Writing Your Way Out of a Box
Aug 22, 2014
Writing texts for reading and language arts programs has been described as “writing your way out of a box.” How do you create a text that is just as engaging for students as a trade book or magazine article…and also helps them to learn and practice a targeted set of skills? Several of the editors in the Six Red Marbles Humanities Department have written books for children’s trade publishers, and that experience often helps us to get the writers we work with out of that box.
For any market, nonfiction must be accurate, organized in a way that pulls readers along through the text, and packed with interesting facts that children don’t already know. For instance, when I wrote a trade book about Dr. Gordon Sato, a humanitarian scientist who had been interned as a teenager at the Manzanar concentration camp for Japanese Americans, I included a fact about how he grew vegetables in the desert at Manzanar to help feed his family. I’d seen this fact in several sources, but none said what kind of vegetables they were—so I asked Dr. Sato. (It was corn.) Similarly, when we propose nonfiction book or passage topics to our clients in educational publishing, we mine “want lists” from teachers and librarians for new topics and try to narrow the focus of more familiar ones to let those little-known facts bloom.
Across the Six Red Marbles Humanities Department are editors who have published trade fiction for every age group, from picture books to chapter books to young adult novels. So we know that fiction must have well-developed characters, realistic dialogue, a compelling plot, and a strong story structure. To encourage these qualities in the fiction texts we develop for our clients, we usually present an outline to a writer to execute, and then we listen carefully if he or she says, “Well, I think it would be more believable for this character if . . . ”
How else do we get our writers out of their boxes? Well, we know that our clients must avoid certain topics, so we do, too. There’s no magic in the stories we develop for our clients, no witches or wizards, and the children in our texts eat only healthy foods. (Halloween, which combines witchcraft and candy, never occurs.) These taboos exist for a good reason: content that is inappropriate or controversial has the potential to derail a classroom lesson. Still, there are workarounds to the taboos. There may not be much magic in fantasies written for classroom use, but there’s time travel—a fun way to make a historical period or character relevant to students. (To quote Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) There are no witches, but there are articles and books on Bigfoots and aliens. And there’s no candy, but popcorn and pizza can be pretty healthy foods and are fun subjects for procedural texts. The trick is to pick high-interest topics that are just as exciting to children as the taboo ones.
And of course, we have to help our writers to wrap their heads around guidelines. They must build opportunities to teach and learn standards-based skills for reading, writing, grammar, usage and mechanics, phonics and word study, and so on into each text. The skills follow a precise scope and sequence, and the line and word counts have been decided before the first word is written.
At Six Red Marbles, we enjoy finding creative solutions to these challenges—which may involve an emergency call to a fellow writer. I was once editing a phonics program that used a Shel Silverstein poem for a unit opener. The poem was decorated with a lovely border that illustrated the text. As the files-to-print deadline neared, we learned that Silverstein’s estate forbade the use of borders around his poetry. There was time to replace the poem, but not the artwork. I called a poet I knew and asked him if—gulp!—he could create a poem that featured the targeted phonics skill, was the same length as the Silverstein poem, and matched the art. He wrote the poem in three days, and I thought it was better than Silverstein’s original. (I also once asked this writer for a poem that used silent k at least three times. He used it five times. It was about a knight who knew something. How to knit, maybe?)
I hope that the next text you see in a reading program is one that both facilitates instruction and helps students to experience the joy of reading. If it does, you’ll know that its writer—possibly with a little assist from an editor—found his or her way out of the box.