Tag Archives: middle school

What in The Hound is That? Fellhounds & Fantasy Make Great YA in Farr’s Moon Chase and Moon Crossing


Picture found on Google Images

They stared each other down,

eye-to -eye, flesh-to-fur, waiting

for the magic to begin.

What really drew me to Cathy Farr was not only her books and the fellhounds, but her decision to write different versions of her books for struggling readers. As a former English teacher, I have worked with struggling readers across all grade levels, from middle school to college level.  I admire writers who want to create stories that can be read and understood by all of their readers.


Cathy & Finn B & W



Cathy Farr has always loved stories; listening to them, reading them and writing them. She lives in South Wales with her husband and her Irish Wolfhound, Mojo. It was Cathy’s first Wolfhound, Finn who inspired the magnificent Fellhounds of her books. Nine foot long nose to tail, Finn weighed almost fifteen stone and Mojo, now only 18 months is almost that big already; Cathy is 5ft 7inches but her weight remains a closely guarded secret.


Author Interview

How did you come up with the idea to write MOON CHASE & MOON CROSSING?


The original idea came to me when I was working in Scotland about 30 years ago. That was where I saw my first Irish Wolfhound. I came home and asked my mum if we could have one but she said no (too big, she said!) so I started to write a story about massive hounds that I called Fellhounds. But it was only after I got my first wolfhound Finn, six years ago, that I really started to get a feel for what the fellhounds might be like, and walking with the dog in the gorgeous countryside around my village gave me lots of inspiration for the land of Thesk and the adventures the hounds have there.



How did you come up with the character of Wil? How do you flesh out your characters? Do you write character sketches, or do they tell you whom they are?


Wil evolved from the original idea I had all those years ago. Back then he was older and had a different name but the more I thought of him as a teenager the stronger he got in my mind’s eye. His basic traits are based on my best friend’s son who is kind, helpful, a bit clumsy and tries but doesn’t always succeed. I used that as my base and developed Wil from there.

I decided early on that he wasn’t going to be some super-hero; I like the fact that he acts before he thinks and gets himself into some really sticky situations because of it. I also like the fact that he missed his mum so much and he isn’t afraid to cry – he’s human, after all.

All my characters tell me who they are. When I’m writing dialogue I always ask myself, ‘Would they really say that, and in that way?’ When I was working on Moon Crossing I re-wrote a whole scene in the middle of the book when they get attached by eagards (huge birds of prey) because Mortimer just didn’t sound right at all.

I spend a lot of my time walking the dog with my characters in my head – I think I know them pretty well now, but they still surprise me every now and then!


What are fellhounds, and why should young adults be interested in them?


Fellhounds are just like Irish Wolfhounds but they are much bigger. An Irish wolfhound stands eye-height to a child but fellhounds stand eye-height to an adult. They are brave and loyal but they don’t have human characteristics – they are animals and, largely, behave like animals. When I visit schools I take my wolfhound with me so that the children can have an idea of what fellhounds might be like. They have the most beautiful amber eyes that have a way of looking at you like they really do know what you’re saying. I love that – and so do the children. They are just awesome, beautiful animals that command respect – you just want to know more about them.


How can teen boys relate to Wil’s story?


Wil’s problem in Moon Chase is that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and is accused of something he didn’t do. He could run away, go home and hope he never gets caught but he knows he will always be looking over his shoulder; then, during the Moon Chase itself he realizes he actually cares about his companions, especially Gisella. He cares about his mother, too, has no idea what happened to his father when he was taken away by Lord Rexmoore and he worries about what people think about him; he doubts himself, too, and as I said before, he’s also not afraid to cry – so in many ways he’s not unlike a lot of teen boys today.


What YA genre best describes MOON CHASE & MOON CROSSING? Which features of this genre draw teen readers in the most?


They are fantasy adventures but I’ve been careful to avoid any overt magic; it’s all very subtle, so you think – was that magic or could that really happen? Both books are also very fast paced. I always worry about boring people – the same goes for my writing. I firmly believe something has to happen on every page, otherwise people might get bored and stop reading. One reviewer described the pace of Moon Chase as being like ‘a hare on roller skates’! He loved it.


How do the fellhounds compare to THE HOUND OF BASKERVILLES? Would you pair your book with Doyle’s work in a thematic study? If you could pair your books with a classic or contemporary book, which book would you choose?


I was walking with Mojo in the fog a while ago, out in the middle of a field. He was up ahead of me and stopped to see where I was; as he looked around I did think he really did look like the Hound of the Baskervilles. But in reality, no, the fellhounds are not the same. The hound in Doyle’s story was a victim; an animal that had been brutalized by neglect and bad treatment. The myth was far scarier than the reality, and of course, the Baskervilles hound didn’t appear until almost the very end of the tale. My fellhounds are part of the lives of the people of Thesk, just like Irish wolfhounds. They were originally bred for hunting wolves, bears and wild boar; they were kings’ dogs and were also used in battle to get men off horses and out of chariots – that’s why they’re so big. That was what I used as my inspiration for the brave and powerful beasts of my books.


As for pairing my books, I’m not sure: I think there are echoes of Wuthering Heights particularly in the second book, and some people talk about The Hobbit, but really only because Thesk is a made up land and the map in the book reminds people of the Shire, I think.


Tell me more about the idea behind and the concept of THE BRIDGE READERS.

At a book signing event last summer a young girl sidled up to my table, picked up a book and read the first page. Then she looked at me.

‘I just don’t get it,’ she said, her eyes full of genuine concern. ‘I can read the words, you know. It’s not like I can’t, you know, read. But I don’t know what they’re saying.’ She read the page again then looked at me and shrugged.

‘I just don’t get them,’ she said, put the book down and walked away. But that young lady stayed in my head and I decided to write a book she could read.

Now, the original version of Moon Chase is some 82,000 words and tells of a boy who, wrongly accused of a crime, sets out to prove his innocence helped by huge hounds called fellhounds; it is enjoyed by confident 7 years olds and octogenarians alike.

So how to go about re-writing a story that, as the reviewer described it, has a pace as fast as a hare on roller skates?

My mission was to keep that pace using vocabulary and grammar accessible to weaker readers while not being boring – or worse, patronising. Passive sentences and idioms were also a big no no because children struggling with language just don’t get them. The key was using words that would keep a struggling reader engaged while also giving them small hurdles to build confidence with the turn of each page.


What inspires you to write?


I’ve made up stories since I was very little. As a young child I had an imaginary friend called Stingray and I used to lie in bed at night telling him stories until I fell asleep. I love seeing a story evolve. I don’t write to a plan, I just start. I ask myself questions as I’m going: What could happen next? What if this happened? What would she do if he did this? I heard a writer say once that he wrote stories to find out what happens in the end – that’s why I write.


If someone were to write a fantasy or myth about you, what would your character be like and what unique qualities would the myth reveal to your readers?


I think I’d be like Lady Élanor in my books: she is mysterious and can read minds. I love her calm competence. But she is vulnerable, too, and can’t solve everyone’s problems – if she could there’d be no story as she could just sort it all out!


