Monday, May 25, 2020

MMGM: The Hippo at the End of the Hall

I picked up this book when our library was still open. I was immediately taken with the illustration and knew from the description that it would appeal to my animal-loving 15 year old. I was right. He loved it, especially the talking animals.

It took me awhile to get to it myself. First, I had to read through my whole TBR list. (One good benefit of the libraries being closed is that I can’t keep checking out more and more books.)

I loved it. It’s been compared to Edith Nesbit, and the description is apt. This is good, old-fashioned British fantasy with a modern twist.

The invitation was delivered by bees. It wasn’t addressed to anyone at all, but Ben knew it was for him. It would lead him to an old, shambolic museum, full of strange and bewitching creatures. A peculiar world of hidden mysteries and curious family secrets . . . and some really dangerous magic.

Filled with her own wonderful illustrations, The Hippo at the End of the Hall is Helen Cooper's debut novel. (from Amazon)

What I loved:

1. Illustrations: The illustrations by the author-illustrator added a lot of whimsy and fun to the story. Who can be scared of a witch when she’s so tiny? The illustrations of the animals and their expressions made this story come to life.

2. Talking animals with distinct personalities: Usually I’m not a fan of talking animals, but these animals had personality and drive and agency of their own. This is how talking animals should be done.

3. An involved parent: So many children's books make parents the enemy. I loved how this mom was involved in this story (even in the climax!) in a way that was realistic, yet did not take away from the main character’s ability to solve his own problems.

4. Layers of mystery: I loved how the book started with a strange invitation, which led Ben to find a very unusual museum, which led to…There’s a lot of layers to peel back in the story, which kept me engaged as a reader.

5. Whimsical/lyrical writing: The metaphors and images in this are so kid-lit and unique. It’s always nice to see an author who can straddle unique metaphors without lapsing into purple prose. I also loved the little details that reminded us this story is written by a British author and set in England.

Have you read The Hippo at the End of the Hall? What books or movies do you think do talking animals well?

To participate in MMGM or find more MG reviews, please check out Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle.

Monday, May 18, 2020

When You Can’t Travel, Dream

In Vermont in 2017--my first plane trip in over 20 years!

If you look at my bio, you’ll think I’m a world traveler. But most people don’t know that most of my world traveling was done in my 20s. After I returned from Honduras, it was over 20 years before I got on a plane again.

I know a lot of people are feeling disappointed about not being able to travel right now. If you’ve had to cancel plans, what to do?

Here are a few things I’ve done over the years when I wanted to travel, but couldn’t for one reason or another.

1.    Explore your own town: Right now, it may not be possible to do much locally, except walk local trails. We are taking in all of our city’s parks, which are still open. Getting take out treats from our favorite bakeries and ice cream stores can feel like a vacation.

2.    Do research for your next vacay: Make a Pinterest mood board or an old-fashioned collage or idea journal. Before all this happened, I was planning a trip to the Redwoods. I can still read travel books and collect ideas, even if the trip is not as soon as I hoped.

3.    Read a travelogue: Some of my most memorable reads have been travel accounts.

How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger—A book about a family who takes their children to England to explore all the settings of their favorite children’s books

The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severi—A story of a man who builds a boat trying to replicate the voyage an Irish monk took to the new world.

4.    Watch a travel show. I’ve always loved Rick Steve’s European specials, but I’ve recently discovered Samantha Brown’s Places to Love. All three seasons of her PBS specials are free on her website. She travels to other places besides Europe, and I really enjoy watching her travels in the U.S. as well.

Have you had to cancel any trips due to the current crisis? What do you to quell the travel bug when you have to stay home?

Monday, May 11, 2020

Teaching Writing to Nonverbal Students Online

What I love about my day job as a teacher is that every year holds a new challenge. Often it is how to teach a particular student or a particular subject. It has been an ongoing challenge to teach students who are nonverbal or have low language skills. Especially online.

A few months ago, one of our speech and language pathologists recommended this resource. What struck me about this series of videos on teaching language arts was one phrase: “Writing is communication.”

Now as a writer, I know that’s true.

But I forget that my students are trying to tell me things too, even if they don't always use words. Once I focused on writing as communication (instead of just a rote skill to be learned), my ability to engage and reach my students greatly improved.

Here are things that have worked for me:

1. Make writing engaging, even writing your name: Since so many of my students are working on this skill, I have them practice it often. But now I’ve started making it more exciting by have them sign their name to answer a question.

2. Enjoy books with your students. Sometimes teachers—and parents—forget that reading is supposed to be fun. Peppering students with questions can overload students who struggle to communicate. Instead make comments. Notice things. Get excited. You are modeling for them what it’s like to enjoy reading.

An example of a book my students and I wrote together.

3. Make writing meaningful. There is a place for worksheets at times, but don’t forget to think outside the box. Recently, I’ve been doing patterned books with my students. I come up with a sentence frame (ex. “I put on…”) and provide pictures or show objects to give the students choices. Students communicate the ending of their sentence in various ways (orally, by pointing or holding up an object, or by writing). We put these sentences together to make a book and read our class book.


Tarheel books: A great website for finding books with lots of visuals (They even have a version of Holes by Louis Sachar!). You can also make your own books as a class and add photos.

Project Core Professional Development Videos: Videos about teaching language arts to students who have low language and/or use a communication board.

How are you surviving virtual education as a parent or a teacher? For writers: how do you communicate as a writer? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

ISWG: How To Get in the Zone

I wish I had a recipe for getting in the zone as a writer. More often than not, I am surprised when my writing flows.

And with my busy, crazy life, it’s hard for me to keep a strict schedule or cultivate a perfect atmosphere. I don’t have an office or a writing space. I’ve learned to write in the midst of a lot of distractions.

Yet here is my ideal:

1. A quiet space: Often this is a corner of my bedroom, but I used to go to our cultural center to write in the lobby on Saturdays. I cannot write in coffee shops. It’s too tempting to listen in to conversations (a.k.a. research).

2. Writing longhand: I have discovered recently that I write better if I write in longhand. I’m less distracted, and a notebook is more portable than a computer. Right now I’m mostly working on my computer because I’m revising, but longhand is ideal.

Longhand draft of this post

3. Music: I’m not a huge fan of listening to music while I’m writing, but I do use it to inspire me or get me immersed in my setting. (Ex: Celtic music while writing about Scotland or Renaissance instruments for a historical.) But if I want to get pumped and inspired, it’s the La La Land soundtrack all the way. Especially this song:

4.  Beverage: If I have a big mug of chai next to me, I feel like writing is a treat. Which it is. It seems the busier I am, the more I cherish my writing time. And when I see it as a gift, not a burden, I tend to focus better.
One of my favorite places to walk: Herbert Hoover actually swam in this pond as a boy.
5.  Walks: Walking, which I don’t do often enough before writing, helps me write better. It’s amazing how many plot holes can be solved once you step away from the computer.

But other than that, the only secret I’ve discovered is that getting in the zone only happens when you show up. I love that moment when plot points come together or a character does something unexpected but just right for the story. Unfortunately, I can’t predict when those moments will happen. But they are more likely to happen if I write as often as I can.

This month's question: Do you have any rituals for getting in the zone as a writer? Please share in the comments!

To find out more about Insecure Writer's Support group or to sign up, go HERE.

Video of "Audition: The Fools Who Dream" from Fandango via Youtube.
Photos are my own.