Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gloria Houston Gives Back

I've been out of town at my mother-in-laws for the last five days, so I managed only to get one post while I was there. She has dreadful dial-up, so it took forever just to post for Poetry Friday. You don't realize how nice cable internet is until you have to deal with dial-up. Ugh!

I promised a week ago that I would talk about Gloria Houston, who presented at the Southwest Virginia Writer's Workshop. She spoke on "Introducing Creative Writing Into the Schools". She talked not only about teaching writing, but she also spoke about being a writer and her books.

One of the best things I learned from her about teaching writing is explaining to kids the difference between "narrative" and "story". Gloria Houston defines "story" as a problem with a driving force. In other words, it has a PLOT. A "narrative", on the other hand, is a recounting of events of a person's life. It's event, event, event. There isn't a problem to be solved. As a teacher I see all of kinds of stories that kids write. Most of them are narratives. It's one event after another. I often call these "bed to bed" stories because we hear everything a kid did from the time they woke up until the time they went to bed. Unfortunately, these don't make for very exciting stories. However, Gloria Houston defines them and sees value in these types of stories. Her own narrative, My Great-Aunt Arizona is, by her definition, a narrative. She says one student defined narrative using My Great-Aunt Arizona as an example, "One thing after another happens, and then she dies."

As a writer, I find that things without plot don't seem to sell. Sure, there are the famous authors who seem to get things sold because they already have made a name for themselves. But as a new writer, I doubt that my first published book will be a narrative. I'm sure it will be a story with a plot--a driving force--that propels the reader through the book. I've written many narratives and in every writing class I've ever taken encouraged me to develop the plot more. So evidently, plot sells.

Gloria Houston also gave biographies of people as examples of narrative. SOME biographies are narratives with "event, event, event, and then they die". However, I think some of the best biographies for kids are written with plot. There is some sort of driving force in that person's story to make someone want to write a biography about them. For example, I just read a great picture book biography called Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine about Henry Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom. That book has a plot with a problem, building tension, and solution. I think it makes it much more interesting than a traditional biography. The difference between that book and typical biography is that Levine doesn't try to do a "birth to death" story. She focuses on the thing that Henry Brown is known for and builds her story around that. (** The commentary about Henry Brown is my personal thoughts--not anything that Gloria Houston said in her talk).

Gloria Houston has written a book for writers and for teachers of writing. It goes into the Narrative vs. Story more and it also goes into teaching kids a structure for writing. I bought How Writing Works last weekend, and plan to read through it soon. It's written in textbook format though, unlike some writers (like Ralph Fletcher, Jane Yolen, etc) who give you writing advice in a narrative format, but it's full of lots of information.

Gloria Houston's most famous book is The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Gloria Houston wrote this Appalachian story set in a North Carolina town. Many of the towns in North Carolina near where this book was set began to lose their jobs and the towns were devastated. Gloria Houston gave up the marketing rights to her book to help rebuild the town of Spruce Pine, NC. That town is known as the Home of the Perfect Christmas Tree. They have a store that sells products made by local artisans. This town has benefited from Houston's generosity. It employs people directly and indirectly through the tourism that has been generated because of this project. They will even send you a catalog of the crafts made by the artisans. Some of it is beautiful artwork or items that make an appearance in the story (like the angel). Kudos to Gloria! I can't wait to visit Spruce Pine, NC to support the efforts there. Items made by artisans in Spruce Pine caught the eye of Laura Bush and were featured in the White House Christmas tree decorations in 2006, and Southern Living's December 2007 issue will be featuring this effort as well.

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