Publishing Academy at Open Books: My Magical Summer


12 teenagers…

4 weeks…

Hours of writing…

3 volunteer writing coaches and editors…

4 Open Books Leaders…

…on the quest to publishing.

This is a summary (rather brief one) of what happened at the Publishing Academy program Open Books had this July. Twelve teenagers from Chicago Greater Area embarked on a journey of writing their own fantasy novels and publishing them with Open Books. And I had a pleasure of being one of their writing coaches!

First thing that struck me was that everyone had different fantasy stories, from the far-away kingdom tales to dystopian future epics, or a dreamland of a dying girl sick with cancer.

Open Books created a magical atmosphere that sparked imagination and had plenty of resources for writing.


During the first week, the students created and built engaging fantasy worlds. The coaches helped them by brainstorming ideas and making science fair poster boards with the description of the worlds.


A talented young writer Natalia and a story board for her book “Chimera”.

The authors invented their main characters, protagonists and antagonists. The coaches explained what indirect and direct characterization was and assisted in developing characterization skits for all the characters.

Open Books invited local artists to make sketches of the young authors’ main characters. This helped them visualize their main characters and connect to them better.


Next week, the students completed plot outlines and hero’s journey. We used The Hunger Games as an example of the character’s hero’s journey.

No good fantasy novel can do without combat scenes and action. During the second week Open Books invited martial art expert and creative writing teacher Jordan Bond to work on our students’ battle scenes. First, they discussed the difference between mentioning a fight and describing it in detail. Next, Jordan explained descriptive language to enhance battle scenes. What are synonyms for “defend” or “attack”? What kinds of weapons can be used and how they affect the person’s movement? What kinds of sounds can be heard during the fight? With this new knowledge, the students had a chance to write or refine a fight scene from their novel. Then they took turns reading their scene aloud as other students acted it out.


combat 1

The students participate in “sword fighting” with pool noodles.

During the third week, guest speaker John Murphy, a game designer from Young Horses, discussed the overlap between writing and video game design with the students. He showed Young Horses’s new game, Octodad, and introduced TWINE – a software that is used to create interactive stories. The students had a chance to use it to develop their stories’ endings.


The students also learned how settings “show” the characters and how mood affects the type of story you are writing.

During the last week, the young authors wrote their author bios and had their photos taken for the book covers. They also had a chance to take part in front/back cover design.

Writing process included one-on-one conferences with the coaches, writing time alone, activities such as “question hat”, “put your character in a scene” etc.

Open Books Leaders created many incentives. Passports, for example, served to mark how many points the students had for completing their quests. Quests were tasks that we asked them to complete during each session (i.e. finish chapter or add character’s characteristics) or at home (i.e. write a review for the last fantasy novel they read). For each completed quest they got “coins” and stamps in their passport. They could later redeem their “coins” at the Open Books bookstore for used books.


My students Victoria(on the left) and Natalia(on the right) and me after completing their novels.

At the end there were a lot of hugs, happy tears, and a pizza party. Finished line crossed!

My student Aine and me on the last day of the Publishing Academy.

My student Aine and me on the last day of the Publishing Academy.

The author launch party took place in the Open Books Bookstore on September 19th 2013. The students, now published authors, read extracts from their books to the audience of their relatives and friends.


There was an autograph party afterwards and coaches-students reunion. And a sense of pride that we have accomplished such a big goal – a creation of the book from an idea to 70 or more well-written pages!

Me and my student Aine.20130919_192236[1]




These words were the biggest reward for me for taking part in PA.

So, if any of you will ever take part in similar programs, I have a few tips:

– Personal bond with teens is very important.  Don’t talk down, but rather show your interest in them.

– Despite what you’ve heard, teens do need a “counselor”, an advisor figure. Don’t be shy to show your authority.

– When critiquing, first point out what you like about the work. Then move on to the areas that need improvement. I found it useful to write everything down on a separate paper for them.

– There is no such thing as “too much editing”.

Here are some tips for helping your students write:

  1. Encourage them to be good thinkers.
  2. Meet students where they are. Figure out where the students need help to get started, and begin there.
  3. Be excited, engaged, and curious, ask questions.
  4. Be a good listener. Some students struggle with getting ideas from their minds to the paper. Yet, they have no problem telling stories all the time. Before you even hand your students a pen and a paper, ask them to tell you their story, orally.
  5. Be an active part in the writing process. Regular check ins are a great way to make sure your students are on track.
  6. Celebrate the small victories and be specific about them.
  7. Set achievable goals.

The young authors talked about their experience and gave advice to the aspiring writers at the Authors’ Launch which you can check out here.

At the end, I think I got even more from this experience than my students. I exercised in brainstorming ideas, editing someone’s work…Publishing Academy helped me to be a better writer!

You can learn more and purchase books by Publishing Academy authors by following this link.



Open Books Reading Buddies


As a child, I liked to read with my grandmother. I remember her soft voice which opened a door to another reality for me, a fairy-tale land filled with characters I still love. One time when I was sick in bed with high temperature and couldn’t sleep all night, she read my favorite Peter Pen twice to me, and I think that was the main reason I felt better in the morning.

So when in July Open Books was looking for Book Buddies volunteers, I grabbed the opportunity to pay back all the time that my grandmother invested in teaching me to love the printed word. Book Buddies is a weekly  literacy program the main purpose of which is to help boost students’ reading skills and add to their confidence about reading. Twice each week, volunteers read together with two Little Buddies in 30-minute segments. The program usually runs for a semester, but that time it was just for the month of July.

My Little Buddy was a first – grader Angel (it’s the cutest name ever, isn’t it?:). Now, it is crucial to build a relationship when working with kids of such a delicate age from day one. Open Books assisted in this by giving the students a survey to fill out about themselves at the beginning of the program. That’s how I learned Angel and I shared passion for soccer.  Needless to say that the books that I chose for him to read were mainly about sport. Also, prior to the program, Open Books assessed the students’ reading levels. It made it really easy to choose the appropriate books. All the books brought to the site had labels on them with a difficulty level indication.

If any of you plan on reading with young children, these are the main points to consider in my opinion:

1. Build phonemic awareness and phonics (connection between letters and sounds). When you encounter an unfamiliar word, you can sound it out together or use a picture to give a clue to the word. Rhyming is also a great tool with young kids.

2. Make sure the children comprehend what they read. Ask them to retell the story in their own words. Prior to reading the book, build a background – ask them what they think the book will be about. Also, let them make predictions as you read.

3. Build their vocabulary. Challenge them to use new word in a sentence later in the day.

4. Work on their fluency. Read a book which was difficult for them couple of times.

And, of course, don’t forget to praise them for the progress they are making. Try to avoid the cliché “Good Job” though. Instead, try these phrases:

1. Praise for doing something right:

“I like the way you…”

“I had fun… today!”

“You should feel very proud of yourself for…”

“You learn so fast!”

“I really enjoyed working with you today because…”

“You are a great reader because…”

2. Encouraging a Struggling Reader:

“Great try at…”

“Don’t worry, you’ ll … next time!”

“Don’t give up on …! You’ ve almost mastered it!”

“You are getting better and better at… every day! You’ ve just got to keep trying!”

I can’t stress enough the support I had from Open Books site leaders and Program Directors! They were always around if volunteers had any questions and provided encouragement to Little Buddies. Open Books used Student Progress sheets that volunteers were required to fill out to track anything they could help with to make each session smoother.

Finally, nothing can compare to a child’s gratefulness and words like: “You are the coolest adult ever!” At the end of the program, the kids were asked to make the volunteers pictures or cards. This is what Angel made for me:

 angel pic

It’s us playing soccer. Unfortunately, I lose…J

In September I started Book Buddies program again at Mitchell Elementary School. This time it ran for a semester and involved third-graders. There are a few more things that I learned  about reading with kids:

 – If you are reading with two or more children, try acting scenes out(role-playing). It will make reading fun and prevent the kids from being bored waiting for their turn to read.

– Since the program ran for a few months, we could implement a system of encouragement for the Little Buddies. They got a sticker for every session they attended, and could redeem ten stickers for a free book of their choice. Sometimes I gave two stickers for one session if my Little Buddy went over the page goal we set up at the beginning of the session. That made my Little Buddies super excited!!!:)

Adventures In Creative Writing Field Trip

open books

Pencils raised in the air: “I am a writer! I have important stories to tell! I will not stop writing!” With this Author’s Pledge proclaimed by writing coaches and their students finished my first Adventures In Creative Writing Field Trip with Open Books. It was themed “Celebrating Our Loved Ones” and involved 4th graders from Monroe Elementary.  The task of the writing coaches-volunteers was to guide the students and help write their own small piece of prose about a person/thing they love at the end of the trip. Not only did the kids have to compose a story, but first learn the ways to depict a character. Funny and engaging field trip coordinator Julia talked about direct and indirect description, protagonists and antagonists in stories. In order to better illustrate the material students read and discussed extracts from “Matilda” and “Charlotte’s Web” where the main characters were masterfully described. As a practice before individual writing each group of students got a task to describe a random person on the picture given by Julia  – come up with his/her occupation, hobbies, likes and dislikes etc. Needless to say, I really enjoyed the kids’ boundless fantasy and enthusiasm to participate in the conversation. Their eyes lit up when the time came to write about their special people because they were given a chance to express their own thoughts, write about their own life. To guide them in the right direction, we gave the kids worksheets to fill out with questions to help the students “dig up their story”.  It was particularly amazing to connect with the shy ones and let them open up to you and turn on their imagination. I really enjoyed working individually with each student in my group and developing their story into a concise and engaging piece of writing. All stories were very touching, mostly about their teachers and mothers and showed an emotional depth of young people. At the end of the workshop ten students wearing a pencil costume (like on the picture) read their work to the applause of the audience.


The kids left proud of themselves, knowing that they became published writers-Open Books will type all the stories and make a book out of them. Copies will be given to the school and also distributed in the Open Books bookstore. Each student was also given a coupon for one free book which they could use at the Open Books bookstore and a personal journal where they could keep on writing.

All in all, it was a very fulfilling experience for me. I will keep you posted about other field trips I will take part in.