In this podcast, Franki Sibberson chats with Lester Laminack about how he reads as a writer, and what teachers might do to develop this skill in their students. Lester is the author of beloved books for children and teachers, including Saturdays and Teacakes and Unwrapping the Read Aloud.
You learn more about Lester's work by browsing his website:
A full transcript of the podcast is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Lester, as a children's author, what do you hope for with your books?
Lester Laminack: Let's see. I hope that what I write connects in some way to the lives of children and their families; that they see themselves and the families they live in inside those books. And if they don't see their specific family, they do see themselves through the books as members of the larger human family, so they come to respect not only their own experience, but the experience of others as well. I don't usually write with some didactic purpose in mind.
Usually I'm just writing a story that comes to mind, and sometimes that surfaces, where there's a point to be made. You know, like in Jake's 100th Day of School, it's clearly a little message that when you mess up or you lose something, there's a way to solve the problem; the notion that worrying over something doesn't really make it any better. And there's a little message, maybe, inside there, but I don't know that I actually start with that message in mind.
Franki Sibberson: So let me ask you this: you're an expert in the field of literacy education, and that happened before you became a children's author. How does that understanding about children and literacy influence your writing?
Lester Laminack: Well, I think it gives me insight into the world of the child in ways that I maybe wouldn't have if I weren't an educator before I were a writer. I think there are things I understand about how children think, what they might respond to, what they worry over, what makes them laugh, the language they would use, and some of the experiences that they have, perhaps, in school, if not in their own families. Since the world's becoming so much more diverse, the common experience that they all share is the school experience.
So many of the things I write happen in and around school, and I think being an educator and having a finger on the pulse of that gives you some insight into how children make sense of the world, and you can make some connections to that that way.
Franki Sibberson: So just knowing children so well. So how, now that you're a children's writer, how has that changed the way you teach writing, whether it's to kids or with teachers in professional development? What's changed for you in that aspect?
Lester Laminack: I think the thing that's changed most is I have a much greater appreciation for time. Much of what it seems – it seems to me that much of what we do in the teaching of writing is very compressed as compared to the real world of writing. For example, the idea that we're supposed to finish a piece of writing in a very short period of time in school – and I'm not talking about, you know, a testing situation where they've got 45 minutes or 60 minutes to produce a piece for an assessment.
Just day-to-day writing instruction, it seems that we're often trying to push them together, and I recognize from writing – I knew that from writing teacher books, but I never equated it to the same as writing children's books. And writing children's books, now, I may spend as much as a year or a year and a half on a 32-page 1,000-word picture book, and do, you know, 30, 40, 50 drafts, and numerous little, tiny sets of revisions within each draft. And, you know, maybe I just write slower than most of my colleagues – I don't know, you know.
But I realize that oftentimes what I have to do – for example, right now I'm working on a new manuscript called Sam Loves Pink. And I got some feedback today from my editor and from some of her peers, and I didn't like it. I'm still not liking it, and I've responded to it somewhat, and I know, just from reading my response, after walking downtown and going to lunch and coming back and reading it, I know it's very defensive.
What I know from this process is that in three or four days, if I just don't look at it, I don't look at the manuscript again, I go on and work on one of my teacher projects, I'll be able to come back to that piece, have heard what they're saying to me, look at it fresh, and see the critique, not the criticism. And I get the physical calm that gives me emotional distance that I can't gain otherwise. And I don't think we ever give children the opportunity to gain emotional distance from the piece.
And as a result, we're pushing them to revise and to edit and to rethink in places where they have not yet let go of the bigger piece to be able to see what we're wanting them to realize.
Franki Sibberson: That makes sense. That's so interesting, that you're defensive but you know you're not going to be in a couple days.
Lester Laminack: Well, you know – I hope – I wish I was better at it. I wish I could just –
Franki Sibberson: No, I think that's such a natural reaction, and you're right, we don't even think about that with kids in classroom. So you talked about – you told me last week when we chatted that your new interest is – kind of one of your new interests is the importance of setting in story. Can you talk a little bit about that, and why you think that's so important?
Lester Laminack: Well, I think I am fascinated by interviews with writers, and by essays from writers, especially – not necessarily children's writers, but especially Southern writers. I have this affinity with the voices of Southern writers – go figure.
Franki Sibberson: Go imagine.
Lester Laminack: Go imagine. So I have this collection of essays written by Southern writers, and interviews with novelists, and I just read a new biography on Flannery O'Connor written by Brad Gooch. And a couple-three weeks ago – maybe a month ago – I was re-reading an essay written by Dorothy Allison, who's the author of Bastard out of Carolina, and Cavedweller, and a couple other things I can't pull off the top of my head right now. But I was reading the interview, and the whole interview was on the importance of place.
And she just takes the notion of setting and opens it up as being so much more than where something happened. And that how that piece becomes huge in developing the context or the fiber, the fabric in which the story takes place. And so the fact that it is in a hot, humid place has something to do with the character and the character's motives and the character's reactions and the character's belief systems, and creates, you know, something more than. We have an emotional sort of response to certain things, you know.
Somebody says, "New York City," and you have a certain reaction to that. One person thinks, "Ew, I would never go there – it's full of crime." Another person thinks, "Oh, my gosh, I can't wait to go – what's on Broadway?" Another person thinks, "Oh, New York City – what great restaurants." You know, so everybody has a certain reaction to that; it brings up a certain image just by mentioning it. And I started thinking about the role of place in the novels I read, so I went back to a few novels and started looking at them.
And messing around just be reading little scenes and looking how place is so integrally, inextricably woven into the whole development of the story. And I took that frame with me into classrooms, and just started looking; as children are writing, you know, they never even tell you where they are. You know, "last week at my grandma's house," or "yesterday was my birthday," and if you get place at all, if there's any piece of setting developed, it tends to be – and I'm talking about, you know, very young children.
You get more development like that with middle school kids. But with very young children at the beginning of writing, if they even mention it at all – and I think some of that comes from the egocentrism of just believing that you know what I know, and that you see the world the way I see the world. And so it's just an issue of we haven't brought it to their attention yet.
So now I'm beginning to go back and sort of delve into the picture books that I have looked at for a long time, sort of with my little favorite stack, and just beginning to kinda play with the notion of how place is, in some ways, another character, in some places, and more than just the stage on which the action plays out.
Franki Sibberson: So you also said you were interested in the idea of details that matter. Can you talk a little bit about that – details that matter, vs. details that don't matter, I guess?
Lester Laminack: Yeah. I've done – as you know, I've done a lot of stuff, development work, and I sort of coined a little phrase, I don't know, four or five years ago, in talking with a group of teachers, because we were looking at some writing where kids were just getting bogged down in details. Before they could even get to the point, they had described everything on the shelves of the store they were in.
And you had no clue why they were even in the store, but, you know, you heard the sound effects of locking the doors and clicking the seat belts and starting the engine and pulling out of the driveway. You knew the six streets they passed to get to the parking lot, and that they parked next to the buggy corral in a gold Ford, next to a black SUV. And you know, they went inside, and then you heard the inventory of the store.
And I just started calling it "detail diarrhea," because I think we have – and my theory, my current operating theory at the moment, is that we start in kindergarten praying for details, because we just want something other than, "I had a party," on the page. So, you know, we start saying things like, "Oh, that's really nice; and who was at your party?" "Oh, my Nana was there, my cousins were there." "Well, I don't see them. Add them in the picture. Are you gonna put that in your words? Give me some."
And we sort of nudge for "give me more detail, give me more detail." And then pretty soon that becomes the writing parallel to "sound it out" in reading. You know, if you remember before we started doing all the comprehension strategy work and the deeper, more complex work with reading strategies, the three words any adult, teacher or non-teacher, would say to a child when they were stuck would be, "Sound it out." Well, the "sound it out" of reading – I mean of writing, in my view, tends to be "add some details."
Like if you don't know what else to say, you just say to a kid, "That's really good. Add some details." And I think that children tend to interpret that to mean "physically describe." For them, detail means to physically describe. So one thing I've started doing with kids and with teachers is delving into a stack of books, and I tend to use picture books. Not exclusively, but it tends to be the thing I use the most because I know them best, and I know how they're put together. I mean, you know, I write them. So I use picture books, and I've begun to sort of explore this notion.
I do a thing I call a "detail audit," and as we read through the text for like the second time – once we read through just to get the story – but a second time, as we read through, I'll stop whenever we get a detail. We'll just sort of note it – I may not write it down; depends how sophisticated the audience. Just note. "Hmm – they mentioned a tree house. I wonder why they bothered to mention a tree house? This must be something important, or they wouldn't tell us it's a tree house. Let's keep that in mind."
And you keep reading – of course, you know the Gestalt of the story now, 'cause you read the whole thing all the way through. And so what they start looking at is – and the bumper sticker that I give kids – you know, like, "Put this in your brain and stick it up there and remember it." Writers never waste details. So they don't just throw details down to give you something to look at in the story. If I mentioned a tree house, it's because the tree house is going to be a part of the plot: a place to go, some crucial piece of the setting. Otherwise, there's no need to mention it.
So if you're telling me the five different kinds of chewing gum that are on the rack at the checkout counter that probably should have something to do with the rest of the story, or you don't need to mention it. And I know, you know, because as I mentioned earlier, I got some feedback today on a story and I'm feeling a little defensive about it. Well, I know that when you put something down on the page – especially if it's not your first draft – you get kinda wedded to the notion.
So when kids have put the effort in – because for them, there's so much physical effort in getting the words written on the page – there is a certain sense of being wedded to the effort of it. And so when you want me to take some of those details out, one, it feels like an affront to my work, and two, it seems counterintuitive, because every other teacher I've ever had has said to me, "Add some details." And so I think, you know, it's just fascinating to me to look at.
Franki Sibberson: Yeah, that is pretty interesting. So what are you doing to help teachers? Like how do we, as teachers, help students write in ways that detail really matters? How do we get away from that?
Lester Laminack: Well, one, I think – and it's a notion that Katie sorta fronts, or has sorta put out there several years ago, Katie Ray – the idea that everything we know as writers, we knew as readers first. And I would sorta stretch that a little bit and say, "Well, everything we know as readers we probably knew as listeners and speakers first." So I wanna fill your ears up with it before I hold you accountable for your eyes, and – if that makes sense. I just said that off the top of my head.
But I want to read aloud to you a lot, and then do some of that detail audit work. You know, like make you aware of the fact that what he did or she did, zero in on in the details, and then just stop and think about for a second. On a second or third read, stop and think about what did they not tell us, and why did they choose not to describe the color of the house or the texture of the tree, you know, or whether the pavement was bricks or concrete or asphalt or cobblestone?
You know, why did they just say, "Down the street," and then why do we hear, get – you know, and one little book I use for this sometimes is a book called Jamaica's Find, by Juanita Havill, where Jamaica goes down the slide and she finds a red sock cap, but she also finds a little stuffed dog. And the dog becomes critical to the plot; it's part of the rising tension in the story that she takes it home, even though it's not hers, and it's nasty, and her mother wants her to not have it. And so – but she turns the sock hat in.
All we know about the hat from the writing is that it's red and it's a sock hat. What we know from the dog is that it's gray and cuddly, and it has food stains, and it's white with long black ears. And the place where its button nose used to be is just a little white circle, 'cause the button nose is worn off, and much of its fur is gone from being loved so much. And you can sort of stop and go, "Why is the writer giving us this much detail about the dog, and so few details about the hat?"
So I'm trying to encourage teachers to pull a spot or two – not take the book apart, but just on a second, third read-aloud, to zero in on a place where the writer really does sort of spotlight something, and then gets you to just think about it, without holding you accountable for the reading. Let you do it with your ears and thinking, and then begin to transition into as you're reading, if you notice something, stop and ask yourself, "Why is it getting described that deeply, or why is it getting spotlighted, and how is that going to be significant in the story later?"
And then transfer into in your own writing, as you begin doing revisions, "What have I spotlighted with my own details, and are those the places I want to draw the readers' attention? Or is there something that needs to come out?" So in terms of working with teachers and students, I'm trying to model those things, either in my own writing or by using other pieces of literature as a bridge.
Franki Sibberson: I love it – you've given me so much more to think about now. I've gotta think through this, it's so smart.