For Teachers

Interview with ABSURD WORDS Author Tara Lazar & Two Giveaways

Welcome back to the Mixed-Up Files, Tara! We’ve loved talking to you about how writers can excel at your awesome Storystorm challenge every January and what to do with their ideas after the challenge is finished. You also showed an easy way for teachers, media specialists, and parents to use Storystorm with children. You can find an interview with all these gems here! And in this post, you shared how Storystorm isn’t just for picture book writers.

And now I’m thrilled to interview Tara about her first MG (which is absolutely amazing for both a middle grade audience and all writers/creatives)! I’d like to welcome to the world Absurd Words: A kids’ fun and hilarious vocabulary builder for future word nerds!

How did you come up with the idea for Absurd Words?

I have a list of “Fun, Cool & Interesting Words” on my website, and it became the most accessed page on my site. So, I thought—why not turn it into a book?

 

Brilliant idea! What surprised you while writing this book?

So many things! The stories I found about word origins proved fascinating, I just couldn’t get enough of it! I even had to contact the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for a verification—yes, the Oscar people!

 

I’m amazed by how few words the average person uses compared to the amount of words that exist. What do you think are the most important reasons to learn new words?

The more words you know, the more words you can use, the more words you have to inform, educate and persuade others. Words equal power.

 

I love that…words equal power!

What are some fun ways teachers can use Absurd Words with their students?

Well, I have an entire section written that will be available soon! There are tons of games and writing exercises.

 

Ooh, that sounds like it will be such a helpful tool! If you follow Tara on Twitter, you’ll be one of the first to know when the games and writing exercises are up on her website.

In the meantime, I have an idea! Teachers can have kids look through Tara’s book and choose their favorite words to write on one side of an index card with the definition underneath (or on the back—as long as others can’t see it). In small groups, they take turns saying their word and having others write down what they think it means. The answers could be hilarious and might inspire a story! The person who chose the word shuffles the cards so they don’t know who wrote each one, reads them out loud—their favorite definition receives a point (or sticker). Then, they reveal the real definition. The person to their right reads their word, and the game (and learning) continues.  

 

Can you share a bit about your annual Storystorm challenge and how can writers use Absurd Words to help come up with awesome ideas?

These words will evoke memories and emotions, which will hopefully spur a few story ideas. I wrote about this for Storystorm a few days ago.

 

Such a great post. I love how these words evoke emotions. When I’ve needed inspiration for ideas, I’ve checked out your “Fun, Cool & Interesting Words” list. Now you have an entire book full of inspiring words and illustrations. They’ve already helped me come up with a few fun ideas this year.

 

It’s amazing that people can make up words and use them so much, they spread around and around…and end up in the dictionary! If you could choose one of your made-up words to go in the dictionary, what would it be—and why do you love it so much?

My favorite is “adogable” for a really cute pupster. I love it so much because I love animals so much! Frankly, I never met a pooch who wasn’t ADOGABLE!

 

I love, love, love adogable! My rescue pup is laying next to me and says she she’d be the perfect pup to show the world her adogable smile.

 

Can you share some tips to help kids and writers make up their own absurd words?

I made up the title of my first book: THE MONSTORE. The end of “monster” sounds like “store,” so I was able to crash them together easily. That’s all you have to do, find two words that can fit together like pieces in a puzzle (even if you have to force them a little)! These words are called portmanteaus, but that’s a long French word for something so simple. In ABSURD WORDS, I call them “crashwords” instead. Think about it, when these two words crash together, they lose a few letters here and there, like when a tire falls off and bounces away in a car crash.

Anyone can make up a crashword! A recent, popular one is “hangry,” made from hungry and angry. I know a lot about this word because my 15yo daughter never gets hungry, she goes straight to HANGRY. “I WANT AN EGG AND CHEESE SANDWICH NOW!” I thought I taught her better manners. [sigh]

 

Ooh, I’d love to see some crashwords in the comments! Who wants to share their favorites?

What are you working on now, Tara?

Some sequels! But I can’t say for which books!