Today’s world can sometimes be scarier than the fictional world of your books. What advice would you give to adolescents?


Never forget you’re not the only one in the world. There are people all around you who have feelings, too; who get hurt, who are happy, sad, hungry, in pain. There is always somewhere in the world where someone is having a far better time than you …and somewhere else where they are having a much, much worse time. So think about others. There’s not nearly enough empathy in today’s world.


It seems like Wil undergoes a journey in each book in which he discovers something new about himself and about life in general. When you were around Wil’s age, what lessons did you learn on your journey of growing up?


When I was Wil’s age, my mum said to me one day, ‘Well, Cathy, there are pretty girls in this world, and there are ones with lovely personalities, so you’re just going to have to develop your personality.’ Harsh, yes, but at that age I just thought she was right and did my best to be interesting, caring and nice to be with – and I like to think that I did OK in the end.



Many writers want to leave their mark on the world. How do you want your work to be remembered?


I would love it if my books helped just one person to read and become interested in reading more. Books are so important; they hold the key to all that has made us who we are today. It would be a disaster for mankind if books were forgotten.




Moon Chase cover shot-1

Excerpt from MOON CHASE


Behind him, up on the Fell, deep, resounding barks echoed around the black hills, Fellmen shouted and horses snorted – the Moon Chase was now at full tilt.

Below, the wolf in the hollow had stopped. It took no notice of the noise from the Chase; it was concentrating all of its attention on the narrowing gully. Wil crouched. He could see that the beast was getting ready to spring – and right in the line of its gaze was the athletic shape of Gisella, picking her way down the edge of the rocks towards the wolf. Wil didn’t need to read the wolf’s mind; he could see clearly that it was watching the girl – what Wil didn’t know was if she could see the wolf!

There was no time to try to get back to get the others so Wil half-climbed, half-fell down onto the path and ducked behind the remains of a rotting tree. He listened and prayed that the wolf wouldn’t hear his pounding heart. Its throaty growl instantly brought back memories of the snarling heads mounted in the Great Hall – including the two sets of deadly-sharp teeth!

He counted to three, took a deep breath and quickly popped his head around the decaying stump. What he saw rooted him to the spot.

Gisella was standing at the end of the gully; once again, eyes fixed, feet apart and her shoulders square. But this time her crossbow was aimed directly at the body of a massive, snarling wolf that was getting ready to spring. Its hackles were standing in a ridge along its back from its ears to the base of its great black tail, which it was wagging in slow, deliberate sweeps across the ground.

But Wil’s sudden movement made Gisella look up – the wolf sprang.

Wil screamed, ‘GISELLA!’ and pelted forward.


Moon-Crossing front coverExcerpt from MOON CROSSING

Gisella opened her mouth to speak but another coughing fit robbed her of any words. She sat back, defeated, and by the look in her eyes Wil could see she was also frightened.

‘I’ll get you home, Giz,’ he said. ‘Trust me.’

She bit her lip and spoke again in a voice broken by her battle for air.

‘Have you got any of that… potion we gave… Mortimer…You know… the stuff for… blood loss?’

Wil looked down at Gisella’s blood-stained cloak and tried to fix his face into an expression that didn’t betray his alarm.

‘You’re not… are you… is it–’

Gisella gave a weak smile.

‘For Phinn,’ she said.

‘Oh, yes! I… of course. For a moment then–’

‘Wil! Give Phinn some of that… potion! If he’s going to get us home… he’s going to… need it.’

Then she sank back against a wooden plank that ran as a seat across the centre of the boat – behind the seat the boat no longer existed.

‘Oh, right. Yes. I’ll do that now. I’ve got it here somewhere,’ Wil lied. How could he tell Gisella he’d given her the remains of the potion back at the castle?

After a little searching, he found the little silk bag. It had been wedged up under the transom – during the landing, Wil guessed. He moved away before he sought out the bottle that he knew was empty; although he needn’t have worried – when he looked back Gisella’s eyes were closed.

‘Don’t die,’ he whispered and turned away.

From behind him, almost lost in the wind, he just caught her weak reply.

‘I’ll try not to.’



Cathy adapted Moon Chase as a Bridge Reader after working with ESL children in local schools and with the charity Afasic Cymru*. Bridge Readers help improving readers to develop their reading skills as they move towards Young Adult and Adult fiction. Ideal for weaker and improving readers and those learning English as a second language, they contain no bad language and no sexual content – they’re just really great reads.

Bridge Readers: bridging the gap between learning to read and reading for pleasure.

*Afasic is a parent led organisation representing children and young people with specific language impairment (SLI) and speech, language and communication needs (SLCN); their work has helped open the world of words to many who would otherwise still find that door firmly closed.


Thematic Connections

A boy and his dog has always been a common theme in literature.  Teachers can use Farr’s books in any grade level, 6-12, to explore this theme.  Students can examine how the relationship dynamics between animals and humans in each book.  A playful twist on the MTV reality show, Parental Control, can be having different characters from different books being interviewed by one of the dog characters.  The pet could be looking for a new owner or it may decide to stay with his current one. Each owner or character from the books would have to tell how they treated their pet in the novel.  Each contestant could also make a diorama or 3D model of their setting from the novel to aid the pet in its decision. The pet could also ask different questions. It allows students to use role play and their imaginations to connect with the literature.

  • Books That Feature Dogs/Wolves

meeting chance MEETING CHANCE by Jennifer Lavoie



rottenROTTEN by Michael Northrup



shiloh_bookcoverSHILOH  by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor



white fang WHITE FANG by Jack London



winnBECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE  by Kate DiCamillo



12th grade is usually the time that students explore British literature in depth.  MOON CHASE & MOON CROSSING would make great thematic connections.  Fantasy and Gothic genres are very compatible when pairing Farr’s works with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, or even The Hound of the Baskervilles.  But the British invasion of the literature classroom can branch out from the classics and include YA literature by British authors.

  • Books by British YA authors

entangled ENTANGLED  by Cat Clarke



tiberius found TIBERIUS FOUND  by Andrew Goodman



you against me YOU AGAINST ME by Jenny Downham




silenced  SILENCED by Simon Packham



Connect with Cathy Farr!


Website:  www.fellhounds.co.uk

Twitter:  @cathy_farr



People can buy signed copies of my books from my website www.fellhounds.co.uk

OR they can get copies from Waterstones, The Times books on line, Amazon, or they can get their local bookshop to order it from their distributor (UK only).










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What is Hidden Will Eventually Be Unearthed–Wraithsong by E. J. Squires

Wraithsong cover-1

~Birthed from the cradle of humanity. Destined to break the boundaries of both worlds.~

Eve, mother of all living,

labored and toiled long days and nights.

One day, God came down and visited her.

Embarrassed that she only had enough time

to clean seven of her thirteen children,

she hid the six soiled ones from him.

God found them, and reprimanded Eve

for having been ashamed

of her own flesh and blood.

