April 25, 2012

Critique and Rejection

I visited a 4th grade classroom yesterday, and one of the questions the teacher asked me to respond to is what it's like to face critique and rejection over and over, again, and again, and again.   My answer:  I look at critique and rejection as an opportunity. My published works would not be published works, if it were not for both elements being a big part of my writing life.

Case in point: The Nest Where I Like to Rest was honored as an Oregon Book Awards Finalist in 2011.  It's a 250 word picture book. In typed, manuscript form, it is only three pages long. Here is the file folder that stores the many, many revisions to this one story:

On the left is an example of some notes I took during a critique session back when this story was entitled, "The House I Made Out of Hay" (one of many titles along the way).

This story went through dozens of revisions and iterations before it was selected for publication (Newsflash: it went through several additional revisions even after I received a contract for publication).  The turning point for this story was when I received a professional critique from Kirby Larson at a writing conference. Kirby's feedback was very positive, and yet full of suggestions. She liked the humorous aspect of the story, and encouraged me to lean into that more heavily.  She praised my ability to rhyme, but questioned the purpose of some of the characters that were included in the story at the time.  She challenged me to take a good story and make it better.  I accepted the challenge, and made some significant changes to my story.  Those changes led to the eventual final draft that I submitted to publishers. And then the real fun began!

Here is as sampling of the rejection letters I received for this manuscript once I started submitting it:

During yesterday's author visit, a student asked me to read the worst rejection letter I'd ever received for this story.  I explained that for me, the two worst kinds of rejection letters to receive are 1) standardized form letters with nothing personalized about my actual story, (which means I have no morsels of wisdom to work with to make the story better), and 2) a personalized letter where the editor praises my story, but indicates that the particular manuscript is not right for their publishing house. After I left the school visit, I paged through my files and re-read the most disappointing rejection letter I ever received for this story.  It was from Steve Geck, who at the time was Executive Editor at Greenwillow Books, (a publishing house near the top of the list of prospects I had identified as a good fit for my work).

The letter itself was thoughtful and complimentary ( " . . . It's a beautiful, playful text . . .") What made the correspondence so disappointing (and yet exciting at the same time) was that Mr. Geck enclosed my original manuscript along with a retyped version of my manuscript (where some editorial changes had been inserted).  On the retyped version of the manuscript was this sticky note to "Virginia" (the Vice President and Publisher of Greenwillow) pictured below:  

I did some research and determined that "Paul Z." was likely Paul O. Zelinsky (an amazing illustrator who has published several books with Greenwillow). Sigh.  My story made it all the way to the publisher's desk, with an editor's suggestion about who might be a good illustrator for the project.  But alas, the decision was, ". . .  In the end, however, I'm afraid I didn't feel we would be able to publish this successfully . . ."  

The truth of the matter, however, is that Mr. Geck's letter helped boost my confidence.  It motivated me to continue sending the manuscript to other publishers.  In the end, it did get selected for publication and later as a Finalist for a meaningful award. Not to mention that it continues to be one of my favorites to read aloud at public appearances--with or without the
chicken hat!

I am beginning to catch my breath from the demands of my new books that came out in January, so that means I will once again start submitting my ready work to targeted publishers.  Rest assured that I will strongly consider Greenwillow (and Mr. Geck's current publishing house, Sourcebooks), as I plan my marketing strategy for my new publication-ready material.  Stay tuned!

April 19, 2012

Why Do I Like to Write?

(My Cat's Feedback Revealed)
When I visit with young writers, I am often asked, "Why do you like to write?"  Here are some of the many reasons I share:

- I like words.  They are powerful. They get things done. They help people understand one another.  Words give people a voice. I like when my voice is heard.

-I like stories.   I like to listen to stories and I like to tell stories.  

-I like to read.  Reading is an important job for writers.  The more I read, the better I write.  Since I'm a writer, I get to read a lot.

-I like poems and rhythm and rhymes.  I like to put words together in ways that are fun to read and hear out loud.

-I like to learn.  When I'm working on a writing project, I usually get to learn something new.   Maybe I discover a new word, or a meaning of a word that I wasn't familiar with.  Maybe I discover something new about myself that I hadn't thought about before.  Maybe I learn something new because of the research involved in the story I'm writing.  Learning is exciting to me, so writing is exciting to me.  

-I like to teach.  My words help other people learn things they might not have known before.  That makes me feel good inside. 

