How Superman Taught Me Story Structure

When I was six or so, I wrapped a small blanket around my shoulders and jumped off the top step at the front of our house. I fully expected to fly like my hero, Superman. He wore a cape, after all, and he could fly so why shouldn’t I?  That was the logic behind my courageous leap.

Of course, I didn’t fly.  Gravity took over. I crash landed and rammed my knee into my jaw, which in turn shoved my teeth into my tongue. I was a bloody mess.   

It was a harsh lesson in the fine distinction between fiction and non-fiction.  Since I can recall the painful details of the experience many decades later, it was a lesson I never forgot.

Superman was the first of my super heroes.  Others would follow, but like first loves, he would always be special.  Not even Batman, Spider man, the Hulk or others in the superhero realm could knock him off his lofty perch. Although each of them fascinated me for a while, it was faster-than-a-speeding bullet, leap-over-tall buildings Superman I returned to time and again. 

When I was a kid, Superman was alive and well on the weekly episodes I watched on our grainy black-and-white TV.  But mostly, he was alive and well in the comic books I relished. At 6, I could hardly read, yet but there was enough action on the pages to keep me occupied.  Even without dialogue, I could make out much of the story. The plot unfolded panel by panel across the colorful pages.

From Superman comics, I learned about story structure – first an opening to set the stage, then rising action that led to a climax and resolution.  I didn’t know the technical terms then, but I understood the concept of beginning, middle and end.

pramit_marattha / Pixabay

From Superman comics, I learned about protagonists and antagonists, and how important it was to have struggle and conflict in a story.  When Superman clashed with a villain like Lex Luthor, I turned pages faster. Complications keep the story moving, and for every hero there must be a villain – or at least, a counterpoint.

From Superman comics, I learned about good and evil. I learned about unrequited love. I learned that worlds exist beyond ours, and the possibilities for adventure are endless. And when Superman turned to mush in the presence of kryptonite, I learned that even the strongest and bravest among us have flaws.

Above all, I learned that capes alone do not a superhero make.

To Write a Great Beginning

For many writers, the beginning of any story – long or short, fiction or non-fiction – is a challenge.  Where to start?  What to include?  What not to include?

I’m in such a place now with my work-in-progress middle grade novel.  I’ve finished the first draft.  I’ve started revisions. I know now what the story is about now.  I know the theme, the characters, how the plot evolves and yet….  I’m not quite satisfied with any of the half-dozen beginnings that are stored on my computer.

Why?  Because so much is riding on those first few lines, especially for writers of youth material.

A strong beginning pulls readers forward.  A limp start leaves readers – especially youngsters – floundering and wondering if it’s even worth plowing ahead. This may be particularly true for boys who might be reluctant readers. A few lines, a paragraph or two, maybe a page, and if they’re not captivated by the story, many less proficient and inexperienced readers will simply give up.

A few years ago, while I was visiting Arizona, I browsed through the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, pulling novels off shelves to scan the first lines in some popular books written for 7-12 year-olds.  How did the pro’s begin? I wondered.  To emulate the experience of young readers, I gave each book a maximum of five lines to establish the basics and draw me into the story. Anything longer and the book went back on the shelf.

Here are ten beginnings that passed my rudimentary test.  Each one teased, prodded or enticed me with a creative hook to read further, sometimes in less than my 5 allotted lines.  Do you agree with my selection?

“I’m going shopping in the village,” George’s mother said to George on Saturday morning. “So be a good boy and don’t get into mischief.”  This was a silly thing to say to a small boy at any time.  It immediately made him wonder what sort of mischief he might get into.

George’s Marvelous Medicine – Roald Dahl


   Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  – J.K.Rowling

Tale of Despereaux This story begins within the walls of a castle with the birth of a mouse.  A small mouse.  The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.

                                                                          The Tale of Despereaux – Kate Camillo

My English teacher, Mr. Selkirk, says I have to write something, and it has to be long, on account of the thing that happened over winter recess – which in my opinion, doesn’t amount to much.  It’s not like I meant for Danley to get hurt, and I don’t think that what happened was one hundred percent my fault, or even a lot my fault, even though I don’t deny that I was there.

                                                                                                   Twerp – Mark Goldblatt

  It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.  No.  Wrong word, Jonas thought.  Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen.  Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.

                                                                                                   The Giver – Lois Lowry

The Whipping Boy

The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path.

The Whipping Boy – Sid Fleischman

red pyramid We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.  If you’re hearing this story, you’re already in danger.  Sadie and I might be your only chance. Go to the school.  Find the locker.  I won’t tell you which school or which locker, because if you’re the right person, you’ll find it.

The Red Pyramid – Rick Riordan

There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft.  I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it.

Who Could That be at This Hour – Lemony Snicket

girl who could fly  Piper decided to jump off the roof.  It wasn’t a rash decision on her part.

                                    The Girl Who Could Fly – Victoria Forester

whimpy kid

I wish I started keeping a journal a lot earlier, because whoever ends up writing my biography is gonna have a lot of questions about my life in the years leading up to middle school.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel – Jeff Kinney

Little Free Libraries – Your Chance to be Creative

Todd Bol’s first Little Free Library

Todd Bol’s library looked nothing like conventional libraries seen in towns and cities worldwide. His was much smaller, hand-built out of scrap wood, and modeled after a one-room school house. He added a sign above the school house doorway that read ‘Little Free Library’.

In 2009, Todd stocked the little school house with books, mounted it on a post in his front yard, and invited friends and neighbors to browse. It became a popular attraction, with visitors selecting books, dropping off others, and sharing in the joys of reading.

Todd Bol’s simple act spawned a world-wide movement.  Today, there are over 50,000 registered Little Free Libraries (LFL) around the globe with new ones sprouting up on every continent except – so far at least – Antarctica.   Most bear ‘take a book, leave a book’ signs, but that is more a suggestion than a rule.  There are no enforcers, no guardians, only stewards keen on spreading the written word.

Little Free Library along Carpathia Street, Winnipeg

Winnipeg, my hometown, caught the wave in 2012 when Charlene Roziere erected the city’s first one at 273 Mandeville Street. Today there are dozens more, most in front yards, but others in school playgrounds, coffee shops or along lanes – wherever book lovers are likely to congregate.

Anyone can join the movement.  The Little Free Library website provides Instructions on how to build and register a Little Free Library.  Once registered, the new LFL is added to a website map that pinpoints the location of each registered Little Free Library.  Click on the pin, and a box opens providing details and a photo or two.

The LFL website has downloadable blueprints and if you are so inclined, you can even order one pre-built.  But for handy folks and those with a creative edge, here’s your chance to go shine. While there are some basic guidelines, your Little Free Library can be constructed out of almost any material and in just about any architectural style you desire.

To whet your creative appetite, here’s a small sample of LFLs, drawn from a variety of sources across the Internet.

[huge_it_gallery id=”19″]

Conquer Summer Slide: Keep Reading Alive

It’s summer and the living is easy. With so many things for kids to do, reading sometimes takes a back seat. This can impact reading skills when school resumes in the fall. There’s even a term for the phenomenon: ‘summer slide’ – the loss of skills during the time students are away from school. Taken over several years, summer slide exacts heavy tolls as affected students fall progressively farther behind their classmates in reading achievement.

PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

Fortunately, there is a remedy. An online publication by the Colorado State Library cites this hopeful statistic: Reading just 4 to 6 books over the summer has the potential to prevent a decline in reading. 

Simple? Maybe. Getting some kids to read amid the distractions of summer can be a challenge. The same Colorado publication offers strategies parents can use to encourage reluctant readers: set aside family reading time; let kids make their own choices; visit the library together etc.

Here’s one I didn’t see there, though: Participate in a summer reading program or reading contest. There are a number out there, and even some online versions where kids chart the books they read and chat to other readers about them.

With the TD Summer Reading Club, for example, kids across Canada can take part through local public libraries as well as at home and online. .