“Those you have hidden from me…”

God said, “…they will stand out

from the rest of mankind.

 I will clean them for you

so that all men and women will aspire

to be that which you have cast aside.

From this day forward,

they will be known as the Huldra,

meaning secret desire.”

–Origin myth excerpted from Wraithsong

Wraithsong is a YA paranormal romance in which Sonia is a high school senior approaching graduation and her eighteenth birthday.  She is dealing with typical adolescent girl problems: a Mean Girls Regina George  carbon copy, Savannah, harassing her over a guy she could care less about & Sonia’s unique conflict-resolution  style of spitting in the Savannah’s face leading to a principal’s office visit and a work detail punishment with a guy whom she would rather be with, Anthony.

Oh, yeah—the spit has a supernatural effect on people: it brings them under Sonia’s control.

As Sonia approaches her 18th birthday, other powers and secrets about her ancestry are revealed through a sensational chain of events and plot twists that will keep the reader engaged in suspense. She discovers that she is part of a mystical group of beings known as The Huldra.  They are very powerful and beautiful creatures who are facing extinction at the hands of someone deep within their ranks.  But who is it?  Is it Anthony, his mother–The Great Huldra– or someone else?  Things get really complicated as Sonia and Anthony get closer and Sonia’s mother is kidnapped.

Wraithsong is the perfect blend of mythology, the paranormal, and adolescent angst.  It would appeal to middle school and high school readers.  Teens will be especially drawn to Sonia and Anthony.

Six Questions For Evelyn Squires

1) Before you started writing, you were a ballerina and a dance studio director. What do you like about dancing? How are dancing and writing similar or different to you?
I started dancing when I was twelve, and immediately fell in love with the art form—I still love it. I love music, so that is a big part of it, but I also love the freedom movement gives and the creativity behind choreography. In ballet you learn hundreds upon hundreds of different movements or steps, and to choreograph, you weave them together. It is the same in writing, but in writing you use words and weave them together to create a story. They are also the same in that the art form makes you think and feel human experience and emotion if done correctly. They are very different because one words as the medium, the other uses movements with music. Both can be very powerful, if done right, in conveying.

2) How did you come up with the idea for Wraithsong?
My husband actually suggested I write a contemporary novel based on these alluring creatures, and I just started writing!

3) Why would Norse mythology interest young teens?
I think in general any type of mythology and folklore interests teens and adults. There is something compelling about Norse mythology and folklore in general, from Thor’s mighty hammer to light and dark elves, to trolls and beyond. So much of literature is base in Norse mythology (Think Lord of the Rings for example), and most don’t realize how many of these supernatural beings originally come from Norse Mythology (Elves, trolls, dwarfs, giants…)

4) If Wraithsong was made into a movie, which actor and actress would you like to see as Sonia and Anthony?
Sonia: Jane Levy (blonde)
Anthony: Alex Pettyfer

5) What makes Wraithsong stand out among other paranormal YA romance novels? What made you interested in writing for young adults?
It stands out from others because it takes a completely new supernatural creature and weaves it into today’s world. There are no vampires or witches, but a new being with some really amazing powers. Teens can relate to Sonia (the lead) because she goes through a lot of challenges as she matures and grows up. She doesn’t understand what is happening to her and why she is changing so dramatically, and the intense urges and feelings she is experiencing, and I remember feeling that way as a teen (though, of course I don’t have the power she does). I love the YA genre, because you are just coming to truly know yourself and it is an exciting time in life where anything can happen. The world is at your fingertips and there is so much to look forward to.

6) The Huldra have the ability to take certain qualities from humans. If you could select certain qualities or powers from real or imagined people, which five would you choose?
I would choose the following:

Patience (Could always use more!)

Assertiveness (So I would put myself out there more)

Wisdom (So I would know what to do in difficult predicaments or situations)

Humor (I am not too serious of a person, but more humor in the everyday would be awesome!)

Self-control (So I would stop eating so much chocolate!)

Author Bio
Evelyn J. Squires was born in Asker, Norway and is the second of eight children. Her father, being an entrepreneur, moved the family back and forth from the US to Norway, and finally settled in Utah in 1992. Evelyn completed high school and continued her education at Brigham Young University where she studied Comparative Literature and Ballet among other things, and in 2007 she opened a ballet studio in Florida. Evelyn has always loved to read and has written poetry, lyrics and short stories. In 2012 she decided it was time to change careers so she could spend more time with her three young children and started writing. Her first series, A Viking Blood Saga, though truly an Epic Fantasy, is centered around Norse Mythology and the Vikings. Being from Norway she enjoys learning about her heritage as she writes books. Wraithsong, the first book in the Desirable Creatures series, is her first contemporary Paranormal Romance and is based in Norse Folklore. Currently, Evelyn resides in Florida with her husband and three young children.

Connect with Evelyn on her website:  http://ejsquires.com/about-me.html

Where to Buy Wraithsong


Teaching Activity for Wraithsong

Mythology is one of the main genres of literature that is covered in 9th grade. Typically, adolescents become familiar with Greek mythology through works such as The Odyssey, The AeneidAntigone, & etc.  Wraithsong gives teachers the opportunity to broaden the scope.

With Roman & Greek mythology, students learn about the hierarchies of gods and goddesses.  Wraithsong has its own hierarchy as well.  The Huldra have the power to appropriate characteristics from humans.  Students could decide which powers or characteristics they can take from various gods and goddesses and create their own.  Since Wraithsong has the Huldra existing in modern day times, students could place their newly formed creatures in a modern high school setting and write their own stories. The idea of taking different qualities and merging them together seems similar to cooking.  All of those ingredients come together to create a uniform dish of flavors.  Instead of stories, students can describe the composition of their new gods and goddesses in the form of a recipe.  Each appropriated or newly created attribute or power could be listed as ingredients.  The directions could tell how to combine them into a new creature and explain how this creature would impact the world.

The YA novel also poses a real world problem:  people’s misuse or abuse of power.  Whether you are the Great Huldra trying to galvanize different groups within the supernatural race or a CEO running a large corporation, the famous quotes still apply:  1) “With great power comes great responsibility.”  2) “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  There are other real world and/or social problems that plague our society today as well.  In what ways could they be portrayed and solved?  How can the problems that Sonia, Anthony, & the Huldra be portrayed and resolved?

Students could pursue the answer to this question creatively, of course, through recipes and haiku.

Here are two examples that deal with Hurricane Katrina and language discrimination:

A haiku follows this pattern:

1st line—–5 syllables

2nd line— 7 syllables

3rd line—  5 syllables

Hurricane Katrina

Nature’s fury strikes,

Leaving her victims despondent.

Don’t blame; help rebuild.

