Writing With First Graders: Setting

The experience with writing with first graders can be both fun and frustrating. This experience is not unlike working with adults as well. It can be difficult to get the brain to unlock and put down the necessary information. We have so much crammed in our skull when we tell a story, but we try to go from A-Z but skip every other letter. Or the opposite happens, we go from A-Z, but we start adding symbols and numbers because we have more than what we need.

Most first graders are the skipping letters kind when writing. Character was. Character did. The end. But when they tell you the story, it is; Character was. Character did. And did. And then. And then. And then. And then. And then. The end.

So where is the happy medium? How do you not stifle their creativity?

(You were probably expecting a story on setting, but I am getting there. I am an A-Z with symbols kind of writer.)

The answer is, you ask questions. Let them frame their story (you can do the same). Then read “The Character was” and ask why. Why is your character this way. We are establishing the problem and understanding it.

Then read “The Character did” and ask how. Your character was this way, they did this. How did your character do this? What were the steps? Was it easy? Why did they do it?

That leads you to the end. Your story is done. Did your character solve the problem? How does the reader know?

So now you have built a basic story. Write it down and have someone else read it out loud to you. You have all this information in your head, so when you read, you draw on it. When you switch and listen to someone else read, you hear gaps.

Once my students have that cleaned up, I encourage them to find a way to make the story better. Often, they will tell their story out loud to a group while someone tracks their story. Then they read aloud their story and the other kids take note of differences. Why were their differences? Did it help the story?

It is not until all these revisions are done, that we tackle elements of the story like setting.

Setting in a story is not simply where and when a story takes place, but can be a character in itself. It can help with the problem or even be the problem itself. It can help the reader connect with information that may be foreign to them or propel them into a place that they never could have imagined.

You associate certain things with a certain setting. For example, samurai are associated with feudal Japan, but what if you made the story take place on the moon? You associate penguins with Antarctica, but what if you made them thriving in the middle of the Sahara? What would happen if you dropped a kid onto an island of monstrous beasts who make him their king? Imagine Genghis Khan having a tea party with his daughter.

Setting can alter your story. Setting makes your story come more alive.

For this weeks mentor study, we read the story, Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein.  A fun story in which a chick is getting ready for bed and wants dad to read to her.

So what is the setting? Even if you have never read the story, you can probably deduce where the story takes place. It is centered around the bed, which is likely in a bedroom, which means they are likely at home.

The reason I like to use this story as a mentor text, is that I can then switch the setting and see if the story would be the same. For example: What if this was done on an airplane during a really long flight? Who else would be involved? Would you have the same outcome?

Or how about if this story took place at school? Would the characters be the same? What kinds of things would the chicken be interrupting?

I have story dice in my classroom. These are dice with pictures on them that can create ideas for setting and characters or even plot. I pull out the setting dice and we roll one to get a setting and the kids discuss how the story would be different in each setting.

This can be a fun and creative way to make you view your story differently, it could also inspire you to take your story to new levels. You don’t need story dice to do this, simply drop your character in a new setting and see what happens.

My students had fun with this. Their favorite was hunting for treasure and making a parrot (instead of chicken) interrupt a pirate looking for treasure and getting him lost.

Next week, we are taking time off from writing to focus on other things in class. I will be discussing voice(s) and how we achieve them.

Empty Valentine

Here is an entry for Susanna Leonard Hills annual Valentiny contest. Our goal, write a story that is 214 words or less. The theme of the story is something guilty.

Empty Valentine

            I ran into class and snatched my paper mailbox off of my desk. I had spent all morning decorating it with pink and red hearts in anticipation of the class party.


Not one Valentine.

I slumped into my seat and put my head down to hide the disappointment.

It is tough being the new kid. I had only started yesterday and the class list had already gone home and I had not been on it. Mom warned me this could happen, but it still hurt.

Not even one?

Plunk. My mailbox rattled.

My classmates had all stopped and stared as Jessica, the smallest kid in the class, reached up on her tippy-toes to place a Valentine in my box.

Each child looked at their pile as Jessica walked back to her desk with a smile on her face.

I pulled out the card. “You’re Awesome!” said the dancing heart picture on the front. On the back, I could see the erased name of Jessica replaced with mine.

One after another, my classmates hurriedly scribbled my name on a card or two and dropped them in my box until it was bursting at the seams.

It is tough being the new kid, but with friends like these, it can be a bit easier.

Writing With First Graders: Plot

Kids identify plot as the problem. Plot is the journey the character takes to solve the problem.

After studying character arc last week, we jumped into plot. For the kids, the plot is simply the problem the character faces.

While in its simplest form, this is true, it is also more complex than that. Plot, like the character can come in many shapes and forms and adapt as the story moves along. It can be an inside or outside force on your character. Your character can cause the problem or simply be affected by it in an uncontrolled way.

For out mentor text this week, we used Tammi Sauer’s Your Alien. This story provides an interesting perspective as it is told in second person which is done very rarely, and even more rarely, done well.

With most picture books, the plot (problem) is often revealed on the first page. In this story, the problem is that a little boy feels lonely. An alien crashes and the little boy “wants” to keep him.

So a) the little boy is lonely and b) he wants to keep the alien, which hints that he will not.

As the character develops, you see that his parents are too busy to pay attention to him. He takes his alien with him to school where his friends think it is cool, but after school, only the alien and little boy go on an adventure; none of his school friends join him, revealing he is lonely at school too. His friends are not truly friends.

The alien misses its family, so the little boy, who understands, does what he can to help his alien friend find his family. And the little alien leaves and our character is back to where he started, looking out his window feeling lonely.

But this time, his family is there to give him a hug.

Beautifully, Tammi Sauer takes us on a journey of empathy. We understand the boy is lonely and it makes us sad. The boy finds happiness and becomes empathetic himself. This makes you feel even more for him and even more happy his family is there for him, and validates Ms. Sauer’s word choice (I am not giving it all away, you have to read it for yourself!).

I like to go back and reread the first page of the story and then the last page of the story. It essentially reads like this (paraphrasing), One night you will be looking out the window and your family will give you a hug.

Same plot, different story. The little boy faces the same problem and gets the same result, but you have not grown with the character. The plot (and character) are weak.

When dealing with plot, I tell my class to think about why. Why is this a problem? Why should you care? Why does the character care?

Then ask yourself how questions. How will the character solve the problem? How long will it take? How many times will they fail? How will the reader know it is a problem? How will they know how the character feels about the problem? How will the reader feel when they hear the solution?

I want them to think about the journey. The journey does not need to be long or arduous, but it does need to be satisfying. I tell the class to think of it as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There is a promise there; bread, peanut butter and jelly. If any of it is missing, you are not satisfied. If any of the ingredients are changed, you may be surprised, but not satisfied.

For example: a peanut butter and honey sandwich might be good to some people, but few (if any) want a peanut butter with tuna fish sandwich. You choice of peanut butter or jelly also makes a difference. The amount you use of each ingredient. The kind of bread. Each ingredient plays into the story.

Also, the placement. If you put the peanut butter on the outside of the sandwich, it is less appealing and many would argue that it tastes differently though the ingredients are the same.

Understanding how the plot and the character interact and grow together, you get a more satisfying outcome. A lonely kid wanting and getting a hug is a pretty unsatisfying story.

What I hope the class takes from this story is that plot can be (and should be) the way you show your character growing allowing you to like them more. Do not feel the need to rush and solve your character’s problem(s), but let them struggle a bit, let the problem change with them. In the end, when your character solves the problem, you and the reader will be happier.

Next week we will talk about setting. We will be looking to how important it is to both character and plot development in some cases.

Writing With First Graders: Character Development

As my class looked at creating their own stories, we discussed characters. As our mentor text, we used Ryan T. Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates because it shows a clear character arc.

A good character needs to be relatable in some way. They need to have a problem to solve, struggle and fail to do so, then achieve their goal.

Penelope Rex is a young dinosaur who is worried about her first day of school. She is described as “nervous” and the kids can empathize with that. This sets a good foundation for building the character arc because our character is relatable and has a problem.

Her problem is elevated when she finds out her classmates are children, and children are delicious….and she eats them. Her original problem has now grown more complex. She is a hungry little dinosaur surrounded by delicious children.

After spitting out the children, she notices that none of them really like her. So she tries harder to be their friend.

I like to read the next section without showing the class the pictures. In it, Penelope tries to play with the other kids at recess, does her best finger painting, and saves a seat for a classmate at lunch. These are all great and wonderful things. She is trying to make friends.

Another step in building our character. The reader is even more empathetic to Penelope.

Then I show them the pictures of all the things she is doing to make friends because she is actually trying to eat them.

Our character is doing what our character does. To her, eating children is natural. To the children (and the class), this is wrong. You want to feel bad for Penelope, but you understand why the kids don’t want to be around her.

Penelope reaches what you might consider the high point (or low point) of our character arc. She is lonely and this makes her question why the kids don’t like her.

She gets some advice and thinks hard on it. She is obviously troubled and makes a conscious decision to change her ways so the kids will like her.

And she tries hard. This is the struggle. Before, she was doing what is natural. Now she must find a way to overcome.

Again, this makes the character relatable. Nothing magically happens to solve the problems. Penelope is still a hungry little dinosaur surrounded by delicious children. And no matter how hard she tries, she stumbles and succumbs to her nature and eats a child, reinforcing the fear of her classmates.

Now comes the final step in the character arc: resolution. The character needs to solve their problem in some way. The can persevere, learn a lesson, or become innovative.