Scholastic Canada, one of my publishers, offers a similar initiative with their Happy Camper Program.

Another of my publishers, Rebelight, is running Summer Reading Challenge. Admittedly, I have a vested interest in this one because my novel Missing in Paradise is on the selection list. But blatant self-promotion aside, this is a wonderful opportunity for readers to discover exciting new books while simultaneously combating the ills of summer slide.

The rules for the Summer Reading Challenge are simple. Kids read a young adult or middle grade novel published by Rebelight, then post a short review on social media. Each review yields a draw for great prizes. The more books read, the greater the draw possibilities. Full details are on Rebelight’s website, but hurry. The contest ends on August 31, 2017.

Arranging an Author Visit – ‘Who You Gonna Call?’

Suppose you are a teacher or teacher-librarian on the hunt for an engaging presenter. Or conversely, suppose you are a published author who wants to visit schools and classrooms. To borrow a line from the Ghostbusters theme, “Who you gonna call?”

If you live in Winnipeg or rural Manitoba, you might contact Prairie Bookings, an agency that connects teachers and teacher-librarians with local or visiting authors of children and teen material. Started a few months ago by two energetic Winnipeggers, Nancy Chappell-Pollack and Jen Franklin, Prairie Bookings is the only firm in Manitoba to provide such a service.

Chappell-Pollack is a sister to award-winning Winnipeg YA author, Colleen Nelson. When one of Colleen’s books was nominated for a White Pine Award for the Forest of Reading program in Ontario, Chappell-Pollack saw first-hand how an Ontario-based agency – Author’s Booking Service – expedited the process of connecting authors to schools. Believing there was a need for a similar service in Manitoba, Chappell-Pollack and Franklin founded Prairie Bookings.

“I strongly and distinctly remember author visits when I was going to school,” Chappell-Pollack, a mother of four, said in a phone interview. “I can tell you probably all of them and what they wrote or if it was a graphic novel or poetry. Those stick in my mind so I really feel strongly that it is important to have that in our school system.”

While Prairie Bookings might be the new kid on the block, it already has an up-and-running website ( and a roster of willing and capable authors with more expected in the coming months. “We connect authors from Manitoba and beyond with interested educators and libraries for professional paid presentations,” Chappell-Pollack said.

Each author has a webpage on the Prairie Bookings site that features a biography as well as details about the author’s presentation, fee structure, and grade level suitability. To connect schools and authors, Prairie Bookings charges a 10% booking fee. This is deducted from the fees collected by the author. When necessary, Prairie Bookings will organize transportation for out-of-town authors. “We take care of the details,” Chappell-Pollack noted.

To communicate with schools, Prairie Bookings emails flyers and announcements to teachers and teacher-librarians on their mailing list. Currently, Chappell-Pollack and Franklin have 100 contacts in their database.  They expect the number to grow rapidly as word spreads. While they are currently targeting Winnipeg schools and rural centers close to the city, they plan to extend their service to other areas of Manitoba eventually.

Prairie Bookings prides itself on offering quality classroom experiences. Chappell-Pollack noted that not every author might have the right mix of ingredients to be a successful presenter. “You could be a strong writer, but not a strong presenter or vice versa. It’s finding that right mix between an author who has a strong product and can also present it well and keep kids engaged that is the key to a successful experience. So far, we have been lucky to have reached out to authors, or had authors reach out to us, who are really strong candidates.”

Prairie Bookings offers a diverse list of presenters, from authors specializing in dystopian fiction (Melinda Friesen) and historical fiction (Gabriele Goldstone, Marsha Skrypuch) to others who write non-fiction (Larry Verstraete) or  realistic fiction (Maureen Fergus, Anita Daher, Colleen Nelson). That said, it is difficult to pigeon-hole the offerings since many authors write in more than one genre and present to a variety of age levels.

Chappell-Pollack and Franklin are hoping to add other published authors to the roster, and those interested can contact them through their website. Teachers and teacher-librarians wanting to be added to Prairie Bookings mailing list can send an email request to Prairie Booking can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Image Tells a Powerful Story

Not every story requires a wordy telling.  Sometimes a well-positioned image or object can evoke stronger emotions and deeper meanings than words allow.