Cooking up a solution to language discrimination

1 cup of acceptance

½ cup of change

2 teaspoons of each dialect and language

3 cups of grammar rules

4 tablespoons of code-switching

2 quarts of misconceptions

2 cups of stereotypes

Blend stereotypes and misconceptions until the mixture is smooth and all lumps disappear.  Stereotypes and misconceptions must be minimized before change is added.  Fold in change, a little at a time.  Pause during the process to allow the change to slowly dissolve the mixture.  Sprinkle grammar rules into the mixture gently.  They are needed for students to learn Standard English, but dumping them in all at once may threaten the texture of the mixture. Spoon in each dialect and language and stir slowly, allowing each one of them to be represented equally.  Sift code-switching into the batter.  This ingredient allows students to realize that certain situations call for certain types of language.  Pour the mixture into a classroom and cover with acceptance.   Bake at 180 degrees or days.  Give time for students and teachers to compromise on the use and variety of language.

Thematic Connections

(These novels also contain some of the themes and paranormal attributes found in Wraithsong.  Listed below is a mix of literature that involves Greek and Norse mythology and fantastical myths and characters representative of different cultures and settings. They can be paired together for whole group, small group, or a thematic feature for independent reading areas.  Wraithsong can also be paired with classical literature such as Dante’s Inferno & Paradise Lost because the YA novel’s detailed history of the Huldra includes similar elements.)

Fall of the Nine Realms ebook cover


WSW Final front cover brandi











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Synced by the Supernatural: Rooted by Amy Good

Amy With Rooted

Rooted by Amy Good

A YA Paranormal Novel That Will Stretch the Boundaries of Your Imagination

Perfect for Middle & High School Readers

Rooted Blurb

Rooted is the story of Chloe Chastain, a not-quite-average teenage girl living in the Pacific Northwest.  Chloe is a tree spirit doing her best to avoid the local werewolf pack, and she’s determined not to get caught up with the werewolf hunters that have descended upon her small town or fail her sophomore year of high school.  Or get stuck in detention.  Again.  But just because she wants to keep a low profile doesn’t mean she’ll be able to!  Soon Chloe’s friend is turned into a werewolf, she attracts a dangerous stalker, and she finds herself investigating missing girls and murder.  It turns out there is so much more at stake than her permanent record.


Image found on Google

Naturally Rooted

Lay your hands on its bark

Feel the energy humming inside

Place your ear against its core

Listen to what it is saying to you

Sync into its synergy

and start seeing the world

in a different light.

amygood ROOTED - SmallishRooted by Amy Good

This YA paranormal novel is an excellent addition to any middle or high school classroom library.  Chloe is a character that many adolescents would be able to connect to through the typical problems that she faces. But not every teenager has to deal with being a tree spirit.  Not every teenager has an undeniable connection with werewolves.  Not every teenager has a best friend who becomes a werewolf.

The mythological lore revolving around the two paranormal beings would spark the interest of reluctant teen readers.  It also invites thematic connections to other classic, contemporary, and young adult literature in the paranormal region.  Within each class of paranormal species, there is an order defined by rules.  There is a mystery that surrounds them and makes them intriguing.  As one studies Greek mythology and the supernatural powers and connections between the gods themselves and also humans, a teacher could bring Rooted into the discussion.

Who could forget the mystery and suggestion of a darker presence in Wuthering Heights?  Hints of the supernatural arise in the collection of stories by Charles W. Chesnutt, The Conjure Woman.  Rooted taps into the fantastical canon of literature that demonstrates how things we do not understand cannot always be explained, but only experienced and acknowledged.

Not only is  Rooted  an extraordinary story that shows how people can never deny their connections to others because they may be of help one day, but the author, Amy Good is an inspirational writer.  She establishes her own connections through her words and her videos.  Here are a couple of links in which she shares her experiences with aphasia and advice to aspiring writers.

In Rooted, Chloe teaches adolescents the importance of not denying who they are. That lesson is very important for teens and adults to learn and master.

Author Interview

Question#1—How did you come up with the story idea for Rooted? Did you choose the paranormal genre or did it choose you?

I’ve actually been told by a few of my early readers that I shouldn’t have veered into the supernatural with Rooted because I had a good-enough story without it!  But in my mind, it was always going to be a supernatural book. When I thought of Chloe, I immediately imbued her with all of my love for the Pacific Northwest and she became the physical embodiment of that, so of course she had to be a supernatural creature!

The rest of the ideas for Rooted evolved over a period of a few months. First and most importantly,  I watched a marathon of MTV’s Teen Wolf and by the end, I knew I wanted to write a story about werewolves!  I knew I wanted to fill the world with lots of different kinds of shapeshifters, though, and to give the female protagonist something unique that I hadn’t seen before. Around the same time, I had read a news story about an orphaned girl who had been bullied so badly she’d committed suicide, and somehow her story became part of Rooted.  And after having my daughter, I found myself wanting to explore how much harder it is to be a teen right now, as opposed to when I was that age. Because let’s face it…. teens today have things so much tougher!!

Question#2–Which characters do you think middle school and high schools would connect with the most and why?

I tried very hard to make Chloe an authentic character that mirrored – to the best of my ability – an actual person that could exist. She has insecurities and strengths, flaws and virtues. She is dealing with the world in the best way that she knows how. I only hope that readers of that age are able to connect with her and see some of themselves reflected back.

Question#3–Many adolescents struggle with some type of disability and may think they are limited in what they can do.  What advice would you give to them?  How would your experiences inspire them?

So many times, we set the limitations on ourselves. If we really look at the problem, it’s just an obstacle. It’s not a roadblock. There are many ways past an obstacle, and they’re usually not the ways we thought we’d take in the beginning. We may have to think outside the box and test the boundaries we put in place for ourselves. It’s a lot of hard work to get over the obstacles, but once they’re out of the way, it’s so worth it!

Gosh, it’s really hard to think of myself as inspiring. My experiences with a brain injury slowed me down, but I’m just too stubborn to let anything stop me from pursuing my dreams. So I guess if my experiences could inspire anyone, I’d hope they would be inspired to be more stubborn! You can get a lot done in life by just not giving up!!

Question#4–If you could be any supernatural creature and/or have a special power, which would you choose? 

Oh gosh! There are so many possibilities… how do I choose just one?? Um, okay, if I absolutely had to choose, I’d want the ability to teleport. No more commutes! Think how much time I’d save!!

Question#5– Tree spirits and werewolves are main characters in your book. What is the relationship between tree spirits and werewolves? Are there any other supernatural beings linked to werewolves or spirits that readers may not know about?

In my mind, they are all creatures of spirit, or creatures of a dual nature. They have a human side, but they also have a spirit side, and when their spirit sides take over, they shapeshift. In that sense, all the shapeshifters are linked…. And I don’t want to say any more because I might spoil something!

Question#6–It is often said that art is the imitation of life. With each book, readers learn at least one thing about themselves or their world.  How do you think Rooted will impact your readers?

Many of Chloe’s preconceived notions are tested, and she learns that her world is not what she thought it was, both in the supernatural sense and in the mundane sense. I think that’s an important lesson we learn as we grow up and I’m hoping that’s what will impact on the teens who read Rooted, since they’re in that magical place in life where all of their preconceptions are being challenged as they mature.

Question#7– If you were to write your own epitaph, what would you say?

