Getting Your MG Story Ready for the Classroom

A little while ago, there was a bit of a hullabaloo about soft censorship and Kate Messner’s new release, The Seventh Wish. I read several of Kate’s blog posts about it and some of the responses from teachers and librarians. But the post I found most interesting was this one from a teacher who used the book as the center of a unit study for several weeks.

As I read about all the different ways she infused this book into different subjects, I asked myself these questions.

Do I have material in my book that can reach across subjects?

Is there enough meat in my books to be at the center of a unit study?

The thing is, as a middle grade author, my biggest prospective customers are teachers and librarians. If I can position my book as a great asset to a classroom, a way to study several different subjects at once, I’ve gone a long way in marketing my book already.

That’s not to say that all middle-grade books must be written with this sort of research and subject material, several of my friends brought up Kate DiCamillo’s books, which are used widely for what they teach children about hope, heart, and empathy. But…these two kind of books are definitely not mutually exclusive. And as I finish revising another middle-grade novel, this one with a lot of material that spans different subjects, I realized that adding certain things to my book enhanced it. And so I want to talk about some ideas for how to write with the idea of classroom use in mind.

Revise with discussion questions. 

I love this blogpost from Rebecca McLaughlin about writing some discussion questions for your book before you begin revising. This helps you better focus in on theme, symbolism, and imagery. And yes, middle-grade books can and should make use of all of these tools. It also helps you keep a broader picture in mind, especially with non-contemporary books. How can this story still apply to the lives and struggles of the children reading it?

Here are a few questions from one of my favorite books, Where The Mountain Meets the Moon. 

  • When Minli sets off on her journey, she writes a letter to Ma and Ba, and she signs it “Love, your obedient daughter. 
  • Is Minli being obedient or disobedient at that moment? 
  • In what ways are her actions similar to or different from the actions of Jade Dragon’s children?
  • Have you ever been faced with decisions like the ones Minli and Jade Dragon’s children have to make?

Include school in your story. 

School is a huge part of every middle-grade characters life. Many MG stories take place during the school year and this fact alone is the perfect opportunity for you to add material in your story that can be used for activities in the classroom.

  • Give your character a school project. This idea of a long-term project is used to great effect in Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. Reading it, one could see how easy it would be for a classroom teacher to assign her students a similar “leaf identification project.”
  • Have on subject play a pivotal role for the character. Think of the science class in Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, or the teacher in Wonder, who writes a different motivational quote on the board every day. Both of these classes are vehicles for interesting information as well as touch points to show character arc.

Give your main character interests and hobbies that can be used in the classroom. 

Now, you have to follow your character as much as possible. Don’t try to make them fit a certain mold just to appeal to a certain teacher. However, hobbies and interests are great ways to sprinkle in lots of information and factoids that teachers can use as jumping off points into other subjects.

  • Think about all the information about jellyfish in The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin.
  • In my current manuscript, I’ve made the main character a paper engineer. I show her creating several different origami designs throughout the book and reference the story of the 1000 paper cranes and the Hiroshima Peace Park in relation to this interest. This one interest can be used to practice a handicraft, study history, and geography.I also love the character in Stead’s Liar and Spy who is obsessed with reforming spelling and Benjamin Franklin’s revised alphabet to make all spelling phonetic. It’s just a minor part of the story but it’s another thing that can be used in the classroom to take that book from just a language arts discussion to so much more.

Make your setting important. 

If you’ve really used your setting the way you should and played up certain details of it for imagery and symbolism purposes, then this should flow naturally. But no matter where you have set your middle-grade novel, you should have done enough research and included enough fact in your fiction that a teacher can draw out details from your setting to use in a wider discussion about geography, social studies, or science.

Do cross cultural writing correctly. 

If you are writing from your own experience of a culture, this shouldn’t be as difficult, but if you are writing about a culture that is not your own, make sure you RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH. Books from the perspective of other cultures are great tools in the classroom for unit studies. And a book that explores other cultures really well gives rise to so, so many classroom activities.

The best recent book I’ve read for this is Lois Sepahban’s Paper Wishes. The story is about a Japanese girl and her family when they are put in a camp during WWII. That in itself is history. But beyond the basic premise of the book, there is so much just in the telling of the story that you can pull out to talk about. Like the celebration of the Japanese holiday, Obon, the tea ceremony, etc. These little details are not the crux of the story. But they help sell the story to teachers looking for a book to base a unit study on.

As always, story comes first. It doesn’t matter how many interesting tidbits you include, a boring book will never sell. But, if you have the story part down and are looking for a way to make it more marketable, give some of these ideas a whirl.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Lesson Plan for Elementary Students: Description

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been going into my son’s 3rd grade class to talk to them about aspects of creative writing. In line with the state’s common core, one of the things the students needed to learn was the art of writing a good description.

As writers and readers, we understand the importance of a good description: those select details that transport us to a different place and allow us to experience the events of the story.

But most of the 3rd grade class had no idea what the word “description” meant.

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To help them better understand the concept and use it in their own writing, I used a three-part activity.

Illustrate the Concept

First, I selected a passage from a children’s book that was rich in description. For this class, I read the first part of chapter six from Little House in the Big Woods–where Ma and Laura encounter a bear. The selection worked great: it’s full of sensory details (sound, sight, touch), and the kids were fascinated by the bear. Afterward, I asked students to tell me what they could tell of the setting from the story: what time of year was it? (How did they know?) What time of day? Where did all of this happen?

Group Practice

After the students had a basic idea of the concept, we moved on to application. Before class, I cut out several interesting pictures from magazines and pasted them on paper. During class, I assigned the students to pairs. I gave half of each pair an image, with the instructions not to show the picture to their partner. Their job was to describe the picture while their partner attempted to draw it. When they were done, we switched the pictures up and swapped roles. Afterward, we talked about important descriptions can be (those who didn’t do their job well had pictures that looked nothing like the original), and what kinds of details help readers visualize the image.

Personal Application

Finally, I gave each child an opportunity to write their own description. I asked them to describe a person, place, thing, or animal that was important to them. When they finished, a few volunteers read their description to the class, and their classmates tried to guess what it was that they had described. Most of them chose to describe animals, and they quickly realized that they needed more details in order for anyone to guess what they’d described: a fuzzy gray animal led to guesses from a cat to an elephant, but no one guessed chinchilla; a green reptile living in the swamps led to guesses of crocodile, snake, lizard, and more–but no one hit on gharial, a narrow-nosed crocodilian. (That was my son’s description: chances are good no one would have guessed gharial anyway! He prides himself on knowing obscure animals.)

What aspects of description are most important to you? What useful activities have you used to teach description?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.