Will Learn for Food

My family is privileged to live in the area for what is widely recognized as the best public elementary school in the greater Fairbanks region. The typical background for the kids here is pretty well off, safe and stable, and primarily white with a good chunk of Native kids and a handful of other minorities. They are, as a general rule, sheltered and somewhat pampered by their highly educated, socially liberal, and deeply involved parents.

We at the library have a hard time getting these students to check out books about kids outside of their own demographic. I mean, if there’s like a sentient teddy bear or an anthropomorphized talking sunflower seed, sure, they’ll check that out. But if there’s a Japanese kid on the cover, that’s a hard sell. If there’s a Black kid on the cover, hard sell. A character in a hijab, hard sell. They’ll read the books when we push them into their sticky little hands, but they aren’t the kinds of books that they just pick up and read on their own.

The librarian and I bemoan this phenomenon together a lot and are constantly coming up with schemes to get the students to read all the amazing gems of books that they aren’t interested in without some prodding. One year for Valentine’s Day, we did blind dates with books where the students only knew a vague description of the books they were selecting from. We did a similar venture for an upcoming winter break where we wrapped books in gift wrap with descriptions, and the kids were snapping them up faster than I could wrap them. And—who’d have thought?—once the kids started reading these books about The Other, they enjoyed the stories and characters immensely, accepting their differences (and similarities) without blinking. Weird!

We do what we can.

Recently, the librarian wrote up a glowing review for Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen in which she lamented how little circulation the series gets. And this sparked an idea!

We have tons of books in the library that deserve more circulation, that are from a culture that could use a bit more representation, and that have food as a central theme in the story. Three books immediately popped in my head: Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore; Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence (obviously, haha); and Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard. Two of those three even come with a recipe in the back of the book!

I’ve taught quite a few after school classes over the years, but the most popular one—by orders of magnitude—has to be French Pastries. I usually teach it twice a year and it always fills up in literal minutes, and then I get to listen to the musical tones of a kid or two weeping in the front office because they didn’t get their form in fast enough to make the cut.

The secret of my popularity is food. Could we use that same trick to drum up interest for some of these awesome foodie books?

Food is really cool because it is so intrinsic to culture. Food says a lot about the way you were raised, what brings you comfort, the ways in which you celebrate. Along with housing and clothing, food is a huge product of the place where you live, the way your ancestors survived, and the network of community and sharing. By teaching the students about the foods of different cultures, we are giving ourselves an easy in for teaching about the people and their way of life as well.

Children’s books are really just windows and mirrors: mirrors that reflect back your own world and the ways of navigating it, and windows into other worlds and their value and beauty. Most of the kids at our school have plenty of mirrors around. By adding some windows to their repertoire, we teach empathy and understanding across cultural lines. We can teach kids that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘weird’ (and ‘not a chicken nugget’ doesn’t mean ‘inedible’).

So yeah. We’re roughing out a plan for a cooking class wherein each week, we pick a different book from a different culture with food as a central idea. We make the food and read the book (or parts if it’s bigger) and talk about the characters and their world while we eat. (The eating part is important.) It has all the elements to be a hit.

Now we just need to pick our titles and assess the difficulty/time required for each recipe. In addition to the three I’ve already mentioned, we’re also considering the November cakes from Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races (a YA novel with a splash of Celtic mythology *chortles*), but I don’t know if that’s so much to get the kids interested in Irish/Scottish culture, or just because the librarian and I want to eat November cakes.

What do you think? We don’t have any shortage of titles, but do you know a tasty kids’ book that we should consider? Let me know in the comments below!

And until next week, happy writing!

NaNoWriMo, Junior Edition

Profiteroles. Mmmm…

I just finished my French Pastries class last week and I am le tired. Teaching afterschool program classes can be tough—kids are wired after a day of sitting in classrooms, you don’t have the threat of bad grades to hold over their heads, and there’s not a lot of time to get through the material you want to cover. (I mean, there are other reasons why it is way, way easier than regular instruction, but still.) French Pastries was especially hard this time around because the students were significantly younger than the ones I’ve taught in the past (so I really had to bring down those expectations) and because one of my students was dangerously gluten intolerant and I really, really, really didn’t want to kill her.

Soooo… I guess now is the time for me to immediately say, “Yes, I would love to teach another session!” But this next session, I’ll be teaching… Young Writers Program, the scrappy little sibling of NaNoWriMo! Wahoo!

Last time I did this, I tried to run it like a more traditional NaNo with the kids. We had word-count tracking charts, profiles on YWP, prizes for winning word wars, etc. Buuut it was also a little janky because there were students working on a picture book and a graphic novel and so while the word counting thing worked great for me and my project, it wasn’t the best yardstick for them.

I’m thinking I’ll take a different approach this year. Depending on the number of students and the types of projects they want to do, we might still do the chart and the YWP profiles, but I’m not going to force it. Instead, I’m going to shift the focus more toward supporting the students in coming up with their stories as we progress. Some of the students might come with premade ideas (like last time), but I want to really be prepared for the pantsters in our midst, should any arise. To that end, I’ve gotten my hot little hands on the following resources for the kids to play around with:

Writer Emergency Pack This fun pack of cards is great for when you’ve gotten stuck. Simply draw a random illustrated idea card and then follow it to a second card with further instructions. Granted, most of the ideas are just terrible, but they do get you thinking about alternative routes to take your story.

The Amazing Story Generator I’ve highlighted this bad boy before, but here it is again. Last time I used this in one of my writing classes, the kids loved it. (Sometimes maybe a little too much. Seriously, quit playing with the book and get writing, kids.)

Tell Tale This is actually a storytelling card game that my husband’s sister sent for our boys. Our five-year-old loves playing it. (Although, since we lost the instructions card eons ago, there’s a pretty-slim-to-none chance that we’re actually playing it right.) It’s a lot of fun to flip through the cards until one of the ideas sticks.

The class won’t start until the first week of November, so I still have time to scrape together a few more resources. Any of you fine folks have ideas about how to get the creative juices flowing with kids? Just let me know in the comments below!

Thanks, and until next week, happy writing!

Camp and Class Updates

Chore BearWhew! This month is seriously kicking my butt!  I’m slogging through Camp NaNo- waaaay behind schedule- and barely keeping up with this class I’m teaching at the school and I’ve upped my (admittedly small amount of) hours at work by 50%. Yikes!

Still, it’s been a good month. I feel like I’m doing reasonably well, and I hope to play a little more catch up later in the month.  I’ve put my submissions stuff on the back burner until May, and I haven’t been able to do as much reading as I’d like, but I’m actually keeping up in all my other regular chores.  (For example, not every pan in the house is dirty.) For now, that’s gonna have to do.

Next week, we’ll have a reblog from the ever amazing Madison Dusome, but for now, enjoy a super unedited bit of weirdness that I thought was kind of fun regarding the plight of a low-tier camp counselor. Enjoy!


Bear Attacks: How Not to Die

Alright kids, you have so far done an excellent job of not dying. And in the interest of not getting sued by your parents, we’re gonna talk about how to keep that winning streak going.

Atticus! Put that down and get over here. Pay attention.

Now. Who here’s seen a bear? Wow, all of you? Wait, no, Zoo Boise doesn’t count. I mean, like, you and some big ball of teeth and fur, and nothing between you but like a few thorn bushes and an outhouse. Okay, that’s what I thought.

Me? No, I’ve never seen one either. But we’re gonna learn about it today anyway because this is a summer camp and Smokey doesn’t care if you’re a moose or a third grader.

So who can tell me the two kinds of bears they have here in the Alaskan Interior?

That’s right! Brown bears. What else?

Gummy bears will not kill you in your tent for a granola bar, so no, Sophie, not gummy bears. Try to take this seriously.

Come on, Alex, do you really think they have panda bears here?

Seriously, guys? It’s the same two we have back in Idaho.  Didn’t your parents ever take you camping?

Thank you! Black bears!

Okay, yes, Alaska does have polar bears, but they don’t come this far south and if one of those starts hunting you, you’re pretty screwed anyway.

Okay, so black bears and brown bears. If you-

No, grizzlies are just another name for brown bears.

I don’t know; they just call them that.

No, those are just-



Sun bears? Where do you think we are?

Atticus, sit down.

Okay, guys, we’ve got black bears and brown bears, also known as grizzly bears. Who knows how to tell them apart?

Well, because you have to do different things when you encounter different bears.

Just don’t get them mixed up, okay? Now pay attention.

Sophie, put your gummy bears away.

Okay, how do you tell brown bears and black bears apart?

Okay, good! Color. What else can you look for?

No, Alex, don’t be silly.

Come on, guys.

Okay, which one’s smaller?

And one more guess.

Yes! Black bears are smaller. So brown bears are…

Yes. Thank you.

Black bears are only like five feet tall standing up, but brown bears are like eight feet tall.

Well, yeah, they’re both taller than you kids. But brown bears are a lot taller. Black bears also have a kind of straighter face and curvier claws.

Alex, come one. Would you seriously walk up and check its claws?

Well don’t, okay?

Yes, I’m checking the paper, I don’t want to mix this up.

Of course I know what I’m talking about. I’m just making sure.

Atticus- Sit. Down.

Okay. So say you want to go down to the waterfront, but you want to be bear safe. What do you do?

Okay, sure, but you’re not riding in a car, you’re walking.

Sophie. Leave her alone.

Sophie, you! You’re going to the waterfront. How should you get down there?

Um. Alright. But would you go alone?

Okay, but don’t, okay? If you walk in groups, it’s a lot safer. And if you make a lot of…

Make a lot of…

Come on, guys, you’re doing it right now.

Noise! Yes! Make a lot of noise. Bears don’t like to be surprised.

So you’re heading down to the waterfront and you’re in a group and you’re making noise, but there’s a bear on the trail ahead of you.

Well, okay, for this part it doesn’t matter. Black or brown, there’s a bear. What should you do?

That’s a good idea. Just heading back the way you came can’t hurt. Slowly back up, and don’t put your back to it. Always give bears a lot of space, and never-

Atticus! Do you want to spend the afternoon cleaning outhouses?

Thank you.

Alright, guys, let’s just get through this so we can go make bead necklaces or something. Give bears space. Never run. If you run, it’ll chase you and it’ll be a heck of a lot faster. What else?

No, please don’t try to climb a tree. Bears can climb, and they’re way better at it than you.

Yes, you too, Lily.

Lily, seriously, you cannot outclimb a bear.

I don’t care if your cousin is Tom Brady; beating some punk cousin in a tree climbing race doesn’t qualify you to escape a bear up a tree. And even if you did beat it to the top, it can just keep climbing up after you.

No climbing.

Okay, so say you haven’t been listening to anything I’ve said and you snuck up on a bear and now you’re in for it. So it decides to attack and it’s a black bear. What should you do?

Eh, screaming won’t help.

Okay, someone might come help you, but mostly you’re just telling the bear, ‘Sure, I’m prey! Easy pickin’s!’ Screaming isn’t gonna help.

No, it’s a black bear. You play dead for a brown bear. For black bears, you…

Yes. You fight back. Beat it around the nose as much as possible, they have sensitive noses.

And what if it’s a brown bear?

Come on, guys, I just said it.

Play dead. Thank you. Lay on your belly like this…

And then cover your neck with yours hands like this…

And spread your feet like this.

So you’re harder to flip over.

Well, I guess your back’s got more bones to protect you if it starts clawing you open.

No, I mean, it won’t. Probably.

No, no, seriously, the odds of a bear actually attacking are like really really small.

No, honestly. Look, it says right here.

Oh, Alex, don’t cry, honey. This’ll seriously never happen.

Well, because there’s a really really small chance that it might happen so you should know what to do just in-

I don’t know. It just says ‘rare’.

I really don’t know.

Because whoever wrote this pamphlet didn’t think percentages were important. It’s just rare, okay?

Oh, Alex. Nobody’s gonna eat you.

Atticus, sit down!

You know what? Let’s just… review this later. Who wants to run up to the obstacle course?

Yeah. Me too.

Designing Graphic Novels Class

ColorHello, internet! Would you believe that the good folks at Pearl Creek Elementary School have once again trusted me to teach a writing class to the impressionable younglings they’ve sworn to instruct and protect?  Because they have!

