to attend, and at one o’clock the kids spilled into the auditorium, along with many of their parents. All told, there were about 700 people there, waiting for me to say something meaningful.

No pressure.

Mr. Donovan, our principal and stalwart supporter of me during this whole crazy journey, gave a very moving introduction, and then I did my thing for a little over an hour. I admit this part is a little fuzzy. I know I talked about how The Thickety was published, read an entire chapter (the part when Kara first finds the grimoire), riffed on the importance of reading and writing for young people, and told a story about cheese whiz, but mostly I kept thinking in my head, Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t say anything stupid. If you mess up, you see these people EVERY DAY. Don’t say anything stupid.

Although I paced back and forth as I am wont to do, I did not trip. Not even once. I am very proud of this fact.

principal
Principal Mike Donovan, styling in a Thickety shirt and button.
JA White reads to RAS
I like this picture because it looks like a tiny ghost is escaping the book.

first stop RAS

The students asked questions afterwards, and I quickly learned that this will absolutely be my favorite part of touring. Since many of the kids had already finished the book (in three days!!!) there were some crazy insightful queries. Some of my favorites:

“What is Grace’s backstory?” (Complicated.)

“Where do you get the ideas for all your scary monsters?” (I wish I knew!)

“Are any of these characters based on kids you’ve taught?” (Nope—but I did use some names I liked.)

so many ques
So many great questions!

so many ques 2

student signing
Signing books for the students in my class.

Alex

After the event at Ridgewood Avenue School, I journeyed down the road to Watchung Booksellers in Montclair. It’s such a cozy, comfortable environment—perfect for browsing—and this allowed me to chat with some very enthusiastic readers about the novel and what it’s like to be an author. It was a welcome change of pace after the larger crowd. Both events were very memorable, but in different ways.

watchung booksellers
At Watchung Booksellers…

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the public appearance side of my writing career, and I am so grateful for the warmth and support of everyone. Ridgewood Avenue School really is my second home.

Now onto Texas!

Final note: During my presentation, I showed the Thickety book trailer and a short film called “Good Vs. Wiivil,” which I made with my friend Jack Paccione Jr. a few years back. A number of students have asked for the links, so here they are!

The Thickety

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2rYqRtRWw0

Good Vs. Wiivil (in HD)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4KzBaQ6jKg

news

BookPage Review of The Thickety

BookPage Review

Author J.A. White packs The Thickety: A Path Begins with genuinely scary scenes…The story ends with a blindsiding twist, after which nothing is certain and everyone’s potentially in peril. Fortunately the subtitle A Path Begins promises more to come, because readers who enter The Thickety will want to return…

news

Kirkus Star!

A Path Begins has been given a Kirkus star!

Nail-biting suspense is the hallmark of this long fantasy novel, from the terrifying prologue to the shocking epilogue…The spellbinding story, lashings of suspense and stalwart heroine will draw in fantasy fans and keep them reading until the bitter ending…

news

Publishers Weekly Starred!

A Path Begins received a “STARRED REVIEW” in Publishers Weekly!

In this darkly imaginative debut, White creates a fantasy world with creatures that are anything but sweet—a cyclopean bird, a multi-mouthed horror—and, after a deceptively satisfying resolution, he unfurls a twist that will make readers want the next chapter…

 

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Journal Entries for Point-of-View

Theoretically, I’d love for my students to write in their journals every day. Does that happen? Of course not! There is homework to review, questions to answer, notices to collect, notices to hand out, stories to read, lunches to find, pencils to sharpen, old assignments to finish, writing workshops to run, something called “standardized tests” to review for… the list goes on-and-on. Since our time as teachers is so limited, I try to keep journals short—more like exercises than complete stories or essays—and connected to the specific writing skill that I’m focusing on that week. From now on, every month I’ll post some journal prompts I use to help students work on a particular skill.

This month’s winner: POINT-OF-VIEW.

I feel like the idea that you are writing from someone else’s perspective is a big leap for my students to make. Far too often they write from outside the story, as a kind of omniscient summation: “The children are playing soccer. The boy kicks the ball. A dog runs onto the field and tries to steal the ball.” What I really want them to do is choose a perspective and stick to it. Once they do that, a lot of the other problems that plague their writing seem to fall into place.

Here are some prompts I have given in the past. I emphasize to my students that a work of fiction is kind of like a personal narrative (a type of writing they understand very well) except that instead of you seeing the world, it’s an imaginary person.

Here are some sample journal prompts to help with that concept:

DAY 1

Write about a time you opened a present you really loved.

DAY 2

Write about the time Nathan Dilkes opened a present he really loved. Be sure to use his thoughts in your writing.

DAY 3

Write about the time Kelly McFaze opened a present—but it wasn’t what she wanted. Be sure to use her thoughts in your writing.

DAY 4

Who are you more like, Nathan or Kelly? Why?

I like to link journal prompts into weekly themes. This seems to cut down on the amount of time I need to explain the assignment, which of course gives the kids more time to write! Also, the journal assignments themselves become a type of story, with each day being a new chapter. The kids really dig it.