I am reminded of this simple fact whenever I look at this photo that Jo snapped when we visited Budapest, Hungary two years ago.  On our second day in the city, we boarded a bus for a tour of Budapest. Bus tours are often the best ways to get an overview of a new place, and this one was especially interesting since our tour guide salted her presentation with a running commentary on Hungary’s history and politics.

imagesWhen we passed the majestic Parliament Buildings with their red-tiled roofs, our guide pointed to a memorial along the banks of the Danube River.  From the bus we really couldn’t see it, but later in the day we returned for a closer look.

Sixty pairs of rusted shoes cast out of iron lined the bank.  Some were tiny, others 10 sizes larger. Spaced 30 or so centimeters apart, the shoes ranged from dress to informal: high heels and wing-tips to sneakers and children’s boots.

about-shoes-on-the-danube6_574_383The impact was immediate. Viewed together, the shoes told of a brutal period.  On March 19, 1944 German troops occupied Hungary.  Hitler deposed Prime Minister Miklós Kállay and appointed as head of state, Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the Nyilaskereszt (Arrow Cross) fascist party.

From 1944-1945, Szálasi embarked on a reign of terror.  Intent on following Hitler’s extermination plan, Szálasi and his Arrow Cross militiamen stripped Hungarian Jews and dissidents of their businesses and possessions, herded them into ghettos, and deported tens of thousands to Auschwitz. Still others were marched to the edge of the Danube. Once lined along the bank, men, women and children were forced to remove their shoes, strip naked, and face the river. A firing squad opened fire, shooting at close range.  Like cut timber, the bodies fell into the river and drifted downstream.  Thousands died in this fashion, so many that eyewitnesses reported that the Danube was stained red with blood.

about-shoes-on-the-danube4_574_383Determined not to let the event fade from memory, film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial on the west side of the river, just in front of the Parliament Buildings.  At three points behind the shoes are simple signs in Hungarian, English and Hebrew: “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45. Erected 16 April 2005.”

Looking at the photo Jo took, I feel much the same as I did when I first saw the shoe memorial. Locked in the image is a tragic story, one of rights trampled, brutality imposed and lives lost that is not easily forgotten.

What You Might Not Know About These 6 Kid-Lit Authors

Ever wonder what Robert Munsch did before he became an author, where Roald Dahl’s hatched his twisted plots, or if J.K. Rowling actually drew a floor plan of Hogwarts before she started writing Harry Potter?  These interviews and articles explore the curious and fascinating lives and work habits of 6 popular kid-lit authors.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Robert Munsch
The Huffington Post Canada

No Canadian storyteller is more celebrated than Robert Munsch. With over 50 published titles, the children’s author has been stealing our hearts for years with his memorable characters and hilarious stories.  When Robert Munsch turned 70 in 2015, Isabelle Khoo shared these 11 little known facts about the famous author.



My years with Roald, by the ‘love of his life’
The Guardian

Felicity Dahl was married to the much-loved children’s writer, Roald Dahl. In this article from The Guardian, she recalls the great man’s charms, his impish generosity, and her special relationship with him.





The Magic of Where the Wild Things Are
The Atlantic

Brian Selznick, the author of The Marvels, never intended to make books for kids. In this article from The Atlantic,  Selznick reveals how Maurice Sendak altered his career path and showed him the power of picture books.


Interview with J.K.Rowling

Caught in the Harry Potter craze, on February 2, 2000, kids went online to pepper J.K.Rowling with burning questions.  From Was it hard to think of the monsters’ names? to How does it feel to know that millions of kids are reading your books? their questions reveal as much about the curiosity of children as it does about author and her characters.




Beverly Cleary on turning 100: Kids today ‘don’t have the freedom’ I had
The Washington Post

When Beverley Cleary turned 100 in 2016, Nora Krug interviewed the prolific author of such classics as Henry Huggins, Beezus and Ramona, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and Dear Mr. Henshaw.  Turns out the feisty lady is still writing.