Survived by a loving family. Outlived by vibrant characters.

Question#8–As writers, we love to create our own reality.  Describe the perfect world that you would create.

This world is filled with really terrible stuff. And I’d love to say a spell to get rid of all the terrible stuff, but if I did that, I’d get rid of all of the really wonderful stuff, too. Right now, there are millions of people rising above the terrible things life dishes out; they are actively working, each in their own way, to make the world better. And like any ecosystem, if you get rid of the cockroaches, you may end up inadvertently killing the butterflies too. So I think my perfect world is one where we’re all striving to rise above the terrible stuff…. But now that I think about it, dragons might be kinda cool!! 😉

Author Bio

Amy Good is a writer from the U.S. currently living in Dublin.  She writes part-time, but only when her tyrannical toddler allows it!  When she is not writing, she tweets about the joys and troubles of being a writer, a geek, a toddler mom and a non-native Dubliner.  Her first book, Rooted, is available (at no charge) for download at www.amicgood.com.

Find Amy at:





Thematic Connections

beautifulandcursed The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan

beautiful and cursed2The Tempest Tales by Walter Mosley

beautiful and cursed  Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

beautiful and cursed3 Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves

beautifulandcursed4  Living Violet by Jaime Reed

beautifuland cursed5  The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer



Other Paranormal YAL http://zettaelliott.wordpress.com/2011/02/02/african-american-speculative-fiction-for-kids/


Filed under Uncategorized

These Boundaries, Boxes, and Traditions Can’t Hold Me Back: Labryrinth’s Door–Anyia “Dream of a Warrior” by Jacquitta A. McManus


Image taken from Google Images

“I Get Out”  by Lauryn Hill

I get out, I get out of all your boxes
I get out, you can’t hold me in these chains
I’ll get out
Father free me from this bondage
Knowin’ my condition
Is the reason I must change

To keep me in this box
Psychological locks
Repressin’ true expression
Cementin’ this repression
Promotin’ mass deception
So that no one can be healed
I don’t respect your system
I won’t protect your system
When you talk I don’t listen

And just get out
Oh, just get out of all this bondage
Just get out
Oh, you can’t hold me in these chains
Just get out
All these traditions killin’ freedom
Knowin’ my condition
Is the reason I must change

labyrinth's door McManus, Jacquitta A. and Illustrator Toujour Byrd. Labyrinth’s Door—Anyia “Dream of a Warrior.” Worlds to Discover, LLC: 2010. http://www.worldstodiscover.com/

In our digital, 21st century world, among the interactive worlds, Xbox games, and the plethora of apps, there is still a need for story, a mythical tale to take our imagination to a world of fantasy, a narrative that pulls back the layers of adventure and exposes the true gems of wisdom underneath.

In  Labyrinth’s Door—Anyia “Dream of a Warrior,” McManus does just that.  She sheds light on the traditions that hold women back in Anyia’s village. Anyia is a determined daughter of royalty.  The royal tradition is for women to remain behind the battle lines and bear no responsibility for defending the land.  Anyia feels confined in this box.  She knows there has been a woman warrior, Amoonda.  Many people laugh at her ramblings about a “mere woman” being such a mighty warrior. Anyia is very determined to have the last laugh and to prove everyone, including her father, wrong.

As Anyia plans her escape to find Amoonda, she encounters Thor warriors, who are under Empress Zarina’s rule and pose a threat to her people, and magical beings like Pepo bugs and Erow trees.  She begins her journey of becoming the heroine that her people need.

This book has several educational implications in middle school language arts or reading classes and in world literature courses.  It highlights the art of the story, specifically the fairytale, an art form many cultures use to teach morals and traditions.  It also provides a basis for rich classroom discussion on the portrayal of women in different cultures and their struggles with different traditions and expectations.

A great culminating assignment that could be done after reading this book, along with others suggested below, in a thematic unit on gender roles would be a multigenre research paper.

The multigenre research paper breaks boundaries and traditions on its own.  Traditionally, students have written ten page research papers with annotated bibliographies and index cards as a class assignment.  The multigenre research paper allows students to use different genres, such as poetry, short stories, articles, emails, art, etc. to convey the information they have learned from their research.

I have implemented this idea twice, once in a high school classroom and the other in a freshmen composition course at a community college.  I think the most profound multigenre research paper was done one of my high school students.  The class assignment was to take a social construct or an abstract term such as gender, race, love, hate, justice, freedom, etc., research how others have portrayed or defined the term, create their own definition of the term, and represent their definition through at least three different genres.

This particular student chose to define femininity.  It was a profound representation that broke the often portrayed images of women in society/popular culture.  Students could do the same with Labyrinth’s Door.

Students can even break womanhood into different strands:  marriage, career, etc.

For information on and examples of multigenre projects, please visit these sites:




Five Questions for Jacquitta A. McManus

How did you come up with the idea for Labyrinth’s Door?

It was a daydream that led to the idea of Labyrinth’s Door; a dream that would allow me to
tell stories I myself would have loved to have read growing up. Stories
full of characters that would go on exciting adventures in fantasy lands,
where magic was real and anything could happen. There are four books planned in the series.

Why would Anyia’s character appeal to middle school girls?

Middle school girls are at an age where they are coming of age just like Anyia. They’re
not living in a village and having to follow the traditions of an old
culture, but they are trying to figure out the path they want to take in
life, and if that path differs from what is expect they too will have to
fight for what they know to be true for themselves.

In the book, Anyia expresses her thoughts about the village’s traditions
regarding a woman’s place. What messages do you think young girls receive
from today’s pop culture?

Today’s culture has a lot of emphasis on beauty,money and popularity, from how many Facebook

and  Twitter followers you have to how many YouTube views you get, which emphasizes superficial
assets. Anyia is faced with respecting the traditions of community, where
everyone works as one for the better good of all. It’s very much a
community mentality, which is the opposite of pop culture. Pop culture is
sending out a message that everyone should be about himself or herself
unless helping others is a benefit to the one giving the help, it’s very
much a self-mentality.

What other books have you written?

I’ve written Talee and the Fallen Object, which is a great fantasy adventure series for elementary
school-aged children. It will transport kids to another world through the
description given by the protagonist, Talee.

Talee_Cover_web Synopsis of Talee and the Fallen Object:

One early Saturday morning, Talee had nothing to do. I mean nothing at
all. So she ate a puffy muffin and decided to read one of her favorite
books, Captain Jewel and the Lost City Treasure. Just when she was about
to start chapter three, out of the corner of her eye she saw a mail flyer
drop something from a bag. It fell through the air and landed on one of
the smaller floating landmasses. A bag of treasure, she thought as she
looked out the window. But is it a bag of treasure?

What advice would you give to other authors interested in creating their
own digital illustrated series for children?

Pre-production, productions, post-production and marketing are the same as a printed series. Where
things differ is the distribution aspect. And in order to effectively
distribute you have to know where you want to distribute and through what
means so that you can prepare the correct files. And you should know that
before you start production.

How did you come up with the idea for Labyrinth’s Door?

