Young Author Spotlight – Bonnie Xu on Shadows

Good morning. I haven’t posted much writing from my young authors this summer, as we have been heads-down working on the Summer Reading Challenge and discovering literary elements through the close reading of fiction.

However, this piece by Grade 6 young author Bonnie Xu needed to be shared with the world.

In class this week, I asked her to write a story about being someone’s shadow. Her take on it gave us a startling and moving peek into the shadow world.

English is Bonnie’s second language, yet her ability to transform ideas into provocative stories blossoms with every assignment.

Shadow by Bonnie Xu.jpg

Teaching The Lost Art of Letter Writing

I admit it, I’m a bit of a romantic.  If someone truly wanted to win my devotion beyond imagination, a pile of handwritten letters detailing our moments together and our deepest connections wins.

Sadly, letter writing careens quite close to the dead art category. With e-mail, texts, Snapchat, and Twitter, it seems no one recalls the magic of eloquent storytelling in the form of a hand-written personal narrative which connects two people and their shared experience.

Photo by John Jennings courtesy of Unsplash

However, ditching the romanticism for a moment, I do believe the craft of letter writing holds a slightly secret place in the realm of mastering the art of written communication. It also gives you an edge in competitive academic as well as work environments.

A well-crafted thank you letter in the proper situation can launch you from just another person to thoughtful friend, colleague, to a top candidate. It is the key to becoming memorable, which is so much of the battle in life.

In fact,  university admissions teams from NYU and Columbia stated recently that a well-crafted letter following up with them can take an applicant to the top of an application pile. Fortune 500 CEOs have already said that, all job candidates being equal, they will take the one who communicates best in writing.

Knowing how to reach people matters.

That’s why I love to teach it in my writing groups. Students usually come into class thinking, “Well, this is going to be an easy couple of hours. Boring.” and leave thinking, “Mah ghad, that was crazy hard and I loved it.”

It blows their minds.

As challenging as most people find it, they also end up discovering pieces of themselves along the way.

Here’s how I hook them on letter writing:

First, I set the tone and mood with a sweet short film, “Joy and Heron” by Passion Pictures:

Thank you letter writing is all about bringing joy to someone else. If you can start with that, a special quality comes through in the writing.

Now, on to the actual writing:

Photo by Aaron Burden courtesy of Unsplash

Creating emotional connection through an introduction or hook.

This is my favorite part. Students are usually stumped big-time by this little bit, thinking they should be able to start with “Hi” or “Thank you” right away.

I get them to think about a memory between themselves and the person they are writing to. How can they spark that, start the fire of service or family, devotion or love which drove the other person to connect in the first place?

I call this the big warm hug, where letter writers wrap their arms around someone and say, “I remember. This meant something to me.”

ani warm hug.gif

Tell the reader why they got this little gem.

A transition in its most grammar nerd form, this part of the letter really serves to set the reader up for all of the goodness to come.

“I’m here to say thank you for. . .because . . .”

The letter is getting so good now.

Thoughtful details.

The middle of the letter is where most of the energy either builds and creates a truly meaningful experience, or it dies in a wimpy “so what?”.

When I ask students to provide thoughtful details about how a person has influenced their lives, it goes beyond the typical “You have helped me in so many ways.”

“What ways?” I ask, much to their frustration.  “This is a person you know well, with whom you have personal experiences. Share those experiences. Help them understand why they made a mark on you.”

GAH! Everyone is erasing like crazy and cramming in details, realizing they are going to have to re-copy this letter rather than just write it once and be done with it.

They think I’m evil for a moment until they see how those personal details make the letter sparkle.

Pull it all together.

Everyone loves a bit of dramatic flair. Use those thoughtful details to build to a joyful culmination where everything comes together and you explain to the reader how each detail lead to their greater impact on your life.


Usually, kids are blown away by this detail when they read it back to me. Even they had no idea, until writing that paragraph, the level of impact a person had on their lives.

There’s some real magic happening by the time they choose their closing salutation and sign their names.

However, there is one final part which I think happens too often when beautiful, emotional letters are written—you can’t forget to drop it in the mail.

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic courtesy of Unsplash

Now, imagine yourself after a long day at the office. You climb your front stairs and retrieve a beautiful, hand-written letter from the mailbox.

Inside, a student, friend, or family member carefully crafted a letter sharing their warmest memories of your time together. Then, they thanked you for the experience.

Before that moment, you may not even have known those moments mattered.

Then, joy.

Words are magic.

Young Author Spotlight—Andrew Dong

This week, I’m changing it up a little bit and showing off some homework from a Grade 3 young author, Andrew Dong.  He is a lovely, energetic kiddo who really doesn’t enjoy writing. I get it, writing is challenging in ways that don’t naturally suit every learner.

Vocabulary development is a big part of the work we do, and I get them to write weekly vocabulary stories from lists I provide as homework rather than memorizing words. Being able to use those words in context, in my experience, proves far more valuable than memorizing them without knowing how to use them.

The photos here are from this past week. Andrew had to write two vocabulary stories—one in a frustrated tone and the second in a tone of his choice.

He did an excellent job, and my nagging about proofreading is starting to pay off (even with missing commas).

I love seeing this sort of progress in kiddos who enjoy class but don’t necessarily enjoy writing.




Young Author Spotlight: My Dear Bone by Joanna Fu

Note: Today’s story is from Grade 7 student Joanna Fu. This funny tale was written during a flash writing session where young authors got fifteen minutes to write a story from the prompt “A dog was walking through a park when . . . ” 

It’s also really exciting to note that, before this story, Joanna’s writing had been really struggling and she was performing well-below her grade level.  She has been in my writer’s group for about a month, and reading this story out loud to the crew was a real achievement for her. I love it. 

My Dear Bone by Joanna Fu

A dog was walking in a park when he saw her. He’d never seen anyone so beautiful—her pearl white skin, her hard attitude, and her radiant looks.

He wanted her so bad and had never felt so eager, wanting something this way.

She was a . . . bone.

Dog must have her.

He ran toward her, grabbed her firmly in his mouth, and he ran.

Art by Joanna Fu

He never ran faster than now.

He ran faster than a cheetah, fast than a jet.

Now, Bone was all his.

He absolutely loved her.

Suddenly, a crowd of people was yelling and chasing Dog. They were wearing black and they did not look happy.

Dog thought, “Are they taking Bone away from me? No, I must protect her!”

Dog barked, jumped, and attacked these evil people.

“Noone can take my dear Bone away from me,” he yelped.

A woman said, “Please Doggie, give back my grandma’s bones. Today is her funeral, and you just stole her bone.”

She pleaded, “Please give her bone back.”


Photo credit: Max Pixels

Day 25 – The Teacher

As a writer, I have found nothing more aggressively instructive in the best of ways than teaching creative writing to others.

Unless you’re wealthy by other means, a writer’s life requires a day job or a side hustle to make the pieces fit together. Not to get all cheesy, but teaching writing is really the best case scenario for a professional writer in terms of that ebb and flow. For the last several years, I’ve taught people of all ages how to find their own voices, write stronger stories, and edit their own work.

It keeps me sharp, well-read in all genres, creative, and always thinking about stories, more stories, then at least another one.

Part of staying laser-focused on my writing career is to not get distracted. Teaching keeps me in the zone. Plus, I literally could spend all day every day talking about writing. So . . .