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Articles tagged with: young adult


For Teachers: A Reading Program That Works

Getting teens to read was my most important mission as a teacher. When I realized how many of my high schoolers had NEVER read a book and bragged about passing tests on assigned classics by reading Spark notes and watching movies, I knew I had to act. We were losing them as readers, and once they left my class, my opportunity to change that would be lost. That's when I discovered the simple secret: CHOICE! If I wanted to teach kids the meaning of "reading for pleasure," I had to include young adult books in their assignments - books that were engaging, books they could relate to. Kids who've never read anything except the difficult assignments that are required for school don't understand what we're talking about when we say, "reading for pleasure." So I spent many years building a reading program that would help them become life-long readers. I'm happy to share the logistics of my program here, and I'll be traveling with Perma-Bound reps Kristen Ives and John Zeller to schools across the Southeast this fall to share tips and answer questions and getting kids to read. Also, you can visit the Perma-Bound website to find the books I recommend for reluctant readers, feature here on the blog - at a discount to you. Here's the step-by-step process I used: 


The Program

Step By Step with Beck McDowell


1. Get administrators on board with the idea that aesthetic reading (for fun) is just as important as efferent reading (for information.) Reading practice improves skills and increases vocabulary and comprehension levels. Many high schoolers have NEVER read a book. They brag about reading Spark notes and watching movies to pass tests on assigned classics. If we convince them to read through offering them a CHOICE, we can turn them into lifelong readers.

2. Send out Parent Letter. When parents understand your motives, they’re more likely to support you. Invite their input and be open to questions. If a parent objects to a book (which happens very rarely,) remind them that the list is OPTIONAL and no student is required to read any book. Let them know they don’t get to control what other students read – only their own. Be firm but friendly.

3. Hand out the list to students. Explain that they’ll still be reading classics as a class, but they’re now required to read two “choice” books per grading period. They may also read other books by authors already on the list. They may opt to read books not on the list, but only with prior permission from the teacher.

4. Read the annotated list aloud and have them mark books that sound interesting to them. Suggest that they check out  blurbs online for plot information and that they read a few paragraphs of the free sample chapter offered online to see if the writing style appeals to them. Remind them they don’t have to finish any book they don’t like.

5. Read aloud twice a week. Take 5-10 minutes to read from books on the list or others you bring in to entice reluctant readers. This is critical to the process. Some have no idea what’s inside a book.

6. Allow class time to read. Set at least aside one or two 10-20 minute reading sessions per week so you can monitor their progress. Use this time to assess levels of success by walking around and occasionally asking questions (very quietly) about the books they’re reading. Help the strugglers find good books. Encourage all with enthusiasm for reading and pride in their progress.

7. For grading, you have four options.

            1. Book Trailers – see NRR instruction sheet and grading rubric. Grade leniently, but let them know points will be deducted for spelling, punctuation and requirements on instruction sheet. (One note: when students have used popular music in the past, YouTube has allowed it and provided a link to viewers to purchase the music. If they use copyrighted music, they do so at their own risk, but most musicians allow it for the promotional opportunity. Just make them aware of the possible penalties. Maybe YouTube will make a policy statement about this soon, but royalty-free music is the safest route for now.)

            2.  Participation Grades – monitor progress informally during class reading periods and grade accordingly. Be lenient. The goal is to make reading fun. But insist that everyone reads and show them point deductions when they don’t.

            3. Book Interviews – If you prefer individualized assessment, choose several of the Not Required Reading discussion questions for oral “interview” assessment. Grades are 100 if they completed the book and 0 if it’s clear they didn’t finish by the deadline. If a student receives a 0, he may finish the book within three days for half credit, which is still a failing grade – but a “50” that can be pulled up more easily. Most students will finish after they realize how much a 0 affects averages.

            4. Reviews for NRR and other sites - If you prefer written assessment (or for extra credit to those who choose to do it,) have students first read three reviews in credible sources like NYT, LAT, NPR, etc. Then have them write 500-700 words on the book they’ve just read – with special attention to originality, personal response, and avoiding spoilers. Reviews should not be just plot synopses. 

            8. Early Bird Incentives - For Book Interviews, try offering Early Bird Incentives to spread out your workload. When students earn 5 extra points by coming before the deadline (after school, between classes, or during lunch,) the teacher is not overwhelmed on deadline day. Some students will “read ahead,” finishing an entire semester of “choice” reading in one grading period. This is fine. Those kids will usually keep reading even after they’ve completed requirements for the year. (Remind everyone that this is a flexible assignment. If they have lots of other homework one night, they can skip reading, so long as they catch up on the weekend or when other work is slower. On slower homework nights, they can “read ahead” and possibly finish early.)

            9. Extra Credit – Offer one extra “choic” book as the only extra credit allowed in your class. Make it worth their while points-wise. This is the very best incentive for reluctant readers who need to pull up a low test score or make up for missing homework assignments. Once you get them reading, lots will do this.

            10. You/Guest Readers – Your own enthusiasm for reading is key to the success of this program. Let kids see you read and tell them about books you love. Also, invite other teachers, coaches, local celebrities or officials or sports stars to come and read to the class. Show them that reading is for everyone!

Thank you, faithful teachers! It’s not too late to entice even 11th and 12th graders to the idea of reading as a legitimate leisure activity of choice. Build a classroom library by buying at used bookstores and library cast-off stores, surround your students with exciting covers, talk about books, read to them, and give them time and grade incentive to read and you WILL see a HUGE difference! And write to me at mcdowell.beck@gmail> and let me know how it’s going! I’m happy to answer any questions you have as you move forward with Choice Reading.











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Posted in 2013



Thanks so much to these wonderful bloggers for hosting us!


Thursday, Oct. 25 – Launch Day           


Friday, Oct. 26


Monday, Oct. 29 

            THE STORY SIREN

Tuesday, Oct. 30

            YA BLISS

Wednesday, Oct. 31

              BUZZ WORDS

Thursday, Nov. 1

            YA LOVE BLOG

Friday, Nov. 2

            ICEY BOOKS

Monday, Nov. 5

            NERDY BOOK CLUB

Tuesday, Nov. 6


Wednesday, Nov. 7


Thursday, Nov. 8


Friday, Nov. 9


Monday, Nov. 12

            KATIE’S BOOK BLOG

Tuesday, Nov. 13

            ALLURING READS

Wednesday, Nov. 14


Thursday, Nov. 15



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Posted in October, 2012


Grand Fesitval of Art and Books

Grand Fesitval of Art and Books

I knew about Fairhope’s reputation as a haven for artists and writers before I visited last weekend. And Karin Wilson, owner of Page & Palette is known nationally as a passionate advocate for books and a generous host to thousands of authors through the years. So I felt right at home when I walked into the store and found my book prominently displayed.

I was lucky to have sister Susan Siniard traveling with me on this trip, and after our six hour drive, it didn’t take us long to find a great spot to rest and recuperate.


Sharing the stage with amazing Penguin sales rep and highly respected dynamo Doni Kay was a treat. It was my first time to talk about THIS IS NOT A DRILL because it won’t actually be published Oct. 25, but was released early to Page & Palette just in time for the festival.


And signing books is always fun for me – like giving my stories a little stamp of approval before sending them out into the world to do good things. Thanks to lovely niece and Mobile resident Margaret McDowell Miller for this photo (and for coming.)


It was great meeting Adam Gidwitz, whose book A TALE DARK AND GRIMM has just been chosen as Al Roker’s next book club pick. Adam’s smart and fun and had lots of terrific advice about writing and book promotion. (I know because I pounded him with questions.) Looking forward to seeing him on the Today show in November.


And I LOVED talking to Fairhope Middle Schoolers, who were an attentive audience with eager faces and intelligent questions. When I explained that my publisher, Penguin, sent a special box of books to Fairhope ahead of my publication date, one girl heard that without the commas and thought my publisher was actually a penguin – some rare breed known as a publisher penguin, I suppose. The picture in my head of a penguin packing a box of books made it a little hard to continue my presentation without giggling, but she was a good sport about the laughter her comment brought.

It was a great inaugural trip for THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Everyone in Fairhope is ridiculously friendly and there’s great shopping, eating, and relaxing by the bay. Can’t wait for my next chance to visit! If you’re anywhere near Page & Palette, you can snag a copy of THIS IS NOT A DRILL before anyone else in the country, so hurry on down to one of the South’s best indie bookstores.


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Posted in October, 2012


One Writer’s Crazy Ride to Publication

Thanks for all your questions and comments about THIS IS NOT A DRILL, my upcoming YA debut novel (Oct. 25, 2012) from Nancy Paulsen Books of Penguin Group. In an industry that’s slow as continental drift, my path to publication was a zipline ride. I sailed from query to agent to first offer in two days, and thanks to the amazing Jill Corcoran, the powerhouse of energy who is now my agent, I landed with one of the most respected editors in the business within two weeks of submission. Here’s a quick run-down of what happened last summer (starting July 7) :

Thursday: After a year of writing and revising my novel, I held my breath and hit “Send,” submitting to my top 7 agent picks on 7-7 (a winning combination, I hoped.) Jill Corcoran of Herman Agency requested the full manuscript within an HOUR of receiving my query letter and sample pages.

Friday: I woke to a note from Jill (written 1:30 am her time) - she was “absolutely loving” the book and had trouble putting it down to sleep. By noon she emailed me offering representation; she said she knew I had the work still out with several other agents, but she wanted to sign me if I was ready to say yes. I paused my happy dance just long enough to type “yes.” Jill has an English degree from Stanford and an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the University of Chicago. She’s not only worked in advertising, but teaches writing workshops and writes books of her own. I knew she’d understand the bumps in the writing road and could guide me through the marketing maze, too. She sent me a contract, and I emailed the other agents I’d queried that I’d accepted representation so they wouldn’t spend time reading my work.

Saturday: Jill and I talked by email, and I tried not to obsess over my new agent. She friended me on Facebook and I followed her on Twitter, loving all the glowing comments from her clients.

Sunday: Jill emailed me that she felt THIS IS NOT A DRILL was ready to go out without further revisions (amazing!), and she’d be submitting it to editors THE NEXT DAY! I was elated – and terrified.

Monday: Jill sent me a list of the editors she’d subbed to, and I tried not to freak out. I cleaned house all day to keep from going mad and went to bed that night with my head clogged from dust I’d stirred up.

Tuesday: I googled Jill’s clients, googled each editor on the list, googled my name to see what editors would find, and finally got in the car and left the house to stop the googling madness.

Wednesday: Jill called. I loved her sense of humor about her kids and her cat, and her competence and knowledge base were obvious. We chatted and hung up. She called back an hour later. I was surprised. “Did you just hang up on me?” she said. “I hope not, ‘cause I have some of the biggest news of your life.” I explained that my phone didn’t even ring, we’d been having trouble with our cell carrier, and I was so sorry if she - WAIT, did you say you had NEWS? “We have an offer coming in!” she said. I tried to listen from my spot on the ceiling, but thank God I wrote it all down ‘cause I was WAY too excited to really hear what she said.

Within days there were multiple offers and I was in the wildly unanticipated position of choosing the editor I felt was the best fit for my book. When I signed with Nancy Paulsen at Penguin, I felt Velveteen Rabbit “real” as a writer.

Hold on a second! Before any of you throw erasers at the screen, there’s something you should know. All this happened fast, but I am no overnight success – not this girl. My whirlwind week came after five years of writing, one shelved manuscript with about 25 rejection slips tucked inside, another agent who unsuccessfully submitted another book of mine (ON the day that became known as Black Wednesday in the publishing world - could there BE any rottener luck?), lots of broken plates in my backyard (my secret catharsis), six weekend writing conferences from Nashville to LA, and hours, days, weeks, months and years of studying the craft through books, articles, blogs, and websites on writing - not to mention countless novels I picked apart to figure out what worked and what didn’t.

There, feel better? If you’re interested in writing for publication, read books on how to write (like Stephen King’s ON WRITING , Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, and AnnIe Dilard’s THE WRITING LIFE, my faves), study books in your genre, read blogs like Jill’s and Nathan Bransford’s and Kristin Nelson’s to learn about queries and agents and opening pages and point of view, and write every day to improve your style and voice. (How do you learn to play tennis? Play a lot. How do you learn to write? Write - a lot.) The secret is and always has been: butt in chair, fingers on keys.

The good news is persistence pays off. Keep reading, keep honing your craft, keep believing, and if you work hard enough and learn from your mistakes, something good will happen. I can’t wait to hear YOUR story when it does.

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Posted in August, 2012



Several of you who studied Catcher in the Rye with me wrote me with thoughts about the death of J.D. Salinger at age 91. Much has been said about Salinger and his work over the past week. The New York Times said Catcher's narrator's unique (at the time) voice, "struck a brash new note in American literature." Holden Caulfield's impact on people of all ages was described in a post for Slate by an editorial assistant tasked with answering his mail, which he refused to read.

If you're a scoffer of Salinger devotees, you could be a victim of overexposure; a Washington Post writer points out that making Catcher required reading has taken its toll on him as a cultural hero. ". . . how can you be subversive when your books are assigned by the sort of educational pooh-bahs whom Holden might have spotted as phonies?"

Like him, love him, hate him, loathe him - J.D. Salinger changed the landscape of literature for Young Adults. Never before and seldom since has anyone so authentically captured the cadences, the humor, the angst, and the insecurities of a high school guy. Whether you write him off as a hopeless hypocrite or revere him as a spokesman for isolated youth everywhere, Holden Caulfield broke ground.

If you're looking for a way to honor the passing of J.D. Salinger, consider reading a YA book in honor of the man who helped invent the genre. I have a few suggestions. (Are you surprised?) A few of my favorites for authenticity of voice:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
King Dork - Frank Portman
Looking for Alaska - John Green
The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman
The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green - Joshua Braff
Days of Little Texas - R. A. Nelson
What I Saw and How I Lied - Judy Blundell
Story of a Girl - Sara Zarr
My Heartbeat - Garret Freymann-Weyr

What are your thoughts about Salinger's work? And which books would you add to this list?

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Posted in February, 2010