Sunday, June 14, 2015

Question: How do I inspire my child to write?

It starts with a simple sentence.

Some of my most enjoyable moments were teaching a five-session writing class to elementary students. This is an age where their imaginations are getting broader and more inventive. This is the best time to get them to write those wonderful thoughts down on paper. But not every child I had was very excited to write.

My very first class had nine students, one of whom did not want to be there. On his first day he was adamant that his parents signed him up for the wrong class. I assured him that he was right where he should be and that he would have a great time writing. I could tell he didn’t believe me. The first and second classes were unproductive with respect to this student. While every other student was in their second drafts, he still hadn’t created a single sentence.

And then during the third class meeting, something amazing happened. There was a break in the lesson plan and all the kids were having conversations about their stories. One child made a joke about something, and another child elaborated on it. I let the conversation continue into lesson time, because the joke had somehow morphed into a communal story, with every child adding to the plot – including my writing-resistant student. In fact, he was the most ardent adder to the story, and his fellow classmates would encourage his input by complementing his version with their own.

I finally called the class to order and had them continue working on their current drafts. I then knelt beside my reluctant student’s chair and said, “You added incredible elements to the story you were all sharing. I would love to hear the end of it.” His eyes lit up and he started to talk about his ideas, but I interrupted him. “Wait, wait, I’m going to forget this great story. I need you to write it down so that I can remember it.” And with that, he wrote his story, first draft to finished product.  And it truly was a wonderfully imaginative story with much humor and adventure.

If you have a child who absolutely hates to write, it’s because they haven’t yet found the story that demands to be remembered. And the more you push them to write, the more they may not want to do it.  So what can you do?

Let’s take this from a reluctant writer’s point of view. Writing is boring. There are so many other things he or she could be doing than sitting at a desk with a paper and a pencil. The reluctant writer has not yet discovered the meaning of writing, which is to have fun with your imagination, to go places you haven’t been. But it all starts with a simple sentence.

Be a role model. If you are a reader and a writer, then your child will be, too. Start with a sentence. Sit with him or her and write a letter to a far-off family member, write a journal entry about what you did today. Write a grocery list. Find as many excuses as you can to model writing behavior.

Encourage writing. Encourage your child to write down his thoughts whenever he has something exciting to talk about. Tell him that something so exciting should be written down so it isn’t forgotten. Start with a sentence. And then have him read what he wrote to you, even if it is only one sentence. Never mind if the grammar or spelling is not perfect. It doesn’t have to be, until he is ready to share it with a critical group (such as his class or for a writing contest). My mantra is “as long as I can read it.”  Let your child know that it’s okay to have imperfect writing. He will have time to improve on his writing as he learns to revise and edit his work. And if only he will see his work, what does it matter if he didn’t spell “especially” right.

Embrace technology. Lastly, teach your child to use a computer. When a child has lots to write about, it can be discouraging when her hand starts to hurt. Teach her to type so she can write her story using a word processing program. Teach her how to save her work, and teach her to create new drafts to edit, instead of editing her original work.

Start with a simple sentence. Your child may only want to write a sentence or two without grumbling. But as writing becomes a daily adventure rather than a chore, those sentences will come together into a story of his or her own. Be a writing role model and give encouragement any chance you get. Your child will eventually have that “aha” moment and will want to write about it.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Question: Are YA Novels Really for Young Adults?

This is a question I am often asked by parents. Parents are becoming more aware of what is written in today's "young adult" novels, thanks in part to the sudden flurry of books-turned-movies that have graced our theaters since Twilight. They are noticing that the books aimed at teenagers appear more mature in theme than the YA fare of their youth. But is it really becoming "too adult?"

First of all, Young Adult is a designation, not a genre. It represents novels about teenaged characters undergoing a coming of age moment. Within this designation, there are different genres for young adult readers to choose from, from science fiction and fantasy to romance and historical fiction.

A Little History

Children's fiction has been around since books became widely accessible in the 1800's. Books for older children sprang up like Swiss Family Robinson(1812), Oliver Twist (1838), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer(1876), and Alice in Wonderland (1865). These and others became the literary classics of "Children's Literature" and were filled with the adventurousness of youth, but it also carried the problems children faced then: poverty, child labor, family obligations, and poor education.

In the 1950's and 60's books written for teenaged readers reflected the darker, more turbulent times. Gone were the adventures of youth, replaced by the harsh realities of an era of war, racism, and one's place in society. Created were the great but controversial works like The Outsiders (1967), Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Lord of the Flies (1954). Clearly, older teen readers were searching for something more than "children's"  literature.

Publishers began to see the opportunities available in a "Young Adult" market, and in the 1970's and 80's booksellers and libraries began creating young adult sections to easily distinguish between books meant for young children and books meant for older teens. Thus the YA designation was born. But the themes were still no less edgy than its predecessors, only different. These later decades reflected the fears of youth: pregnancy, death, and self-identity. Judy Blume's Forever (1975) and Tiger Eyes (1981), Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974) andFade (1988), and Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terebithia (1977) are a few examples.

It may seem that the content of young adult fiction has gotten heavier through the 90's and up to present day, but in truth the themes are the same. Teens moved away from the more formulaic coming-of-age novels and sought out other genres. They fell into horror with R.L. Stein and Christopher Pike, ate up stories about ghosts, vampires and werewolves with paranormal writers Neil Gaiman, David Shan, Stephanie Meyer, and Richelle Mead, and dove into dystopian worlds from Lois Lowry, Marie Lu, Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. These imaginary realms of monsters and mayhem opened up new ways to see sex, death, and identity.

Are YA Novels Safe for my Child to Read?

When I am asked about whether a YA novel is okay for one's son or daughter, my answer always comes with a caveat. It is a book that is marketed to teenagers, BUT (here's the caveat) you may not feel comfortable with the problems addressed in the story. Then again, let's face it – if a teenager finds a book interesting enough to want to read it, he or she is going to find a way to read it.  And perhaps these titles are a bit heavy on the sex, violence, or death, but to quote someone who posted this thought on Goodreads: "There is nothing 'safe' about reading. Reading is a dangerous, subversive activity intended to challenge authority and expand the mind."(Moonlight Reader)

It is a parent's responsibility to look out for the best interests of their children. Some parents are more open to the "dangerous and subversive," others are not. If teenagers are voracious readers, they may not even bother with the young adult section and move straight into the adult genres. I certainly did. So worrying about whether a YA novel may be to risqué might be the least of your problems.

There are acceptable limits, to be sure. For example, I know a 9-year-old that reads the Hobbit series with relish. But just because he can read and comprehend such works doesn't mean I would recommend the Game of Thrones series to him. But if a high-schooler wanted to read GoT, as a parent you could discourage it but the decision ultimately falls to your teenager.

What is most important is that parents should read what their children are reading so that there can be a meaningful discussion about the themes presented. Pay attention to YA titles, but also pay attention to what is in the pages. And above all, trust that your child will be able to interpret the themes of a book in a mature and meaningful way.