 

So exciting! I can’t wait for more details. 😊

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

 

They say that if there’s a book you want to see in the world, you must write it yourself. As a kid, I always wanted a book like ABSURD WORDS. So, I finally wrote it myself. I wrote it for the kid in me, but I hope lots of other kids—big and small—also love it.

 

I already love it…and am sure it’ll have tons of fans. It’s such a fun and useful book. And as you said, words are power. Think of all the power these amazing, absurd words can create.

There’s still time to sign up for Storystorm, where the goal is to come up with 30 ideas by the end of January. And you can win awesome prizes like signed books, art, critiques and agent feedback on ideas, too.

Thank you so much for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files again, Tara. And happy birthday to Absurd Words!

Here’s TWO generous Zoom giveaways from Tara. The first is open to everyone. [Winner: Stephanie Wildman]

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This 30 minute Zoom is only open to teachers and media specialists for an author visit with Tara (she’ll even show up in PJs and let kids guess which ones she’ll be wearing ahead of time—which makes a fantastic graphing activity). [Winner: Mia Geiger]
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Winners will be shouted out on this post and Twitter on Wednesday, January 12. Good luck. 😊

 

An interview with New York Times Editor Veronica Chambers on Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matters

Today, on the Mixed Up Files, we welcome Veronica Chambers, who is the lead author of Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matters.

Chambers is the editor for Narrative Projects at the New York Times. As an author, she is best known for the New York Times-bestseller Finish the Fight!, which was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and the New York Public Library. Her other works include the critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl, Shirley Chisholm Is a Verb, and the anthologies The Meaning of Michelle—a collection of writers celebrating former first lady Michelle Obama—and Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn, she writes often about her Afro-Latino heritage. You can find her online at veronicachambers.com or on Twitter and Instagram @vvchambers

Congratulations to you and your team at the New York Times on the release of Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matters.

I can’t wait to virtually sit down with you and ask you some questions about this essential history of the Black Lives Matter movement for young people. I’m especially excited since I share certain New York City experiences with you, having been a journalist there (features writer for New York Newsday) and living for awhile in Brooklyn. I love that you’re bridging a career as an editor/journalist with being an author.

In the book, readers are introduced to the concept that “the power of the people is greater than the people in power.” Can you elaborate a little bit about that?

 Sure. Experts believe that up to 26 million Americans participated in some sort of Black Lives Matters protest, which would make it one of the largest protests in the nation’s history.

Peaceful protest is the most effective form of protest in the world. A study conducted by researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan compared the outcomes of hundreds of violent insurgencies with those of major nonviolent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006; they found that over 50 percent of the nonviolent movements succeeded, compared with about 25 percent of the violent insurgencies.

The text addresses some universal questions, such as how does a movement become a movement? You spend time looking at contemporary events and leaders as well as historical antecedents and galvanizing moments. Was it hard for you and your team to figure out how you wanted to balance all of these elements?

 There’s a famous phrase that “journalism is the first draft of history.” The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were still ongoing when we started working on the book. There was a real challenge in trying to figure out what to immortalize in a book when the story was changing and growing every day.

That’s why the decision to lean in on the incredible photography of the New York Times was so meaningful to us. This is what the great photojournalists who contribute to the daily report saw and while we wrote text that put the movement in a broad historical context, each of the photos tells a deep and powerful story of its own, without any need for us to editorialize or comment on the images.

You make a point that the protest is larger than the people gathering in the street (although is certainly part of it). Protest can mean “making art with a message” or “calling elected officials.” How would you define protest for children?

Protest is anything we do to say we want things to be different. I think a lot about the kid I was when I’m working on these books. When I was growing up, and reading about the modern civil rights movement, I thought those are stories about heroes whose bravery and wisdom I could never match. I’ll never make a difference in those ways.

I understood as I got older that we all have a role to play in shaping the world we live in. Coretta Scott King once said, “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” I think that’s some of the truest words ever uttered.

The book makes a point to say that children are never too young to lead. In the text, you offer many examples of young leaders from teen environmentalist Greta Thunberg to eight-year-old Mari Copeny, who protested the water conditions in Flint Michigan. How might younger children participate in standing up for what they believe in?

One of the highlights of my year was this piece I did about Paola Velez and Bakers Against Racism. Bake sales associated with that group have raised more than two million dollars in a single year towards social justice causes.

Paola is not just an incredible culinary talent but also one of the most eloquent, thoughtful people I’ve ever interviewed. One of the things she said was this: “When we speak about issues that we care about, we do it with a pie in hand. And so sometimes it’s a little more graceful and a little more palatable because there’s something sweet at the end of this, like, very charged, very truth-forward statement that we have to make.”

The piece is here.

The founders of Black Lives Matters are three women: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. They were all in their late twenties or early thirties when they started BLM. However, I was intrigued to learn that Garza began her activism at the age of 12, focusing on reproductive rights. And it was in high school that Tometi became aware of the need to stand up for the rights of immigrants, particularly the undocumented. And Cullors learned first-hand about systemic racism as a kid when her family would go hungry. Veronica, did you have any powerful experiences as a child that also led you to career as an author, journalist and editor?

I think being a chronic outsider really helped me become a reader and then a writer. My family is from Panama, I’m Afro-Latina. I came to the country when I was 5, just becoming a reader and  one of the things I was looking at books to do was teach me how to be an American.  So many of the books published today remind me of the curiosity I felt at that moment – how do things work or don’t work here?

Black Lives Matter is the story of collaboration. It was Garza who wrote on Facebook in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin; it was Cullors who created the hashtag “blacklivesmatter,” and it was Tometti who created the initial Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts for the movement. In your career as an editor and writer, why is the collaborative experience so important?

Collaboration is one of my super powers. But when I was a kid, it was something I really railed against. I hated having to do projects or presentations as a team. I think it was because I was shy and I felt like I never got the credit for all my hard work.

But I’m also a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in some ways, I think that oeuvre really mimics the creative journey.  Turns out you need more than one superhero to save the world. Similarly, you need lots of great minds to make extraordinary journalism.

You write that the book is “built upon the work of incredible photographers and photo editors.” How did you work with Photo Editor Anika Burgess to select the images? There must have been so many to choose from.

Anika Burgess, the photo editor on the project, as well as Jennifer Harlan, my co-author, had all worked on a history based project at the Times called Past Tense. We had a years long history of sifting through hundreds of photos and really sitting back together and discussing what moves us.  What’s incredible was that 90% of the time, the photos we loved the most, we all had the same reaction to. Viewing a powerful photo is like hearing a truly great pop song, it just grabs you. What was hard was winnowing it down. There are more than 100 photos in the book. I would love to have run 200 photos. Making those cuts was brutal.

In an interview with National Geographic in 2020, Garza said, “In the midst of the all the grief and rage and pain, there’s hopefulness.” Can you speak to that and elaborate on hopefulness?

I’m incredibly hopeful. As a first generation American, what I’ve always gotten from black history is that, despite all of the challenges, African-Americans are in the business of Hope. Every decade, every chapter of the history of black people in this country is infused with countless moments of hope, resilience and creativity. I think that at this particular moment in the nation, black history and its masterclass in hope and possibility, can be useful to Americans of all backgrounds.

 

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 Get 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 Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). Her forthcoming nonfiction picture book, If You Were a Princess: True Stories of Brave Leaders From Around the World is a look at historical and current princesses from many diverse lands who have made their mark (Simon & Schuster in August 2022). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and, in the summers, she teaches in the graduate program in children’s 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.

 

 

Embracing Diverse Talents and Perspectives: Using Creative Projects to Dive Deeper into Fiction

For me, the brisk fall weather always brings with it a burst of creative energy. Most likely, you and your students are feeling that too. Why not use this season as an opportunity to engage your students in diving deeper into books in creative ways? As we all know, students have different styles of learning and a variety of talents. What if you could offer your students a number of fun options to explore the fictional books they’re reading and to demonstrate their knowledge? I have included several ideas below:

  • Invite students to consider books as not only works of literature but also as works of art. Begin by showing students several well-known hardcover books and discussing how the text, images, and other design elements on the front and back cover, the spine, and inside flaps relate to the central themes of each book Then invite students to rewrite and redesign the front and back cover, the spine, and inside flaps of the book they’re reading. Students can select a color palette that they believe best fits the book, create new images, and re-write the front and back flap copy to highlight things that they believe would appeal to potential readers. They can put those elements together in a new book design. Ask students to also consider elements such as text, font choice and placement, and how themes and design elements from the front cover continue onto the spine, back cover and flaps. Students can even choose a new book title.
  • Invite students to create a playlist including a song for each chapter with a short paragraph explaining why they selected each song and how it relates to the chapter. I recently put together a playlist for my book Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe featuring artists from Mississippi, where the book is set. Even for someone like me who is not musically inclined, putting the list together was surprisingly fun. I discovered new artists and thinking about chapter pairings gave me the opportunity to re-examine the central theme of each chapter. Limiting the playlist options to artists from Mississippi also allowed me to highlight the talented musical artists from that state. You might try a similar approach with your students. You can ask them to select songs from the historical period of the book, to feature only artists from the geographical region where the story is set, or to limit their choices to a particular genre of music.
  • Invite students to create a graphic novel presentation. If the book your students are reading is not already a graphic novel, you can invite students to select what they consider to be the five most pivotal chapters and to present those chapters in graphic novel form.
  • Invite students to create a poem to have a conversation with a book. Another idea is to invite students to create a poem inspired by questions that they had about a book they’ve read. First ask students to consider why the writer chose certain elements in the book. Then invite students to create a poem that explores the meaning of those elements or that asks questions about the writer’s choices. Students can use any poetry form that they wish, including free verse. Sometimes limiting options is the best way to inspire creativity. If students get stuck, they can write the letters of the book title vertically down the left side of a page. They can then use each letter as the beginning of a word in a line of their poem.
  • Use art to explore and express the way the main character changed. Novels involve change and growth. One way to engage readers in exploring the changes in the main character over the course of a novel is to ask them to create an illustration of the main character at the beginning of the book (utilizing elements of composition including setting, choice of color palette, clothing and accessory choices and other items to show the main character’s traits). You can then invite students to illustrate that same character at the ending of the book, again using elements of the composition to show how the character has grown and changed.
  • Turn students into book ambassadors. You can invite students to imagine that they are booksellers and ask them to create a short video sales pitch for the book. What types of readers do the students believe would be interested in the book? What elements of the book did the students find most appealing? What would they tell someone to try to persuade them to read the book?
  • Challenge students to become book marketers. Once students are comfortable becoming book ambassadors, you can invite them to take the next step and become book marketers. Challenge them to create at least five new taglines for the book they’re studying. As you know, taglines are short phrases included on the front or back cover or inside flaps intended to intrigue potential readers. For example, the tagline for Refugee by Alan Gratz is “Three different kids. One mission in common: ESCAPE.” The tagline for When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller is “Some stories refuse to stay bottled up.” The tagline for All of the Above by Shelley Pearsall is “When all the pieces fit together, dreams can come true.” As you can imagine, creating a tagline takes lots of brainstorming. If students get stuck, invite them to create lists of key words that capture important elements of the story. Student then can combine the words in different order and phrasing to come up with potential taglines.
  • Invite students to create a word-inspired poem. Ask students to pick a number at random that is smaller than the number of pages in the book they are reading. Then invite them to turn to that page, select at least seven words that intrigue them, and create a poem about the book that uses each of those seven words.
  • Invite students to immerse themselves in the setting of the book. You can invite students to research the setting of the book. They can then create an annotated map of the place where the major story action occurred.
  • Invite students to get social. You can invite students to create fictional social media posts from the point of view of the main character in the story at key action points.

 

Whatever activities you choose, I hope that you and your students enjoy diving even more deeply into the world of books. You can learn more about new releases at https://fromthemixedupfiles.com/mixed-up-files-book-lists/ and find a list of books by Mixed Up Files contributors at https://fromthemixedupfiles.com/about/contributor-books/. I’m wishing you and your students loads of reading and creative adventures.