Posted in Free Study Guides, Great Middle Grade Reads, Teacher Resources, Writing

Great MG Reads: Number the Stars

number-the-stars-cover Free, printable teaching materials: Here are 3 free sets of questions to assess or review plot, character, and deeper-meaning components of the great MG novel Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Feel free to change the documents to suit your needs, and please share with others!




Kristallnacht happened on this night 78 years ago. So many important stories have been written with the Holocaust as a subject or historical backdrop, many of them YA and MG works. Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars is not just a great MG read, with a well-crafted main character and positive themes; it’s also a delicate yet gripping introduction to the Holocaust for younger readers. When I taught this last year, not many of my fifth graders had a clear grasp on what the Holocaust was, and several had it pegged incorrectly in the wrong era of history. The experience of introducing them to the subject of the Holocaust taught me of the importance of being reminded, staying mindful, and never forgetting the events and facts of this dark, dark time for humanity.

Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning MG novel works on so many levels—a springboard for historical timelines, a perfectly-suited storyline for teaching the Plot Triangle, a moving and realistic character and thematic study. In the language arts or homeschool classroom, you can do as much or as little with this novel as your students are ready for. If you are lucky enough to teach multiple grade levels, it’s the kind of book students will recall easily year to year, making it a valuable tool for comparison and exemplification in more mature lessons down the road.

Posted in Free Study Guides, Great Middle Grade Reads, Teacher Resources, Writing

Great MG Reads: Bud, Not Buddy

Bud Not Buddy front coverTeachers — Here are three free resources for your use when you teach Bud, Not Buddy, a great historical choice for the classroom. Just click to open, and save and print as needed! Feel free to share these freebies with a teacher who might use them. There’s an editable  Word version followed by a pdf for each.

Reading quiz for use after Chapters 1-3:

 Bud, Not Buddy Chapters 1-3 20 pt. Quiz  

  Bud, Not Buddy Chapters 1-3 20 pt. Quiz

Planning worksheet for young writers to use in crafting their own story “pitch”:

Original fiction pitch worksheet after Bud, Not Buddy  

  Original fiction pitch worksheet after Bud, Not Buddy

Character trait/proof from text chart:

Bud, Not Buddy Character Analysis worksheet  

Bud, Not Buddy Character Analysis worksheet

The indomitable Christopher Paul Curtis came to speak at a writers’ residency I attended years ago. He talked about the importance of keeping the story at the heart of the book (as opposed to the history) when you write historicals. Bud, Not Buddy has excellent attributes for instruction: character voice and development, the “quest” or journey plot structure, great morals and themes…and history as a vivid backdrop that impacts the story without taking over.

I used this book in a 5th grade Language Arts classroom, but it would fit into a variety of grade levels and content areas, and it would be a great choice for homeschool audiences as well.

Fast summary: Ten-year-old Bud escapes a not-so-nice foster situation, but instead of heading back to the “home,” he decides to find his father. He’s never met him, but he’s certain the clues in his suitcase left by his mother before she died will be all the help he needs in finding the man. Set against the background of the Great Depression, the various lifestyles Bud experiences (as an orphan, a vagrant, a traveling musician) take the reader solidly into another time and place.

Genre: Historical Middle Grade

Note for teachers/homeschooling parents: Bud, Not Buddy has so many teachable moments! You can sidebar social studies, writing, morality, and arts topics with every chapter: What’s a Hooverville? What’s a worker’s union? Find some examples of people caring for others in the book. How does jazz music differ from music of other genres?

Real (modern) world connections: The book centers around Flint, Michigan. Students may bring up the current status of Flint, which might spur a discussion of other American cities and how they have developed over time.

Any alarms/flashing lights? (Potentially controversial facets of the book): There’s a brief scene in which Bud gets a kiss from a girl he doesn’t see again. Some discussion of race relations in the 1930s would deepen students’ awareness and understanding of Bud’s decisions and emotions. Bud imagines using a rifle he finds at the foster home, but doesn’t.

Notes for writers/readers: Study this book as a great example of voice! My fifth graders were quick to point out all the grammar “mistakes” on page one, which immediately prompted a good lesson on voice and style, what voice means for deep characterization in a novel, and descriptions of POV.

