For Teachers

The Most Important Thing About Children’s Books: For Readers and Writers During COVID-19

Last night, my son asked for something extraordinary. He requested I read him a goodnight story. From my shelves, I pulled out a picture book, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. At first glance, this might not seem that unusual.

Except my son is a ninth grade, a newly minted 15-year-old, and I couldn’t more proud. He wasn’t afraid to ask for what he needed– the comforting ritual of a bedtime story read aloud by a parent. He wasn’t embarrassed. His ears didn’t pinken. This wouldn’t have happened pre-COVID. Well, it would have but like six or seven years ago.

This was not an isolated incident.

My oldest son, who graduated from college last year and is a software engineer for a celebrated car company, is back home and after reading some non-fiction, picked up The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman. My son had first read this very book and the rest of His Dark Materials series when he was ten. He said he relished re-reading it even more because “there was so much that I didn’t understand” the first-time round.

My middle son, a 20-year-old, and college sophomore has been asking for back rubs after sitting in his chair digesting his third Zoom class for the day. He also has been introducing us to some of his favorite board games.

In fact, all three of my sons have asked that we play family games at least once a week. Our favorite is definitely Exploding Kittens, which is silly, involves a little strategy and a lot of luck.

I’m not trying to glorify sheltering-in-place. It’s been, at times, incredibly stressful and full of grief. Two of my students have lost their grandparents. Three of my students have been hospitalized. Childhood friends are struggling to recover from COVID-19. My youngest son may have had COVID-19 for a month in March, but at the time we couldn’t get him tested. But I don’t need to tell you of all this woe. We’ve all experienced heartbreak in one form or another, collective grief and loss in many forms.

So I’m really trying not to be a Pollyanna.

But I do feel like COVID-19 has helped me put priorities and values into sharper focus.

Health. Wow. That’s important.

Friends. Community. Books. All Vital.

And it’s clearer than ever before that children’s books are not just for one particular life period. And reading aloud shouldn’t have to stop when you’ve graduated from the HarperCollins I Can Read Level 4. Nope. The pleasure of children’s books are for every season of life. The idea, for example, that you read middle grade just when you’re 8-12 is merely a state of mind.

And as creators of children’s books, it’s especially imperative to embrace this perspective.

Next month, starting on June 15, I’ll be teaching Middle Grade Mastery, a four-week interactive, remote course for the The Children’s Book Academy with Rosie Ahmed (Penguin Random House/Dial Books) and Mira Reisberg (Clearfork/Spork). It’s a class I’ve taught for several years now, and one that I love. We focus on craft and mentor texts. But this year, I plan to remember what I’ve learned from this sheltering in-place. I want to emphasis more reading aloud at any age. And to remember that no one is ever too old for children’s books; they open hearts and minds, pose and answers questions, as well as (perhaps most importantly right now) mend and delight the spirit.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the new Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House 2020). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

Journaling in the Time of Covid-19

Six months ago if someone had told me I’d be writing a blog post titled “Journaling in the Time of Covid-19” I would have said, “What’s Covid-19?”

We could all start sentences that way now… “Six months ago, if someone had told me…”

“… schools would be closed for months…”

“… I would not see my parents for months …”

“…. Zoom would be part of everyday life…”

“… a mask would be part of my wardrobe…”

“… people would run out of (WHAT?!) toilet paper…”

Times are rapidly changing and that means we are all having new and unforeseen experiences. There’s no better time than now to be journaling. I have written in diaries and journals off and on since this date:

Friday, June 13, 1975 – I’m nine years old. I got my diary today. I should have gotten it on the 1st of January. But then I never even wanted one.

Not long ago, I shared the following story in a Facebook post:

In February of 1977, I was a fifth grader in Westerville, Ohio when the Energy Crisis coincided with weeks of unusually cold weather. Today I found this diary entry from that very strange winter. We were out of school for two weeks and when we returned, we could not go back to our own buildings. Instead, the district utilized the newest buildings with electric heat, and closed the older ones with big fuel oil furnaces. So we went to school half a day, every other day, in order to allow four elementary schools to use the same building. I don‘t recall how long that lasted. I do recall how unsettled I felt.

Okay, here you go. Straight from the mouth of fifth grade me:

Feb. 1, 1977 – No fair! I really don’t think it’s right. For the past month there has been a gas shortage. It’s awful. The weather is down to 20 degrees below zero and sometimes the chill factor is between 40 and 50 below. Our heat is down to 60 degrees inside. School has been closed for 8 days. Don’t people realize children NEED schooling? More than 1,000 workers are laid off. This is a mixed-up world and I wonder if I have to grow up in such a crazy place.

No photo description available.

Some of my memories of that winter are fuzzy. Some are crystal clear. I remember sitting in someone else’s desk at someone else’s school building. I was glad my teacher was the one standing in the front of the room, and I was happy that my friends were sitting in the desks around me.

