A Life of Magical Writing

Guest blogger Tina Chovanec is the director of Reading Rockets.org: the authoritative online source for comprehensive and accessible information about teaching young children to read and helping those who struggle. Reading Rockets is one of four multimedia educational websites created by Learning Media, a division of WETA, the PBS affiliate in the Washington DC area.

Children’s writer Sid Fleischman has a magical way with words. Before he ever took pen to paper to write his Fleischman_hatwonderful and original tall tales (By the Great Horn Spoon), mysteries (The 13th Floor), and biographies (Escape: The Story of the Great Houdini), Fleischman was a sleight-of-hand master, a magician in a traveling vaudeville troupe.

I can’t help but think that those years perfecting his magician’s patter and delighting audiences with the element of surprise and whimsy helped shape his approach to writing.

In The Abracadabra Kid, A Writer’s Life, Fleischman reveals some of his secrets to great writing. Here are three from his bag of tricks:

The main character should be changed by the events of the story. Magicians call this “transformation” – a silk handkerchief changing from plain white to carnival polka dots, seemingly right before your eyes. In The Whipping Boy, the willful, self-centered Prince Brat is slowly but surely changed by his adventures with the clever orphan Jemmy.

Give weather reports. If “the day’s so hot wallpaper is peeling off the walls,” say so – it creates real, tactile atmosphere and can help surround the reader with the story.

Use imagery – it’s powerful shorthand. Fleischman is master of the simile and metaphor: “He could make a half dollar tumble like a flashing silver acrobat across his knuckles.” Be careful with word choice as the language must feel authentic to the characters and the narrative. “I have never had any luck in the thesaurus,” says Fleischman. Find your own unexpected ways to bring words – colorful and plain – together.

In this video interview from Reading Rockets, Fleischman talks about why books matter to kids, his “mosaic-like” approach to writing non-fiction, and why he keeps a journal of names.

Fleischman’s advice for young writers? First, read widely and with enthusiasm. Second, exercise your writing muscles so that they become strong and limber. Keep a diary, pen a set of letters, or try your hand at writing a short story. Reading Rockets shares some simple ways that parents can encourage writing at home.

Student writers need lots of support as they build their skills. Teachers can use picture books to teach young writers about basic plot structures and how to organize their own stories effectively. In this video clip “Writing Poems,” a second grade teacher leads a writing workshop that actively engages kids in the writing process and learning how to avoid “tired words.”

Sometimes all it takes to spark student writing is a good prompt. Reading Rockets and AdLit.org will be giving kids a chance to flex their writing muscles (beginning on September 26th) with our new “Prompt Response” writing contest, inspired by the Library of Congress and National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance Exquisite Corpse Adventure. Here’s a sneak peek at the writing challenge, but stay tuned for more details in the weeks ahead!

[Oh, and if you’ve ever wanted to amaze your friends with a Cool, Knock-Em-Dead, No Skill, Nine-Card Card Trick, here’s your chance to learn one from Sid Fleischman, the master conjuror himself. First, grab a deck of cards…]

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Posted in Authors & Illustrators, Books & Reading, Guest Blog Posts