Another type of point-of-view journal set I like to do is taking one event and skipping around from perspective-to-perspective. It’s the Rashomon theory of journaling…

DAY 1

Write about a sporting event that you attended.

DAY 2

Keith Baker is dragged to the same sporting event you attended, but he really does not want to be there. Write about the event from his perspective.

DAY 3

Shannon Lemmings has been waiting to go to this sporting event for months! She is so excited! Write about the event from her perspective.

DAY 4

Alice Hobart is five years old, and she has never been to a sporting event. She doesn’t understand what’s going on! Write about the event from her perspective.

DAY 5

Write about the sporting event from the perspective of one of the athletes on the field (or court, or ice, etc.).

Those are just a few ideas. I’m sure you can come up with even more!

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Journal Writing Presentation Tricks

Although it’s always a good thing for children to share their writing with an audience, it can sometimes be challenging as well.  Some children are not yet blessed with good presentation skills or loud voices, and they often stumble over their own writing.  It’s easy to see why the students in the audience—even those who are trying really hard to listen—can sometimes find it hard to remain focused.   With that in mind, here are some different ways for students to present their work to the rest of the class.

Support Chairs

This is basically the equivalent of an on-deck circle in baseball; I’ve used this trick for close to a decade now, and it really works!  Instead of one student presenting his/her work, I always have two at a time—one standing and one sitting.  The non-reading, sitting student is there to “support” the standing student.  This reduces some of the nervousness of the student reading, since she isn’t all by herself, and it gives the sitting student some time to warm up to the idea of reading to the class before doing it.  In short, you get better presentations!

Journal Musical Chairs

Okay, there’s no actual music involved, but there could be!  This is good for when you want students to receive some positive feedback for their writing.  It works best if your desks are arranged in two long, banquet-style tables, but you can play around with it and see what works best for you.

To begin, students hand their journals to the person opposite them.  They have two minutes (adjust for grade level) to read the journal prompt for that day.  After that, I give them 30 seconds each to share some positive feedback about what they just read.  (My journal prompts are usually based upon a specific skill, so I might ask them to comment upon how the writer used this in his/her journal.)

After this, they have 15 seconds to stand up and bring their journal to the next seat, and begin the process anew.   (In my banquet table example, one side would move and the other side would stay seated.)  Because this is such a fast-paced exercise with frequent breaks, students are able to focus carefully on their peers’ writing.  Plus they get to hear lots of great things about their own writing!

Pick a Prompt

Instead of sharing the prompt for that day, students choose whatever prompt they want from the past two weeks—the one they think is the strongest.  They revise this for homework, and should be prepared the next day to read it to the class.  My expectation for this kind of presentation is much higher because students get to practice it at home first.

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Helping Students Distinguish Between Interior and Exterior Writing

Young authors often have trouble making the distinction between summarizing a story and writing from “inside the story” (a phrase coined by Lucy Calkins, who has some brilliant thoughts buried in those wordy manuals of hers).   This is a quick, simple activity to help students understand the difference.

You’ll need some photographs to start.  It’s important that they have people and/or animals in them—anyone who could be a potential character in a story.  Photographs of your family work well, or images cut from magazines. A simple google search of “photographs of people” will turn up a treasure trove of material.  Or you could always make it a homework assignment: “Bring in a photo of a group of people or animals.”  Don’t tell them what it’s for; curiosity is the greatest hook.

When I introduce this activity, I do it with the students sitting on the floor in front of me, circle time style.  However, it could just as easily be done with the students at their desks, especially if you have a Smartboard on which to display the images.

Let’s say the first photo is of a…pensive kitten.

If I ask the students to describe this image, they might say something along the lines of, “It’s a cute kitten.  It looks like it’s thinking about something.”  Great!  But now I explain that while that’s an excellent summary of the photo, it’s an exterior description, as though you (the writer) were standing across the street staring at the kitten.  Authors write from the interior of the story, as though they are actually a part of it.  For example, “The kitten wondered what its master was going to give it for lunch.”

Students may point out that writing from the interior of the story means the author is choosing a perspective, and that’s a great observation.   I make sure I point out that although writers may use more than one perspective in their novels, they only use one perspective at a time.  (This is important to note, because some students have a tendency to flip back and forth indiscriminately between characters.)  I may read from a few chapter books to give kids a taste of this, and touch on 1st/3rd person as well.

From here we go on to the assignment.  I place about ten of these photographs around the room, and students are to walk around the room with their journals and write one sentence from the exterior of the photo and one from the interior of the photo.  Although the goal is to have students write from the interior of the story, I find that having students write both sentences helps them to distinguish between the two—and it’s not like you never write from outside the topic, after all.  Summarizing and expository writing are important too.  (Just not as important as fiction.  And yes, I’m biased.)

In the end, of course, the students share at least one set of sentences that they’ve written.  If the photo has a group of people or animals it’s even more fun, because then the other students have to guess whose specific perspective the writer has chosen, based on facial expressions.

This is a very repeatable little activity, and can also be used as a quick and easy center!