Do Reading Logs Make Reading Horrible? Here’s a Handy Short-cut!

I don’t know about your school, but my kids’ school is pretty cool. If my kid wants to take his shoes off and run around in his socks, he can. If my daughter needs to chew gum because it keeps her from chewing her hair, no problem. I walk into the lobby, and I’m surrounded by children’s art, friendly faces, and good vibes. For the first four years, the only homework is “read to your child thirty minutes at night.” School rocks.

Except for reading logs.

Now, just to be fair, I know that teachers are just trying to hold kids accountable. And some kids embrace these with vigor, charting their hours read with enthusiasm. I admit, I might have been one of those children—I keep lists for everything. Food shopping? I’ve got a separate list for each grocery store. I’ve charted our kilowatt hours and carbon footprint for five years running. Packing for trips? Don’t get me started—there’s a whole spreadsheet. OK, so a five line reading log would not have been a hurdle.

But reading logs totally suck the life out of reading for my kids.

My son loves reading. I can’t get him to STOP reading at night. “Just one more chapter” is the most common phrase heard in our household after dark. But next to trying to get him to WAKE UP in the morning, getting him to fill out his reading log is the thing I nag him most about.

So if your child is like mine, I’ve prepared a handy PRE-FILLED READING LOG! As an example, I’ve used TIMBER HOWLIGAN, SECRET AGENT CAT! (Don’t have the book? No problem! I would never advocate using a homework crutch for a book your child has never read. The book is available HERE!) This won’t solve all your problems. But it might get you through one week, and if you’re like me, you’ll take that!

reading-log

Use this handy, pre-filled reading log to get you through a difficult week!

You might notice certain key phrases that may be of use to your child on future reading logs, such as “I wonder if . . .” and “My favorite part . . . ” and “A lot of things go wrong, but (main character) saves the day.” Feel free to re-use these as often as needed. And if your child grows up to be a double-agent, don’t blame me.

Timber Howligan First Month Update: Success!

Self-publishing is a business, so here’s the accounting: I promised to donate any proceeds to charity, the animal rescue organization Alley Cat Allies.

Here’s what Timber earned in his first month out in the world:

$4.07 from CreateSpace (11 copies)

$11.87 from Draft2Digital (5 copies)

$85.70 from paperbacks I sold directly (28 copies, including 12 to my mother, who made an extra $20 donation. This might have been out of the goodness of her heart or a math error and knowing her, could have been either…I’ll assume the best. Thanks, Mom!)

That makes just over $100 to donate! Not bad for a cat who only recently learned how to use an iPad.

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They are not kidding about the “wealth of information” part…beware becoming part of their email list. Good thing I REALLY like cats.

I’m not going to get much into the nitty-gritty business details, except to say that you might notice I made less royalties on CreateSpace (paperback sales, mostly) than Draft2Digital. However, if I’d raised the paperback price to $12 or $13, the royalties might be more—it’s all about how you price your books in the self-publishing world. So I still think CreateSpace is a pretty good deal, I just didn’t take full advantage of it by raising my price. Not that I don’t think authors deserve to make every cent they manage to earn on their hard won literary sweat and tears, and not that I don’t think my book is awesome, but I’m not bold enough to put my first offering out there at the same price as something by someone who’s been doing this professionally for thirty years.

Some might not call a first month’s tally of less than 50 books sold a “success,” but I’m actually very happy. First, I’m DONE. Getting this book ready for publication happened to coincide with my children’s last few weeks of school—what the eff was I thinking? So while I was pulling together class projects, class gifts, and generally overdoing things in my usual style, I was trying to figure out how to put together an ebook with illustrations (Note To Self: do NOT leave this until the last minute), maniacally fix every last typo, and still put dinner on the table every night.

Some things slipped through the cracks. I did not win a lot of “warm fuzzy spouse” points during those last hectic days. My husband did not put it so gently.

But he DID read the book, and he laughed his…butt off. So that is the SECOND reason I call this release a success: I have fans! Not all of them are related to me. At least two friends have texted me to let me know their kids were engrossed in the book, and one was already asking for a sequel. That’s kind of cool.

The most important reason Timber Howligan is a success is that feeling you get when you know you’ve finished something big, something that will last. This is a book that will be on my children’s shelves for years. You can drive your kids to school every day, feed them dinner every night, and they will forget it by morning. But write them a book, and they will remember it forever—forever! Ha! Parenting subterfuge at its finest!

Day before publication

Yesterday my husband came up with a really good idea for marketing Timber Howligan. “You should partner with Animal Rescue Societies, and get them to sell the book to raise money.”

What I should have said was, “That’s a great idea, honey. Thanks for thinking of ways to help out. In a few months, once the book has had some time to gather reviews, maybe I’ll investigate how to make that happen.”

Instead, I went, “BLAAAAAGH!” Which was better than what I was screaming on the inside: “I don’t know how to do that! Does that involve actual phone calls? Isn’t sending all the money to Alley Cat Allies good enough? I want to hide under a rock.”

All in all, I don’t think I’m doing too bad, considering I’m less than twenty-four hours before my stated publication goal. The ebook is ready to go—it will be available on iBooks and Nook. I don’t think Amazon will have Timber Howligan by tomorrow, but that’s my own fault—I fixed another typo, and didn’t realize there would be a several day delay between when I approved the proof and when the book became available. Oops.

I keep having to remind myself: I’m doing this because I like making things, and now I know how to make a book. (Though I STILL don’t know how to get it available for pre-order on Amazon. That befuddles me.) This week I’ve gotten a crash course in self-publishing: like how to edit an epub in Sigil and how to create a GoodReads author account. I even set up PayPal so I could sell signed copies—I already have one request! This week would have been a lot less stressful if I’d done all this ahead of time, but I’m kind of making this up as I go along. Until the book was finished, it was hard to see everything else that needed to be done.

On the bright side, getting Timber Howligan Secret Agent Cat ready for publication has already accomplished my main goal: I’ve gotten out Book Two from its dusty shelf in my office. I wrote it two years ago, a crazy first draft with a wild cast of characters. It’s going to be really fun once I figure out how to pull it all together. I can’t wait!

In the meantime, I should probably be figuring out how to get Book One up on Amazon…but at least tomorrow, you can get it on iBook and Nook. Maybe I will throw a “post-release” party in a few weeks 🙂

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With all these books, do we need one more? (Hint: We do)

Have you read every book in the library? Every one in Barnes & Nobles? Do you have any idea how many used book stores there are in the world? Even if the book industry collapsed today, we’d all still have plenty to read for the rest of our lives.

But our kids especially want the next new thing. The books we read as children, as much as we loved them, seem outdated by the time we pass them on to the next generation. Some books will always be classics (Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down), some books are instant classics (Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief), but for the vast majority of middle-grade authors, trying to get noticed by kids who spend hours a day streaming the world directly to their eyeballs is an uphill battle. Your intended audience has no buying power. Your memories of the books you loved as a child have nothing to do with what kids are reading these days—nothing. In children’s literature more than ever, the publishing industry’s editors and agents serve as valuable experts—they know what kids are reading, they know what kids want. Better yet, they know how to market it, package it, and make parents want to buy it for their kids.

Why on earth would anyone, like me, try to self-publish a middle grade novel?

I’m realistic. Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat isn’t going to be the next Harry Potter. First of all, Timber Howligan is a cat, not a wizard, so I doubt he could even get into Hogwarts. While I would love for the world to enjoy this book, my goals in writing it were simple: my eight-year old son needed something to read. He was an avid reader who had devoured the first three Harry Potter books, but wasn’t ready for the complex, dark themes in the rest of the series. He could read anything in middle-grade fiction, but had no interest in books about middle school drama. Kissing and crushes? Yuck. Bullies as villains? Not interested. He wanted something fun and funny, full of adventure.

He read my first draft, stayed up late to finish it, and laughed out loud at all the right places. He’s already planned out my next ELEVEN sequels. I’ve drafted the next book, and he’s eager for me to finish.

You cannot, when querying an agent, use your own child as a reference. But when it comes to books, I trust my son—he doesn’t read anything he doesn’t like, especially if I recommend it, much less if I write it.

Having my son believe in me was reason enough to put this book out there—and reason to do it right. I’ve got the final copy edits, and will be working on incorporating those over the next month. I’ve commissioned an extra interior image because I was so happy with the first ten. I’m working with the artist on the final cover design, and I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. Self-publishing is a lot of work, but it’s an adventure, and I’m enjoying it.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, Timber Howligan likes to help animals in need, and so do I. I’ll be using the book to raise money for the American Humane Association (not, as I linked erroneously in a previous post, to be confused with the Humane Society of the United States) or a similar agency. I’m going to do some more research and due diligence over the next month and report back—is the Humane Association the best charity to help animals? They have an A- from CharityWatch, but like any large organization, there’s overhead—not all funds go to their programs. Donating to a local shelter is always most effective, but that lacks wide appeal, assuming this book sells beyond my local region. Stay tuned!

Timber Howligan–The art is here!

The interior illustrations for Timber Howligan, Secret Agent Cat are done! Always trying to support local artists, I hired Wendy H. Wilkins, who is also a children’s writer. Here’s a sneak peek!

Timber, Lester, and Pfizz in Horgan's office

Timber, Lester, and Pfizz in Horgan’s office

Cleo Patter Paws and Timber Howligan

Cleo Patter Paws and Timber Howligan

Every spy cat needs a grappling hook!

Every spy cat needs a grappling hook!

Blame the screen?

ScreenTime
We are a family of readers, so when my seven-year old daughter announced, “I just don’t like to read, Mama,” I didn’t know what to do. She’s in a year-round school, so for weeks I’d been struggling to get her interested in her obligatory “thirty minutes” of reading before bedtime. She was fine if I read to her, but had no interest in doing any part of it herself. Any attempt to get her to read so much as a sentence ended in glares and huffs and a battle of wills that I inevitably lost.

Had I failed as a mother?

I looked back on my life, seeking something to blame. Too much coffee during pregnancy? Letting her eat too many cookies? Maybe she was living in the shadow of her older brother, who started decoding words when he was three and read independently by kindergarten. It was entirely possible she was normal—I suppose I realized not everyone had to LOVE reading the way I did—but come on, she didn’t even want to read MY BOOK. The one I wrote for my children. Or any chapter book, for that matter—she kept picking out picture books she’d read since preschool, and which I was getting tired of reading over and over again.

Something was at fault. I had to find it.

I scrutinized the issue with my husband. “She does watch an awful lot of TV,” he pointed out.

Ah ha. I had my culprit.

The next day, we instituted a major change in policy: Cutting screen time in half. The kids’ hour a day on school days was down to 30 minutes. My son offered that, to be consistent, we should really decrease it on weekends too. My daughter did not take it so well.

“But that’s only ONE EPISODE of My Little Pony!” she wailed.

My explanation of childhood before Netflix and cartoons on demand was met with the expected response: “But that only leaves me less than 10 minutes to check my Sims!”

I was strong. I stuck to the new plan. And something amazing happened.

That night, instead of watching TV, she offered to help me make dinner. Nope, it wasn’t reading. But while I was instructing her in the art of combining sauce, noodles, and cheese, I said, “You can never have too much cheese on lasagna. Hey, that would be a good name for a book.”

She said, “I’m going to write it. Right now.”

Half an hour later, she had the draft of an illustrated children’s book. An hour after that, the meal was done, and so was her manuscript. She read it to us at dinner.

There are many paths to literacy in childhood. Not every child is going to love learning to read or be an avid reader. What I was doing with my daughter wasn’t working. But when I created the space for her, she filled it with writing. Writing is available to children long before reading is—all they need is the alphabet and a crayon.

One of the things I did was cut back on screen time. It would be easy to say that was the most important intervention. But the other thing I did was stop pushing my daughter. In too few years, she won’t let me read to her at night. Why am I in such a hurry to see her grow up? She’ll do it all too fast, before I’m ready.

My daughter is finding her own path to reading. I can’t lead her there. But if I pay attention, I can follow.

Books your child should like because of the movies (there are worse reasons to read)

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Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Published by Harper, 2009
117 pages
Opening line:
There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place.

During an endless winter, an odd, crippled, unlucky boy runs away from home. When he encounters three animals and their strange tale—a bear missing a hammer, a tricky fox, and a one-eyed eagle—he finds himself in the middle of a battle to save Asgard, the City of the Norse Gods, from the Frost Giants.

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Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Published by Amulet Books, 2010
141 pages
Opening line:
The big question: Is Origami Yoda real?

Is Origami Yoda a wise sage who can predict the future, or just a finger puppet belonging to the strangest kid in the sixth grade? Lines are drawn, friendships are threatened, and the whole story is revealed in “The Strange Case of Origami Yoda.”

What do these two books have in common? Both are captivating middle-grade novels. Both are books I bought for my son and ended up reading myself. And both are stories that kids who love movies and video games should have no problem enjoying.

While this strategy has yet to work on my own kid, it may work on yours.

I admit it, I bought Odd and the Frost Giants because I have a writer’s crush on Neil Gaiman. But by the time I read it, I’d seen The Avengers, and I had a full-blown crush on Thor. Even though my kids are a bit too young for all that death and destruction on the big screen, they eat it up in Lego Marvel Superheroes, the video game. They are well-acquainted with Asgard, Thor, Loki, and the Rainbow Bridge. Do I justify their hours in front of the screen as an introduction to Norse mythology? I’m not that self-delusional. But did I hope it would inspire an interest in this book?

I haven’t given up yet.

The book is everything you’d want a children’s novel to be—a tale of adventure and bravery, rich with honest, beautiful language that takes you straight to the heart of the story. I read it in less than an hour. It would make a great book to read aloud to a younger child. For independent readers, it is self-contained, story-wise. The many references to Norse mythology could be a springboard to learning more.

Origami Yoda has tapped into that brilliant Star Wars marketing engine that started in the 70’s and hasn’t stopped yet. Yes, I bought it because there was a cute, crumply Yoda on the cover. That alone should make my son love it. What more could an eight-year old boy hope for in a book?

A can’t-put-me-down sense of pacing and plot? Believe it or not, this book had those. I was the one who ended up hooked. The first thing I noticed was the notebook-like pages and handwriting-like font. We’re detoxing from The Wimpy Kid series, but I realized in Origami Yoda, the format was consistent with the “case file” presentation. I liked it. The chapters jump from kid to kid, as the main character builds his case in favor of the finger puppet. Meanwhile, the plot revolves around some classic boy-girl tension as a monthly school dance looms.

Despite the, dare I say, “love story” angle, the main theme of the book seems to be about not taking your friends for granted. Very appropriate middle-grade fare.

Most importantly, it has plenty of Star Wars references for the true fan. Origami Yoda is first in the series that contains Darth Paper Strikes Back, Secret of the Fortune Wookie, The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett, and Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue.