For Writers

Mentors on Your Bookshelf

“There are only two ways, really, to become a writer. One is to write. The other is to read.” — Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

“During our fourteen sessions together you will begin writing a novel for young readers. You may be surprised by how committed you become to this work and how much you accomplish. But it will happen because you’ll have help from some of the best mentors writing today – the authors of the books we’ll be reading.”

For years, I began my children’s fiction writing MFA classes with some version of this statement. Creating a reading list each semester was my favorite thing to do. I chose books that would give my students a sense of the scope and possibility in writing for children. I looked for the titles that would transport them back to their own childhoods by recapturing the child’s world with its uniquely heightened senses and near-primal beliefs. I chose books by authors who were wizards—conjuring wonder, magic, make-believe, longing, justice, adventure, and hope in their pages.  I was a good teacher because the masters I’d learned from had become my teaching assistants.

I’m sharing five of my all-time favorite titles here, along with with notes on why and how I use them. I still read these books when I’m writing and trying to capture a mood, a character trait, a voice, or whatever is feeling elusive in my work. It’s not about copying, but about evoking something within.

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

 Why I chose it:

  • One of the many things I love about this story is how Kate DiCamillo reveals the invisible child–the part of a character that is open to readers but not to other characters in the story. How does the author capture the invisible self? Her protagonist, Opal, talks to the dog she adopts in the first chapter and names Winn Dixie. He is her first and only friend in the town she’s just landed in. This is how readers learn what’s on her mind and even the backstory that has brought her to this point in her life.
  • Another powerful way Opal reveals her invisible self is through praying. While talking to God, she discloses a secret she believes is true: No one wants to be her friend because her father is the preacher and she’d tell on them for everything they did wrong, and the preacher would tell God and their parents. What a heartfelt way to reveal the conflict that drives the story!

Read this book to see how the author created her lovable, quirky, and vulnerable character, and for Opal’s vibrant voice!

Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins

 Why I chose it:

  • The characters! The three protagonists,  a red ball, a stuffed starfish, and a toy buffalo, provide a wise and witty introduction to setting the rules and boundaries of fantasy. Favorite examples: The ball can read. The toys are able to use subliminal messaging to influence their mistress (a little girl). The stuffed starfish cannot swim.
  • In creating the rules for what these toys can and cannot do, the author gets young readers thinking about the meaning of life. The three toys confront identity, status, and competition. They ask Who Am I? and What Am I Good At? The amazing thing about this book is that it’s for readers in grades 1-4!

Read this book if you are new to writing fantasy or if you just want to up your game.

Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

 Why I chose it:

  • Addie, the immensely engaging protagonist of Connor’s novel, embodies one of the most valuable qualities we can give our readers— No matter how strong or brave or numb a character is, vulnerability lets us know that she or he can be hurt, can feel pain, can be affected and therefore be changed. But in order to enable a character to survive and grow, vulnerability must go hand-in-hand with resilience. Addie’s resilience includes staying alone in her trailer home for extended periods while keeping up her ‘normal’ routine of attending school, preparing meals, and caring for her hamster.

Read this book for an example of how to inspire readers to ask, ‘Could I be as strong as Addie?’

 Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

 Why I chose it:

  •  The first chapter of this compelling Newbery winner contains a roadmap of the novel’s structure. In just 3 pages, there is a move from Bybanks, KY to Euclid, OH, a secret hidden under the floorboards, the foreshadowing of a momentous 6-day trip, and the first appearance of the girl whose story will help protagonist Sal understand her own.
  • Story within story; plot and subplot. Creech has woven both of these techniques into her story as a way of creating mystery, surprise, and the complexity of human relationships.The climax of this healing story sends Sal on a fateful journey in which she takes risks that will enable her to learn and grow.

 Read this book for everything about the importance of structure in storytelling!

 One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

 Why I chose it:

  •  This book is a brilliant example of how to tell the story of a character’s personal struggle to find truth within the larger canvas of history—in this case, the early days of the Black Panthers, their struggles and triumphs in the late 1960’s.
  • Through 11-year-old Delphine’s eyes, author Williams-Garcia captures the excitement and importance of the times.  Her storytelling includes poetry, music, fashion, politics, and commitment to showing a lesser known side of the truth . Her vivid details are a lesson in bringing an important period in the civil rights movement to life.

Read this book if you have ever thought about using personal experience in a novel of historical fiction.

Now it’s your turn! Which books on your shelves serve as writing mentors? Tell us the titles and what to look out for!  


STEM Tuesday Exploration— Writing Craft and Resources


From how to trouble shoot your printer to how to complete your tax forms, we all use procedural texts every day. Some procedural writing is boring, rigid, and downright miserable. Ugh. But it doesn’t have to be.

