Monday, November 16, 2015

Writing Teacher as Choreographer

Choreographed Prompt
by S. L. Lipson

My student does not like it
when I play peppy classical music--
or does he?
He fidgets with his pen,
raising and lowering it,
but not onto his paper,
where he is supposed to be writing.
He waves the pen,
watching it as if watching a windshield wiper,
to the rhythm of the music.
He's conducting, not creating,
joyfully unproductive.

Maybe classical music deafens his muse. 

I switch radio channels to blues 
and his pen stops dancing, 
as he leans back in his chair
and takes a deep breath,
then leans forward and lowers his pen slowly
to his mostly blank page.
He starts writing, word by word at first,
and suddenly in a stream.

His posture projects passion through his pen.

Finally, he clicks his pen shut, rereads, sighs, 
and looks up at me.
"Wow, this is the saddest thing
I've ever written."
His eyes look glassy.

I smile,
a content choreographer.  

For more poetry by S. L. Lipson, check out, my other blog titled "Writing Memorable Words."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Percy Wakes My Students: How a Poem by Mary Oliver Enlightened Two Middle-School Writers

     "Percy Wakes Me," a poem by Mary Oliver, describes a morning when a determined dog, Percy, wakes his slow-moving owner for a walk and breakfast and then "jumps onto the kitchen counter where he is not supposed to be." Instead of reprimanding the dog or getting angry, the owner pets and praises him: "How clever, if you/ needed me,/ to wake me." The owner observes that the dog seems delighted that he was not "lectured," and then she adds: "He has done something/ that he needed/ and now he hears that it is okay." The final lines provoke an answer from the reader: "This is a poem about more than Percy./ Think about it." 

     A perfect writing prompt, I thought, after reading "Percy Wakes Me." I knew this poem would elicit some thoughtful words from my middle-school students who, like Percy, have felt ignored or controlled by adults who set the rules. I knew that they would identify with the dog's joy at the surprising response to his rule-breaking/attention-seeking/limit-testing behavior. After a lively discussion about text-to-self comparisons, they wrote their own poems, and I am proudly sharing two of those poems below. 

     The first poem is untitled, by a 12-year-old boy, whose poem shows how a clever teacher redirects destructive behavior to teach a lesson about respect and responsibility. Notice how this young poet, S.M., also emulated Mary Oliver's style:

Johnny screams, and I groan with annoyance.
He has been dumping all the crayons onto the floor,
Now he's happily jumping on desks,
So I inhale deeply.
How great you are, I say, helping me teach a lesson about  
   respecting other people's possessions!
He thought he would have his ears yelled off,
His eyes glimmer with confusion.
He sits down, waiting for more compliments.
He expected yelling and now he hears praise.
Then I hand him the broom and his smile fades.
He understands now what I mean,
He understands his mistake.
He slowly begins to clean up.
This is a poem about Johnny.
This is a poem about more than Johnny.
Think about it.

The second poem is by an 11-year-old girl, A.M., who also takes her comparison to the classroom in "The Homework I've Forgotten." (Ironically, this student author NEVER forgets her own homework for my class!) The teacher in her poem offers a poignant lesson about how honesty and the ability to admit one's failures may earn us second chances to prove our earnest efforts. 

The Homework I've Forgotten

I get to school, smiling and skipping,
Then I realize what is wrong
When the teacher asks for the homework.

The homework I've forgotten.
I shuffle up to her slowly
and she smiles as I approach.

How can I tell her, that in
the big stack of papers, she
won't find my name?

"I didn't get your homework," she tells me.
Well, I tell myself, at least
you didn't have to start the conversation.

She raises her eyebrows at me.
"I forgot it at home," I say.
She just smiles.

"You have all recess," she says.
I smile too.

Both poems indicate not only the writing talent, perspicacity, and imagination of these young poets, but also their potential to grow into understanding, inspiring, and effective parents and mentors to others. (They might make great dog-parents, too!)

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Creative Writing Sparked by Dialogue

          Snippets of dialogue serve as excellent writing prompts when they are ambiguous enough to suggest various possible tones, and in turn, various contexts for scene development. Often I propose that my students write two separate scenes founded upon the same line of dialogue interpreted differently. That writing exercise is part of a lesson on tone and how to convey specific moods in literature. I sometimes craft my own fictional scenes based on one line of dialogue uttered by a character's voice in my mind; from those scenes, novels are born. 