-I feel like we all have important things to say, and when we take the time to say them in written form, instead of just out loud, our words, ideas, and opinions are more lasting and meaningful. They also can reach more people.  The words I have written have found their way to faraway places like Australia, Singapore, and Germany.  These are places that would be more difficult for me to visit in person.  Because I write, my words can go to these places, even if I cannot.  That said, since I write, I've had opportunities to travel that I might not have otherwise had (and I LOVE to travel).

-Writing helps me meet new people.  Because I write, I get to answer questions from young readers and sometimes get invited to their school for an author visit or I get to “meet” readers and young writers via technology like email, video chat or Skype. That's a really fun part of my job.  

So now it's your turn.  Why do YOU like to write? 

April 17, 2012

It's All Greek to Me!

I was lucky enough to travel to Greece not once, but TWICE before I started a family.  I was pregnant with my oldest child when I went the second time, and my husband and I naively promised each other we would continue our globe trotting ways after we became parents.  Fast forward nearly 13 years, and suffice it to say, we haven't (yet!) made it back to Europe with the kids.  We've traveled, mind you, but our passports will reveal that Canada has been our primary international destination over the past decade. (Update: WE returned to Greece with the kids a few months after this post was originally written, and we've been lucky enough to travel to many wonderful places with them since!)

So what does this have to do with the National Research Council's six key skills recommended for preparing children to become readers when they enter school?  Quite a bit, actually.  Today's topic is Letter Knowledge, which is knowing what different letters look and sound like, and knowing each letter's name.

Back to Greece:  It's HARD to read (menus, road signs, ferry boat schedules . . .) when you can barely distinguish the different letters in the alphabet.  If you haven't noticed, the Greek alphabet is quite a bit different than the English alphabet.  During our time in Greece, we would navigate from place to place by identifying key letters in road signs ("Turn left when you see a road that starts with the letter with the curly-que on top and ends with the letter that looks like a fish...").   Not surprisingly, we got lost plenty.  However, our "reading" and navigation skills did get better over time as we became more and more familiar with the distinct symbols in the Greek alphabet.  

Just like my situation in Greece, children who have not yet developed Letter Knowledge do not yet "see" distinct letters and words; they see lines and shapes.  Our objective when helping a child develop Letter Knowledge is to give them plenty of opportunities to see and interact with the letters of the alphabet so they gain familiarity with the distinct symbols in the English alphabet.

Some common literacy activities aimed at this skill include reading alphabet books and pointing out "alphabet connections" when they present themselves (i.e.  "Ben's name starts with a B just like your name, Beck").  The alphabet travel game is another popular activity.  This is where you search for each letter of the alphabet, in sequence, as you travel or drive.  Kids love this game.  It can be enriched further by adding an element of sign language (for example, making a rule that you have to say and sign the letter when you see it before going on to the next letter).  It's also really fun for kids to learn how to finger spell their name.  To help with this activity, my publisher has created a printable PDF download of the alphabet handshapes from my books, illustrated by Stephanie Bauer.  (I just LOVE her multicultural handshape illustrations, don't you?)

When children learn to write letters in a school environment, it's not unusual for teachers to ask them to practice making the shape of the letter in the air before they practice writing it on paper.  I like to add sign language to this activity by pointing to the letter on the easel or white board, saying the letter name and letter sound(s) out loud while making the ASL handshape for that letter, then drawing the shape of the letter in the air.   Fun!

Here are some additional ideas you can incorporate to help your child develop Letter Awareness  when you're reading books from the Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series:

See the Colors:  Sign when you read the book.  Point out that many of the color signs involve the ASL handshape for the letter the color word begins with.  For example, yellow is signed by wiggling the "Y- Hand."  Green is signed by wiggling the "G-Hand." Pink and purple both involve the "P-Hand."  After you've read the book, you can make a set of cards with shapes in different colors (i.e. red circles, yellow triangles, blue squares).  Play Concentration and find the color/shape matches.  Make a rule that each player must make the sign for the color to keep the matching pair (or the letter in their first name, or the first letter that the color word starts with...you get the idea!).

Silly Sue.  This book offers plenty of opportunities to sign the word Silly.   Silly is signed by making a "Y-Hand" and wiggling it in front of your face.  This creates a great opportunity to point out that the word Silly ends with the letter "Y."  As an added bonus, the handshape for the letter Y kind of looks like a Y.

Shape Detective.  This is a great story to spend time with to develop Letter Knowledge.  Why?  Because developing shape knowledge requires the same skill set as Letter Knowledge.  When you exercise the brain to learn the distinctions between different shapes, you exercise the same parts of the brain that are needed to distinguish the unique shapes of our letter symbols.  What's really handy is that the signs for most of the shapes simply involve using your index finger to "draw" the shape in the air (similar to the practice of drawing the letters of the alphabet in the air that we talked about earlier).

A to Z Sign with Me:  This is THE most logical book in the Story Time series to spend some time with if your aim is to build Letter Knowledge (it is an alphabet book, after all).  As I've mentioned before, however, this is a unique alphabet book in that it doesn't just have different words and pictures for each letter of the alphabet.  Instead, it is a story told in rhyme about going to the carnival.  The story is told so that the words beginning with the letters A to Z are featured in sequential order (i.e. "Eat frankfurters while they're good and hot").  After I read this story directly from the book, I like to write the story "vertically" on the easel or white board, so children can "see" how the alphabet is structured in the story.
For example:


frankfurters while they're

good and


After this I read the story again, only this time a bit slower and invite children to sign each letter of the alphabet in order as they story progresses.  Kids get a huge kick out of this!

If you like this sort of thing, another great resource is a book called ABC Phonics, by my friend and colleague, Nellie Edge.  She has a great website filled with resources for building literacy skills.

I'd love to hear some of your alphabet games and activities so I can add them to my own tool box. Please add them in the comment section below.

April 6, 2012

Show Me a Sign! (as in a Street Sign)

Over the past few weeks I've been summarizing the National Research Council's six key skills recommended for preparing children to become readers when they enter school.  Today's topic: Print Awareness: Noticing that the printed word is around us everywhere and becoming familiar with how to hold a book and follow the words from left to right. 

As literate grown-ups, we tend to take for granted that the written word surrounds us.  We get the information we need from road signs and building marquees, we pick up the newspaper (or our handheld device) to check a sports score, we look at a menu, we sort through the mail, we read the credits as they scroll up the screen after a movie, we page through magazines, and we read books.  

A thoughtful thank you note from a Class Participant
Building the skill of Print Awareness involves helping our children "notice" all of the distinct printed materials in everyday experiences all around us.  What are some of the ways you can do this?  Involve your child when you check the weather report or when you go through the weekly grocery ads and make your grocery list.  Post reminder notes for yourself, and interact with your child about those notes (i.e. "I'm going to stick this note on the dashboard to help me remember to stop by the post office on our way home from the park today.") Point out building signs that indicate you've arrived at your intended destination (or better yet, engage your child in keeping an eye out for the signage of familiar places, i.e. "Help me look for a gas station"). Invite your child to look for and count stop signs when you drive.  Write love notes and thank you notes to your child and share notes you've received from others. Write postcards when you go on family vacations (and encourage other relatives to do the same!) and show your child how each post card is addressed differently for each person.  (It's also fun to send one post card to your own address so your child can (re)discover the post card in the mail box once you've returned home and then reflect on writing and addressing it during your travels). 

Another important aspect of print awareness is helping a child gain familiarity with handling books.  Books are meant to be handled.  Yes, even by babies.  True, board books will get nibbled (Offer a teething toy as a alternative!). Yes, pages will get torn (Get out the tape and fix the book together. When my daughter was little I would sign hurt when a page ripped.  Once we fixed it, I would sign fine.) If books become objects of worry or fear, reading will not be fun.  Anticipate that some books will get bedraggled in the process. Trust that as children have more opportunities to handle books, they will gain experience and learn how to handle them gently and lovingly. (Case in point:  I am one of those people who sometimes leaves a book open face down to mark the page I left off.  My kids routinely call me out on this and suggest that I mark my book in another way so that the book won't get damaged.  They love it when they can catch me doing something not quite right and can offer a better option!)

Shape Detective
Building Print Awareness also involves helping kids gain an awareness that English print reads from left to right.  When your child sits on your lap to read, make a point to read the title of the book and the name of the author and illustrator on the cover and/or title page of the book. Move your index finger along the words as you read these elements.  Notice I'm encouraging you to not skip this step. Why? Because I want you to learn how to pronounce my last name (Pro Hauv' Nik) and repeat it over and over again.  That's not the real reason of course!  It's because reading the author/illustrator name helps children come to realize that real live people write and illustrate books.  It helps them gain familiarity with an author's body of work ("Hey, this is another book by Dawn Prochovnic!  Cool, I wonder if this one will be as fun to read as The Big Blue Bowl?  Let's find out!"), and this helps children recognize patterns, which ties into building their own Narrative Skills.   

