Monday, July 6, 2020

Using Middle Grade Books to Teach Creative Writing Concepts and Close Reading

As a librarian, I feel my approach to teaching creative writing serves a double-purpose of also being an opportunity to engage kids in the books in our collection. I read them passages from good books and get the kids excited about reading them. And now, when our doors are closed to the public, I find it even more important than ever to use every possible tool in my toolchest to keep kids reading and give them something to get inspired by.

So my most recent writing class was kind of an interactive book talk in which we delved into each book and uncovered writing lessons from it, using each book as a mentor text. I had a list to work from using the books that we are giving kids as prizes for summer reading. In the past, kids could go through a smorgasbord of books for their summer reading prize. Now they have to select one book from a list and get it via curbside pickup. In light of this I wanted to do some kind of virtual program that would book talk their choices. Creative writing did just the trick!


To learn about writing a first page that will "hook" the reader, we read the first page of The Last Kids on Earth and the Cosmic Beyond written by Max Brallier and illustrated by Douglas Holgate. Jack, the narrator, tells the reader that he and his friends are about to be "astro-blasted. Catapulted and launched." We discussed why that beginning is exciting and then tried to write new first-sentences for fairytales, replacing "Once upon a time" with something scary or exciting that's just about to happen.

Character and Motif

We learned about writing quirky characters and running themes or motifs with an excerpt from Gabby Garcia's Ultimate Playbook by Iva-Marie Palmer and illustrated by Marta Kissi. We discussed how sports references are a major motif in the book and wrote our own characters who have hobbies or obsessions and how that could be used as a motif.

Tone and Perspective

We learned about tone by comparing two different passages from Front Desk by Kelly Yang. One passage presented the main character Mia's poverty in an upbeat way, focusing on how she and her immigrant parents try to make the best of it by enjoying things like "free air conditioning" whenever they can. The other passage presented a more painful view of the way poverty and hard work are wearing Mia down. One had a happy tone, the other was deeply sad. Then we tried to write about things that might be seen as either happy or sad depending on the person's perspective.

Humor and Fantasy

We got a funny perspective on fantasy and mythology in an excerpt from the book The Serpent's Secret by Sayantani DasGupta and illustrated by Vivienne To. In the excerpt, the main character Kiranmala informs us that riding a winged horse isn't all its cracked up to be. We played with some other ideas of cool experiences one could have, like riding a dragon, or growing your own wings, and tried to show a funny downside to them. This was probably my favorite activity of the class, judging from how well the kids did with it. They came up with great reasons why each cool thing would be a curse in disguise!

Mystery and Suspense

We learned about one of the key ways that the reader is kept in constant suspense in the mystery novel Finding Mighty by Sheela Chari. You never know whom to trust in this book, since almost everyone you meet is introduced as someone you shouldn't trust. The mystery of the brother's disappearance and the puzzling artifacts he left behind keep you guessing and turning pages! We did an activity working with story starters that could be the first sentence of a mystery story, and added sentences 2 and 3.




Friday, March 6, 2020

Writing Rhyming Riddles like Guess Again!

Today I had a class visit from a T/K class from McKinley Elementary School. I knew it would have to be a very quick visit, because it would just be a part of their city center field trip. Fortunately, I had one of my favorite picture books on hand, Guess Again! by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Adam Rex.

Each spread of the book shows a picture that appears to be an animal, and despite a lot of hints in the rhyming riddle, it turns out to be a person--usually in a very odd and funny-looking position! I love Mac Barnett's writing style. Combined with Adam Rex's masterful illustrations, the book engages kids in thinking about rhymes and piecing clues together to solve a riddle.

The kids were great about guessing each animal that they were being led to guess, following the picture cues and the rhyme cues. (I'm thinking they would do a great job with the Listener Limerick Challenge on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!) And by the end, just when the kids are starting to get wise to the joke, the joke is once again turned around on them! To be honest, this might be a book you share with a kid who is particularly patient. There's something almost snarky about the way this book NEVER rewards you for guessing the obvious! 

After reading the book, I pulled out my big writing pad, on which I had a few prompts and blank lines written out.

I asked the kids to name an animal. The first child I called on said "Elephant" -- unfortunately, I don't know any good rhymes with "elephant" (though if you can think of any, please leave some in the comments!!!). So I had to call on someone else, and she said "Giraffe."  "Okay!" I said. "I can work with that one!"