Penelope learns a lesson from an unlikely antagonist, the class pet, a gold fish who thinks dinosaurs are delicious. She now knows what it is like to be afraid of being eaten and she turns around her ways. When she begins to falter, all she has to do is look at the gold fish and remember what it was like to be “eaten,” and eventually, she makes friends.

We can not all be as talented as Ryan T. Higgins, but we should be able to understand how to build better characters.

With my first graders, I am not expecting to see a character arc, but I want them to be able to see one when they read. Hopefully that will in turn impact their writing and make their characters involved in telling the story.

As the rest of us practice writing, we need to understand that our current picture book market is all about character driven stories. That means you need a solid character arc. In order to have one, you need to know what they are and practice building them.

This does not mean you can’t write a story without one, but as you go through your revisions, think about your character(s). Are they static (can be easily swapped) or dynamic (this character active in the story and would not easily make sense if swapped out with a different character). Does the story stay true to the character’s nature, whether good or flawed?

Next week, I plan to tackle plot. Coming up with plot is easy, developing a strong plot is hard, especially in picture books.


Writing With First Graders: Sam and Dave Dig a Hole

I teach first grade and I have a group of first graders that I work with every day that are very proficient readers. To encourage their skills, we have been focusing on the creativity of writing.

I have decided to share the journey, as I feel it is a valid process for first graders, new writers, or even seasoned writers, to remember the journey. Each week, we will explore with a mentor text and I reveal what we learned.

This week’s mentor text was, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.a1gbsdt-o1l

The foundation for any story is identifying the character(s), the setting, and the problem. Our focus this week was on character.

Sam and Dave are obvious characters since they are in the title. As we read the story, I believe it was around page 10, that one of the students noted that the dog was also a character. This brought up the cat as well and we restarted the story.

In books, there are various characters. You have main characters who drive the story, antagonists who oppose the main character, secondary or supporting characters who help the main character, and background characters who are in the story but really don’t affect the story or the main characters.

The students made a list: no antagonist, the cat was a background character, Sam and Dave were the main characters as was the dog (after much debate).

After the story, we went over the character list and discussed again the characters and what they did. We looked to see if they solved the problem we first thought they had, or if we had in fact misunderstood the problem.

One of the students had an amazing insight: Could the diamonds be a character? He thought they could be the antagonist since they were part of the problem.

A majority of the class said no, because the diamonds were not alive, so they could not be  a character.

So that brought up the interesting question of whether characters had to be alive and how do we define in a make believe story what is alive.

The discussion turned back to the term antagonist, and we quickly determined that the diamonds were not an antagonist as they did nothing to oppose Sam and Dave. While most students believe the diamonds were merely “things” (props) in the story, some felt that, like the dog and the cat, they were characters. And if they were, that made them secondary characters.

This brought up another debate because the story never mentions the diamonds, so they could not be characters. I went back and reread parts of the story to show that Mac Barnett never writes about the dog or the cat.

The discussion that day set the groundwork for us brainstorming ideas the rest of the week. The students had a greater understanding of a character, not simply as a name, but how they interact with their setting and resolve problems.

We ran out of time before the students could make a final decision on diamonds being a character, but it did bring up a couple of interesting points: It showed the importance of how images can tell a story. It also raised the question, can “things” be characters?

What do you think?

My Journey to Becoming an Author Part 5: Growth

It is important to remember that when you hit a roadblock that you do not give up. Likewise, it is just as important not to plow against that roadblock until you are burned out. Keep learning. Watch webinars. Go to conferences. Read about your craft. Read about things you want to write. Learn.

While you are doing this, set your manuscript aside. Let it rest. You don’t rest. Keep up the momentum and keep writing. It may never amount to anything, but you at least are moving. As long as you are moving, your dreams are not dead.

That is where I was. I had written a horrible manuscript, don’t get me wrong, it was a good story, but it was not good at the same time.

What I had thought a few months ago would be an easy write, turned out to be hard. You had to tell a story in a limited space and there were so many rules and expectations.

I set my story aside and worked on other stories. I developed my craft and soon there was a stack of stories in my drawer. I was not just writing stories and throwing them in there, I would write them and take them through critique groups until I felt I could do no more with them.

My local SCBWI chapter decided to hold a spring writing retreat. It was going to be a cozy environment at a local lodge in which we would have break out groups and classes, and most importantly, time to write and interact with other writers. Part of the retreat was going to be manuscript review opportunities from some of our published members.

I pulled out my stories from my drawer as I periodically did, and reread them. The last one was that first story I had put in there. I wanted to write this story, but I didn’t know how to. So, I pulled out two other stories and decided to work on them instead.

A couple of nights later (well, early morning) I was lying in bed and thinking as I have a bad habit of doing. That first story popped back into my head. It was strange, but I felt I could fix it, I just had no idea how to.

