4 Fabulous Writing Guides by Teen and Tween Authors

Journaling and how-to books by Angie Thomas, Elizabeth Acevedo, Paul Fleischman, and Ally Carter can help students find their voice during challenging times.


 

One of the most frequent questions an author hears from students is how they started to write—and how young people can start, too. Maybe that’s why a number of middle grade and YA authors have created writing and journaling guides for kids and teens. With schools closed and millions of students learning from home, it’s a fertile time for young people to find their writing voice in the midst of chaos. These four standouts will help.

 

Encouraging creativity and experimentation

“How did you become a writer?” Ally Carter had been asked many times before. While speaking at TweensRead, a book festival in Houston, TX, Carter looked out at the auditorium packed with kids and realized they weren’t just asking because they were interested in her. They were asking because they were writing themselves.

“I’d answered writing-related questions on my website and blog,” says Carter. “But when I left Houston that weekend, I was certain of two things: One, there are an awful lot of kids out there who need this information; and two, they need it to be a physical book that they can mark up and carry around.”

Dear Ally: How Do You Write a Book? (Scholastic, 2019) is a linear, straightforward guide to how to execute a writer project. The book’s organization and title came from real-life questions asked by young writers about the process, and Carter demystifies the process throughout. There are chapters about planning a book, developing a plot, and editing a finished manuscript, as well as questions and answers throughout from other YA lit mega-stars.

Carter is inspired by the idea that readers will walk away from Dear Ally less impressed with her, and far more impressed with themselves. That is exactly what she hopes for. “I don’t have all the answers—no one does,” she says. “And that point shines through on every page.”

Countless school visits made it clear to best-selling author Angie Thomas, too, that readers were hungry for guidance in the how-tos of writing. At events, Thomas knew she didn’t have the time to address them as thoughtfully or usefully as she wished. When Thomas asked her publisher what might be the best way to address those questions outside of writing answers on her blog, the publisher suggested a book.

With Find Your Voice: A Guided Journal for Finding Your Truth (Balzer + Bray, March 2020), Thomas wants to hammer home that if you write at any point for any amount of time, you’re a writer.

“I’ve been telling young people that I might not be able to sit down with you and walk you through the process in person, but this book is the next best thing,” says Thomas.

For young writers eager to learn the tips and tricks for starting—and finishing—a writing project, Thomas’s book is a great pick. There are step-by-step tips for craft, tools for developing fully-fleshed characters and settings that resonate, and tricks for figuring out what the true heart of a writer’s story. This guide has blank pages for working along inside it, as well as quotes from Thomas’s award-winning books, to provide inspiration.

Elizabeth Acevedo’s Write Yourself a Lantern: A Journal Inspired by The Poet X (HarperCollins, April 2020) takes a journal-like format. The prompts are inspired by the same assignments protagonist Xiomara receives in Acevedo’s award-winning debut novel, The Poet X.

“It almost feels like I get to turn the tables a little bit and say, The Poet X wasn't about folks falling in love with me and my voice and these characters,” says Acevedo. “It's also about you finding what you want to say. I think a journal really centers that.”

Young readers seeking an opportunity to hone their voices can articulate what they’d do in Xiomara’s position. They can also connect more deeply with The Poet X via the journal, while expressing themselves, with the help of many encouraging quotes.

 

Inspiration from other authors

It was another author who inspired Paul Fleischman to create No Map, Great Trip: A Young Writer’s Road to Page One (Greenwillow, 2019). The book, part writing guide and part memoir of Fleischman’s own journey to becoming a writer, was one he’d resisted putting together, despite that encouragement. But it was a journey he found worth taking.

“It was the easiest and most pleasurable book I've ever written, a hymn in praise of my parents' belief in the arts, curiosity, and justice—values that suddenly seemed in need of support,” says Fleischman, emphasizing that his parents’ encouragement to explore led him to writing stories.

Fleischman finds that the students he meets are fascinated by the behind-the-scenes of a writer’s life. Sharing his youthful adventures not only allows readers to peek behind the curtain, but serves as a reminder that following what sparks their curiosity is precisely what can lead them forward in their writing.

Fleischman’s book is part story of his life and travels, and part a reflection on the art and craft of writing. He and his father, Sid Fleischman, are both Newbery-Award winning authors, which offers a unique perspective on the writing life. This book about growing up surrounded by creativity encourages young readers to lean into the things that want to write and share. No Map Great Trip is less a book with prompts, and more a way to explore what the creative life may look and feel like, including a peek at some of Fleischman’s early drafts.

“Letting [young people] see and handle the notebooks in which my early books were written in longhand has a bigger impact than what I say, probably because writing a book suddenly seems doable,” says Fleischman. “They own notebooks and pencils, just as I did.”

 

The classroom connection

Many current books for young readers are tapping directly into their social and political realities, and students are eager to use that inspiration for their own writing.

Thomas begins Find Your Voice by talking about her passion for basketball. While Thomas never became a ballplayer, she knew she wanted to be a great writer, and like basketball, the only way to improve at it was practice. This approach allows her to share the highs and lows of the writing journey, making it approachable and relatable to young writers.

“We're seeing more young people speak up and speak out about things that mean something to them,” Thomas says. “And the stories we’ve been putting out in recent years [like The Poet X and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin] are inspiring young people in such a way that they're like, ‘I want to write my story.’”

It’s this drive to tell a story while inspired by the stories of others that make it necessary for such journals to be on shelves—they’re a way into the conversation, a way to practice, and a way to really understand the power of using one’s own voice.

That these guides and journals are created by their favorite writers only gives more opportunity to be supported and encouraged.

Writing guides and journals lend themselves naturally to classroom and library use, too. Both Thomas’s and Acevedo’s guides relate directly to their bestselling books, giving space for readers to relate to those stories in entirely new ways, whether or not they consider themselves writers. Readers can, for example, think through Xiomara’s choices in The Poet X and consider what they’d do in that same situation.

A journaling approach like Acevedo’s takes the pressure off students to seek a right answer, but instead, prompt deeper inquiry. “It’s more about ‘What is this book bringing up for you?’” she says, and “How do students relate to the book?”

Teachers and librarians have embraced Carter’s book, too, as have adult writers who write for young people.

Young people have always been writers, says Carter. But with the expansion of YA publishing, and access to their favorite authors via social media, they see opportunity than a previous generation might have. “We’re not just hearing from more kids,” she says. “We’re also hearing from more kids who are very aware that writing is a real job and they can do it, too.”

Thomas adds that while she was growing up, the only journal she was aware of Walter Dean Myers’s Just Write: Here’s How. But now, with more authors providing hands-on tools for this next generation of writers, it’s exciting to anticipate the new stories waiting to be told.

“I'm so glad that more young adult authors are taking this task on and making it so the young people understand writing is doable and accessible to them. We’re in a great time as far as not just giving young people things that they can see themselves in, but giving them the tools that they can continue to flourish. So I'm very grateful to be a part of this.”

Carter says, “Now when I’m asked, ‘I’m writing a book, what should I do?’ it’s a luxury to recommend a handful of guides and resources to help [young people] really get the help they need.”


Former teen librarian Kelly Jensen’s books include Here We Are: Feminism for The Real World and (Don’t) Call Me Crazy.

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