We wrote out a few words that rhyme with giraffe (at least, the last syllable). Then we decided it would be a boy, and I asked the kids to start telling me what they know about giraffes. The first kid I called on for this section gave me a sentence about laughing, so I decided to make "Laugh" our special rhyming word. I put the word "laugh" in the box, and then wrote a draft sentence with the word "laugh" at the end.

Once we had a few other sentences about giraffes, we were ready to fill out our riddle. We decided that the end of the riddle would of course not be "Giraffe" -- like in Guess Again, we ended with a different person. Kids wanted a monkey, so we landed on Mr. Monkey, a favorite children's book character of mine.

Then I decided to cut a few extraneous words--editing is part of writing!

If you'd like to try out this activity, and use easy-to-print handouts to lead a group of kids to create a whole book full of these silly riddles, check out my book, 36 Workshops to Get Kids Writing. And if you haven't already got Guess Again! by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex, buy it! It's a great one to have on hand for storytimes with kindergartners and up. 

Friday, February 21, 2020

Cool Books with African American Protagonists

A while back, I was helping a dad looking for books with African American main characters. My first impulse was to hand him something by Christopher Paul Curtis--I think I had just finished reading The Madman of Piney Woods and loved it--but he stopped me. He said he was tired of finding African American characters only in books about history. His kids weren't into historical fiction. They didn't want to read about the traumas of slavery, racism and Jim Crow. They wanted to be entertained. They were into sports, fantasy, adventure. The dad just wanted his kids to read fun books and see characters that looked more like them. I ended up giving him The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, and he was happy with its themes about sports, teenage romance, sibling rivalry and father-son relationships.

In recent years, with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices movements, there's been an explosion of good, exciting and entertaining books that feature people of color. So this month, Black History Month, in addition to our usual displays featuring biographies of important African American figures in history, I decided to celebrate blackness in contemporary books by putting up a display of general fiction books featuring black kids. 

It's got graphic novels like New Kid by Jerry Craft, Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams, and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur by Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare. 

There are fantasy books like Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott and Arcade and the Triple T Token by Rashad Jennings. 

There are page-turning capers like The Great Greene Heist and mysteries like The Parker Inheritance, both by Varian Johnson. 

There are slice-of-life realistic novels like Tight by Torrey Maldonado and the Track Series by Jason Reynolds. And there are books that defy realism like My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi.

There are early chapter books like the Dyamonde Daniel series by Nikki Grimes, the Sugar Plum Ballerinas series by Whoopi Goldberg, and the Ada Twist, Scientist books by Andrea Beaty.

There are picture books like Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper, I Used to be Famous by Tara Luebbe, Becky Cattie and Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Hair Love by Matthew Cherry and Vashti Harrison--and that's just a start! 

So. Many. Great. Picture. Books. If I wasn't so short on time, I'd compile a longer list.

It's so nice to see lots of books nowadays featuring characters of color. There's always room for improvement, but I hope African American families like that dad and his kids found something fun and self-affirming in my book display this month!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Announcing the Winner of the November 36 Workshops giveaway!

Congratulations to Frances Price, a school librarian in Wendell, North Carolina! She won the Rafflecopter giveaway and will be receiving one copy of 36 Workshops to Get Kids Writing, one copy of Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri, and one copy of Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees!

I appreciate everyone who entered to win, and I'd like to share a discount code with you to make it a little easier to get 36 Workshops for the teacher or librarian in your life this holiday season!

Here it is:

Exp. 12/31/20
$5 off
36 Workshops to Get Kids Writing

Thank you again to all who entered. And congrats to Frances!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

There Was an Old Lady...

Every year, I teach this song to my Infant Storytime patrons. Sometimes, I feel a little bit self-conscious because of the lyrics. It's not ha-ha funny to speak of someone dying, certainly. But regardless, I come back to it again and again.

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - I think she'll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a bird;
How absurd to swallow a bird!

She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - I think she'll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a cat;
Imagine that! She swallowed a cat!

She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - I think she'll die!
There was an old lady that swallowed a dog;
What a hog, to swallow a dog!

She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - I think she'll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a goat;
She just opened her throat and swallowed a goat!

She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - I think she'll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a cow;
I don't know how she swallowed a cow!

She swallowed the cow to catch the goat,
She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - I think she'll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a horse;

...She died, of course!