The next day after work, I came home and pulled out the feedback I had received from the editor and read through them again. There was a lot there, and very little at the same time. I agreed with her on so many things, but the answers weren’t there.

This time, as I reread the story for the umpteenth million time, I heard it. It was a voice. It was not my voice, but that of a character. It was the same voice I had heard while lying in bed. I had spent so much time focusing on the biography, that I had missed the voice.

My prospector was not telling his story, his gold pan was.

I tackled the rewrite and focused on the things I really liked in my original story, but allowed my main character to shift. The story fell onto the page.

It was rough, but it had all the components it needed. It was long, but I knew I could edit that down with illustrator notes.

I took it to my next critique group. Many did not recognize it from the original story it had changed so much. In truth, the story changed very little, but the perspective did.

After some critiques, I polished it up a bit and submitted it for a review during our retreat. I requested Tricia Brown, a local Alaskan author who has written many picture books and worked as an editor.

I had to wait a couple of months until the retreat, so I continued to write while I waited.

As the retreat grew closer, my doubts began to rise. I reread my story and had a few others read it and it was not really as good as I originally thought it was. I wanted to tell this story and hoped a review by a seasoned professional would give me the insight I needed.

By the time the retreat arrived, I almost didn’t want to go. I wanted to avoid the pain. I didn’t want to sit around for a weekend with a piece of work I no longer felt confident in.

Two months ago, I was making a plan to submit this story over the summer, now I wanted to get it back to the safety of the drawer.

My wife and I drove to the retreat and we were given our reviews in a folder. I quickly perused the first page and shoved it deep into my writing bag.

We retired to our cabin and read our reviews. I read my review more slowly. Tricia had liked my story. She had a lot of practical edits, but nothing major. I was searching for things I needed to do to change my story and make it better, and they weren’t there. To be honest, I was starting to think this was a waste of time.

Then my wife asked me, “How many stars did you get?”

I looked at her with what I am sure was my stupid confused face. Stars? What stars?


I went back to the cover page that she was pointing at on her own review.

5 stars…..Wait! What?

My wife didn’t believe me either and took my manuscript. She read though my review far more quickly and was beaming.

I was still confused. How was this story that I had come to not like be 5 stars? And what in the world did that mean?

My wife read off the last page in which Tricia put her personal response on how much she loved the story and the voice and said that she knew a company that would be interested in it.

I met with Tricia later at the retreat and she told me more great things about my story and helped me flesh out some of the rewrite before telling me who I should talk to about getting my book published.

I don’t remember much more from the retreat, but it was exciting.

It had not been a year since I had attempted to write my first picture book to my first viable submission.

I rewrote my story and had it critiqued again. Tricia reread it again and like the changes and I submitted my manuscript. The publisher was going through a change, but five months later I had a contract with Graphic Arts Books to publish Pedro’s Pan through their Alaska Northwest Books imprint.

On February 19th, 2019, the book will be released.

My writing story is not a typical one. I know of writers, many far more talented than I am, who are still unpublished or have spent years before they have published a book. I have been blessed. My story was in the right place at the right time. It found its champions who brought it from thought to life.

I still have a stack of ideas in my drawer, some bad, others worse. I hope that one day, another one will be just as lucky and finds it home. Until then, I keep writing, I keep critiquing and I keep remembering how blessed I have been.

Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep loving what you do. And find your champions.

Short Story: Delivery

This story is based off of real events that happened when I was about ten years old. I grew up in rural Alaska and we almost missed out on Christmas. I remember on Christmas Eve delivering packages to families on my snow machine and the thrill it gave me to be like Santa and seeing the smiles on parents faces.

In the heart of Alaska where there were no roads and mail only came by plane, a sleepy rural town was settling in for a cold Christmas Eve. Temperatures had dropped to a dreadful minus forty for two weeks and planes had not flown. Then, miraculously, this morning, hopes rose with the temperature that Christmas packages might be delivered just in time.

People looked to the skies and listened for the planes, but all they heard was the soft fall of large snowflakes that kept the planes grounded.

Long after everyone had gone to bed, off in the distance, Post Master Jim heard the buzz of an engine. It sailed through the sky and over the snow laden clouds but could not see the airstrip below. Jim woke his young son Mark and they sprang into action lighting fires along the airstrip.

With lights to guide them, three planes weighed down with gifts and mail quickly unloaded and took off into the snowflake sky.

“We have to deliver these!”

So Mark sped into the night on his snow machine to deliver packages for Christmas morning. With a quiet knock on the door, he left the packages and moved on to the next family. All they saw was someone dressed in a red coat and flowing white scarf speed away.

Children awakened by the sound would swear to this day that Santa had visited them that Christmas Eve, not on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, but on a red snow machine.