          Given two dialogue lines--"'re welcome...," and "I just wanted to tell you how much you've inspired me..."--as prompts to create a piece of short fiction, my young teenage student wrote this:

by L.Z.

          I am so excited, but also very nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before, but

missing a chance to meet her in person would leave me in regret for the rest of my life. So here I am now, standing in the back of a line so long that I cannot even see the actual author and her desk, but then, suddenly, through a gap in the crowds, I get a good look at her. She looks just like the woman on the back cover of my book, with her beautiful smile, signing for her loyal fans.
          In a flash, I am in the front of the line. “Hi,” she said smiling, “Would you like me to sign your book?”

          I breathed deeply trying to calm my nerves. “Actually, I just wanted to tell you how much you’ve‐‐”

          She interrupted me, her smile disappearing, “So you don’t have a book for me to sign?”

          “No,” I responded, “But I just wanted to tell you how much you’ve inspired me. I also read your books everyday.”

          “Okay... Thank you?” the author replied impatiently.

          “’re welcome.” I trudged out the exit towards my car.

          Only now, after discovering who she really was, have I realized that her smile was
cold and fake, and unlike what she wrote on the back of the book, she did not actually respect her supporters. There are many other people in the world who deserve more fame and respect than someone like her. 

          The dialogue-based writing prompt could have evoked other scenes so different from the student's scene (above) that a reader might not even notice that the same dialogue lines appear in both. For example, "'re welcome" could be uttered by a humble person who is uncomfortable accepting thanks; or by a rude person who has no intention of giving anything in the first place; or by a person who is unsure about why he is being thanked; or by a snide person who says these words to remind an impolite person to say "thank you"; or, as in this piece, by a disillusioned person who doubts the sincerity of the thanks she has received. Similarly, the speaker who tells another person how much s/he has inspired her could declare those words effusively, with sincere admiration for a warmly appreciative role model; or she could shyly murmur them and evoke tears from the mentor in return; or she could sneer as she utters those words snidely to someone she has no respect for at all. Thus, you can see how even a single dialogue line can serve as a path that branches off in various directions via the literary landscape planted by purposefully chosen, vivid verbs and memorable descriptions. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Doing My Student's Homework

          A writing teacher should not assign prompts without attempting to write her/his own model responses, too. If I can't write passionately to a prompt I assign, then I cannot expect a student to tackle the task with any enthusiasm. Here is an essay I wrote in response to a thought-provoking cartoon that I assigned today to a 16-year-old student (as homework). The prompt is intended to evoke a personal opinion essay (four paragraphs) about the overuse of cell phones and the current American obsession with staying "connected." I purposely wrote with a plethora of specific details and figurative language to encourage him to choose similarly precise and creative words. 

Cell Phone Sabbaticals for Sanity
By Susan L. Lipson

A cartoon from The New Yorker depicts a woman reclining on a beach while searching through her purse for her cell phone and saying to two fellow beachgoers: “I’ll be on vacation until I find my cell phone.” The warmth of the sand on her bare toes, and the hypnotic shushing of the ocean, will immediately vanish once her fingers touch the cool screen of the smart phone, and her ears tune in to the insistent beep of notifications. Although cell phones act like stabilizing anchors by keeping us connected and reachable even as we continue to make waves, they simultaneously restrain us from floating off to relax at sea, away from responsibilities, in stress-free vacation mode. To truly enjoy a vacation—uninterrupted by telephone calls from home or work, disconnected from emails that demand responses or dictate tasks, unaware of social media campaigns and calls for attention to a tiny screen—we must “dumb down” our smart phones and develop a “vacation mode” (or at least a vacation mindset) that would restrict cell phone usage during preprogrammed travel dates.

Ironically, we cannot fully recharge ourselves while attached to fully computerized phones that are never unplugged; we must unplug and power down in order to empower ourselves to experience the temporary freedom known as “vacation.” Communication, while essential to human existence, requires energy, sometimes from electronic devices as well as from the humans who operate them. Conservation of that energy is the purpose of a vacation—like a reset button on a continuously running computer. If we tune out of business-world communications via electronic devices, and instead tune in to face-to-face interpersonal communication or introspective communication via meditation or quiet time, then we can truly experience the bliss of losing ourselves in our thoughts, in new activities, and in the company of our fellow vacationers.