It was a daydream that led to the idea of Labyrinth’s Door; a dream that would allow me to
tell stories I myself would have loved to have read growing up. Stories
full of characters that would go on exciting adventures in fantasy lands,
where magic was real and anything could happen.

Why would Anyia’s character appeal to middle school girls?

Middle school girls are at an age where they are coming of age just like Anyia. They’re
not living in a village and having to follow the traditions of an old
culture, but they are trying to figure out the path they want to take in
life, and if that path differs from what is expect they too will have to
fight for what they know to be true for themselves.

In the book, Anyia expresses her thoughts about the village’s traditions
regarding a woman’s place. What messages do you think young girls receive
from today’s pop culture?

Today’s culture has a lot of emphasis on beauty,money and popularity.

From how many Facebook and Twitter followers you have to how many

YouTube views you get, which emphasizes superficial
assets. Anyia is faced with respecting the traditions of community, where
everyone works as one for the better good of all. It’s very much a
community mentality, which is the opposite of pop culture. Pop culture is
sending out a message that everyone should be about himself or herself
unless helping others is a benefit to the one giving the help, it’s very
much a self-mentality.

What other books have you written?

I’ve written Talee and the Fallen Object, which is a great fantasy adventure series for elementary
school-aged children. It will transport kids to another world through the
description given by the protagonist, Talee.
Talee_Cover_webSynopsis of Talee and the Fallen Object:

One early Saturday morning, Talee had nothing to do. I mean nothing at
all. So she ate a puffy muffin and decided to read one of her favorite
books, Captain Jewel and the Lost City Treasure. Just when she was about
to start chapter three, out of the corner of her eye she saw a mail flyer
drop something from a bag. It fell through the air and landed on one of
the smaller floating landmasses. A bag of treasure, she thought as she
looked out the window. But is it a bag of treasure?

What advice would you give to other authors interested in creating their
own digital illustrated series for children?

Pre-production, productions, post-production and marketing are the same as a printed series. Where
things differ is the distribution aspect. And in order to effectively
distribute you have to know where you want to distribute and through what
means so that you can prepare the correct files. And you should know that
before you start production.

Author Bio:

“All my life, I’ve gravitated to fantasy stories. Stories I felt I could
be a part of and completely immerse myself in … in my imagination.”

Jacquitta A. McManus, a little girl from Kentucky and author of two
fantasy adventure children’s books, Labyrinth’s Door – Anyia “Dream of a
Warrior” and Talee and the Fallen Object, was always drawn to fantasy
stories. It was a way for her to immerse herself into exciting adventures
in faraway lands that she otherwise wouldn’t experience. As she got older
she would find that immersing herself into those fantasy stories, as a
little girl, was just the beginning of a journey that would lead her to
writing her own fantasy adventure children’s books.

Websites & Blogs:


Talee’s World (WorldsToDiscover.com/Talee)

Journey of a Storyteller (WorldsToDiscover.com/Journey)

Social Media Links

Facebook.com/WTDiscover / Facebook.com/LabyrinthsDoor

Twitter.com/WTDiscover / Facebook.com/LabyrinthsDoor

Text-to Text Connections
*****These books are great additions to a thematic unit revolving around this book.  This list addresses a plethora of issues connected to Labyrinth’s Door–Anyia “Dream of a Warrior.”  Some of them deal with traditions, boundaries, and expectations that different women face in different cultures.  Some of them reinvent the classic fairytale of Cinderella, a story that not only captivates young girls, but if examined more closely, it also perpetuates those traditions, boundaries, and expectations.  Some of the short stories and poems examine what it means to be a woman. One of them, Shizuko’s Daughter, deals with the impact of mother-daughter relationships on a girl’s development into a woman. Of course, no examination of womanhood would not be complete without bringing in Hester Prynne’s struggle in The Scarlet Letter.  McManus’ book, paired with these texts, opens the door to critically conscious discussions about social issues and expectations.  What a wonderful way to celebrate Women’s History month! Enjoy!

mufaro's beautiful daughters Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters:  An African Tale by John Steptoe

beauty Beauty:  A Retelling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast by Robin McKinley

green angelGreen Angel by Alice Hoffman

rough face girl The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin

shizuko's daughter Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori

woman warrior The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

the foretelling The Foretelling by Alice Hoffman

adichieThe Thing Around Your Neck  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

a step from heaven A Step from Heaven by An Na

achebe Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

aint i a womanAin’t I Woman:  A Book of Women’s Poetry From Around the World  Edited by Illona Lithwaite

efuruEfuru by Flora Nwapa

cisnerosWoman Hollering Creek & Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros

bride priceThe Bride Price by Buchi Emecheta

scarlet letter The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne



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Persevering Like Palm Trees in the Wind of Adversity: The Boy from Willow Bend by Joanne C. Hillhouse

boy blog

Red Wines in Antiguan Nights

By Alexandra Caselle

I’m Tanty’s beloved—

tattooed with his mark, red

wine welts on my skin.

They hum and vibrate.

They channel the other spirits,

women I have lost.

My nerves convulse with

synapses of energy,

the call of nature.

Wind rustles through trees,

earthen vessel flooded by

eternal kisses.

Light particles, dust

specks swirl into a tribe,

chanting soucouyants*.

Words flow from their lips,

an all-healing salve, soothing

my prism of pain.

Daydream disperses

like dandelion flurries.

I rub red wine welts,

left by grandaddy’s belt.

His drunken rage, Tanty’s tales

One remains; one gone.

Whisper those four words:

I’m Tanty’s beloved.  Nothing.

Inside , I’m crying.

*soucouyant = [a] woman who is said to have the ability to remove her skin and transform herself into a ball of fire which glides through the night in search of a sleeping victim whose blood she sucks. (word taken from glossary found in the back of Hillhouse’s book)


Image taken from Google Images–(original source) http://www.365antigua.com/arts/literature/BoyFromWillowBendRedux.php




Hillhouse, Joanne C. The Boy from Willow Bend. Turnaround: 2009. 978-1906190293. 95pgs.

Vere Joseph Carmino is a young Antiguan boy enamored by stories.  As The Boy from Willow Bend begins, he is enchanting Kim, one of his first crushes, and others with a tale.  He gets the love of stories from his grandmother, Tanty.  The musicality of the authentic, Antiguan language resonates like wind dipping in and out of multicolored bottle trees as Tanty scolds Vere for not being in the house before dark:

   “Vere Joseph Carmino, why you won’t take telling? I tell you make sure you find yourself home before night fall, an’ every night you come running down the road after dark like some devil chasin’ you.  Then you still expect to go back an’ watch TV.  You best haul your tail inside ‘fore I get vex.”

Tanty envelops Vere into a nurturing warmth and love that is missing from his life.  His mother is gone, and his grandfather only shows affection through physical abuse.  He spends his pension check on alcohol, and Vere’s grandmother has to find odd jobs to maintain a small cushion of money for Vere’s needs.  But soon Tanty is gone and she becomes one of the many women, Makeba the Rasta Queen, Kim, and Elisabeth who abandons him.

