Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Talking about ideas!

Small people talk about others. Average people talk about things. Great people talk about ideas! - Adapted from a quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt

Years ago, a fellow education student shared this truism with me over some cheese and a loaf of many-day-old French bread while we avoided studying for finals. The two of us gossiped about instructors and classmates. Sometimes we considered things such as our inoperative cars. Rarely did we happen across anything that might have been mistaken for a great idea. I do remember thinking about the quotation again when considering levels of communication that influence children’s language acquisition.

In order to talk about Eleanor-Roosevelt-worthy ideas, children need vocabulary, words on which to hang their thoughts. In many households, communication between child and parent consists of "kitchen" English. “Come in.” “Shut the door.” “Sit down.” “Eat.” Little meaningful interaction or language acquisition happens in these conversations. It is only if an adult has the time and/or energy that communication moves to the next level, talk about others, e.g. “What ticked Grandma off this time?” It takes even more time and effort to reach the point where the child in included in conversations about things. “We need to figure out how to get that car started.” Rather than dismiss the chance for a child to discuss others and things as “small” or “average,” I celebrate any conversation in which a child is given the privilege to interact in ways that develop the vocabulary of socialization and practical problem-solving.

Still, I agree with Eleanor. Great people talk about ideas. In order to talk about ideas--mathematics or world peace, for example--a child needs experiences with the words that define those ideas. The struggle to provide the necessities of life deprives many parents of the time and energy to discuss ideas with their kids and don’t get me started on how the struggle to teach to standardized tests inhibits meaningful conversation in classrooms. Words, and the concepts they represent, are the framework upon which thought is built. Just as talking with an adult about others and things develops a child’s language and thought processes about those subjects. Talking about ideas provides the language of ideas needed for greatness. Children’s literature can help. Adults and children naturally share ideas over a good book. (Come on now, you can’t say you’re surprised this is where I was headed.) A whimsical storybook that introduces mathematics vocabulary like “rectangle,” “triangle,” “square” and “parallelogram” in a non-threatening way gives children the words on which to build ideas about informal geometry. A modern translation of the second chapter of Luke is appropriate for acquiring the vocabulary of the season of prayer for “peace on earth good will amoung men.” And on that note: Have a blessed Christmas, if I don’t see you before then!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Children’s stories follow the mythic Hero’s Journey.

There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.
--Willa Cather, in O Pioneers!

Some years ago, a writers’ workshop introduced me to the concept of the “hero’s journey,” the universal story structure that creates the most satisfying plots. Over time, my notes were lost due to the weathering and natural attrition that occurs in my home office, but to my delight a friend loaned me Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic structure for Writers, which refreshed my memory.

According to Vogler’s interpretation of the model, all stories, whether myths, fairy tales, dreams or movies, consist of universal structural elements:

Ordinary World
Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
First Threshold
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Approach to Inmost Cave
The Road Back
Return with the Elixir

Not all of these elements are immediately recognizable in every story. (For a simplified telling of the “hero’s journey” see the creative writing lesson in The Warlord’s Fish study guide, FOR TEACHERS section @ ) However, being aware of the elements of this time-honored formula gives children’s authors a powerful tool for creating pleasing stories.

The tale begins on an ordinary day. The storyteller introduces her hero in his everyday world, and then allows something extraordinary to happen—a call to adventure! The hero’s quest, the thing he wants most, is defined by the call. Perhaps he must avenge a wrong, seek a prize, or discover an answer.

At first he refuses the call. His refusal provides an important plot devise, helping the reader understand how risky and life-changing the journey will be. During this part of the story, the hero examines his objectives. What is he willing to risk? How important is his goal?

He soon overcomes his fear and commits to the journey, only to be tested at the first threshold. The first of many obstacles occurs—the thing that would keep him from entering the "special world" of the adventure. This test needs to be a dilly to convince the reader she’s being invited on an exciting journey. Remember the story must increase in intensity, so even though this is a worthy obstacle, it must be less dramatic than the ultimate ordeal to come.

Through this first challenge, the hero begins to sort out his friends, or allies, and his enemies. In this test, or immediately before, the hero meets his mentor, usually an older friend, who helps equip him for what is to come. Often the hero changes costume to something suitable for the battles ahead. (In a romance, the heroine receives a stunning new outfit. In spite of sexist language the hero’s journey is not gender exclusive.) The mentor offers the hero gifts he will need. Gifts may be magical, spiritual or something as simple as the advice: “Breath. Hang in there. You’re doing fine. You’ve got what it takes to handle any situation, somewhere inside you” (Vogler, p. 125).

The approach to inmost cave translates into “Have fun storming the castle,” in the movie Princess Bride. Now the hero must move deep into the “special world”. The approach provides a time for planning, more obstacles and the realization that the hero’s options, except the one that leads to his ultimate test, are blocked.

At this stage the hero faces his greatest challenge, the ordeal, and walks away the victor with his reward. His success turns out to be short-lived. He risks losing his reward during tests on the road back. He must return to his ordinary world. His journey has changed him allowing him to experience a type of resurrection and the storyteller must make sure the hero faces one last obstacle to show that he can apply the lessons he learned.

In the end, the hero returns home with the elixir, the object of his quest and the resolution to his adventure.

Vogler applies these elements to movies from The Wizard of Oz to Goldfinger. If a children’s author can apply them to her own story, she stands a chance of writing a classic.

And, having reread it, I promise to return The Writer’s Journey: Mythic structure for Writers, Michael Wiese Productions, Ventura, 1998, to friend Judi Hussain (creative force behind . I’ve probably had her book ten years, but it happened to surface in one of my office weathering and natural attrition cycles.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Good Picture Book Takes Advantage of "Old Ways."

“It’s the grandmother’s job to teach the children.” – a Mono elder

Last night I attended a Halloween party at the new North Fork Mono Indian Community Center. Built on the top of a ridge with plenty of windows to take advantage of the view, the center is inspiring as well as functional. It was bitter-sweet to have people call me “Mrs. Walton.” They say I look more like my mom every year. One of Mom’s students, now a grandmother, introduced her grandson and mentioned he is at the top of his class because she reads with him, tells him stories and teaches him.

Julia V. Clark, author of Minorities in Science and Math, states, “story-telling and demonstration are historic teaching methods in the Indian culture.” Several years ago I discussed learning styles, particularly the visual learning modality, with North Fork Mono educator Connie DeSilva. She told me that children in her Mono Language and Culture classes learned through watching, listening and doing. “Isn’t that how all children learn?” she asked. She spoke of learning from her grandmother. “She died when I was eleven years old. I was privileged to go with her to pick sticks to make baskets, and to gather food. I learned by watching her. I learned by listening to her and many of the Indian elders.”

“How a man get lost, mountains all around?” my own father’s mentor Pinky Bethel used to ask with some exasperation. And if you stood on my front deck you’d understand. I live on the side of Omabi. Look behind my house, up the hill, and you’ll discover the top of Omabi is different from the top of Shut Eye, that peak you see to the east. Peckenpaw Ridge (that’s the ridge between my house and Shut Eye) doesn’t look anything like Thornberry Ridge, (south west of Omabi). You won’t get lost if you study the “mountains all around.” When I quoted Mr. Bethel’s remark to Mrs. DeSilva as an example of keen visual perception among the Mono, she agreed. She spoke of her love of nature and how she notes the shapes of mountains, the colors of rocks and the growth patterns of trees to find her way. “Most Indian children are wonderful artists,” she added, “Isn’t that visual?”

Observing one’s environment to find the way through the woods and find the way home, producing exquisite art, baskets and beading are obviously visual skills. However they do not automatically transfer into text-related visual perception skills as defined by Jerome Rosner, namely the child’s ability to analyze patterns of light (printed letters and numerals [and] geometric designs) in a detailed, organized way. “Instruction in the form of story telling, story books with pictures, and video demonstrations” are suggested as beneficial for Native American learners. (Craig, 2004) These tools provide a valuable transition from concrete visual experiences to the more abstract letters and numbers on a page. (Gailey, 1993)

So, call me Grandma, and understand my heart. I write my little mathematical adventure stories to help kids from all cultural backgrounds transfer their “real world” visual perception strengths to the learning of mathematics.


Clark, Julia V. Minorities in Science and Math. ERIC Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education, Columbus, OH, 1999. ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED433216

Craig, Gloria. “Dr. Gloria Craig Introduces Section 3 Concepts” Module 2 section 3. n.d. South Dakota State Department of Education. 2004

Gailey, Stavoroula K. “The Mathematics—Children’s Literature Connection.” Arithmetic Teacher. January 1993:258259

Rosner, Jerome. Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties. Walker: New York, 1979

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Can a testosterone deficiency hinder mathematics learning?

We’re all going to get in a fight. –Pink, “So What”

Bringing up gender differences in learning is a great way to start a “spirited” discussion. Learning styles researcher Rita Dunn (2002) contends boys and girls tend to exhibit different learning style strengths. Boys learn visually, tactually and kinesthetically. Girls tend to be auditory. Is this because Sister is given a doll, while Brother is given a model airplane to assemble? Mark G. McGee (1979) surmised back in the dark ages of the past century, “. . . a minimum level of androgen, specifically testosterone, is required for normal expression of spatial (one component of visual perception) abilities.”

Mathematics is a visual pursuit. Processing the abstraction of numbers on a page requires visual perception. A deficit in any of the visual perception components must be considered a learning disability affecting performance in mathematics. The auditory child may not even have copied the problem correctly on her work sheet. Ask me how I know. I am unspeakably grateful to the Probabilities and Statistics instructor who understood this and accepted my “wrong” answer on a final exam. Right answer for the numbers I’d written down. Just not the right answer for the numbers he had on the test! Funny, but I still feel guilty about that “A.” I understood the concepts, just didn’t process those numbers and the man offered “grace.”

A child with average eyesight spends her days processing visually. She responds to the color and beauty of her world. She becomes adept at “reading” emotions on the faces around her. These visual perception strengths developed through cultural socialization may be capitalized on and developed. Specific experiences may be provided to develop the ability to focus on the abstractions of numbers, geometric figures on a page. Evidence of the narrowing of the gender gap in mathematics performance, probably due in part to heightened parent and educator awareness since the 1970’s, is cause for optimism. That girls, given similar experiences and opportunities, can succeed at mathematics as well as boys is no longer questioned. To assume that all girls now have those equal experiences and opportunities would be irresponsible.

Sheila Tobias says, “The teaching of math . . . suffers from being all scales and not enough music.” (2002) Amen! If providing a variety of experiences—including a good picture book now and then—in the mathematics classroom can draw an auditory child into the circle, I’m not sure I care whether it was nature or nurture that held her outside. Of course, I’m always delighted to go a few rounds.
Also delighted to report you can pre-order The Emperor’s Army by Virginia Walton Pilegard, illus. by Adrian Tans, my latest mathematical adventure picture book, from ;) Flipkart happens to be in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. I was delighted to find their ad!

Dunn, R. “Learning styles: Theory, research, and practice,” National Forum of Applied Educational Research Journal, 13.1 (2002) 3-22
McGee, M. G. Human Spatial Abilities. New York: Praeger, 1979.
Tobias, Sheila. “Rethinking Teaching Math, Science: E-interview with Sheila Tobias,” interview by Ellen R. Delisio, Education World. 12 December 2002

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Good Picture Book Helps Kids Learn Three Ways!

Some principles that can be helpful in ensuring that struggling learners maximize their capacity in school are: look for the struggling learner’s positives, don’t let what’s broken extinguish what works, pay attention to relevance, go for powerful learning, teach up, and see with the eyes of love.

Carol A. Tomlinson

Tomlinson’s attitude toward teaching warms the hackles of my heart. My goal in writing for children is to provide math concepts in the guise of an adventure story with auditory, kinesthetic and visual clues. Children learn by touching, listening and talking, and by looking. Walter Barbe, a pioneer in the study of learning styles, believes most children rely heavily on only one of these learning modalities. Maturity and experience seem to explain why more adults tend to exhibit mixed learning styles. “We are born,” Barbe states, “with certain characteristics that contribute to our later learning strengths. The experiences we encounter early in life, such as nutrition, stimulation and interactions with other children and adults, may also influence which learning channels will be strongest.” The wise teacher does not value one learning style above the others—although being able to process information visually does put a child at an unfair advantage in most classrooms. I love Tomlinson’s idea of looking for a child’s positives with eyes of love! I interpret that to mean celebrating children’s individual learning styles and presenting the same information in different ways.

I am an auditory learner. You suppose that’s why I’m a story teller? No surprise that unless I’m careful, when I teach I talk and talk and talk and talk. I remember one bright-eyed little boy who struggled mightily in my class until I learned to stand quietly by his desk at the end of a lesson and simply work the problem on a piece of paper while he watched. I had talked the poor kid into a daze because my teaching style didn’t match his learning style. I also remember high school geometry (a subject requiring visual/spatial learning skills) with some angst. The teacher would finish each lesson by asking, “Does everyone understand but Walton?” And sure enough, Virginia Walton didn’t understand. Maturity provided experiences to strengthen my visual learning modality. Dealing with my own visual learning deficit made me a crusader for providing information in ways children with differentiated learning styles can process.

For an overview of learning styles, I recommend two fine websites:


Barbe, W.B. Growing Up Learning. Washington D.C.: Acropolis Books Ltd., 1985.

Tomlinson, Carol A. How To Differentiate Instruction In Mixed-Ability Classrooms. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Update: Our library will stay open, fewer hours and staff, but open. Yeah.

Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library.
- Barbara Tuchman

This past Wednesday someone who had been sitting in budget meetings told me that because of California’s money problems worst case scenario is that two of the five public libraries in my county will close--including the one that is a vital part of my personal eco-system. This inspired me to wage a frantic email assault on my county supervisors and to become maudlin over the following quotations:

Knowledge is free at the library. Just bring your own container.

Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.
- Lady Bird Johnson

A library is thought in cold storage.
- Herbert Samuel

Your library is your portrait.
- Holbrook Jackson

A circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!
- Richard Brainsley Sheridan

They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain and nourish all the world.
- William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost

With special thanks to from whom I have borrowed liberally in a good cause!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thoughs on a Summer Morning

Lord, worthy, merciful and true, you pick up pieces,
all my shattered, mismatched pieces and mend my life.
But, Potter whose hands shape high and stately vessels,
why would you come to save these shards of mine
when, Wounded King, mine are the jagged bits
that tore your feet, when you limped up that hill?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wandering the WWW in Search of Truth!

One witness is not enough . . . . A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. Deut. 19:15 NIV

To begin, offers the excellent article “Evaluating Internet Research Sources.” My early Internet research brought the need for fact- checking even on reputable sites home to me in grim fashion and even though that experience would make amusing reading, I’ll not tell on myself here.

I will say the Internet has opened the world to me. I especially appreciate China related forums such as:

Through these I have met patient, knowledgeable people who have answered untold questions on their forums and I have found email friends from Beijing to Shanghai willing to answer even more questions. I have also met some cranky curmudgeon types who have set me straight on more than one occasion and to whom I am indebted.

The Internet Public Library features a convenient service called Ask an IPL Librarian in which the IPL's dedicated on line volunteer staff answers reference questions for visitors to This staff of volunteers is amazing. Whenever I ask them a question, I learn insider secrets of Internet research as well as receiving a thoughtful answer including all sources. After you have worn out your welcome with your local reference librarians, you can still anonymously bug these fine folks. Not that I would know anything about worn welcomes personally, you understand.

My most delightful Internet discovery (more about that later) came through the venerable search engine pioneer , however offers the choice of an astounding number of search engine possibilities as well as bunches of other useful stuff. It’s great fun to start there and spend the day chasing down research rabbit-trails. It was at the end of just such a research adventure that I met fifth-generation master Chinese puppeteer Yang Feng. Through his son-in-law Dmitri Carter I was able to ask this incredible gentleman questions about Tang dynasty string puppets for my fourth children’s book, The Warlord’s Puppeteers. Although this kind and gifted man died the summer before the book’s publication, he had left instructions that his copy—the only payment he required for his help—be personalized to his grandson. Additional information about Yang Feng’s life may be obtained from

If my world wide web research had only ever netted my email meeting with Yang Feng, it would have still been my greatest tool for getting it right for kids.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nobody Writes Alone

"You're the same person you were ten years ago but for the books you've read and the people you've met."

Writers meet all the best people at writers' conferences. I'm jazzed about folks I met at this past weekend's Central Valley Writers' Symposium.

Agents Elizabeth Wales, owner of Whales Literary and Kelly Sonnack from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and Associate Editor of Tor Books Stacy Hague-Hill lived with us through our San Joaquin Valley triple-digit heat and our bumbling one-one-one pitch sessions. They each shared what they are looking for in a manuscript and the things that turn them off. They ate with us, trying to swallow their food between our ubiquitous questions.

Okay I admit shouting questions over the bathroom stall wasn't my best moment, but here are some random treasures gleaned:

The story needs to come from the words--lively prose.

What are your goals as a writer? Positive earn out? Changing lives? Writing more books? Don't tell a prospective agent your goal is to be on Oprah, hit the N.T. best seller list and have instant worldwide recognition. May be true, but it's best not to overwhelm them up front.

Allow the child reader figure out the problem before the hero. We all love to feel smart!

Harry Potter changed children's publishing. Adults aren't ashamed to be seen reading YA. YA crossover has new energy. Big name authors are coming over--and isn't that just what we all needed.

Picture Book sales are down with the economic downturn. Pardon me while I blot my sniffles.

Agent/Editor Turn-offs:

mouthes dropping
faces draining of color
eyes widening in surprise, same with eyebrows
"as you know, Bob" dialog
chatty narrators
First sentence weather reports
children's manuscripts about pets, ABCs, holidays, rhyming anything
and paranormal creatures unless they are new and fresh
recaps of action as opposed to things happening on the page
too much emotion before reader knows and sympathizes with characters
too much description

Agent/Editors look for:

compelling stories & characters who make them "care"
real emotional responses described in fresh new ways
universal themes

I'm convinced now--at least at Whales Literary Agency, Tor Books and Andrea Brown Literary Agency--our queries are viewed by "friendly faces" who read submissions with anticipation because they love to discover talent. Kelly Sonnak says, "If you do what you love, part of your salary is loving your work."

These new acquaintances gave me insider tips, a new appreciation of our business and the jazz to keep on writing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Getting it Right For Kids cont.

Ray Bradbury says, “Libraries raised me.”

And if you’re a writer, I’ll bet you can say the same thing. I know I can. When I walked into my hometown library after being gone for 30 some years, I explained to the new librarian, “this is my natural habitat.” Over the past twelve years she’s placed dozens of inter-library book orders to help with my research and even shelved a few China related titles she might not otherwise have purchased.

She helped immeasurably when she steered me to the children’s section. Children’s non-fiction is an amazing resource. Easy reading too. One personal aside, collections of adult non-fiction tend to be a bit outdated in California public libraries. Friends of the Library funds often go to buy the latest best-selling novels and although our Governor’s proposed budget allows library funding to continue at present levels, our present levels have taken a 75% cut over the past few years.

Ray Bradbury recently appeared at a fund raiser to help a library in Ventura, California, threatened with closure. Libraries are particularly vulnerable during economic down turns. Ironically, it’s during these times that they are most valuable. Families rent books and videos they can’t afford to buy. People swarm the free computers. So, say a prayer for us in California and do what you can to protect your own dear public library. They are fundamental in getting it right for kid’s books.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

You'll Hear About It!

“Eastern dragons don’t have FLAMES! They are water beings.”

The Warlord's Puzzle, my first mathematical adventure picture book set in medieval China, had barely been shelved in bookstores when my sales rep called to tell me a woman in New England questioned its veracity. Second to a bad review—and I was smarting from several of those—nothing scares a newly published author more than being told she’s gotten her facts wrong.

Thank God, Nicolas Debon, the Warlord’s series artist and I based our picture and description of “red flames” curling around the legs of “painted golden dragons” on a photograph of Tang Dynasty artifacts! I subsequently learned Eastern dragons are indeed water creatures, bearers of thunder. They have flames coming from their joints, not from their mouths like St. George’s western dragon. I should have known all those things before I dared mention a dragon!

In his introduction to Bells and Grass, Walter de la Mare cautions, “I know well that only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” These words (and my fear of a certain New England reader) keep me in constant fact-checking and research mode. Do I make mistakes? Sure, but not for lack of trying. You probably will too, and you can be sure your readers will let you know.