For Teachers

“What I Didn’t Do This Summer” and Other MG Narrative Writing Ideas

A hearty thank you to all the teachers and librarians who are off and running in a new school year! We certainly wish you the best. Educational settings of all types have seen wild change and plenty of challenges in the last year and a half, but educators continue to rally, adapt, instruct, and inspire.

For those of you on the lookout for ways to offer your middle grade writers new and creative ideas, here are some suggestions to try!

These ideas:

  • Capitalize upon and promote students’ start-of-the-year enthusiasm and excitement.
  • Can be used as icebreakers and in peer-response circles (in which each student provides one “This is awesome!” and one “This is just a suggestion!” remark for a fellow writer).
  • Will fulfill one of the most fun Common Core State Standards—Narrative Writing (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W3)!
  • Will connect to (relatively) pain-free grammar and composition mini-lessons as students revise and edit, which account for additional Writing Standards.
  • Will connect to Reading: Literature CCSS if you tie the writing lesson to the study of a novel and Speaking and Listening CCSS if students share their original work aloud (with a bit of coaching on presentation skills).
  • Can serve as a foundation for powerhouse lessons and quality use of instructional time–not to mention a chance for kids to use imagination along with skills in a memorable and fun writing experience.

The “What I Didn’t Do This Summer” Composition

Students might need a little explanation if they are not aware of the traditional “What I Did This Summer” essay that kicked off each year of English class for so many generations of students. Then, turn the notion on its head: Kids write an imaginative piece that includes events their summer certainly did not showcase: didn’t talk to penguins at the South Pole, didn’t go back in time and meet pirates or ninjas, didn’t even try to dig a hole to the other side of the world, didn’t get the cell phone to work as a portal to another planet. Offer more structure to those who don’t jump in on their own, for example, “Three Adventures I Wanted to Try This Summer But Didn’t,” or “Three Things I Wouldn’t Have Done This Summer Even for Ten Thousand Dollars.”

The First-Line Fest

The best part about a First-Line Fest is the time involved; you can spend a few class periods on this activity, use it for a five-minute filler, or utilize any length of time in between. You might want to start by offering a read-aloud of first lines from some great test-of-time middle grade novels (and letting kids guess the titles is a nice intro). Some possibilities:

“It was one of those super-duper cold Saturdays.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number Four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”

“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital / Columbus, Ohio, / USA— / a country caught / between Black and White.”

“My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni and cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”

Then, coach students to compose an attention-getting first line to a story or novel that they do not have to write. Use whatever guidelines or fun twists suit your purposes: must be a full sentence with an action verb; must contain at least two characters; must jump in with a conflict; must be a setting description with an animal; must be more than 20 words but fewer than 25; etc.  Or, throw rules out the window (except, of course, for your classroom-appropriate guidelines 😊 ) and see what first-line creations students come up with.

The Favorite Genre Never-Been-Done Premise

Explain the concept of a premise to your would-be writers and allow them to guess a book based on its premise. Knowing what books they covered as a class the previous year ensures success here, so for example, if they read Other Words for Home: “A seventh grade girl leaves Syria for Cincinnati, bravely auditions for a musical, and remains hopeful for the safety of the missing brother she left behind.”

Next, review genre as a literary characteristic, and have kids narrow their favorite genres. Finally, assign a fun one-to-three sentence premise for a story or novel in their favorite genre they’d love to someday read or write. Some facet of the imagined storyline must make the premise never-been-done before (a challenge, as we writers are well aware!). Look to recent releases in some favorite genres for inspiration and recommended reads for your students to dovetail with this writing assignment:

Fantasy: The Ship of Stolen Words by Fran Wilde, The Hidden Knife by Melissa Marr, Arrow by Samantha M. Clark

Sports/Outdoors/Activities: Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz, Soccer Trophy Mystery by Fred Bowen, Much Ado about Baseball by Rajani LaRocca

Scare Stories: Ghost Girl by Ally Malinenko, The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown

MG contemporary: Thanks A Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas, To Tell You the Truth by Beth Vrabel, The Magical Imperfect by Chris Baron

Also, consider genre mash-ups to make the never-been-done objective a little easier—and a lot more creative.

Have a great year filled with creative opportunities for your middle grade writers, and thank you again for your devotion to educating kids.

 

First lines: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis;  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling; Holes by Louis Sachar; Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson; Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Diversity in MG Lit#30 Graphic Novels + Anthologies

Graphic novels are having quite a moment. They have grown by an astonishing 10-15% each year for the past 2 or 3 years and then in 2020, they grew by 29%. They now count for more than a billion in sales. The two factors driving this change are the willingness of independent bookstores and libraries to carry and promote graphic novels and the dramatic growth in graphic novels for children. This month I’m going to introduce a few of the many diverse graphic novels new this year. I’m also going to highlight two new anthologies.
Piece by Piece: the story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq, Amulet 9/21book cover of Piece by Piece by Priya
If there’s one book I’d recommend to teachers and families trying to understand the lives of immigrants and refugees, it would be Piece by Piece. It’s a spare and powerful story of a Bengali girl who is the victim of a hate crime and goes on to use the very cultural markers that made her a victim to aid in her healing process. Along the way she comes to understand more fully her family’s generational trauma rooted in the Bengali genocide of 1971. I love this story for its nuanced take on a difficult topic and for it’s gorgeous art. I hope that debut author-illustrator Priya Huq has many more stories in the future.
Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms by Rey Terciero & Megan Kearney, Harper Alley 3/22
Imagine a high speed collision between Swan Lake and The Princess Bride and you’ll be onto the vibe of this rollicking tale of friendship and adventure. The racial identity of the main characters are hard to parse in the blue toned illustrations but one of the chief swashbucklers is a single leg amputee.
¡¡Manu!! by Kelly Fernández, Graphix Scholastic 10/21
Here’s another friendship story about girls at a magical school (run by some seriously spunky nuns) who learn the limits of magical power and boundless power of friendship and loyalty.
Borders by Thomas King illustrated by Natasha Donovan, Little Brown 9/21book cover Borders by Thomas King
This simple and thoughtful story packs a lot of power in under 200 pages. It’s about First Nations identity, justice and belonging and is set at a US/Canada border crossing where a Blackfoot family refuses to claim any citizenship other than their own tribe. It’s not flashy but it’s a real conversation starter.
Ms.Marvel: Stretched Thin by Nadia Shammas illustrated by Nambi H. Ali, Marvel, Scholastic 9/21
Love this story about Ms. Marvel, the 1st Muslim American Avenger in a theme that I think will resonate with a lot of students. Ms. Marvel AKA Kamala, is trying hard to do all the things she loves successfully and sacrificing her own well being to do it. But in the end she embraces the super power of leaning on your friends when you need help. Timely! Also from the Marvel universe, Miles Morales: Shock Waves by Justin A. Reynolds illustrated by Pablo Leon, Marvel, Scholastic 6/21
Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas, Harper Alley Quill Tree Books 2/22cover Squire by Sara Alfageeh
This one reminded me a lot of the Tamara Pierce stories. A Girl, a quest, a training regimen, allies gained and enemies vanquished, all with a middle eastern cast and setting. It’s great fun and sure to appeal to boys and girls equally.
City of Dragons: the awakening storm by Jaimal Yogis & Vivian Truong, Graphix 9/21
Fans of the Wings of Fire series will love this one. Set in Hong Kong, a group of friends find a dragon egg that hatches and becomes a creature of immense power who becomes the object of evil powers intent on destroying the entire city.
As a bookseller I LOVE a good anthology. It’s a great way to introduce kids to a variety of new authors. It’s great to help kids transition from chapter books to middle grade or from middle grade to young adult.  For teachers I love a themed anthology for augmenting curriculum. Here are two new anthologies that I think will serve you well.
cover of Living Ghosts & Mischievous MonstersLiving Ghosts & Mischievous Monsters: Chilling American Indian Stories by Dan Sasuweh Jones of the Ponca Nation, Illustrated by  Weshoyot Alvitre of the Tongva Nation. Scholastic Press, 9/21
Years ago I was a teacher on a reservation in Washington and one of the things I remember most was how eager my students were to tell me a scary story. This collection is not for the faint of heart though the tales vary in intensity quite a bit. They are collected from a tribes across the country. Chapters are devoted to ghosts, spirits, witches, monsters and the supernatural. Back matter includes books for further reading and reliable websites.
Beast & Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani  Illustrated by Julia Iredale Harper 9/21
The author of the School for Good and Evil series has a collection of 12 tales, all twists on familiar tales–thoughtful twists–conversation worthy twists.
This is just a small sampling of the many new graphic novels this summer and fall. Please mention your favorites that I might have missed in the comments.

Back to School in the Olden Days

Last year, my younger daughter was assigned to interview an older relative about what school was like back when they were in first grade. In an ordinary year, this assignment must have been an interesting way for the kids to discover and appreciate all the differences in school culture and technology that have built up over the past few decades.

My daughter chose to interview her older sister.

“I remember back when I was in first grade, six years ago, we went to school in a building that wasn’t our own house. Some kids got dropped off by their parents, and others got there in a big yellow bus.”

“That’s crazy!”

“And we didn’t use iPads, like, at all.”

“How could you see the teacher?”

“The teacher wasn’t on a screen. The teacher was in the room.”

“No way!”

“In gym, we got to play games and run around, and sometimes we went outside.”

“With the iPad?”

“There was no iPad.”

“Now you’re just making stuff up.”

“I’m not! And when we ate our lunch in the cafeteria, we sat at huge tables with all the other kids in our class.”

“That’s impossible! Also, what’s a cafeteria?”

“It’s like a restaurant, but just for the school.”

“With curbside service? Or was it a drive-through?”

“Neither. It was like one of those old-timey restaurants where you could eat indoors. Like you see sometimes on TV.”

“But you had to stay six feet apart from everyone and wear a mask, right?”

“There. Were. No. Masks.”

“What-what? School in the olden days sounds dangerous! You’re lucky you survived.”

* * *

Some kids went to school in person for at least part of last year, but many students this fall haven’t been inside a school building since mid-March of 2020. Some can barely remember what in-person learning was like.

These are challenging times for sure.

Stay strong, teachers.