Imagine being a youth with no one for support, only a drunk grandfather who takes out his frustration on you.  Imagine handling all of this turmoil while trying to survive poverty.  But Vere survives and develops an inner strength that frees him from his situation.

Vere’s story may take place in Antigua, but the problems he experiences are universal. The book is a great resource to discuss those experiences in the classroom and learn about different cultures and language.  Language inquiry offers adolescents to study language through a network of social constructs such as gender, power structures, race/culture, and class.  It also provides them with an opportunity to study the structure of language linguistically.  Students can examine the lexicon/vocabulary, morphology, phonetics, syntax, rhetorical features, and pragmatic nature of the Antiguan language.

They realize that different languages and dialects are more than just “slang.”

Hillhouse includes an Antiguan glossary in the back of her book, which could be used to introduce the language study. Through language inquiry, teachers will instill an appreciation for language diversity.

The Boy From Willow Bend brings two classroom activities to mind.

When I first started teaching 7th grade Language Arts in Orlando, back in 1996, I taught a multicultural literature unit called Around the Literary World in 9 Weeks.  After reading and discussing several short stories from the literature anthology, I had students to research a country, create a brochure advertising the culture, share a poem or short story by a writer from that country, bring in food indicative of the culture, and choose another activity from a list to represent their research.

During the day of the presentations, I remember how I did not think about all of the specifics dealing with the food aspect of this group project.  For each of the six periods, I had to run downstairs to the faculty lounge, heat up food, and haul it back to the classroom.  It was worth it because some students who were from some of the countries felt pride sharing their culture with their classmates. All in all, everyone, including other teachers who popped in for a bite, enjoyed it.

The Boy From Willow Bend offers an opportunity for this type of project.  Students can research Antigua and other Caribbean countries in a thematic unit.

Another activity allows students to engage in creative writing by writing prepositional poems.  I learned about prepositional poems from a Florida professional development workshop.  Students used books they have read, pictures, or any kind of prompt to write a short poem in which each line begins with a preposition. Students wrote the final drafts on construction paper and decorated the border with scraps of fabric.

Students reading Hillhouse’s book can write prepositional poems about Antigua, a place in the book, or something else from a character’s point-of-view. They can use any type of material from a crafts store to create a mosaic as a background for their poetry. Teachers can also have the students each write a poem that can be combined into one class poem. To introduce the activity, teachers may want to construct examples, write each line on sentence strips, and allow students to put them together in poems.  Afterwards, they have students create their own prepositional poems.

Here is one that I wrote for The Boy From Willow Bend:

In front of the emerald green waters

On top of the pearl white sands

Inside the grove of palm trees

Behind the shanties

Down the dark road

At the dead end

Against the brick wall stands Vere, looking

for a way out.

Here is another one written by someone else:

Above us all a star

with shiny silver reflections.

Over all the mountains it glares.

Onto the water it shines.

Through the trees it glows.

Throughout the sky it’s seen.

From my window

During the night I see a star.

To learn more about additional themes in The Boy From Willow Bend, Althea Romeo-Mark has written an in-depth critical analysis of Hillhouse’s book here:http://aromaproductions.blogspot.com/2012/03/from-dead-end-alley-to-willow-bend.html


For more information about language study and inquiry, please see the article, “Feeling the Rhythm of the Critically Conscious Mind” in The English Journal Vol. 93, No. 3 (Jan., 2004), pp. 58-63.

Author Information

“Five Questions for Joanne C. Hillhouse”


Text-to-Text Connections

Here are more examples of Caribbean young adult and contemporary novels, short stories, and nonfiction that can be used with The Boy From Willow Bend in a thematic unit.  I have also included poems from American poets that would fit into some of the literary themes.  Even though City of Beasts is set in the Amazon rainforest, I still think it would fit into a thematic unit involving these works.

fresh girlFresh Girl  by Jaira Placide

behind the mountains Behind the Mountains  by Edwidge Danticat

before we were free Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez

esmeralda santiagoWhen I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

city of the beasts City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

annie johnAnnie John by Jamaica Kincaid

brother i'm dyingBrother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

flight to freedomFlight to Freedom by Ana Veciana-Suarez

cuba 15  Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa

browngirl, BrownstonesBrown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall

krik krak Krik?Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

in darknessIn Darkness by Nick Lake

“Parsley” by Rita Dove http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172128

“Harlem Dancer” by Claude McKay  http://www.poetry-archive.com/m/the_harlem_dancer.html

“NaPoWriMo: Poems 4-6”  by Stacia L. Brown  http://stacialbrown.com/2011/04/08/napowrimo-poems-4-6/


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A Deeper Story Lies Underneath: The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake


failure of an invention

by Safiya Henderson-Holmes

i am not any of the faces

you have put on me America

every mask has slipped

i am not any of the names

or sounds you have called me

the tones have nearly

made me deaf

this dark skin, both of us

have tried to bleach

i can smell the cancer.

this thick hair, these thick lips

both of us have tried to narrow

begging entrance through

the needle of your eye

some of me broken

in the squeeze

and even as i carry

a bone of yours in my back

your soul America no matter what we’ve tried

I’ve never been able to bear

color2Flake, Sharon. The Skin I’m In. Perfection Learning: 2007. 978-0756984687.

Maleeka Madison is a young girl who is not comfortable in her own skin.  She is teased by her peers for her skin color and her handmade clothes.  It isn’t until an English teacher named Miss Saunders comes along and teaches her to acknowledge the beauty on the inside and the outside.  Miss Saunders has a condition known as vitiligo.  It causes her skin to look imperfect in others’ eyes.  But Miss Saunders does not let what others think bother her.  She tries to get Maleeka to feel the same way, but Maleeka is trying to fit in with the in crowd.  The in crowd clowns Miss Saunders every day, so Maleeka follows suit.  As Maleeka digs deeper into a writing assignment that entails the diary of a slave girl, she begins the quest of loving herself.

This novel works well on many levels.  There is a cultural connection.  The color complex is a social and cultural construct that is unfortunately included in the fabric of many cultures.  The historical implications of the light vs. dark have sown many weeds into a person’s self-esteem.  In African American literature, the issue of color has been around since Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry & Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Flake’s writing style draws adolescents in because she connects Maleeka’s plight to the common angst of being a teenager:  fitting in.  Whether it is weight, clothes, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or color, teens have to deal with something about them that disqualifies them to be a part of the popular clique.  Flake’s use of the vernacular also engages adolescents more into the storyline.  My students enjoyed the tension between Maleeka and Char, Maleeka’s “friend.”

An assignment that I had my students do after reading this novel was a collage of their definition of beauty.  The various, visual interpretations amazed me and became a counter narrative to the message society advocates.







