For Librarians

Remembering the Eruption of Mount St. Helens

On May 18, 2013 at 8:32 am PDT, I hope you paused 
to celebrate the amazing power of our Earth, upon which so much depends.  Many of us throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond remember that moment on May 18, 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted, changing lives and the landscape of the Washington Cascades forever.  This anniversary offers an excellent opportunity to connect middle grade readers with an array of informational text and online resources that tell this amazing story — massive destructive power unleashed in seconds, as well as incredible stories of survival and regeneration as the Earth continues to heal.


Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens by Patricia Lauber (book cover above)
This is my favorite book on the eruption!  Vivid photographs illustrate Lauber’s engaging description of the run-up to the eruption, the have-to-see-it-to-believe-it impacts on all living things within reach of the explosion, and the dramatic recovery that continues today, 33 years later.  Readers will be enthralled as they figure out how the terms “survivors” and “colonizers” apply in a special volcanic context.

Volcanoes & Earthquakes by James Putnam & Susanna van Rose
Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness Books are always kid favorites.  This book explores earth science events around the world, including the eruption of Mount St. Helens.  The photo-heavy format of DK books, with limited and supportive text, makes the book a great option for readers who may be fascinated with volcanoes but struggle with challenging text.


Gopher to the Rescue! A Volcano Recovery Story 
by Terry Catasus Jennings & Laurie O’Keefe

OK, Gopher isn’t technically nonfiction, but the National Science Teachers Association liked it so much, they named it to the 2013 Outstanding Science Trade Books for K-12, calling it “A good story that gives an unusual perspective on a current topic, showing succession after a volcano eruption on Mt. St. Helens.

Will It Blow?: Become a Volcano Detective at Mount St. Helens
by Elizabeth Rusch; ill. by K.E. Lewis
Readers who wonder what’s next for Mount St. Helens and other active volcanoes can put on their scientist/detective caps and tackle the question, “Will it blow — and when?”  Interactive, engaging, and grounded in the real-life work that challenges scientists right now.


Teaching Resources

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Visit the US Forest Service’s rich, interactive website on everything related to the eruption and rebirth!  Students can take a webcam peek at the mountain in real time, or watch archived video of a period of significant eruptions from 2004.

US Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program: Mount St. Helens
This site is filled with accessible scientific information from the United States Geological Survey.  Students can hear directly from USGS scientists about what happened leading up to, during, and after the eruption in a video that uses dramatic images from that day.

NOVA Program on the Eruption of Mount St. Helens (Public Broadcasting System)
This YouTube clip from an episode of the award-winning science program, NOVA on PBS, shows both real and simulated images of the eruption and its aftermath.

Gallery of Earth Images: NASA’s Space Place
See NASA satellite images of active volcanoes, from Mount St. Helens to all corners of the world.

Dave Crockett:  A First-Person Account by KOMO-4 (Seattle) News Photographer
The thoroughly riveting video was shot by a Seattle news photographer who was on Mount St. Helens that morning, because he “had a hunch that something was about to happen.”  Crockett was caught right in the middle of the action and miraculously survived.  Dave’s story reminds us also to honor the 57 people– loggers, campers, scientists — who were nearby but not as fortunate.


On May 18, 1980, Katherine Schlick Noe stepped out into a beautiful Seattle morning and heard what she thought were two distant sonic booms. She’s been fascinated with the story of Mount St. Helens ever since. Visit her at


Filling the Well: on growing as a writer

About eight months ago I finished the author note and copy edits for Written in Stone which will be out in June of this year. I had worked on that book off and on for 15 years. In many ways it’s the book that made me a writer. So it was a real career milestone to put the final touches on it for publication. Once it was gone and I faced the prospect of starting something new I felt like I needed to grow as a writer and push my work to a higher level and explore things I hadn’t tried yet. The authors I admire the most are the ones that are always trying something new. Ursula LeGuin, for example, decided that if anyone was going to tell the story of Lavinia from The Aeneid, it was probably going to be her, and since she was already in her eighties she might as well begin at once. She began by re-reading The Aeneid. In Latin. Her award winning novel Lavinia resulted. Wow! This is the woman I want to be when I’m in my 80s!

So how do I get there? I’ve spent a lot of afternoons and evenings in bookstores listening to authors over the years and here are a few things I’ve learned about, not just enjoying longevity in a fickle profession, but continuing to grow and thrive as a writer and a person.

1. Everybody says read, and everybody is right about that. But I’ve come to see that it’s not volume of text swallowed that matters. Real growth comes from reading thoughtfully. For example, this year’s Newbery winner got quite a lot of buzz online before the announcement in January. I was curious, particularly since The One and Only Ivan’s biggest fans seemed to be teachers. So I read it slowly and reflected on why it was working so well for many people. I am going to confess here that it was not my favorite book of the year. But I could see from a slow and careful examination of Applegate’s craft that she’d created a genuinely appealing voice in the gorilla Ivan. It was spare and wry and consistent. Three things that are very hard to do. Also the layout of each page was roomy and inviting, and Casteleo’s illustrations were lovely in their simplicity. I could have read this quickly, decided it’s not my thing, and dismissed it, but I’m glad I took a closer look. It’s still not my favorite, but I’ve learned something about creating an appealing voice, and I’m certainly going to give page layout some thought in future projects.
If you are looking for good commentary on reading I highly recommend the Heavy Medal Blog over at the School Library Journal which is moderated by the very thoughtful and articulate duo Nina Lindsey and Jonathan Hunt. I seldom comment but I’m always learning from the discussions there.


2. I have always found the company of my fellow writers both a comfort and an inspiration. I recently got together for lunch with five women who have inspired me for decades. We talked about ordinary things–the care of aging parents, our dreams for a perfect garden. We talked about decidedly writerly things–the difficulty in finding reliable research about the Danish resistance in WWII, how corporate fundraising is it’s own kind of storytelling. We toasted Deborah Hopkinson’s recent Sibert Honor and commiserated over the bumpy spot someone else was going through. It was great to know I’m not alone in the vicissitudes of the business, and even greater to hear from writers I really respect that they never regretted pushing their work to a higher level.

So if you’ve got a writer or two in your town or an upcoming SCBWI schmooze or an author event at a local bookstore, reach out! Make some connections for yourself. It’s a long lonely road without companions and a grand adventure with friends.

3. I think its also important to do things outside of strictly literary pursuits. One of the great pleasures of working on my book Second Fiddle was playing the violin again after many years away from my instrument and discovering how many people in the book world are also musicians. Don’t neglect other hobbies. Paint. Hike. Dance. Travel. Meet people. Engage your own family as deeply as you can. Your writing will be richer for it.

I will be responding to comments sporadically on this post because I’m out of town with my family is doing stuff that may some day work its way into books. My son is competing in the World Championships of Irish Dance in Boston on Saturday. I’m sure I’ll never write about competitive contemporary Irish dance but I’d love to write about an immigrant Irish kid who loves to dance. I’ll be taking mental notes all week and meeting musicians and talking to dancers from all over the world. I might not write that book for a decade but I’m storing up ideas now.

4. Much of what I’ve learned about the craft of writing has come from listening to authors in bookstores. If you are fortunate enough to live near a bookstore with a visiting author program, take advantage of it. You’ll meet fellow book lovers, make a connection with local book sellers and get excellent mentoring all for the price of a signed book. The woman at the microphone below is the amazing Ursula LeGuin from whom I’ve learned volumes. Her Steering the Craft is one of the most practical and useful writing books I’ve ever worked with. I never  quite understood the subtle distinction between close third person narration and first person narration until I listened to her discuss it in a Q & A at Powells.

There are many great writing conferences around the country. SCBWI hosts many. The ABLA Big Sur Conference has an outstanding reputation. In Portland the Willamette Writers hold a very good conference every August. I’d love to have people recommend a favorite conference or writing class in the comments. Don’t overlook your local community college. Some of the best teaching is done at community colleges. Sometimes when you are ready to take your work to the next level the investment in a regular class with good instructor feedback is what it takes to get you there.