Dr Seuss
The Economist

Little known fact: Theodore Geisel became “Dr Seuss” after he was caught drinking gin with nine others at his Ivy League university and lost his position as editor of the humour magazine. From then on, he contributed pseudonymously, using his mother’s maiden name which was also his middle one. In this article from The Economist, Robert Butler probes Geisel’s strengths, foibles, and the habits that led to his success.




Rhymers are Readers – Maybe Writers, Too

A small advertisement in the newspaper caught my eye one day.

“Children who know 8 nursery rhymes by the age of 4 are usually among the best readers and spellers in the class by the age of 8.”

Tiny print along the bottom of the ad gave the name of a literacy agency and its website.  Curious about the statement, I followed the trail, first to the agency’s website and then on to other literacy-based ones.

imagesM7JZAIOUQuestions about how we learn to read and write, and especially why some of us become proficient at these skills while others do not, have long interested me. Reading aloud to children at an early age is one key to literacy, and it was a practice I employed when our own children were young – a long time ago now. We spent many happy hours together sharing stories just before bedtime, first from picture books like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and  Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, then as the kids edged towards adolescence, novels the likes of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Ken Oppel’s Sunwing, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

Today, both our “kids” are avid readers and competent writers and I give credit to the read-aloud experience for a good part of that. Research backs me up, too.  One study maintains that a child needs to have 1000 books read to them before they are ready to begin reading themselves.

But the newspaper ad claimed something slightly different – a benchmark connection to nursery rhymes, and in particular to memorizing poetry.  Here are a few other facts about nursery rhymes-poetry that I gleaned from my research:

  • Children who don’t recognize that two words rhyme, like head and bed, have a hard time learning to read
  • Children who are able to rhyme can make more guesses about what a word might be when they are reading.
  • Rhymes are a great way to learn early phonic skills (the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate letter sounds)
  • Nursery rhymes are easy to repeat so they become some of a child’s first sentences
  • Rhymes contain sophisticated literary devices – alliteration, onomatopoeia and the like are imbedded in many of them
  • Rhyming poetry often tells a story that follows a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end – a precursor to understanding complex story structure

Dr. SeussWhile there are classic nursery rhymes – the whole Mother Goose series, for one – there are modern takes, too.  Anyone who has read Dr. Seuss aloud to a toddler can testify to its power.  (“Hands, hands, fingers, thumb…” still resonates with my “kids”, and occasionally the patter resurfaces in my head, refusing to leave no matter how hard I try).

Nursery rhymes and poetry might be key components for literacy, but anyone who has tried writing them knows they’re not that simple.  My own experience writing verse for G for Golden Boy and S is for Scientist involved lots of rewriting, clapping of hands/stomping of feet to check patterns, consulting a rhyming dictionary when desperate and, now and then, mumbling a curse word or two. Trying to align facts into a rigid structure was difficult, and getting rhythm, rhyme and explanation to play well with each other took some doing.

If nothing else, writing in rhyme can be a playful way to unleash your creative self. To quote, Theodore Geisel, more famously known as Dr. Seuss: “Write a verse a day, not to send to publishers, but to throw in wastebaskets.  It will help your prose.  It will give you swing.  Shorten paragraphs and sentences, then shorten words…Use verbs.  Let the kids fill in the adjectives…”

This post was adapted from an earlier one written for The Anita Factor


How to Experience the Prairie and Desert Without Going There

Geographically, I am a divided person. Although I’ve lived my whole life in Manitoba, I winter a month or more in Arizona. I can truthfully say that I love both places. With very little prompting, I will whip out photographs of my favourite spots in each location to prove my point.

But here’s the problem. Photographs are one dimensional. They portray visual elements of each place, but they leave out the rest. They don’t capture the smells, tastes, textures and sensory details that round out the experience. You don’t hear the crackle of lightning before the desert storm. You can’t feel the bitter cold of a prairie wind in January or smell the Mexican poppies that blossom in March.

To gain a full appreciation of these places, you should live there. Or…

Or you could read these two picture books. In the hands of master storytellers David Bouchard and Byrd Baylor, the prairie and desert come alive.

First, the prairie
If you’re not from the prairie,
You don’t know the wind,
You can’t know the wind.
Our cold winds of winter cut right to the core,
Hot summer wind devils can blow down the door.
As children, we know that when we play any game
The wind will be there, yet we play just the same.
If you’re not from the prairie
You don’t know the wind.

Using repetitive structure, David Bouchard take readers on a sensory journey across the prairies. We travel through deep winter drifts and into windswept fields of wheat. We experience the scorching sun of summer and the bitter cold of winter. We live through spring thaws, and we marvel at the vast blue skies and colorful sunsets that characterize the prairie. Full page acrylic illustrations by Henry Ripplinger enhance our sensory journey.

And now, the desert

Once I saw a triple rainbow that ended in a canyon where I’d been the day before. I was halfway up a hill standing in a drizzle of rain. It was almost dark but I wouldn’t go in ( because of the rainbows of course), and at the top of the hill a jackrabbit was standing up on his hind legs, perfectly still, looking straight at the rainbow. I may be the only person in the world who’s seen a rabbit standing in the mist quietly watching three rainbows. That’s worth a celebration any time.

When asked if she is lonely living in the desert, the Native American narrator in Byrd Baylor’s book says: How could I be lonely when I am the one in charge of celebrations?” To her, celebrations come in the form of small, noteworthy moments like The Time of the Falling Stars when she saw a streak of light shot through the darkness or Rainbow Celebration Day when she and a jackrabbit stood together watching a triple rainbow over a canyon. Other celebrations include Coyote Day, Green Cloud Day, Dust Devil Day.

Through Byrd Baylor’s evocative text and David Parnell’s striking illustrations, we experience the beauty of the desert, its subtle seasonal changes, and the close relationship between humans and nature in this special place.


The Power of the Well-Told Story

PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

On a visit to an Ontario classroom a few years ago, a 10 year old boy hung back after my session was over. Clutching a copy of my book Survivors, he waited until the room emptied.

“Is this story really true?” he asked. ‘Did everyone get out alive?”

He was referring to a story in the book about a tornado that had scooped up a baby then deposited her safely a hundred metres away.

“Yes,” I told him. “Amazing story, isn’t it?”

I was surprised by his interest and even more surprised by the concern he showed for people he knew only through a story.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Stories have been a trusted commodity for millennia, so much so that they are almost part of our human DNA. Whether fictional or true, whether told orally, through the written word, or via film or television, stories hold our attention and engage us in unique ways.

Here are a few things we know from science and brain research:

Whole brain activity…

When we are told a story, read or see one, the whole brain goes to work. Contrast that to a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points. With a straight-up factual delivery, the language processing portion of the brain is activated. Put the same information into story form, though, and other brain areas like the sensory cortex and motor cortex kick in as well. Told as a story, the message sticks.

Brain synch…

In a Princeton study researchers discovered that the brains of subjects listening to the same story underwent similar changes. Their brain activity synched or aligned. The subjects felt similar emotions and thoughts. For the duration of the story, they were connected and part of a larger community.

Personalized meaning…

Most stories have a pattern of cause and effect. Whenever we hear, see or read a story, we naturally want to relate it to our previous experiences. We associate joy, sadness, and other emotions in the story with previous experiences of joy, sadness, and these same emotions. In that way, the reader, listener, or viewer personalizes the story and turns it into their own.

Going back to the youngster I mentioned at the start, it’s little wonder he felt so strongly. He took the story I had written and essentially made it his own. He lived through the tornado, felt the same shock and surprise as the people in it, and then experienced the same relief at the end when all turned out okay.

Such is the power of story.  More than any other mode of communication, stories engage our emotions, stoke our imaginations, transcend cultural differences, and connect us in deep and meaningful ways.



Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox:

Follow Follow Follow Email