Another way to help children gain familiarity with handling books and decoding the words from left to right is to invite your child to read to a doll (or dog).  Prop a younger sibling and a board book on your lap and prop a doll and a really familiar picture book on your older child's lap.  Read the board book, and model some skills like reading the title and author name and following your finger from left to right under the words.  Now sign your turn and have your older child read to the "baby" on his or her lap.  Often what you'll see happen is your child (who has likely memorized the name and even some passages from the book) will "read' the title by moving their fingers along the printed word from left to right.  As they progress through the book, they may recite familiar passages and/or invent their own re-telling of the story (which is fine!), but they will often move their hands along the words from left to right, modeling what they've seen you do when you read. Some kids will ask you to read the words, and they will move their fingers along the printed areas to model this practice while you read.  Try it out and let me know how it goes!

Okay, so here are a few of specific ideas for how to incorporate Print Awareness when you're reading books from the Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series: 

A to Z Sign with Me.  This story is unique alphabet story, in that it doesn’t just have different words and pictures for each letter of the alphabet. Instead, it is a story told in rhyme about going to a carnival.  The story is told so that the words beginning with the letters A to Z are featured in sequential order (i.e. "Talk like the animals. Oink! Peep! Quack.  Cheer when the roller coaster speeds down the track.").  After I've read this story directly from the book, I like to write the story "vertically" on a sheet of paper or easel, so children can see how the alphabet is structured in the story.  For example: 

Lip grows a
Nose blows a sneeze.  

I encourage children to sign each letter of the alphabet in order as the story progresses.  It's really fun!

The Big Blue Bowl:  After you read this book, sit down with your child and make a list of all of the different things that you'd like to put in YOUR big blue bowl.  Now get out the art supplies and draw a picture of your bowl and all of the things that you'll put into your bowl.  I like to get out the grocery ads and have children cut out the items they want in their Big Blue Bowl.  This piece of art can go on the wall, and be used later to play an I Spy sort of game to practice the signs for the different items in the bowl, (i.e. "Where is the Milk?" There is the Milk!" ).  A teacher who invited me for a classroom visit sent this beautiful artwork as a thank you note from the children! I love these types of gifts so much.  I post them on my office walls. 

The Nest Where I Like to Rest: I like to wear my crazy chicken hat when I read this story.  After reading, I set the hat on a basket of plastic eggs and post a sign on the basket/nest that reads, "Quiet! This is the Nest Where I Like to Rest." The kids get a kick out of it.

So Many Feelings:  After reading this story, I like to show kids an easel with a list of feeling words with picture clues noted next to each word.  I point to different feeling words and then ask the children to act out that emotion and/or sign that emotion.

Hip, Hip, Hooray! It's Family Day!: After I read this story, I invite children to make a their own book or even just a picture called "My Family" and then read it to someone else or to a doll.  To add enrichment, I encourage children to sign the handshape that goes along with each family members' picture or page.

Okay, it's your turn.  I would really love to hear some of your ideas for building Print Awareness with your children and/or your experiences using some of the ideas I've suggested in this post.  I look forward to your contributions!     

April 2, 2012


I love words.  I especially love how some words sound when you say them out loud. I think that's why I like to write books that incorporate word play and rhymes and that are meant to be read aloud.

My parents encouraged my  interest in words and books when I was a child. Here is a picture of some of the books I routinely keep by my side when I write, several of which I received when I was a kid:

The big blue dictionary and the thesaurus were gifts from my parents when I was 12 or so.  The red dictionary was a gift when I was younger.  I used to open the blue dictionary to a random page once each day and choose a new word to learn.  When I was in the 6th grade, my school library had a dictionary about this size on a big stand so it could be left open to whatever page someone last looked at.  I used to get a kick out of going into the library during recess and opening the dictionary to the page that had a "humorously naughty" word on it, like buttocks or fart.  I thought I was extremely clever to get away with this outrageous violation of character and never get caught!  (A total book nerd, huh?)

I was just introduced to the word pusillanimous because an amazing writer friend and poet, Susan Blackaby, was challenged to use it in a poetry contest in which she is competing.  (At the time of this writing there are less than 6 hours left for the voting in the current round, the final four, so get out there and vote for your favorite poems!).

The overall approach to the competition is that poets are each given a word that they must use in a poem that they must craft in 36 hours.  Voting happens, poets advance or get eliminated, voters get to experience a wide range of poetry, and new words get into our brains.  Fun huh?

My own kids have really enjoyed reading the poems from the contest.  We've gotten out the dictionary several times and have learned some fun new words along the way. In fact, my middle schooler planned to impress her teacher by working pusillanimous into something she said at school today (thanks poets and Think Kid Think).

This all ties in nicely with the theme I've been writing about for the past several posts: Summarizing the National Research Council's six key skills recommended for preparing children to become readers when they enter school.  Today's topic: Enriched Vocabulary: Knowing the words or names for many different things.

So how do you build a child's vocabulary?  Talk, sing, read, sign.  Use "real" words (and real sign language) with your children.  Label the things you see when you are out and about and the things you put into your cart when you are shopping. Give them a diet rich in vocabulary and watch their brains grow!  Don't use baby talk.  Don't try to simplify your language just because you are talking with a child.  Speak and read big words, and kids will rise to the occasion.  They will ask questions.  Their vocabularies will grow.

I'll never forget when  I was pregnant with my son and doing the "older sibling hospital tour" with my daughter.  My husband and I used real words when we talked about the pregnancy, so my 2 1/2 year old daughter knew that her baby brother was growing in "mommy's uterus."  When the hospital representative that was touring us around the hospital showed us the nursery with all the new babies, she said, "these are some of the babies that recently came out of their mommies' tummies." My daughter wasted no time letting it be known that her baby brother was growing in a uterus, not a tummy.  You tell 'em girl!

When my kids were still lap-sitters, one of my favorite authors to read was William Steig.  He always wove a complicated word or two into his books, and I could never make it through a book without one of the kids asking what a particular word meant.  Typically, I would situate our reading area with a dictionary nearby so that I could look up the word(s) in question when I wasn't sure of the definition.  I liked that my children and I were growing our vocabularies together, and I liked that they saw me referring to a dictionary for guidance. Now that they're older (actually, I'm older, too!), we play games like Apples to Apples and Pictionary, and still keep a dictionary nearby (though I must confess, often that dictionary is accessed online via one of our smart phones).

My books in the Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series are written at a third grade reading level, so I had to limit my use of complex vocabulary.  I did get to keep a few tricky, less ordinary words in my stories, like ruckus, in "The Nest Where I Like to Rest," stew in "The Big Blue Bowl," and geometric sleuth in "Shape Detective."

When I read "The Nest Where I Like to Rest" with kids, I act out the part of the story that uses the word ruckus ("But what was that ruckus inside of my nest?") and invite kids to  make educated guesses about the meaning of the word.  Newsflash:  they always figure it out, even the younger ones!

When I read "See the Colors," I use a variety of colorful props (usually hats) to go along with the story.  Each page is beautifully illustrated to match with the color word featured on each spread, so it's easy for children to begin to "see" the colors themselves.  In fact, as I proceed through the book, children begin to say the color word for each new page even before I've started reading the new page.

For "So Many Feelings," it's really fun to emotively model each feeling word covered on each page. Sign language enriches this experience because many of the signs for feeling words look and feel like the emotion they are describing.  Proud involves a strong, confident body stance.  Sad involves some frowning.  Angry incorporates some scowling.  Words like lonely provide additional opportunity to describe meaning, because the sign for lonely involves just the index finger, (which resembles one) and when you are alone (just one), you might be lonely.

Sign language also enriches a reading of "Hip, Hip Hooray! It's Family Day!"  Most children are familiar with the words brother and sister, but they are fascinated to discover that the signs for brother and sister come from the combination of the signs "boy" (or girl) and "same" (because brothers are boys from the same family and sisters are girls from the same family).

If you're interested in more of this sort of thing, one of my heroes, Nellie Edge, puts out a great monthly newsletter, and this month's version just happens to be on the subject of poetry AND what she calls voracious vocabulary.  Read Nellie's newsletter here.

Okay, now it's your turn.  I'd love to hear some of your favorite "big words." I'd also enjoy hearing how your children have incorporated some of the sophisticated words you've taught them! Don't be pusillanimous.  It's fun to share.  Really.  I know you can do it!