A great MG read — can’t wait to teach this one again.


Posted in Writing

When even a great metaphor won’t do

I’ve been trying to come up with a catchy literary comparison for  how grateful I am to have been a part of the Pitch Wars 2015 crew. But no figurative language seems capable of producing a worthy enough description. Pitch Wars–and particularly my mentor Rebecca Wells-motivated me to make a fiercely better book out of ideas, questions, moods, and images.

You always hear that writers must persevere toward publication and must believe in the story they are telling. This is especially true in the quest for a literary agent, when fear and rejection can easily paralyze one into inactivity.

Today, I’m thrilled to be able to stand with other newly agented writers and say, You know all that stuff about perseverance and belief in your story? Well, it’s all true: I am now being represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group. She is an amazingly talented agent with beautiful insight into the children’s book market. I can’t wait to dig in to improvements and revisions as we begin to work together in the New Year!




Posted in Writing

PitchWars Revision — the beginning

Well, not really the beginning of revisions. My PitchWars manuscript is on something like Draft #3 with a couple significant restructurings and line edits already. But when you are lucky enough to have a great mentor suggesting improvements, you welcome the whole process with an open mind and heart, as if it is a new beginning for your book. My excellent mentor Rebecca Wells gave me the perfect assignment to get started with: a chart that tracks each major character’s motivations, goals, and consequent actions. Mine is already filled with highlighted notes of details and scene ideas I want to rewrite! Here’s a blank so you can see what I’m talking about… feel free to use as is, or modify to suit your style and manuscript!

Blank character motivation chart

Good luck to fellow mentees and everyone in the PitchWars camp!

Posted in Writing


A Quick Bio:

Hi fellow potential mentees for PitchWars! I’m Jenn Brisendine, mom of two boys and a full-time lit/language arts teacher.

I love novels with theme ideas of resilience and renewal, and those are the driving forces behind my middle grade manuscripts. I currently have a fantasy/time travel out to agents and a mystery/historical in Pitchwars.

I earned a Master’s Degree in Writing Popular Fiction years ago from Seton Hill University and it was the best thing I could’ve done — learned so much about publishing and marketing as well as plotting, characterization, and other craft subjects.

This blog contains reviews on my favorite books on writing, as well as great MG reads that I love and teach. I’ll putting some of my original teaching material on here to share for free, so please spread the word!

For example, here’s my free study guide for Jewell Parker Rhodes’ excellent novel Ninth Ward, great for classroom or homeschool use – please feel free to share with a teacher you know:

Ninth Ward Study Guide

Thanks and good luck to everyone!

Posted in Free Study Guides, Great Middle Grade Reads, Teacher Resources, Writing

Great MG read: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

ninth-wardTeachers! Check out this chapter-by-chapter reader’s study guide I’m sharing — free for classroom or homeschooling use! Hope you find it helpful!  Ninth Ward Study Guide

Ninth Ward is a great choice for classroom or homeschooling use. It will spur at least a quick study of the events surrounding the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing tragedies that affected thousands of people.  Or it may inspire more in-depth research projects to prep for or react to a reading of the novel.

I used the book in a class of 6th graders. My students found the reading level easy but the content much harder to mentally grasp–mostly because they didn’t have much prior knowledge of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans before we discussed it in class. They loved the characters and the pacing of the book, and I loved that it was a historical MG novel set only ten years ago. I think many kids, parents, and teachers tend to think of centuries-old eras, long-ago wars, and distant past events when we hear the label “historical novel.” Ninth Ward is recent history–history that has had a clear impact on the world in which they are living.

Fast Summary: Lanesha is a 12-year-old girl living in the Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. She weathers the hurricane using strength, resolve, and quick-thinking skills…then she must survive the floodwaters, too.

Genre: Historical MG with a nice dose of magical realism

Note for teachers/homeschooling parents: Such a great and teachable book! Rich in plot and character details, great opportunities to discuss characters’ motivations and author’s purpose. Themes of hope, resilience, and gumption with plenty of evidence in Lanesha’s words and actions.

Real world connections: Have students ask older folks (parents, teachers, friends, relatives) what news stories they recall from the days of constant media coverage surrounding the storm and its aftereffects.

Any alarms/flashing lights? (Potentially controversial facets of the book) Well, the magical realism comes in the form of ghosts… Lanesha can see the bodies of dead people from a variety of eras, and she can communicate with some of them. One of the ghosts she can see is her mother, who died after giving birth to her. There is only the faintest tone of creepiness regarding this trait ; Lanesha treats it as something normal and natural.

Mama Ya-Ya is the woman who cares for Lanesha, and though she keeps statues of Catholic saints handy, she also believes in “faiths born in Africa”… she believes in “many gods… (that) gods live in everything, in the whole wide world.” This is briefly mentioned and has little impact on the plot, though my students (in our small Catholic school) discussed how this trait contributed effectively to Mama Ya-Ya’s overall characterization.

Posters from the 1960’s with the motto Make Love, Not War are given one mention to detail a setting. This has no other role in the book.

There aren’t any instances of profane or questionable language in the book.

Notes for writers and readers: This book is an excellent study in POV and voice–immediately the reader will connect with and know Lanesha, and know and understand her existence in the Ninth Ward.

Great read! I look forward to teaching it again this coming school year.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Five: Many Genres, One Craft (edited by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller)

This summer marks the four-year anniversary of the release of Many Genres, One Craft, and I’m still thrilled to call myself a contributor. My essay on writing for older kids, “Keeping It Real: Mixing Truth and Fiction in YA,” is included, but it’s only one of 82 pieces–82!–that explore the craft of writing by addressing it from multiple angles. I can’t find another writing book out there anything like this one, and it’s fun and exciting to be a part of a volume so innovative. Beautifully designed and published by Headline Books, MGOC offers up both the practical and the inspirational in each packed section: Craft, Genre, and The Writer’s Life. Articles on the writing process and story elements fill the Craft section; popular genres like sci-fi, romance, suspense, and others (in addition to YA and children’s) are each addressed in turn in the Genre section; and the pieces in The Writer’s Life section, probably my favorites, clue you in to methods that working, earning writers use to overcome challenges and achieve the overall goal of more and better writing.

The book is crazy big and weighs as much as a newborn. It’s done awfully well this past year; it won the 2012 International Book Award in the “Business: Writing and Publishing” category, and the “Education/Academic” category of the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It won the General Non-Fiction Award in the 2011 London Books Festival Awards. It placed 5th in The Writer magazine’s “This Year’s Ten Most Terrific Writing Books,” earned a spot as a finalist in an impressive list of other awards and honors, and–as of yesterday–won Silver in ForeWord Reviews’ 2012 Book of the Year Awards in the category of Adult Nonfiction–Writing.

MGOC‘s contributors are all connected with the MA/MFA writing program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University as graduates, faculty, or guest presenters at writers’ residencies. We all draw from what we learned or what we teach at Seton Hill in these essays, so the book also provides a pure glimpse into what this degree program has to offer. As Dr. Mike Arnzen, one of the editors, says in his intro, “this book is the writer’s residency in a bottle.”

Try  MGOC’s blog  for excerpts and more info.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Four: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Back in college and grad school days, I knew several chemistry majors who, when they got a few weeks inside Organic Chem, suddenly felt like they were hopelessly sinking. You could read their worried expressions like pages in a story: I’m in the wrong major. I picked the worst career ever. I can’t do it, because I don’t get it. Same thing with the Pre-meds when Anatomy and Physiology hit them like a bus, and same thing again when Library Science wanna-bees opened their textbooks on MARC records. The content itself in these classes threatened to kick even the most determined and intelligent students the heck out of the discipline where they thought they’d always belonged. Many students were “weeded out” during these classes and other particularly challenging ones; the ones who made it through shivered with relief. And every now and then a student came out the other side the clear victor, making once-threatening ideas now serve their needs instead.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers has a similar effect on some storytellers. I watched it happen in grad school and I felt some of the panic myself: What? Huh? Who? Slow down. Maybe this writing thing isn’t for me after all. It’s not that the text is hard to read; it’s not at all, it’s easy reading. It’s clearly explained. It’s a friendly tone. The examples are all stories we know and love well. So what’s the problem?

Maybe it has something to do with the basic premise: that all stories–every book you’ve ever read–are all really the same story. (At least, the good ones.) And that not only are all stories basically the same, but that your life and my life and pretty much every life ever lived or being lived or going to be lived is the same story too.

Vogler’s book, pictured here, is a guide for writers. It’s a spin on the work of Joseph Campbell, myth theorist extraordinaire. Joseph Campbell’s ideas “run parallel” (Vogler’s phrase) to those of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who discussed the role of archetypes in our real lives. Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he analyzed both the archetypes themselves and the archetype-besprinkled path we all follow through life. (Stay with me.) And Vogler used Campbell’s ideas in his days as a writer and consultant for the movie-making industry, ultimately writing about this Hero’s Journey mythic structure in a seven-page how-to-use-it-well memo. He calls The Writer’s Journey a “descendant” of that memo, and describes how writers of stories can use Campbell’s ideas not only in their pages of fiction or their screenplays but also in their real lives as writers.

So what are these archetypes? And what Journey does every Hero supposedly go on? Here goes (and if you’ve never heard of this before, don’t worry. Vogler’s message is that even if you’ve never read Jung or Campbell, you already know this stuff. Because you are already living it.):

A Hero (main character/protagonist/person living a life) starts out in the Ordinary World. He hears the Call to Adventure but initially might hesitate (Refusal of the Call). He Meets with the Mentor (an archetype) and decides to heed the call. Next comes the Crossing of the First Threshold; what follows are Tests, Allies, and Enemies; eventually he Approaches the Inmost Cave in which there is a final Ordeal. The Hero gets some Reward, takes The Road Back, experiences Resurrection, and Returns with the Elixir. Other archetypes the Hero encounters along his path include Shapeshifters, Threshold Guardians, Tricksters, and Shadows. (All the capitalized phrases here are Vogler’s or Campbell’s labels.)

Some students love literary analysis so much in high school that they become high school English teachers. As a teacher, when I read Vogler’s book, my reaction was “Well, yeah. Plot Triangle Diagram 101.” But as a would-be writer, this book blew me away, and lots of other writers in my fiction program too, and caused us to question the choice to devote a good portion of the rest of our lives to being writers. It’s overwhelming to think that every story–including the ones you haven’t even dreamed up yet!–are going to fall into this iconic, mythic structure that also parallels each and every life ever lived. Whew.

Then, there were those who debated and I’m sure still debate the merits of Vogler’s ideas, saying it’s just a lengthy description of a formula, and why should anyone settle for thinking about plotline via formulaic means. I’m anti-formula too–unless it’s more of a map to the whole meaning and purpose of the quest that is life, which Vogler suggests the Hero’s Journey is.

Chapters are devoted to each archetype and to each stage of the Journey, complete with many  examples from great movies and books. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll never again watch so much as an episode of Blue’s Clues in the same way. And you might find yourself analyzing the journey you are on, thinking, “Oh, yeah, that ex-boyfriend. Definitely a shapeshifter.” Et cetera.

It’s a great read. It’ll get your wheels turning down paths you may never have considered. But if you’re a fiction writer, it’s a little…daunting. Fascinating, but daunting. A writer may have to figure out how to best tame these ideas for his or her own use.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Three: A Profile of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King

Every time I pick up Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, it’s like drinking a hot tea with honey when you have a scratchy throat. Soothing and helpful. There’s no snarkiness here, just wisdom and common sense advice told in a clear and friendly tone. There are even little cartoons by George Booth to keep you smiling as you slash and burn pieces of your manuscript.