Two quarters ago, I did a NaNoWriMo group as part of the after school program.  And I’m at it again this quarter, with a class about designing graphic novels.  The idea is to help the kids design their own story, art, and layout style, which they can then spend the summer turning into a full graphic novel.  (Haha, we’ll see if the lazy imps actually carry through with that part.)

And now, with this handy dandy post, you can follow along too!

Week One (last Tuesday): Story

We briefly talked about the difference between a graphic novel and a comic, and then about what makes a story.  We did a little bit of brainstorming- talking about building a story based around a cool character, or a what if question, or whatever- and then set them loose.  This group of twenty kids ranges in age from five to twelve, so there’s quite the skill span, but the beautiful thing about art is that it’s adaptable to all levels.  They did great, and had fun decorating the covers of their workbooks.

Week Two (tomorrow! into the future!): Characters

Outline in hand, the kids will begin sketching their characters.  Ideally, they’ll do sketches of their main cast from a few different angles, and do at least one sketch of any secondary characters, recurring pets, or whatever other livey-movey bits they plan to include.  This will be their chance to decide how much detail they want in their art, and give them an idea of how much time that will take.

Week Three: Setting

Sketching the characters should give them a better idea of their art style, and so this week, we’ll hop into setting.  I want them to sketch out at least two scenes in detail, and then do a couple smaller sketches of maybe the buildings or trees or whatever that will be populating their backgrounds.

Week Four:  Layout

For this week, the students will begin thumbnailing the first few pages of their graphic novels, to get a feel for the amount of dialog, people, movement, panels, etc that will fit on a single page.  We’ll also work on the visual pacing of their story, what style of panels/sound effects/speech bubbles/all the things they want to use, and how much action they want to leave in the gutter between the panels.

Week Five: First page, rough

The kids will start working on their actual first page this week.  They’ll pencil in their panels, their characters, and the background, making sure to leave space for appropriate speech/thought bubbles, sound effects, etc.

Week Six: First page, final

In this the final week, students will ink their comics and put in all the finishing touches of color, text, whatever they’re going with.  At the end of class, each student will be sent home with their workbook, containing all the outlining and sketching we worked on for the first four weeks, and a (hopefully) complete first page.  And I’ll probably offer some kind of extravagant bribery to try to get them to come show me a completed graphic novel at the start of the next school year.  They’ll all be really excited about it, but maybe one will actually take me up on it.  We’ll see.

So that’s the plan!

The kids seem to be enjoying it so far (you know, one session in), and I am too.  I plan to write about an Alaska Native girl who joins her middle school’s Pre-Pre-Med Club (someone on the internet should seriously give me a better name for this) and has to struggle through the prejudices and expectations of her primarily white peers and teachers to prove herself.  Maybe I’ll throw up my first page at the end of the class for you all to admire!

In completely unrelated news, it’s another NaNo month! Yay, Camp!  Between a few submission deadlines, the graphic novel class, and a month unusually full of obligations, I decided to go easy on myself and set a low goal; I’ll be writing at least ten short stories, weighing in at at least 30k.  Totally do-able.

How about you fine internet folk?  Anyone else out there doing camp?  Lemme know your goals for the month so I can cheer you on!

Happy writing!

Infecting the Next Generation

ywpNaNooooooo!  Once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us!  And once again, I have forced my exuberant presence on Fairbanks’ impressionable youth for some enforced creativity! *cracks whip*

I love working with kids on writing projects, and the Young Writers Program makes it so easy!  And the students are just naturals at it anyway.  Kids are wonderfully creative and, at least until puberty hits, are unashamed of their imperfect little darlings, plus these students are so eager to write.  From our initial brainstorming session to today, I’ve been working with this group for a little over two weeks now, and nobody’s even asked about erasing a single word.  Kids are great!

And I like to think that writing is great for them too.  There’s the basic curriculum aspects: critical reading, writing proficiency, i before e, etc.  You know, all the boring stuff.  But of equal importance is teaching children that art is accessible.  That their voices are important.  That they can achieve big goals if they are determined.

So!  Here I am, infecting the next generation with this terrible literary affliction of mine.  Between that and it being a NaNo month, I won’t have a whole lot of time for blog posts, but I’ll slip in a quick update on the class’ progress with each week’s reblog.  Plus, as part of the lesson on brainstorming and what a story is, the kids helped me come up with the comic for this month, so that’ll be fun to share in a few weeks.  (And don’t forget to check out last week’s comic, in case you missed it in all its late-posted glory!)