Discovering a brand new, fuzzy, four-legged species, exploring a volcano on the barren desert called Mars, escaping quicksand — scientific exploration is full of procedures packed with fun!

You’d think writing down the steps to a process would be easy, but – as any educator who has survived the first week of school knows – teaching “how to” is a bit more challenging than teaching “what.”

You pick: teach someone what the Large Hadron Collider is (a machine for speeding up particles so scientists can study them) or how it works (umm . . .).

See, it can be kind of intimidating. You have to really know what you are talking about. No wonder young (and old) writers struggle. Even writing about something a little easier, like dissecting a roadkill skunk, requires lots of decisions. Hard decisions about who the audience is, what to include, and how to present the information.

Never fear, STEM Tuesday is here.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThis month’s book list includes fantastic examples of writing about processes. Consider a multi-step, safety-critical process like blasting off to Mars presented by Pascal Lee in Mission: Mars (page 14). Some of the techniques used include: simplified numbered steps, sequential art, and detail-rich explanations. Lee re-uses these techniques on page 24 for the steps of landing on Mars.

Some questions for close reading:

  • How does the use of numbered steps add to procedural writing?
  • What aspects of page design help the reader?
  • Why might an author repeat techniques in order to explain additional processes in one text?
  • Is the author’s purpose primarily description or exposition? What leads you to that conclusion?

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe passages in Mission can be compared with more familiar approaches to procedural writing such as a fun submersible-building activity in Jennifer Swanson’s Astronaut-Aquanaut: How Space Science and Sea Science Interact (page 24) and/or a passage on how to pull a leech off your skin in Not for Parents: How to be A World Explorer (page 14).

Some questions for close reading:

  • What common elements of procedural writing do these authors use?
  • How are illustrations used in these examples?
  • What words, techniques, or signals indicate that these texts are instructional as opposed to descriptive? (For ideas, compare to pages 14 and 24 of Mission: Mars.)

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFor a different take, check out a graphic novel. Starting on page 39 of Smash! Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe with the Large Hadron Collider, author Sara Latta and illustrator Jeff Weigel present their version of how the Large Hadron Collider works (see, it is possible). Their trick for turning the super technical into something readable while avoiding snores? Sequential art, characters who themselves need thorough explanations, and labeled diagrams. Breaking the complex process down into chunked steps, spread over several pages, didn’t hurt either.

Some questions for close reading:

  • What common elements of procedural writing are found in this text?
  • How does this passage differ from more traditional procedural writing?
  • How does this explanation compare to that of another complex sequence, such as that on page 14 in Mission: Mars.

Try it Yourself

  • Study an example of procedural writing. Identify a technique used by the author. Re-write the passage using a different technique. For example, convert the passage on leech removal into graphic novel form or write it without numbered steps.
  • Re-write a piece of procedural writing with a different point of view. Does that change the impact of the passage?
  • Write the steps for a familiar activity (eating pizza, shooting a basketball, cleaning up dog poop). The first time, write it in 5 steps. Re-write, providing only 3 steps. Re-write again with 10 steps. What’s different? Which was hardest? What audience might need each version? Which do you prefer?

Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are WILD about animals. She reads and writes while high in a tree, standing in a stream, or perched on a mountaintop boulder.


This month, The Out Of Left Field (O.O.L.F.) Files look at some not-so-ordinary ways STEM skills aid in exploration and expanding our knowledge base.

In addition to generating new knowledge, mind-blowing discoveries, and amazing high tech innovations, exploration can cause damage. One concern: pee and poop. From designing a space suit to handle six-days of pee to turning poop into plastic, people are getting creative to solve this problem.

  • Invisible Universe Revealed: A NOVA episode on the Hubble Telescope, its use in exploring the universe, and how an observation at home became a solution to fix Hubble’s “poor eyesight”.
  • Data Exploration: The digital revolution has allowed massive amounts of information to be collected, stored, and shared. Below are a few examples of how this data allows deeper exploration of the world around us.
    • Sabermetrics: The science and analysis of baseball data has changed the game of baseball forever.
    • Bioinformatics: The accumulation AND sharing of genomic sequences from all types of life have revolutionized life science.
    • is a data-driven outlet that studies news, politics, sports, and society. (Their real-time election analysis & discussion is fabulous.)

Read Me a Story, Ink

Hey, everybody! I’m so excited to introduce an amazing website you might not have heard of before: READ ME A STORY, INK.

Robert Topp runs the Hermitage bookstore in Denver Colorado, but a few years ago he started the READ ME A STORY, INK website to give teachers, parents, librarians and kids the chance to read some of the great children’s stories from magazines like Highlights and the Cricket Magazine Group. Robert has indexed by topic, age range, and author more than 1,560 of short stories and put them all in one place. What a great resource!