My copy is literally yellow with age and use. Assigned reading in the early semesters of my fiction writing program ten years ago, this one stays within reach on my desk, with  dogeared and paper-clipped sections for quick reference. Loaded with examples, the authors never talk down to the writer or say anything discouraging, and they keep quiet on the slim chances we all have of fiction publication. Consequently, the soothing part is just being allowed to go in to your work and revise the heck out of it, based on their recommendations. There’s a tighter focus on what to do and how to do it because they leave reality checks and opinions to the Noah Lukemans of writing guides and inspiring words and tones to the Anne Lamotts. Just last night, flipping through the guide for some tidbits to mention in this post, I reviewed the chapter “Easy Beats” and realized I better edit (again) the dialogue in the second half of my novel to get rid of the extraneous beats. I’m forever having characters sigh or nod their heads or take off or put on their glasses, because I don’t want them just standing there awkwardly; but Self-Editing says no, let the dialogue “crackle” with its own tension, keep the beats to a minimum, don’t slow the pace too much. And I trust this book, so it’s back I go with the delete key at the ready.

Oh, and if you don’t know the term “beat,” don’t even worry. Not only do the authors explain every term at the beginnings of chapters, they do it in such a painless way that you never feel amateurish or inexperienced. Beats are the physical activities character pursue as they talk and move in a scene, you read. Ohhh, yeah, your writer head thinks. I have those. And if you have too many, like me, you read the rest of the chapter for pointers on making beats more worth their while, and then you go revise.

Other chapters detail breaking up dialogue and interior monologue for better pacing, editing out repetition, resisting the urge to explain every little thing, and one of my favorites, making your writing more sophisticated. This has to do with eliminating the overuse of exclamation marks, italics for emphasis, and -ly adverbs, as well as keeping a tight leash on metaphors when the action or reveals need to take center stage (ooh, I need to be reminded of that last one a lot). The authors are flat out solving the mystery here on how to have a writing style, because once you rise to a higher level of sophistication in your writing, your voice can start to show. Voice is  an elusive enough thing for writers. Thank goodness Self-Editing can help you clear away the obstructions in your voice’s path, and allow you a chance of honing it.

One more note on the soothing effect of this guide: it’s one of the few I’ve seen that offers actual suggested answers to the end-of-chapter writing exercises. What a great way to douse any Inexperienced Writer Panic. Sip this book, and get back to work.

Posted in Writing

Thanks, Will

From Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act III, Scene 1:


There is a lady in Verona here

Whom I affect; but she is nice and coy

And naught esteems my aged eloquence

Now therefore would I have thee to my tutor–

For long agone I have forgot to court;

Besides, the fashion of the time is changed–

How and which way I may bestow myself

To be regarded in her sun-bright eye.


Win her with gifts, if she respect not words:

Dumb jewels often in their silent kind

More than quick words do move a woman’s mind.


But she did scorn a present that I sent her.


A woman sometimes scorns what best contents her.

On the surface, it appears that Valentine doesn’t think very highly of the ladies he courts, assuming that gifts like silent jewels will work much better to win them over than conversation. I think Shakespeare trusted his theatre-goers to see a deeper meaning, as he did so often; here, that women would not be moved to believe the banal talk of the unimaginative Valentine–that it would take more than his “quick,” predictable, dull words to inspire a brainy female. The fact that Valentine goes on to comment about how a woman sometimes seems to act opposite of the way she truly feels is added irony, since I bet the Elizabethan actor portraying him would have been coached to say the lines in a baffled sort of way.

That’s all just fun Shakespeare commentary for a getting-towards-bedtime Sunday night. What I really wanted to do in this post was explain where my blog title comes from, and why I chose it. I like to call up allusions to Shakespeare in things I write, and titles are tricky enough things to do really well when you go it alone. This phrase, interpreting the scene the way I like to, sums up what I want this blog to be: more than just a bunch of random diary-type entries, more than just a line-up of my thoughts on the publication process or any personal frustrations about writing…more than just quick words. I’d like it to be a bit more, so that both the content of each post and the writing of the post itself helps me to remember why I get up at 5:30 a.m. to squeeze in some revision time, why I should send out another query, why I’m sitting here blogging even though it means missing the beginning of The Good Wife and putting off the pouring of a nice glass of Shiraz. Words–in all eras, even (maybe especially) in this one–are weighty things. They shouldn’t be dashed off and sent out without some thoughtfulness behind every one. They must be crafted, like fine linen or a sculpture, to inspire the reader. Take care, take care.

So, I hope to craft more than quick words here, and maybe some of reviews and discussions of writing  will even help a reader or two, just as the composing of them is helping me.