I always worry that someone will complain that this nonsense song is too scary or too dark for children, or that they won't like all the talk of dying. There was a grandmother in my Toddler Storytime many years ago, who said she thought the idea of a person swallowing a dog gave her granddaughter nightmares. I felt so horrible about that, I didn't do the song for a while. But I've started to do it again in my Infant Storytimes, in hopes that the kids in those storytimes probably aren't going to think very hard about the words, but get the benefit of the language. I'm writing this blog post in an effort to justify that choice.

The song is a treasure trove of literacy building exercises. It's got plenty of rhymes (some very witty ones, too!), repetition, and it is what we in the library/education world call a "cumulative song," meaning that each verse adds a line to what we already have. Each verse thus gets longer. It's also got something babies love: tickles! I always do tickles at the spider part. I always teach parents to build up anticipation for the tickles too, by showing their children the wriggly, jiggly spider with their wiggling fingers, waiting for just the right moment to tickle them. Anticipation is an amazing memory building activity for children. First they see the "spider" and remember that tickles are coming--then eventually they hear "She swallowed the bird to catch the spider" and they get excited knowing that the spider is coming next. For all of these reasons, I think it's a valuable brain-building tool for babies and I continue to use it in storytime.

But if I'm being honest, there's also a more personal, sentimental reason this song means a lot to me. And it all comes back to an old lady.

Her name was Anna Skiendzielewska. She was born in Popowa, Poland in 1892. She was my grandmother's mother. She and her husband both immigrated to the United States, though I haven't yet found her immigration records. Her husband died, leaving Anna to raise four children on her own while struggling to learn English and assimilate to a new culture. And just to make her life even more fun, the Great Depression hit! Anna suffered a mental collapse of some kind, and her oldest daughter, my grandmother Mary, had to raise her three younger siblings.

Anna recovered from her mental illness and eventually she must have learned some English, because my father remembers her singing a song to him when he was small: "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly..." This may have been after Pete Seeger recorded the song in an album Birds, Beasts, Bugs and Little Fishes (1955), or even earlier when Burl Ives released it in 1953 on Folk Songs, Dramatic and Humorous. Anna probably owned one of those albums. Listening to it may have even helped her with her English.

Anna did eventually die, of course, on December 6, 1966, at the age of 74. She'd had a hard life, left behind an impoverished country for a cold, alien one, only to be hit with all kinds of new struggles. But she lived a long time anyway, enough to leave her grandson, my father, with good memories.

When I was little my dad sang that song to me, and when I had my first child in 2010, I sang it to her. The song always used to cheer my daughter up any time she was upset or crying. I'd always ham it up. I remember one incident, on a trip in San Francisco in summer 2010, when she was tired from a long day of roaming the gardens at Golden Gate Park. She started crying, her little face scowling, and I just started singing: "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly..."

The change in her features was magical: her scrunched-up, frustrated little baby face suddenly transformed into a toothless smile. She was anticipating the sound of the words, the surprise and excitement of the tickles.

If you don't believe me, I still have the footage of that very moment!

And, although Anna Skiendzielewska had been dead for forty-four years, I like to think of her smiling at that moment, to see how easily the old nonsense song shifted her great-great-granddaughter's mood.

That's why I still sing the song. For me, it represents the power of folk songs to bridge cultures and generations, teach language, and build brains! And, though some of the lyrics might be a bit difficult to "swallow" (ahem), I think their power for literacy is something to smile about.

My daughter trying--and failing--to swallow a butterfly

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Announcing another giveaway! Enter to win!

Last year, I gave one school librarian and one elementary school teacher a free copy of my book, and some picture books they could use with the workshops in it. I figured it's time for another worthy teacher, librarian or parent to have the opportunity to try these writing workshops absolutely free!

Starting tomorrow, October 25th, until November 30th, I will be hosting a new giveaway for a free copy of my book 36 Workshops to Get Kids Writing: From Aliens to Zebras, full of a school year's worth of weekly lesson plans for engaging primary-grade students with great picture books, using writing exercises and activities to spark their own creativity. I will also include two copies of some of the picture books that the activities are based on!

The book is $49 in the ALA Store and was "highly recommended" by School Library Journal:

As libraries strive to create lifelong readers, they may be overlooking a valuable element. Hurtado urges them to pair reading with writing, asserting that “creative writing is a child-driven activity that motivates [students] to learn how to write and makes them better readers.” To simplify the process, the author presents 36 “writing parties” revolving around picture books. She includes Common Core State Standards, a “PR Blurb” that discusses each lesson’s goals and summarizes the book being used, and all handouts needed. The lessons are blocked into segments ranging from five to 30 minutes, for a total of 60 to 90 minutes. The featured titles are grouped thematically into sections such as “Fractured Fairy Tales,” “Animal Muses,” and “The Plot Thickens.” Making a convincing case for including writing in children’s programing, this well-organized work covers all the necessary components to implement these lessons. A chapter on “Books To Feed the Young Author’s Spirit” and two appendixes—one explaining how to make blank books and one with story elements organizers—round out the volume. VERDICT Highly recommended for public and school librarians, who will confidently be able to infuse writing into children’s programs.–Laura Fields Eason, Parker Bennett Curry Elementary School, Bowling Green, KY

Despite the plethora of writing workshops aimed at young teens and tweens, research has shown that children can write much sooner than that, and that kids as young as kindergarten feel the desire to tell stories or make up characters on paper. Kids learn to read and write by doing it, and by being exposed to it and surrounded by it from a very early age. So when I am working with kids between the ages of 5 and 8 years old, I start with a good book and use that to inspire kids to think further than the book--"What happens now?" or "How could you write a story like this?" Kids start with a concrete example or mentor text and then create their own. They start out listening to a story, and end as storytellers.

So if you are a teacher, librarian, parent or educator and you'd like to try some new ways to excite your students or patrons about reading and writing, enter my rafflecopter giveaway below or visit 36 Workshops to Get Kids Writing for more information and a free sample of the book!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Making LEGO Movies

Since this year my library used the iREAD theme of "It's Showtime at Your Library!" for our Summer Reading Challenge, I had several film creation programs at the library. One which was very successful was the Make a LEGO Movie programs which were presented first with tweens and then on another day with younger kids between 5 and 8 years old.

I like to start out by teaching the kids something about filmmaking, and stop motion animation in particular. I made a presentation for them which incorporated some things I learned from the book Brick Flicks by Sarah Herman.


I found some LEGO shorts online that I showed the kids:

1) Creepers Part 1 (creator used clear LEGO bricks to make it look like the animals are bobbing up and down when they walk)
2) LEGO Hulk Shopping Fail (creator moves Hulk's head up and down to show laughter)
3) Ship in a Bottle (shows anticipation and anti-gravity techniques)
4) The Magic Portal (a film from 1989 which used a very wide variety of different camera angles and shots)
5) The Escape (made here at Pasadena Library in a teen program--the creator used a few different cool methods to show someone jumping high or swimming, which we talked about)

I also made a few stop-motion movies of my own to get a feel for doing this with the app that we have on our library iPads, Stop Motion Studio and Stop Motion Studio Pro:

    Rude -- Made this short at home using Stop Motion Studio

    Game Over, Hulk -- Made this short at home using Stop Motion Studio Pro. Other than sound effects, there are no voices or sound recordings in this video. I did that on purpose so that I could show everyone how to record their voice during class.

I created a Storyboard sheet:

And this slideshow presentation:

On Program Day

I had a book display of LEGO books, and set out our LEGOs, which the library had purchased with a grant. I had the room set up with tables and chairs. I brought over a lot of book stands, the kinds we use for displaying books, because they're perfect for holding an iPad steady!

Since some kids arrived early, they got to watch ten minutes of The Magic Portal by Lindsay Fleay. They sat in front of the TV screens first. Then they got to line up by the LEGOs and select just two minifigures, and go to the tables to work on their storyboards. This gave everyone a chance to get a superhero minifigure they liked without any one kid hogging all the superheroes, for example. But with the younger group, choosing minifigures took a little too long. I think next time I need to wrap two lines around the table, like at a salad bar, to keep things moving.

The kids did very good storyboards, and I think the act of writing down some ideas and drawing stick-men pictures helped them to get their creative juices flowing. Some were very short, others had a lot of dialogue or notes in their storyboards.

Lights, Camera, Action!

After about 15 minutes working on storyboards, kids were allowed to start filming. Note: It's important to have not only lots of minifigures, but also lots of flat LEGO platforms! I simply can't overstate how quickly these platforms go! If you're going to do a LEGO program of some kind, make sure you have a ton of them.

Their finished LEGO Movies

We showed each child's LEGO movie to applause from parents and kids! It took a while to download the videos from each iPad and upload them to YouTube. I've now uploaded all the videos from the iPads to YouTube. You can watch them on the Pasadena Public Library YouTube channel:, and on our blog at:, and

For some videos, I slowed the speed a little bit so that the viewer can see what's going on or read the words a bit easier, though I was hesitant to make any big changes to anyone's film.

I was so proud of what these kids did! Many made an effort to incorporate the ideas I shared in the Powerpoint. They got really creative with the whole project. Some of them also created little speech bubbles with paper, or recorded their voices. Some of them used audio sound effects from the app to great effect. A lot of kids and parents got creative with letting us view the LEGOs at different angles. And their storytelling was so cool! I was glad to see that they grasped what you can and can't do in a ten-second short, and most of them were able to present a short story with basically a beginning, middle and end.

I got a few videos sent to me by parents after their child had a chance to work on it some more, and some children went home and created all new videos! It's always nice to see that they not only enjoyed themselves while they were at the library, but they also brought that skill home and applied it again to have fun learning and creating!

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Easy Peasy Comic Strip Activity!

The other night I went to an elementary school to do an outreach for their annual Dr. Seuss Pajama Night, and every year I try to give the kids something a little different, and appealing to all age levels. This year I used the handouts from my book, the lesson on the book The Pigeon Needs a Bath by Mo Willems.

I brought this book and other Pigeon books along for parents and kids to read:

The nature of this particular outreach is that I'm set up in a classroom and families are coming in and out all night. So it's not really possible to do a storytime--people would only catch parts of it as they're supposed to hit all the classrooms before the event closes. They usually spend only fifteen minutes with me, so I brought an activity that required very little instruction.

I started out by handing each kid that comes in a copy of my handouts and prompting them with the question: "Do you like comic strips? We're making our own comic strips tonight!"

I also showed them the sample I made (feel free to steal this dialogue and use it if you like it):

The kids loved the cute little aliens and all the varied and dramatic expressions he/she/it makes! They got right to work cutting out the aliens and gluing them to the comic strip layout. Then they got creative with giving their aliens words:

Here are some of their finished comic strips!

It turned out to be the perfect activity for the wide range of skill levels and ages that all these children had. Everybody got something out of it and made something they liked. Everybody loves comic strips!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Kids Can Make Board Books--Here's How!

Last month, we had a Writing Party for kids 5-8 years old about making a board book for a baby relative or friend. Turnout was huge! It was one of the most exciting writing programs I've ever done at the library. Kids and their families came and had a blast putting together books with flaps that lift and textures for a baby to touch.

In developing this program I had to first create a sample. The theme or premise of my board book (which I later gave to my baby nephew) was looking for a bunny and lifting flaps throughout, to find other animals there, then finding Bunny at the very end. Looking for something is a common premise in lift-the-flap books, and it introduces elements of surprise, as well as different vocabulary words, and builds up just enough suspense for an infant to take an interest in what's going on.

I showed the kids my finished, colored board book and then gave them some other examples of board books from our library's collection to help them get ideas for their own books.


  • Blank board books
  • Cardstock of different colors and heavy thickness
  • Lots of sharpies of different colors! Regular markers will smear on these board books.
  • Full-sheet labels (for printing out animal stickers, useful if kids want an illustration aid)
  • Scissors
  • Liquid glue bottles
  • Lots of different fabrics: fleece, felt, wool, fur, faux leather, suede (I pre-cut the fabrics into squares about the right size, so that kids could just come to the table and grab them and trim them to the desired shape)
  • Feathers

I printed color "flaps" on white cardstock and animal images on full sheet sticker labels, and put the sheets out for kids to take and cut out. You can download everything here:

Flaps to cut out


Stickers 2

Kids had a lot of fun crafting their books, and parents were wonderfully helpful and engaged!

And then comes my favorite part... When the kids show off their books and read me what they wrote or tell me what they planned to write! Check out these budding authors. Those baby recipients are super lucky to be getting these books for Christmas!

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I hope these videos and pictures demonstrate that writing workshops CAN indeed be fun for kindergartners, first and second graders, and they can draw big crowds and encourage developing literacy skills, especially when there is a craft or artistic element to the workshop! Can't wait to do another writing party, perhaps in the spring!