Until then, keep hitting those keyboards!  Or notebooks, or whatever.  Happy writing!

A Thousand Dollars to Blow

This hypothetical situation brought to you by a kind donation from Uncle Scrooge.

This hypothetical situation brought to you by a kind donation from Uncle Scrooge.

I don’t know about you folks, but I’ve got about three dollars to spend on a good day. That said, one of the best things about being poor is being able to torture your partner with all the cool stuff you can’t afford. A typical conversation may go something like this:

“If you had a thousand bucks to blow, what would you spend it on?”

“Uh… food.”

“No, we already have food.”

Good food.”

“Pick something better.”

“Dental care.”

“No, something fun.”

“Having teeth is fun.”

No. Something fun.”


This is what I call “The Caveat Stage”. This is where we get down to the particular genre of things we would spend money on. Last time we played this game, my husband asked what writing stuff I would buy. I talked about different writing software I wanted to try out, but I decided I wanted to revisit the question once I had a little more time to think about it.  So here it is, my well-thought-out spending extravaganza.

Thousand Monies o’ Stuff:

≥600: Light editing for Dead Timmy

≥200: Cover art for Dead Timmy

≥200: Writer’s Digest University

Remainders: Various writing competitions

So. Give what research I’ve done into it, these actually seem like viable numbers. Dead Timmy is hardly more than half the word count that City of the Dead is, putting premier editing costs at about $1200. But I don’t need premier. I figure half that rate is fine if I hunt around for someone willing to go at it for a smaller cost- someone without many projects at the time, someone new to the business and looking to pad the resume, someone I can blackmail and/or bribe with baked goods, etc.

I haven’t looked too deeply into the costs of cover design, but from what I’ve read on other sites, this can actually happen at a much lower cost than what I initially anticipated. Much of the actual designing can be done on one’s own (after tons and tons of research- seriously, if you’re going to cheap out on money, don’t cheap out on time, too). But since I’m not a good enough artist to do make pretty pictures on my own, I’d want to hire a professional, even if that pro is, say, an art student still in college somewhere, or a gal/guy painting on the side. Some places I’ve heard that are good for finding a cover artist on the cheap include Tumblr, DeviantArt, Twitter, and Fiverr. (If you know of others, PRETTY PLEASE let me know in the comments! My ignorance knows no bounds!)

Classes, webinars, and tutorials. I picked Writer’s Digest because they’re widely recognized and have a reputation for quality, but I could really spend this money on any class anywhere. (Except at UAF. I looked up a writing class at my dear ol’ alma mater, but the $800 they wanted for one class wasn’t exactly a steal. Thanks, mater.) A skim through the WD class list cropped up lots of classes that I would very much like to be a part of. Unfortunately, the ones I most liked were pretty far out of my price range (looks like mater wasn’t as pricey as I first thought- I’m just cheap.), but there are a few in the range that I thought would be interesting. (I even managed to squeak into a free webinar recently that I enjoyed. I’ll write about it in a few weeks.)

Anything left over (unlikely, haha) would be put to good use entering writing contests. I’ve never done one with an entry fee and I’d be very interested in seeing what that narrowed pool would do to the playing field.

So after looking all of this up, I realized anew that I’m a chintzy little penny pincher, about as glad to part with money as I am with a pulse. (Also, I’m not allowed to put the money in the bank. I checked.) But since this is pretty much Monopoly money I’m playing with here, why not make things really fun? In fact…

Revised Thousand Monies o’ Stuff:

1000: Wicked awesome book trailer with explosions and lens flares and stuff

Boom, baby. Gonna be SWEET.

PS- A couple of quick reminders!  If you wanted to participate in the Bio Bash, we seem to be meeting up for the Twitter portion on Monday, February 23; longer formats will be posted here at jillmarcotte.wordpress.com the following day, February 24, with critiques from there on out.  If you wanted to participate in the writer-blogger idea exchange, that can be found here– lots of people have been looking at the page, but only two have commented so far. 😦 Remember to give as well as take!