The paranoia of powering off keeps too many people from finding the peace they need for their own health. They worry about missing “Something Important”—whatever that might be. Thus, this over-connectedness may even be a new kind of anxiety disorder (not to mention an addiction). The symptoms of this contagious disorder manifest themselves as cell phones left on dinner tables between diners; as darting eyes that attempt to appear engaged while checking for flashes and notification banners; as vibrating pockets and purses that frequently evoke dashes to bathrooms or lobbies; as excessive interest in Wi-Fi availability in selecting public places to meet with others; and as avoidance of any communication that does not involve typing. In the days when phones were only for calling people, we left our computers in our offices, along with automatic “vacation responder” messages to notify contacts that we would be incommunicative for a certain time period. We traveled, back then, not with Bluetooth devices in our ears, but with headphones to listen to our favorite music. Today, however, our phones are pocket computers, enabling us to take work and obligations with us wherever we roam, turning us into stressed-out workaholics who even use “silent mode” to communicate stealthily in every context.

The stress-related health risks associated with over-connectedness point to a need for phones to offer to a new, user-programmed “vacation mode." This self-regulated mode could be restricted to: 1) phone calls to designated Vacation-Approved Favorites (family and close friends); 2) camera shots that could automatically be stored in a folder titled “Vacation Photos”; 3) travel information apps (for transportation, lodging, maps, restaurant and tourist site reviews); and 4) music players. Time off can only serve its rejuvenating purpose if we turn off, as much as possible, our connections to the working world. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Math-Mind's Response to a Writing Prompt

One of my favorite prompts to use with beginning writers in the upper elementary grades involves rewriting a boring, vague passage about a boy named Joey who gets hit by a ball. Here's the passage:

Joey was hit by the ball. He looked as if he was hurt. Others acted worried and asked if he was okay. Joey said he was. He left the field.

I ask my students to turn these "telling" words into a "showing" scene, a word picture, using my D.A.D. technique (Description, Action, Dialogue). I instruct them to SHOW Joey, the kind of ball, how he looked when he felt hurt, how he reacted, who the "others" were and how they reacted to Joey, what Joey said, and how he "left" the field. 

The prompt becomes more challenging when I ask them to rewrite three different versions to depict three kinds of Joeys: 1) Joey the Stoic, who was truly hurt by the ball, but doesn't show it or want anyone to know it; 2) Joey the Whiner, who was not really hurt, but wanted attention so he complained loudly; and 3) Joey the Martyr, who was indeed hurt, but instead of whining, he wants to show how tough he is, that he can take the pain.  

I have used this prompt with great success for many lessons, but today an 11-year-old student--a self-dubbed "math person"--offered an observation that I found very insightful and amusing: "I just noticed something! An equation: Stoic + Whiner = Martyr. Do you see?" Her dark brown eyes glowed with her discovery.

I laughed. "Yes, I do! Very clever! A martyr is like a combination of a stoic and a whiner."

She raised her chin proudly. "No, you've got to say it with the plus and equals signs. I told you I'm a math person!" 

Call it math, call it analogous thinking via symbols, but whatever you call it, she understood the lesson. Her revisions clearly depicted three different Joeys via description, action, and dialogue.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Summer 2015 Workshops! Now celebrating 18 years of inspiring awe for words and awesome writing!

2015 Summer Writing Workshops with Author-Teacher Susan L. Lipson
Now celebrating 18 years of inspiring awe for words and awesome writing!

All classes taught in Poway.

June 23-25, 2:30-5:30 p.m.
“Words-in-Motion Workshop for Enriching Word Power and Finding Joy in Writing”
By exploring lively, detail-rich writings and discussing them aloud in class, students will learn to emulate effective techniques in their own writings. We will read fun novel excerpts and poetry, and look at intriguing photos and artworks, as prompts for their own writings. I will teach (or review, for past students) the use of my now widely practiced D.A.D. and M.O.M. techniques for vivid writing in all genres. Some of our lessons will be based on my second book, Writing Success Through Poetry. Limited to 10 students. 
Fee: $180; nonrefundable deposit of $50 due by June 12 to reserve your spot.

Workshop Two—A three-day writing workshop (TWTh) for ages 12 and up:
July 7, 8, 9—Tues., Wed., Thurs., from 2:30-5:30 p.m.
“The Universal Realism of Unreal Fictional Worlds: Using YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy Fiction as Prompts for Writing New Memorable Words” 
This is the kind of class that kids look forward to taking in college—a reading/writing exploration of socially relevant books, the kinds that many of them read for pleasure. Students will examine literary techniques of some popular and classic sci-fi and fantasy writers whose works manage to MOVE, not simply entertain, readers with emotionally realistic characters facing universally relatable conflicts, even in surreal settings and alternative worlds. Through analyzing passages and emulating techniques and styles, writing students will develop their skills in characterization, description, conciseness, dialogue, mood-setting, subtle revelation of plot, pacing, tension-building, and more. The class will include a visit from a local, successful, young adult sci-fi author, Stephanie Diaz (Extraction, Rebellion, and Evolution), who published her first novel at age 22, while studying at SDSU.  Limited to 10 students. 
Fee: $180; nonrefundable deposit of $50 due by June 12 to reserve your spot. 

Workshop Three—A three-day workshop for ages 11 and up, on powerful written and oral communication:
July 14, 15, 16—Tues., Wed., Thurs., from 2:30-5:30 p.m. 
“Communicating Clearly, Concisely, Convincingly, and Comfortably”
In this class, co-taught by my actress daughter, Lainey Lipson (a series regular on “Awesomeness TV” on Nickelodeon, and a former drama instructor for kids) students will learn how to present written works aloud in an engaging, lively manner worthy of their powerful words. Students will compose heartfelt personal narratives and/or poems to share aloud. They will explore the basics of public speaking (enunciation, pitch, volume, pace, tone, expression, posture, and body language) via practice, constructive feedback, and more practice with reading aloud. They will observe and evaluate speakers via online, recorded speeches, and then discuss the various types of typical beginning speakers—The Mumbler, The Racer, The Whisperer, The Robot, and The Overdoer—and how to rise above those types to become The Communicator. They will receive positive feedback and gentle encouragement to find a new level of comfort in reading aloud to a group. Fun improv games will be led by Lainey, a comedic actress with a warm personality and a background in coaching young actors in this age group. Limited to 12 students. 
Fee: $180; nonrefundable deposit of $50 due by June 12 to reserve your spot.

Workshop Four—A one-evening “Fireside Poetry Workshop” for teensSaturday, JULY 25, 7-10 p.m. An inspiring outdoor, candlelit class in which students write poetry prompted by other poems, pictures, and music, and then share their words around a glowing fire pit, culminating in roasting marshmallows and making “s’mores.” 
Fee: $60, nonrefundable, due by June 12 to reserve your spot.  Limited to 8 students.

                                   (NOTE: I will not hold spaces without deposits this year.)

For directions on how to REGISTER, PLEASE EMAIL:

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Segregated Readers?

Author Shannon Hale recently experienced sexist behavior from school administrators who allowed only girls to attend her author visit, based on the wrongful assumption that Hale's children's books were only appealing to girls and that boys have no interest in reading about girl protagonists. Hale expressed her fury over the inexcusable omission of boys from her program in a recent blog post:
I heard it a hundred times with Hunger Games: "Boys, even though this is about a girl, you'll like it!" Even though. I never heard a single time, "Girls, even though Harry Potter is about a boy, you'll like it!"

Hale decries "the belief that boys won't like books with female protagonists, that they will refuse to read them, the shaming that happens (from peers, parents, teachers...) when they do, the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don't have to read about girls, that boys aren't expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world...." 

I read her blog post to my teenage writing students and evoked some poignant reactions:
Two boys admitted to reading John Green's The Fault in Our Stars "kind of anonymously" because they read the book in public on e-readers. They said that kids generally considered  TFIOS a "romance," "an emotional book," or a "cancer book"--mainly for girls. But they both liked the story a lot and found it very touching, even though a bit "cheesy" in some ways.
One girl observed that every female protagonist read by the boys she knows "seems like a tomboy, never a girly girl." She cited numerous titles, all adventure stories, and pointed out that "some boys are okay with reading about girls as long as they're in an action novel."
Another boy declared that he likes well-written books with compelling plots and pays no attention to the sex of the protagonist, but he does admit that a book with a girl on the cover, or a romantic scene on the cover, is "kind of embarrassing to carry around. That's why I like my Kindle."
One boy recalled at least one teacher describing a book as "more of a girl's book." I asked how he felt about that, and he and the others joked that "some teachers think they know what we'll like, but they don't." I joked that I hoped I wasn't one of those teachers. They shook their heads (and I hope that meant I am not out of touch with their tastes!).
All of the kids agreed that the boy Shannon Hale wrote about in her blog, who approached Hale after her talk and asked for a copy of one of her books, and who was subsequently told that the only available copy of that particular book was now in the school's library, would "never check out that book unless no one was around." The title had the word "princess" in it, if I recall correctly. They all said that it was "sad, but true" that he would be too embarrassed to read her work openly.
We had a heated discussion of Hale's point about how gender-segregation in Young Adult literature teaches boys not to care about or empathize with girls so that they grow up into men who ignore or dismiss the feelings of women and, in extreme cases, abuse women during their adult years. Some thought that her connection was over-the-top, and that most of the negative brainwashing of boys and men with regard to girls and women comes from other media: rap and hip-hop music, advertising, movies, and TV. But the majority of these teenagers seemed to ponder this cause-effect concept seriously. The thoughtful looks on their faces indicated that they had never considered books a possible negative influence on sexist behavior.

The kids seemed to appreciate this discussion and the writing exercise on the topic. They always seem to enjoy when I share issues about writing and publishing that they, as nonprofessional writers (for now, anyway!), would not otherwise know about or have a chance to discuss. I think they consider my sharing of professional articles from my field as a kind of "insider information." Information that is, of course, non-gender specific!

Friday, February 27, 2015


(the 2015 Newbery Medal winner, 
a Novel-in-Verse)

     Never mind that I am a poet and adore novels-in-verse, and that I love realistic stories about families that bring me to tears, and that I think Kwame Alexander (click on his name to see him on YouTube) seems like one of the humblest and most enthusiastic authors in kids' fiction; just know that the reason I'm featuring his book here is based solely on its capacity to inspire my writing students. The proof is here, below!

     Here are three poems written by 12-year-old workshop students in response to three different poems in The Crossover. After we read the poems aloud, we discussed the masterful character development of Josh, the narrator, in the first poem, "Dribbling," and the way Mr. Alexander conveyed Josh's passion for basketball. Then we discussed "How I Got My Nickname" and "At First" in terms of the way the author conveyed Josh's introspective growth. I asked the students to write their own personal poems in emulation of Mr. Alexander's attention to word power in his subtle revelation of Josh. I'm so proud of these kids that I shared the poems with Mr. Alexander via email, and he dubbed them, "Brilliant!" I hope you agree--and that you get yourself a copy of The Crossover

Calculating (in response to "Dribbling")
 By D.S., age 12
The figures fly and glide across the page,
Lifting weights and counting stars                                                                
To peel back the cloth from our eyes                                                   
To reveal the universe around us.

As my pencil scritch-scratches across the page,
The figures call to me
As they did to Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Einstien
For without numbers
They never could have changed our world.

Now, as numbers sprawl across my paper,
Using the same numbers that the greats did
Through the tears and the frustration
Problem by problem I am learning to walk
And come from the darkness
Into the light.

The Nickname (in response to "How I Got My Nickname")
By E.Y., age 12

It all happened because of Carter.
This kid is a basketball-playing, mean
friend of my brother.
He thought it was okay   
to make fun of me by calling me
by my last name, Yoon.   
As soon as he started calling out
Li’l Yoon at school,
it caught on and become my
new nickname.
Songs, poems, and stories have been made
because of Carter
and his obnoxious nicknames.
At first, I hated it.
I’m not little, I’m not small.
I’m regular as can be.
But as soon as my friends heard it,
I was Li’l Yoon,
sometimes even Yoonicorn.
And it made me smile.

At First (in response to your poem of the same title)
By A.G., age 12

I didn’t like 
playing the violin
because so many kids
were in band
with an instrument to blow into.

All my friends had either a flute
Or were in percussion,
Where you would slam things.
I had to play complicated notes with a bow.                                         

Eventually I came into middle school
where I had 94 peers in orchestra,
really eager to play
stringed instruments.

I didn’t want to sit and play,
I’d rather march and play,
but I had to follow along.

It was kind of cool
playing with so many people.
The songs were joyous.
Not easy as grade school.

Maybe I wasn’t in band,
but as the strings danced on the violin,
I heard the connections growing around me.
And that made me feel like a greater person.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

To Write Moving Words, We Must Read Them

The more we read, the better we write; the greater the variety of genres we read, the broader the expansion of our writing styles; the deeper our admiration and understanding of the artistry in what we read, the richer the complexity and innovativeness of what we write.

            Because I pride myself on practicing what I preach--"Show, don't tell!"--I'll now show you what I just told you, via an anecdote: 

Yesterday, a 13-year-old student, who aspires to be a published author, presented to me the opening pages of her novel-in-progress, a YA novel written in verse--a genre that she was unaware even existed until I introduced her to poetry novels.  Before starting lessons with me a couple of years ago, her reading consisted primarily of fantasy novels, most of them plot-driven with archetypal, but unrealistic characters and relationships. Hence, when she started her lessons with me, her writing style reflected what she read, and her characters seemed like mere plot puppets. I suggested that she read more literary, character-driven stories to balance her sense of style; initially, she seemed wary of reading books outside of her usual genre. So we would read a chapter of a literary novel aloud together, and then I’d send her home with the book, and guiding questions. Often I’d have her write short pieces in emulation of the book’s style and using one or more of the author’s characters. Other times, I’d assign essay-style responses to the stylistic techniques used by the author. Her range of interests grew, and she began exploring classics on her own with the approach of a determined writer-in-training.

I also used poetry prompts for many of our early lessons, since I wanted to heighten her focus on the power of word choices and on showing, instead of telling, with the most concise words. Over the next year, my student discovered that she has a natural talent and affinity for poetry. She would lose interest in the short stories she had started, after we discussed the many holes that needed filling between her lines, due to logical flow problems or awkward exposition of characters. “Can I do another poetry prompt instead?” she would often ask, eager to set aside the confounding prose pages. Of course, I encouraged her poetry writing, but I didn’t want her to lose interest in writing novels, since that was her reason for starting lessons with me.

“Have you ever read a novel-in-verse?” I asked her.

“What’s that?”

“A poetry novel. It’s a story composed entirely of poems, each one building upon the one before it, in free verse…. Here. I bet you’ll enjoy this one.” I happen to have in my home library a number of poetry novels (because I’m a poet, as well as a poetry lover), and I handed her One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, by Sonya Sones. She looked askance at the title, and quickly flipped through the free-verse-filled pages of the novel. “Let’s read the first poem together,” I offered.

She wanted me to read it aloud to her. Her eyebrows rose with interest as I finished the first poem. “Can you read the next one, too?” she asked.

I read one more, as I recall, and then told her she would be reading it at home, for homework. She loved the book. In subsequent lessons, we discussed the subtle character development achieved through the poet’s careful selection of the most concise, powerful words. We discussed the imagery and voice that established the cinematic quality and the engaging tone. And she hunted for evidence—quotations—that aptly illustrated her assertions. Over the course of our next few weekly lessons, she wrote with much greater enthusiasm to writing prompts that required her to develop characters’ emotions without the ease of her preferred first-person narration, and to show their emotions via my D.A.D. (Description, Action, Dialogue) technique and the interactions with other characters. Depth began to creep into her style with the help of poetry—the essence of word power.

Thus began my student’s poetry novel binge, which most recently led her to read Perfect, by Ellen Hopkins. I presented this poignant, gritty YA book to her as another example of how to develop realistic characters with distinct voices. We read and she analyzed a few of the poems in class, writing essay responses about the subtle revelation of various characters’ back-stories. I asked her to try writing her own poem in Ellen’s style, pulling out certain words from the ends of lines to form a poignant, poetic message in the right margin (if you can’t figure out what I’m describing, please read Ellen’s poetry—it’s a very engaging style). My student’s first attempt at emulating Ellen’s poetry style was earnest, but seemed forced; however, I had unknowingly laid down a gauntlet when I told her that if she wrote a really strong poem in that style, maybe I’d send it to Ellen, since she is my friend.

Weeks went by without further mention of the poetry challenge, and without our working on fiction or poetry at all. This girl had essays due for school and scholarship programs, and she wanted my help. She spent her tutorial hours with me focused on writing, reviewing, and revising, until her due dates.

The other day, she arrived for her private class with sparkling eyes, and it seemed to me that she was almost vibrating as she settled into her seat and announced that she had something new to show me. She booted up her laptop computer and passed it to me. “It’s only about six pages so far, and I’m not finished introducing all of the characters yet….”

On the screen was a free verse poem, with a title and a girl’s name—a protagonist. I noticed the Ellen Hopkins style of the free verse poem with a sidebar message formed by words pulled over to the right margin. Holding my breath and hoping that I would share her enthusiasm for the unfolding dystopian fantasy, I read straight through. By the sixth page, I had met three of the four main characters, and knew some intriguing details about their back-stories. Even the sidebar messages added intrigue and poignancy. She had hooked me. We began discussing where the story was headed, and now both of us were vibrating!

I am so excited to see how her novel grows, along with this extraordinary young writer! Perhaps she'll let me share a poem or two from that book here, in the coming months....