Text-to-Text Connections (The following novels and short story collection deal with self-image, race,mixed race, and transgender adolescents.  They would be perfect to pair up with The Skin I’m In  because the characters in each book struggle with balancing or negating society’s perceptions of them.)

step to this  Step to This by Nikki Carter


flavor of the weekFlavor of the Week by Tucker Shaw


you are freeYou Are Free:  Stories by Danzy Senna


skinnySkinny by Ibi Kaslik


shrink to fitShrink to Fit  Dona Sarkar


luna-julie-anne-peters2 Luna    Julie Anne Peters



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Setting the Mood for Literacy Learning through YAL & Theme-Based Literate Environments

Image found on Google Images

Image found on Google Images

Their lives, fears, needs, dreams

THEIR objectives, tests, demands

Meeting ground needed.

There lies the conundrum.

The Power of Words

Struggling literacy learners enter my room already wrapped in a cocoon filled with negative experiences in reading and writing and with educational labels attempting to define them.  As their teacher for the school year, my job is to give them the tools to emerge as literacy learners.  This ten-month journey begins with recognizing and harnessing the power of words.  Struggling readers and writers develop an aversion to literacy because words have become a mystery and a hindrance to them.  They have not cracked the code.  They tend to ask questions such as “Why I gotta read or write this?”

The purpose and the process of literacy have eluded them.  Amidst their problems with decoding, comprehending, composing, and other literacy skills, some struggling literacy learners have not found an author or a writing topic that has titillated their desire to read or write.  They seek initiation into the “literacy club” where their peers laugh at and discuss books or reign words into well-crafted writing.

They know words are powerful because their daily struggle with them has resulted in a wall of resistance against literacy learning.  The words themselves have forged the outer shells of their cocoons.  Standardized assessments, teachers’ comments and (mis)perceptions, constant academic failure, and sometimes peers’ ridicule have assailed struggling readers and writers and created their lack of confidence in literacy learning.

Whether positive or negative, words carry energy and evoke memories.  When struggling literacy learners enter my room, they will still associate reading and writing with their past experiences.  “The written and spoken word determines what we do in life and how we do it.”  (Iyanla Vanzant, One Day My Soul Opened Up)

The written and spoken word can also hinder struggling readers and writers.  Negative experiences enable them to concede to defeat when it comes to literacy learning.  As a language arts teacher, I want my students to gain back their confidence.  Theme-based literate environments allow me to utilize the classroom as a tool for setting change into motion.

Elements of a Theme-Based Literate Environment

When people enter a pleasant home or restaurant, the ambience—the arrangement of furniture, the array of paintings, collectibles, and plants, the aroma of meals, scented candles, or air fresheners, and the feeling of positive energy radiating throughout the place—surrounds them with warmth and invitation.  They feel comfortable and relaxed in being themselves with no noticeable threats to the peaceful environment they have entered.  The mood of the home or restaurant solicits conversations, celebrations, and memories.

As avid readers or aspiring writers stroll through Barnes & Noble, the literary atmosphere instantly mesmerizes them with mahogany cases filled with books.  Bookstores contain oversized chairs sporadically spaced and cozy cafes alive with conversation.  Budding writers find refuge and inspiration as they perfect their craft in the company of hallowed authors.  These places become literary havens where people lose themselves inside literacy.

The elements of the places described above characterize the concept of theme-based literate environments.  Students should be able to walk into a soothing setting with several selections of texts, snug chairs and pillows to sit on, and invitations to be themselves as readers and writers.  An abundance of print and non-print texts, ranging from picture books and audiotapes to young adult literature and nonfiction (and if funds permit, digital texts), are present to whet their appetites.

Theme-based Literate Environments Contain the Following:

  •  A multitude of learning experiences requiring students to question, evaluate, experience and appreciate all types of texts
  • An underlying theme evident through classroom décor and ambience
  • A central guiding question that ties together the course concepts
  • A sense of flexibility in movement of classroom furniture and students
  • A reflection of students’ interests
  • A collaborative framework of student and teacher input
  • An ample supply and implementation of young  adult literature

Looking at the Concept in Action

During the course of my teaching career, I have created several theme-based literate environments.  The themes have ranged from coffeehouses, gardens, oceans, boutiques, and safaris.  I have painted bookcases to reflect the themes, and bought butterfly chairs, body pillows, and bean bag chairs for independent reading areas.

I have decorated wall with fabric designed with parrots to convey my safari theme and hung up curtains behind a writing conference table with candles in glass bowls and a tablecloth to accentuate my boutique theme.  Along with the infectious nature of the classroom, I bring a positive energy into the classroom.  If teachers enjoy what they do, their attitude will rub off on their students.

I have had students who were considered lost causes blossom in these environments.  Olivia* (pseudonym) used her writer’s notebook as a place to record her feelings about living with her dad and his new wife.  She copied down their conversations and conveyed her emotions through poetry and song lyrics from favorite artists.  We wrote to each other in her notebook about her feelings.  These snippets of life formed the basis of personal narratives and stories she composed in the writing workshops.

Writer’s notebooks became a literate space where reading and writing informed each other’s practices.  In class, she used her freedom of expression to write about her life.  She volunteered more in whole class discussions.  Her face brightened, a better alternative to the saddened eyes she once had.   My theme-based literate environment coaxed a timid girl out of her shell and invited her to participate in literacy learning.

Alex* (pseudonym) was an eighth grade student who read on a second grade level.  He never completed a book on his own.  Through interactive word walls, read-alouds, literature discussion groups, learning centers, and differentiated instruction, Alex gained confidence in reading.  At Open House, he expressed his newfound interest in Walter Dean Myers’ book, Monster.  This student, who is described as a Level 1 reader, told everyone every detail of the book and explained how the book had changed his life.  His parents approached me after the event and expressed their gratitude.  Alex was reading more of Myers’ books with confidence.

Sometimes the classroom environment is just as important as the curriculum in literacy learning.

Other YAL Suggestions for Struggling Readers

Step to This  Nikki Carter

Who Am I Without Him?: Short Stories About Girls and the Boys in Their Lives  Sharon Flake

The Misfits  James Howe

Tangerine  Edward Bloor

Conception  by Kalisha Buckhanon

Domino Falls  by Tananarive Due & Steven Barnes

Green Angel  Alice Hoffman

Artichoke’s Heart  Suzanne Supplee

Bucking the Sarge Christopher Paul Curtis

Jason & Kyra  Dana Davidson

Tears of a Tiger Sharon Draper

Forged by Fire  Sharon Draper

Born Blue   Hans Nolan

If You Come Softly   Jacqueline Woodson

Hush   Jacqueline Woodson

Slam! Walter Dean Meyers

Make Lemonade V. Wolff

True Believer V. Wolff

Pushing Pause  Celeste Norfleet

Shortie Like Mine  NiNi Simone

Seedfolks  Paul Fleischmann

YALSA’s annual list http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/quickpicks/2013

Teacher Resources for Building Literate Environments

A Time for Meaning:  Crafting Literate Lives in Middle & High School by Randy Bomer

Literacy in the Secondary Classroom:  Strategies for Teaching the Way Kids Learn  L. Meeks & C. Austin

Reconceptualizing the Literacies in Adolescents’ Lives  by Donna Alvermann et al


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