5. And I’ve found one of the best ways to really master an aspect of the craft of writing is to teach a class on that topic. Teaching forces you to think through problems in a way you tend to resist when you are just having a conversation with yourself in your own writing space. When I was really stuck on differentiating the three characters in Second Fiddle who are all the same age, same gender, and play classical music, I decided to teach a class on deeper character development and came up with a workshop I call Character and the Seven Deadly Sins. I don’t think I could have finished that book without developing the workshop. Whether or not you actually teach the workshop, thinking through a story problem in terms of teaching it to others is often helpful. Local SCBWI conferences are always in need of new presenters with fresh material, so don’t be shy about applying to be a presenter . If the exercise helped you finish a book, odds are it will help other people too.

And speaking of teaching, we’ve come to the shameless self-promotion portion of this blog post.

I’ll be teaching a course for beginning writers of MG and YA fiction called Vampire Free Fiction: writing real world novels for young readers. It is an online class sponsored by The Loft Literary Center and it’s running from June 17th to August 11th. I chose this time slot specifically so that it will be easier for a full time teacher or librarian to take the class over summer break and there is a scholarship available to one lucky teacher who applies, so if you are looking for a way to get started on the novel of your dreams or finally finish a project you’ve been nibbling at for years, I hope you’ll give this class or another like it a try. More information about that at the Loft Literary Center

How about you? What do you do to fill the well of your creative life? Do you have a favorite class, workshop or conference to recommend? How about a good book about the craft of writing? Shout outs in the comments please!

Wisdom from the Second Grade: Writers’ Tools

One of the things I love about school visits is that I get to go to classrooms all over the country and meet wonderful students and teachers. There are some comforting universals to a grade school classroom: a certain amount of clutter, a map, the alphabet along the wall. And then there are delightful surprises: a pet iguana, a stunning view of the wilderness, a reading loft, a tank of salmon fry to be released in a local stream, a flag flown by a student’s father over his army camp in Afghanistan. It’s a window into the thoughts and values of the community I’m visiting.

I recently visited a second grade classroom where I saw two student made posters on the wall. The first was titled Writer’s Tools in the Hand. Underneath was an illustrated list: paper, pencil, eraser, dictionary, word list, and illustration tools. It was a good reminder to take a moment before I begin my writing session of the day to have all the tools I need at hand. I especially liked the word list idea. I know many teachers help their students brainstorm a list of likely words before they start a writing assignment. Though I don’t need that technique, I have used a variation of it. Every writer has word habits, words or phrases that pop up more often than they should. I have about a half dozen that I lean on more than I should, so I make a word list of them and post it over my workspace to remind me to make stronger word choices and not lean over much on the familiar.

It was the second poster that really struck me though. It was titled: Writers’ Tools in the Head and Heart. The list included: thinking, good ideas, awareness, fun attitude, information, concentration, quiet or silence.

There are so many things to love about that list, and perhaps most importantly that writing well engages both the head and the heart. I love it that thinking comes before good ideas, an excellent reminder. Sometimes I have to think about a scene for days, even months, before I have a good idea about how to fix it.

Awareness is a tricky idea, I asked a group of the 2nd graders who had made the poster what they thought awareness meant. They said that it meant you should pay attention to all your ideas about a story not just the shiny, easy ideas that were in the last story you read. Excellent advice!

Fun attitude might just be the best advice of all though. If my writing isn’t going well, it’s almost always because I’ve lost the joy of it. Loss of joy may not be the cause of bad writing, but it is at least the reliable companion of bad writing. And when I change to a more positive and playful outlook, the writing reliably improves.

Information and concentration are ideas I’ve been learning to use as a pair. I love research so much, I could spend all my time chasing the next dazzling fact and completely lose track of my story in my zeal to fill it up with the amazing details I’ve learned. But sometimes what I need is not more information but concentration on the research I’ve already done.

Finally I love it that quiet and silence are not the same thing. Sometimes I need absolute silence for a particular task. Reminding myself to turn off the music for the duration of the task helps. Other times I just need the quiet of my brain focusing on just one thing, not email, not social networks, not housework or snacks but simply the quiet of letting myself be a writer and nothing else for a few hours–a true gift!

So how about you? Do you have a favorite tool of the hand, head, or heart? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.