I’m really glad I was keeping a diary during that unusual time in my childhood.

Parents, teachers, librarians, anyone with a young person in their life: Gift a child a blank notebook, an empty journal, or even a diary with a lock and key. Tell them to fill the pages.

“With what?” they will most certainly ask. “With words,” tell them. “With words only you can write.”

Then, help them out with this list of questions that pertain to our current world situation.

Do you miss going to school the usual way?

What do like about having school online?

What’s the best thing about staying at home most of time?

What’s the worst thing about staying at home most of the time?

How do you feel about wearing a mask in public places?

Who do you know that has gotten Covid-19?

Are you worried about getting sick? Are you worried about someone you love getting sick?

What do you think it’s like for people in other countries?

What activities have you missed because of the pandemic? How did you feel about missing them?

What have you done to stay busy while at home?

Who do you miss spending time with?

What is different about the grocery store now? The library? The movie theater? The playground? The street where you live? How you and your family go places?

Journal prompts on many general topics are easily found online. Hopefully, they’ll want to write about more than just life in the time of Covid-19. And, hopefully, like me, they’ll find that journaling is fun.

Here’s a bit from Day 2 of my diary-keeping life, 1975 (third grade grammar and all!)

Sat. June 14, 1975 – Lisa doesn’t no how personal a diary is. She wants to no what I write. But, Mom had a talk with her. We staked tomato’s in the garden. The second night I’ve written in my diary – it’s fun! Jackie’s got 10 pups and a knew calf!

Who knows? Forty-five years from now, your youngster could be reading from their first journal. All they need to get started is a nudge from someone who cares. (Thanks to Mom for giving me my first diary and apologies for calling out sister Lisa, who was only a first-grader at the time.)

 

Make This Book Series into a TV Series, PLEASE!

Stay-At-Home orders, pandemic response, hand-washing, and social distancing. These are interesting times. Life has changed. It has been interesting but challenging. The science life will soon call me back full time, so I’m trying to make the most out of this period of my life and simplify my world moving forward.

With so much sudden creative free time for a creator who normally struggles to find creative free time, I must admit I’ve struggled. Not quite a Jack Torrance-level struggle, although I did catch myself writing, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” twenty or so times in my journal the other morning.

The Shining (1980) - All Work and No Play Scene (3/7) | Movieclips ...

Here has been my main writing problem. With so many new and old writing ideas streaming through my head, I have often felt like Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate candy wrapping line. 

That’s no joke. A lot of me wanting to write but with a healthy helping of spinning the wheels.

On a positive note, I started drawing again last year and this work-from-home period has given me time to take some online art instruction. I’m enjoying the process and have combined the writing life with art into attempting a couple of graphic storytelling projects (one is a STEM informative fiction!).

It’s all going to work out in the end. I’m 100% sure of that.

Another thing I thought I’d do was stream a bunch of TV shows and movies. You know, catch up on all these shows people are talking about. I haven’t. Maybe it’s not a bad thing. I can still nod my head and act like I know what the person raving about a Netflix series is talking about, right?

That said, I’ve put a considerable amount of thought the past few weeks into a question that was posted a few months ago during a Twitter chat. 

If you had complete control over the production aspects, what MG/YA book or book series would you sign to be made into a movie or streaming series?

A couple of book series I’d make into TV series or movies are technically considered YA but I’ve always believed they have great appeal to upper middle grade readers as well.

First, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series. I’m currently almost through rereading the entire series again

The Wee Free Men (Tiffany Aching #1) Cover

A Hat Full of Sky (Tiffany Aching #2) Cover

Wintersmith (Tiffany Aching #3) Cover

I Shall Wear Midnight (Tiffany Aching #4) Cover

The Shepherd's Crown (Tiffany Aching #5) Cover

 

 

 

 

Second, Johnathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series. I might reread this series next!

The Hollow Boy (Lockwood & Co. #3) Cover

The Creeping Shadow (Lockwood & Co. #4) Cover

The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. #5) Cover

 

 

 

 

In my humble opinion, these are two great books series that both pop visually in the reader’s mind and would translate well to the big or small screen. I invite and implore you, dear readers, to share your dream book-to-movie projects in the comments below or link to this post on social media with your suggestions. 

Who knows? Maybe a producer will see your ideas and put the wheels in motion.

Take care, MUF friends!

Be safe.

Be kind.

Learn something new.

 

BONUS: Here’s a couple of MG books to movie pieces by Mindy Alyse Weiss and Andrea Pyros post on the MUF blog:

Movies Inspired by Middle Grade Novels by Mindy Alyse Weiss from 4/17/2015

10 middle grade books made into movies by Andrea Pyros 12/14/2016