Bill Martin- A Champion of Children’s Literature

BrownBearBrownBearWhatDoYouSeeThere are 7 million copies of Brown Bear, Brown Bear in print.  Written by Bill Martin and illustrated by Eric Carle it was first published in 1967 and  is  listed as #21 on the 2013 Good Reads list of best children’s books.  The popularity of the simple story led to the creation of other best sellers- Polar Bear, Polar Bear,  -Baby Bear Baby Bear- and Panda Bear, Panda Bear. Those are just four of the more than 300 books written by children’s author Bill Martin who died in 2004.

Bill and Martin and me in 1980
Bill and Martin and me in 1980

I met Bill Martin in 1980 when he did a workshop for teachers at a North Dakota university. Together with some of my Manitoba colleagues I went to several days of sessions where Bill Martin and the classroom teachers who worked with him transformed the way I taught reading. They introduced me to the idea of using good children’s literature instead of readers to teach children to read. I also became sold on the value of a curriculum rich with music and poetry in developing children’s language and reading skills. Bill Martin said children needed to have ‘language inside themselves’ before they could learn to read. A former reading curriuclum development executive for Holt Rhinehart, Martin was just beginning these workshops when I met him but I’ve learned that later they became known as Pathways to Literacy Conferences and trained more than 50,000 teachers at sites across the United States. 

Called the ‘soul of modern reading instruction’ by Ken Goodman, a former president of the International Reading Association, Martin promoted the idea that children’s literature belonged in the classroom and lots of it and that teaching children to love books was as important as teaching them how to read them. I remember at the conference learning that children should be encouraged to develop literature preferences and have a favorite author and be given an opportunity to choose what they wanted to read.  The workshop I attended was also where I heard about the idea of Sustained Silent Reading- giving children time every day to read to themselves and just enjoy books. The importance of teachers reading aloud to children many times each day was emphasized. The conference also taught us about the key role played by parents who should be reading to children and the value of children taking books home from school daily to read to their parents.

All these practices were great news for the children’s book industry. Instead of just having thirty copies of a ‘reader’ -one for each child-  a classroom now needed hundreds of books.  More books were needed so all the children could take books home every night and even more books so children could have a real choice in what they read. Teachers reading aloud books popularized them and kids begged their parents to buy them copies. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced the practices Martin, who had his doctrate in education from Northwestern University in Chicago,  started in the 1980s really revolutionized the children’s book industry by making schools and classrooms booming markets for children’s books. So thanks Bill Martin.  A Bill Martin Junior Symposium  is still held each year at Texas A&M University. 

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MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next?

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.

Writing by Scene and Sticky-Note Fun

You all may have realized by now that I’m not a pantser, but a loyal outliner. I thought I’d share with you one of the strategies that I use when outlining that works really well for me.

Outlining by Scene:

You’ll need sticky notes… and lots of ’em — in a bunch of colours.

A Scene outline100pxls

This is a photo of one of my outlines. Plain (or lined) paper, taped together at the edges so it can be folded accordion-style when being stored away. Each colour of sticky note represents a different character. On the left side of the first page I list out the characters’ names in order of importance. Protagonist first, side kick if necessary, don’t forget your antagonist. Don’t worry about minor characters.

I tend to favour time-lines when outlining. So across the top (I use stickies so they are movable) I put in whatever works for my timeline. In this case, my story takes place over a week, so my stickies are labelled “Monday”, “Tuesday”, etc. Using extreme point-form I then write an idea of what my main character is doing on that day. Or I might even use labels such as “A.M.”, “Lunch”, etc if I need to break my day down into segments. As I go I make note of who else is in each scene with my main character. I then give each of those characters a different sticky colour and place their sticky horizontally in line across  from their name, but also lined up under the sticky of the main character. (Thinking mathematically, it’s a chart with an X and Y axis–don’t let those of you who fear math get scared now, if that confused you – ignore it! :D) Go through your story writing down what happens to your main character throughout your story and line it up on your time-line (or whatever sort of scene tracking works best for you).


I find the magic with sticky-note planning is I can also more easily weave in my sub-plots. When my main character is dealing with situation D, what are my secondary characters dealing with? How does it affect what my main character is doing (or visa versa)? I find this an easy way to add in sub-plots before I start writing. I know when an event needs to happen that affects the secondary story.

I also keep a binder where I story my A sticky dividers 100pxlscharacter outlines, settings details, research, and all that good stuff. (If you use holed paper for your outline then when you fold it up it also fits in your binder.), Everything is in one spot.  Using stickies for binder tabs works for me too. I can label them anything, it’s cheaper than buying a bunch of dividers, it doesn’t matter if I have one or fifty pages between my tabs…

Writing by Scene:

Here’s the cool thing I love about using this type of outline:

You don’t need to write your story in chronological order. You can write whatever scene you feel like writing today, at this moment in time. Whatever scene speaks to you, right now. Write it and then paste it into the proper order in your full document, assuming your write on computer. If you hand write then perhaps you can add the pages into a binder, or label the pages so you know where to fit them in. Don’t worry about transitions at this point. Not necessary. You may find, as I have, that there are certain scenes you just don’t want to write and by the end of your writing you have a few scenes that have just never grabbed your interest. Writing in chronological order, you may have come across one of these scenes and experienced writers block that prevented you from continuing. But since you’re almost finished your novel you can now focus on these problem spots because your motivated because the finish line is in sight. It’s all very exciting. 😀 You can A) Figure out how to make these scenes more exciting so you want to write them. Or B) Dump them. Are they crucial to your story?

Let me know what tricks work for you to help keep you organized while writing. Certainly feel free to ask me questions if something here isn’t clear for you. I’m happy to help.

¸.•´¸.•*´¨) ¸.•*¨)
(¸.•´ (¸.•* Suzanne Costigan writes middle grade and YA novels. She lives in Winnipeg, Canada with James, her children, three dogs and four five cats.

Suzanne’s first novel, Empty Cup, is an edgy contemporary young adult story about a seventeen year old girl who lives through life’s ultimate betrayal. Suzanne lives in Winnipeg, MB.

Sidekicks with Backbone & Ballast

My favourite kind of book?

The answer is easy. It may not be what you expect to hear. I will not give you any specific genre. I will not say fantasy or chick lit or young adult or humour.

My favourite kind of book fits into all or no genre. It’s the sort with a fabulous sidekick.

As I read, the main character is very important to me. I want to like them, I want to feel empathy for them and root for them. The setting, the plot, the story, it all matters fiercely too. But—

Give me a fantastic sidekick and I’m in literature paradise.Frodo&Sam

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Frodo has Sam. Imagine how different the story, and Frodo himself, would be without the steadfast, wise & sensible, Samwise Gamgee. He’s a hero in his own right. Some would argue he is the hero. Nevertheless, he is considered a sidekick.

Sidekicks are an integral part of the story with specific purposes and are exceptionally diverse. They:

-provide comic relief or brevity as required.
-keep the protagonist focused on his quest and act as a sounding board for the protagonist to help solve dilemmas or make decisions.
-often are the opposite in temperament and provide balance for the protagonist who is overly timid, or overly rash, etc.
-are sometimes a hindrance or nuisance but even by this help advance the plot and spur on the protagonist.
-can be used for anything you cannot use your protagonist for that would be out of character for them.
-provide knowledge that your protagonist cannot know.
-we get to know the protagonist on deeper levels because of the interaction between the two, be it positive or negative.

The list goes on as far as the imagination and can be neatly summed up by the word BALLAST. Anything your protagonist is not, can be put into your sidekick

I appreciate sidekicks in all these aspects and for the drama that consequently plays out between them and the protagonist on all these levels. Lets look at a few more examples from across the years. They come in 2’s or 3’s and can be found in fiction for any age.Harry-Ron-and-Hermione-harry-ron-and-hermione-31002193-500-394

Harry & Ron and Hermione (Harry Potter-JK Rowling)

Sherlock Holmes and Watson (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)imagesCA5WTKSI

Batman and Robin (Comics)

Laurel_&_HardyLaurel and Hardy (Old comedy)

Yogi and Boo-Boo (Yogi Bear cartoons)

Shrek and Donkey-boy (Dreamworks)imagesCA7O3HV2

Nancy Drew and Bess and George (Nancy Drew Mysteries–Carolyn Keene)il_fullxfull_107995674

Bruno and Boots; Cathy & Diane (MacDonald Hall–Gordon Korman)71VzAcvU81L__SL500_SS500_

Nathaniel & Bartimaeus (The Bartimaeus trilogy–Jonathon Stroud)

Kendra and brother Seth (Fablehaven–Brandon Mull)

Sidekicks don’t have to be another person. On occasion an animal makes a good sidekick if handled well, or a sibling. The latter, in Fablehaven, is often an annoying sidekick but fits the bill because he becomes such an integral part of the plot that he inadvertently become helpful.

A sidekick is faithful, loyal, yet not afraid to contradict the protagonist if he believes it’s for his own good. He can be a good friend, but not necessarily, usually becoming a friend or ally part way through the book, when the protagonist realizes he can’t do without him. Ultimately, the sidekick brings forth the very best in him.

Think of all the sidekicks you know, not just in books, but on TV Genie_300and in movies. Got any favourites? One of my faves? The Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Could there be any greater? 🙂

Christina’s motto is:
“Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” (George Bernard Shaw)

Short Stories: A Crucible for Novelists

crucibleWhat do writing short stories and a crucible have in common?

 They both boil off the dross and leave you with a purer product.

A short story as defined by Webster’s dictionary is a piece of prose fiction usually under 10,000 words.

I would argue in today’s market that the work should be under 5,000 words. Very few magazines or anthologies welcome longer works. And if you write flash fiction you get under 1,000, sometime less than 500.

I started writing short stories because I though it might be easier to get a professional to read my short fiction than novel length works. And I was right. My first publication credits are for my short stories. But, I HATE WRITING THEM! I love how novel writing allows me time in my protagonist’s head and room to explore her world, so I find short stories jolting.pain

I can only describe the experience as painful. A good short story must have all the elements of a novel—strongly developed character, a character arc, plot, tension, conflict. In a novel I get 100,000 words to do this. In most of my short stories I get about 3,000 words. I bleed for each one.

The experience of writing these jagged little bundles has been beneficial to my novel writing. Writing short stories is like managing my bank account—usually there are more things to buy than money in the account. In the same way that I budgethave to budget my money, I must budget my words. In each short story I’m forced to decide which aspects are most important. Which aspects of setting should I spend words on? Which character traits are worthy of mention? Which secondary characters can I afford to include? What symbols or emblems can I use to bring depth to something that needs to be so brief?

The process of learning to write short stories has focused my novel writing. I’m better able to decide which description I need and which I can cut away. I’ve begun to view chapters as short stories, giving each a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. I’ve learned that paragraph upon paragraph of character description are unnecessary, that character can be conveyed in mannerisms, speech patterns, and habits embedded within the story.

I’ve also come to believe that any writer worth their ink should be able to tell a story in 100,000 words or 1,000 words.

Have you written any short stories? If not, I encourage you to give it a try. You may be surprised what you learn about yourself and your writing in the process.

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Melinda Friesen writes novels for the middle grades, young adult, and new adult markets and she also writes short stories for adults. Her first love is her husband and four children. In them she finds her greatest inspiration.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

This Bud’s For You, Too

The email message arrived on a busy day.  Working to deadline on a troublesome story, I barely had time to catch my breath let alone be simultaneously entertained and inspired, though in the end that’s exactly what would happen. “Absolutely the best!” the message said. “Watch all of them.”  Below I found a link to a YouTube video titled Budweiser Clydesdale Commercials.

budweiserI am usually wary of such things, sometimes because I distrust the sender and wonder what garbage might infiltrate my computer, but also because I know from personal experience what a huge temptation YouTube can be.  Last year, while on a trip to Italy, my wife and I faced a few long evenings in hotel rooms where CNN was the only English language channel we could access on TV. One night, for entertainment, we purged YouTube on my laptop and for blissful, idle hours we binged on a steady stream of video clips from around the world.  We stayed up far later than we should and paid the price the next day, trudging past landmarks like the Coliseum with scarcely enough energy to snap a few photos.

The Budweiser message came from my sister-in-law, a trustworthy source. Sold on “Absolutely the best!” I clicked on the link. I promised myself I’d only watch a minute or two.  As it turned out, I watched all eight minutes, entranced by a string of award-winning Super Bowl commercials, each one featuring Budweiser’s iconic Clydesdale horses.  Gone and forgotten- at least for the moment – were the sticky problems I was having with my own story.

220px-Budweiser_Clydesdales_BostonThe commercials were hugely entertaining.  Not only that, each was a story masterpiece,  a  nugget or everything we who write stories – even very short ones like those in picture books – strive to achieve.  The ingredients were all there – character, plot, conflict, resolution – the elixir of well-told tales, all in 60 seconds and sometimes even less.Z2442

But there was something else, too. Another quality.  I recalled something I’d read recently in Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009).  For a story to resonate with readers (or in the Budweiser case – viewers), it must have depth. “Enduring picture books,” Paul says, “must be about something bigger than a mere incident.  The story problem must explore some larger theme or issue.  It must have a kernel of truth about life and our world.”

Each of the Budweiser stories incorporated a ‘kernel of truth’, a deeper message that went beyond the string of incidents making up the story itself. The value of friendship.  The importance of cooperation.  The payoff that comes with persistence and hard work.  Those deeper messages were there, echoing life and lingering after the commercials were over.

For me, watching the Budweiser commercials was, as the saying goes ‘time well wasted’.  This Bud might be for you as well, so click on the image below to link up to YouTube if you wish to double up on entertainment and inspiration yourself.


Larry Verstraete ( is a Winnipeg educator and the author of 12 non-fiction books for youngsters.  His next book, Life and Death: Surviving the Impossible (Scholastic Canada) is set for release in Spring 2014.

Another blog entry that might interest you:

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For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.
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