You know what else is super cool? Robert reads aloud dozens of the stories, recording them in his wonderful, warm voice with special sound effects. Each story only takes a few minutes and can be used at home with your own kids in a variety of scenarios. Perhaps you’d like your children – or students – to do something besides watch television or glued to the iPad or computer screen. Perhaps you don’t have time to read aloud to them. Perhaps they’re in the early  learning stages of reading, and listening to a wonderful story (especially for kids with short attention spans) is a great alternative. Listen to stories in the car while running errands or during road trips.

All the recordings can be found on the website, absolutely free.

I met Robert a few months ago when he contacted me to get copies of my stories that were published in Cricket Magazine several years ago–and he recorded some of them! What a treat to hear my stories read aloud in his wonderful, warm voice. Listen in on our conversation . . .

Robert: Many years ago when my kids were in elementary school, I started reading to both of their classes once a week. Reading aloud was a nightly activity in our house so taking it into the school was a natural progression. After they graduated – they are now 31 and 29 – a few of the teachers that had taught our kids asked me if I would like to continue reading aloud. Once word got around the school, other teachers asked if I would read to their classes as well. I currently read to 13 classes, first through fifth grades. I started to collect and specialize in short stories because I only read to any given class once a month and I don’t have the continuity or time for chapter books.

Kimberley: How did you come up with the idea to create the website?

Robert: As my collection of short stories grew, I found it increasingly difficult to remember which book contained the stories I wanted to share. I started an index for my own use but when it grew to over 800 stories, I realized there might be some value in the index for teachers and parents. With the help of a friend, I turned the index into a website. As with most projects, Read Me a Story, Ink started to grow in numerous directions. I added recommended reading lists based on family and personal favorites, then links to other children’s sites I personally found useful. Stories that were in the public domain I added as printable stories and eventually started contacting current authors for permission to include their stories. The latest offshoot is audio stories.

Kimberley: Where does your love for children’s literature come from?

Robert: When our first child, Harrison, was born in 1986, I bought Harrison and myself matching t-shirts that read, “If you love me, read me a story.” I thought it good advice and reading aloud became a nightly routine continuing until the boys were in their mid-teens. The love for the literature was coincident with the shared journey of discovery with our kids. Since I own a rare and out-of-print bookshop we always had a wonderful flow of books to choose from. To this day my wife and I and the boys all recommend books to each other constantly. I still have the t-shirt.

Kimberley: Tell us about the process of recording the stories on audio. They are SO well done and beautiful! Are you the narrator in all of them? Do you have your own studio?

Robert: When I first thought to add audio selections to Read Me a Story, Ink, a friend suggested a share-ware audio program called Audacity put together by a team of sound engineers. That, some good advice from the folks at Guitar Center on microphones, and the gift of a sound deadening backdrop from my wife and I had my own 8 x 8 ft studio. Since my site is not commercial, I can’t afford to pay professionals to read so I do all of the narration. I do have a friend that I pay to do musical introductions but beyond that I am a one-man band.

Kimberley: What’s the most rewarding part of running the website?

Robert: Next to the time spent in classrooms reading to kids, by far the most rewarding part of creating and maintaining Read Me a Story, Ink is the contact I have with authors, parents and teachers who share a common interest in children’s and YA literature.

Kimberley: Do you ever get to meet the authors that you feature in person? Any fun stories to share?

Robert: Sadly, though I consider many of the authors that I correspond with good friends, my contact remains virtual with one exception. I kept running into stories in Cricket Magazine by an author named Robert Culp. I absolutely loved the warmth and humor in his stories about best friends Cotton and Rooster set in 1940’s Arkansas. For two years I periodically did Google searches trying to find something about the author but all I ever turned up was an astro-physics professor. In one final, last ditch effort I paged down seemingly countless pages in my Google search and discovered that the professor was, in fact, the author of the Cotton and Rooster stories. I contacted him via his Facebook page only to discover that he was a professor in Boulder, Colorado, just a few miles from my store. Within the week we met at the store to our mutual delight.

Robert’s philosophy:

Reading aloud is one of the absolute nicest activities for adults and children to share. It creates warm bonds, opens a child’s mind to new ideas, forms topics of discussion thus keeping lines of communication open and creates a positive role model for the child to become a lifetime reader.

Thank you so much for being with us today, Robert, and please check out Read Me a Story Ink! everyone! Let Robert read a story to your kids, students, or library patrons today!

Printable stories page:

Audio stories page:

Rattlesnake Rain by Kimberley Griffiths Little Audio:

Banat er Rih: Daughter of the Wind by Kimberley Griffiths Little Print

Kimberley Griffiths Little is the award-winning author of ten Middle-Grade and Young Adult novels with Scholastic and Harpercollins. She’s been juggling drafting new book proposals, eating too many cookies, and wrangling a household that never sleeps . . . On location book trailers and Teacher’s Guides at Kimberley’s website: Friend her on Facebook: