All posts by lialondon

Tweens are all little monsters, right?

When I hear the words “middle school”, a certain part of me shudders. Amidst the vague recollections of science labs or choir concerts is the overriding memory that kids in middle school are just plain awful to each other. The pecking order, the mockery, the sneering looks, the constant mood swings and drama … the fear that if you do one thing wrong you’ll be branded as a loser for the year.

photo credit: gurl.com
photo credit: gurl.com

Was it really that bad?

 

My daughter, who I’ve home schooled since kindergarten, will now be entering the local public middle school, and she does so with some trepidation because of what she’s heard from neighborhood kids about how mean some kids can be. She’s afraid of being bullied even as her own response to the slightest criticism is to retaliate in forces times ten.

 

Much of the middle grade literature I’ve read in the last few years deals with this kid cruelty. In every single book, there is at least one jerk or jerkette who seems to make it a daily goal to antagonize the main character.

 

Why is this what sticks out? Are middle schoolers all complete monsters? Really?

photo credit: vulture.com
photo credit: vulture.com

The hugely popular series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is brilliant on many levels for humor and relatability, but one thing author Jeff Kinney does is pure genius. He makes a jerk the protagonist. Greg Heffley is (in the words of his own best friend) “not a good friend”. The kid is completely self-absorbed and relates to the entire world with the intent of getting what he wants out of life—comfort, popularity, etc. The beauty of the “diary” format, is that we see how completely oblivious he is about the fact that he’s a jerk. We see his motivations (at least those of us readers who are not middle schoolers) as selfish, but ultimately very  human.

 

And so we root for Greg (except when he’s mean to Rowley—the rare face of the genuinely nice kid). Why? Because we can see both sides of the story. We see where he feels oppressed and where he shows ambition. We see where he feels embarrassed and where he finds triumph. We see where he feels longing and where he experiences fulfillment. These are emotions all of us can understand.

 

Yes, he fails to see the needs of others much, but that’ll come with age. In the meantime, we would do well to remember that tweens aren’t beasties. They’re just like you and me. Just … immature and self-centered about it. Developmental psychologists will tell you that’s pretty much par for the course.

 

What else is the norm? Idealism and a budding sense of justice. Competition and the desire to improve. Friendship and the need to connect with others. Independence and an emerging capacity to take on responsibility. Creativity and a seemingly limitless appetite for humor.

 

All-in-all, it’s an intriguing balance. One that makes for fun books and interesting kids. The future looks bright … as long as they can survive the 8th grade!

 


A shot B&WLia London’s books Magian High and The Gypsy Pearl both address bullying and the whole “mean kid” syndrome and how to rise above it by changing the way you look at people.

For the Reluctant Summer Readers

Writers generally love to read, but that doesn’t mean our kids always do, and with the advent of summer, some tweens are cheering the chance to toss books aside and get down to some serious video gaming or hanging with friends by the pool. No books for three months! Whoohooo!

 

Oh no. Not so fast. You can’t nurture a love of reading (which often comes with better reading proficiency) by ditching it 25% of the year.

photo credit: lakeridgees.schools.pwcs.edu
photo credit:
lakeridgees.schools.pwcs.edu

So how can we get our reluctant readers involved with books during the summer?

 

Here are a handful of ideas.

Volunteer at the Library

Many local libraries have summer reading programs that are run, at least in part, by youth volunteers. My kids will be spending every Tuesday afternoon helping kids sign up for the reading contests and select prizes for reaching reading goals. As enthusiastic readers come in and gush about their new favorite book, it can help a reluctant reader see that peers value reading. And, well, you know… If peers like it…

Even if something like that isn’t available, youth can often volunteer to help re-shelf books with adult supervision. There is something about handling the books, seeing the shiny covers and all the different genres and subjects, that piques interest in even anti-reading kids.

 

Watch the Movie

No, not instead of the book. With the book. This requires the parent or guardian to be quite familiar with both, but it’s worth it. We did this most recently with To Kill a Mockingbird, reading a chapter and then watching the corresponding scene in the movie. Since books and their movies are never quite the same, we talk about the differences and which one they enjoy better.  It doesn’t take long to find out that books usually include a lot more details. The benefit of the movie, though, is that it helps a reader visualize the characters and locations. This in turn keeps the energy going when they dive back into the pages.

 

Bring Back Bedtime Stories

Yes. With tweens. I’m not kidding. If you are good at reading aloud with expression, this can be a truly awesome bonding (or re-bonding) experience with even tweens. That bedtime slot is great because it’s time to wind down; there aren’t friends distracting, and it gets them settled before midnight so that you can sleep, too. (They might have the summer off, but you don’t necessarily have that luxury.) This is a great time to pull out the more fluffy, popular books that don’t feel like literature class–things that are fast-paced and either full of humor or action.  Learn to stop right at a good spot, and if they fuss for you to read more, you can say, “Not now, but you can always read more and tell me about it in the morning.” (wink wink)

 

Make a Movie

Tweens love taking pictures and stupid videos of themselves, so challenge them to make a movie out of a chapter from a book. They can do it with their friends–both the filming and the editing–so that makes it feel like fun.  There are plenty of free, simple movie-editing programs that don’t require advanced degrees to figure out, and they’ll probably learn some new skills in the process. This isn’t, after all, a graded school project. It’s going to be the main feature for a “home movie” night with popcorn and pizza.

 

Pair up!

Got two readers who’d rather not? Here’s a way they can get two books read for the mental price of one. Sort of. Start with two books of similar length (especially chapter length), and have each child (or parent and child) choose one and read the first chapter. Then they come back together and report on what happened in the story, hopefully with some details and enthusiasm so that the other kid wants to know more. Now they swap books and read the next chapter (or designated time length) and repeat the process.  This can be fun for a few reasons: (1) one chapter isn’t soooo daunting; (2) they feel like they’re leapfrogging through the book faster, and thus feel more accomplished; (3) summarizing the story for someone else helps it stick in their own minds more, thus boosting their memories of the events and making them feel more real; and (4) they don’t have to read for long–maybe only 15 minutes a day–to get through more books, which also boosts confidence.  This is a good activity for social kids because that positive feedback loop will cement that “reading is fun” idea into their subconscious.

 

Summer can be the opportunity to kindle (or rekindle) a child’s love of reading because it isn’t school-related. Since reading is a life skill that helps with countless others, it’s one of the best things you can do to ensure their success when school starts back up in the fall.

 

Now where’s that library card?

 


A shot B&WAncientsLia London

Recent release for young readers: Ancients of Drandsil and the Circle of Law (new edition of formerly called The Circle of Law).

New Release: A Snarky Princess Story Collection

I’ve talked before about humor and tweens, and I’ve discovered that spoofing well-know stories is a big hit for many. To that end, I have just compiled a 4-in-1 volume of short fairy tale spin-offs designed to tickle the funny bone that is no longer clad in Disney Princess jammies.

Snarky Princess CollectionThe four stories are as follows:

Princess Pennilopintha and the Magic Mouse-Made Momphibrak

This one isn’t a direct parody of a known fairy tale, but it has all the exaggerated elements. It pokes fun at the genre by giving us a princess in a tower who really hopes she doesn’t have to get married to a valiant warrior-knight. She lucks out when her prince turns out to be a pastry chef.

Saccharine White and the 7 Dwarfs of SAGA

Obviously this is making fun of Snow White. Unlike the original, Saccharine is only artificially sweet–mostly because she’s tired of dealing with the paparazzi group, SAGA (Slander And Gossip Association). Fortunately, what she lacks in sugary demeanor, she makes up for with a quick mind (and quick feet).

 

The Quest for a Wide-Awake Princess

This one features two famous sleepy maidens–Sleeping Beauty and the Princess and the Pea. It follows Prince Jack on a quest for a princess who can stay awake long enough for that first kiss. When true love strikes, though, it’s full of comic energy.

 

Stormy Jane and the Damsel in Distress

Ever notice how the princes and knights always have to rescue a damsel in distress? Well, what if the rescuing is done by a fair maiden? And what if the “damsel in distress” is a 90-foot monster?

 

Slathered in snarky silliness, they’re sure to get tween eyes rolling (in a good way).  Available individually or in an omnibus collection on Amazon.


A shot B&WLia London has been on a writing frenzy this year, releasing seven new titles in 2015 alone. Much of that his humor or fantasy geared to tweens and teens. Stop by her website for more information.

Writing with an Accent

“…leastways, so dey’s ‘spec. De fambly foun’ it out, ’bout half an hour ago–maybe a little mo’–en’ I tell you dey warn’t no time los’. Sich another hurryin’ up guns en hosses you never see!”

photo credit: sheknows.com
photo credit: sheknows.com

Say what?!

 

That’s a little citation from page 127 of my fancy hardbound edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, but this passage illustrates one of the reasons I had a hard time teaching the book to my high school freshmen: Mark Twain spelled out the dialect/accent very specifically. So specifically that some of the kids might as well have been reading Greek.

The problem with writing with an accent is that it becomes another language, and the reader is forced to spend mental energy deciphering the phonemes instead of figuring out the story.

We can’t do this to our readers! Especially our tweens!

It slows down the whole process, and it doesn’t really help in the characterization or give the story that much more of an ethnic flair. The tradeoff isn’t worth it in lost readership of people who just give up and grab an easier book.

But my character is Scottish/German/French!

Yeah, I get it. We don’t have to spell it out. Literally.

Now, I am not pretending to improve upon Mark Twain, but let’s use that citation above as an example. We already know the character is a slave from the deep South. That alone tells us there’s an accent, and the reader can use imagination to fill in many of the details. What if, instead of spelling everything out, we made it a little easier…

“…leastways, so they ‘spect. The family found it out, ’bout half an hour ago, maybe a little more–an’ I tell you, there weren’t no time lost! Such another hurryin’ up guns an’ horses you never see!”

It still has a flavor of accent, but it’s easy enough to interpret that the average tween reader won’t stumble. It allows a blurry feeling in the diction without making the reader cross-eyed.

Another common culprit for over-spelling accents and dialects is the realm of the Celtic. Anything Irish or Scottish becomes completely unintelligible when spelled out. It’s bad enough to hear it spoken live!
Instead of…

photo credit: alternatehistory.com
photo credit: alternatehistory.com

“Men are bu’ bairns a’ th’ best, an’ need close watchin’ e’er.
Andra’s nae be’er than th’ res’, as of’n I discuvver.”

…just keep it simple.

“Men are but bairns at the best, and need close watchin’ ever.
Andra’s nae better than the rest, as often I discover.”

We love to listen to accents. We love to have characters from interesting places. We love to see a character’s personality through his dialog. But we need to remember that our younger readers will never get that far if they are tripping over apostrophes and bizarre spellings. Have mercy. If someone can’t read it aloud cold without squinting, it’s too much. Take it down a notch and let the comprehension in. If we drop enough clues early on as to what overall accent we’re using, the reader will be able to adapt the pronunciation instinctively without turning it into a linguistic notation nightmare. Then our young readers can dive into the world we’ve created on the pages and live there like a native.

What’s the craziest spelled-out accent you’ve ever seen? How long did it take you to figure out what the author was saying?

The Teachable Moment

First I was a reader, then an English major, then a high school teacher, then a writer and home schooling mother. As I plot out the curriculum for my kids (aged 12 and 14), I ponder all the stuff I read and taught. I know I should expose them to Great Literature so that they can learn from the inspiring themes of the past poets, playwrights and storytellers.

But then I think, “I’m pretty sure they’d enjoy that indie book by Michelle Isenhoff or Alan Tucker more…”  I’m torn. Do I stick with the famous, or go with what I’m sure will ignite their imagination?

This two-fold message is for the teachers out there—whether you’re in a brick-and-mortar school or sitting around the kitchen table.

#1 ~ Seize the Teachable  Moment

I team-taught an integrated Language Arts/Social Studies class for freshman a million years ago (according to my kids). Because I was the anchor personnel for language arts, I got to work with a few different social studies teachers. One in particular taught me as much as she did the kids. Her name was Casey. She was very tall, totally no-nonsense, and had a voice that could peel paint off the walls. And she was a genius at grabbing the teachable moments. It didn’t matter what had just happened in the news nationally, or in popular media, or school activities; Casey could tie it into the lesson and use it as an analogy to understand the dry world geography lessons we’d otherwise have to present. I never knew which angle she’d take as she presented her portion of the lesson each day because she always grabbed it right out of what was happening now. But I awaited her lessons eagerly. So did the kids. She was just cool that way.

#2 ~ Integrate Subjects

Casey taught me the importance of using a variety of sources and subjects to drive home an idea, and there’s no reason tween literature can’t be one of those. To illustrate, let me grab just a few titles from our own Emblazoners catalog

Cassidy Jones and the Secret FormulaElise Stokes’ books starring Cassidy Jones may seem, on the surface, to be just a fun superhero action series. However, there are healthy doses of science in each (some real, some speculative) that could spark an interest in students to do some further research into the possibilities and probabilities of certain inventions. Students could learn about everything from phlebotomy to animal behavior, and all kinds of things in between.

 

PrincessKandakeFINAL.jpg webStephany Jefferson’s books about Princess Kandake could enhance a unit on Africa’s ancient tribal customs or the wildlife there. Additionally, they provide the opportunity to discuss the changing roles of women in leadership over the centuries. This could even be a way to analyze why different cultures develop based on where they live on the planet.

 

 

ARROWoftheMIST (3)Christina Mercer’s series includes a great deal of information about plants and their various medicinal properties. Though some of the plants are fictional, a unit on how plants are used today in the health industry would be significant for both biology and chemistry students. They could learn the history of how different medicines were discovered and developed, or compare homeopathic/naturalistic remedies to their synthetically produced  counterparts.

 

AMOD_ME1_JF2grn2_200x300Alan Tucker’s fantasy series of Mother Earth provides a great springboard into discussions about the environmental impact made by everything from agriculture to industrial pollution. Students could learn about how one link in the food chain affects the rest of the ecosystem, and how a balance in nature can be restored and/or preserved.

 

 

TheCandleStar_cover_600x900Any of Michelle Isenhoff’s historical novels for tweens will prove extremely engaging and educational. The books immerse the reader in the period by including cultural tidbits from daily life as well as overarching socio-political issues of the time. All of them are sure to stir an interest in a time before video games and speeding cars. Units on either the Revolutionary War or the Civil War in particular would take on new meaning if they included reading her books.

 

Faery SwapSusan Kaye Quinn’s Faery Swap makes it clear that mathematics and physics are magic. Doubt it? Look at all the inventions we have today that would have seemed like magic 100 years ago. They all required a knowledge of numbers and how things move in space and time. The story even addresses the rapid advances made in the last century, and how math and science played a role in creating the “magic” we enjoy today.

 

magian highI’d like to think my own Magian High could be used in a unit about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and what the whole process of desegregation might have been like—even though the story is set in modern times and deals with a different kind of separation altogether. Tweens are full of ideals, but sometimes the logistics of overcoming obstacles to reach those ideals are elusive. This story shows both the good and the bad of dramatic social change and what it takes to make things right.

 

 

Of course, these books do not take the place of science or social studies lessons, but they can certainly enrich them. The stories bring the concepts to life and spark interest in young readers to know more about what inspired the themes in the books. Having taught a variety of subjects in an integrated way, I know that it really works with youth. It ties all the courses of study together in a relevant way and helps them see how all knowledge connects.  That big stumbling block–“What does this have to do with anything? I’m never going to use this!”–goes away.

Stories show knowledge in action, and that makes learning exciting.