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Creative kids at The National Book Festival

Newspaper editing idea from John Bemelmans Marciano

Take an article from a newspaper and correct it. I mean, make it shorter, make it interesting, make it funny—make it your own. And re-draw the pictures that come with it. It's important to use other sources, and make them your own.
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Character driven writing idea from Calef Brown

Start with a character – it can be a person or an animal, and describe it in as much detail as you can. Then put that character in an unexpected environment. A surfer in the middle of the desert. A snail on the top of a skyscraper. Now create a backstory about how this came about. How did he or she get to this point?
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Fun writing topic to get you started from Susan Cooper

The magic words are “What if -?”
Suppose you’re sitting in class. What if the girl in front of you suddenly floats up to the ceiling and hovers there? What happens next? How did she do it? Or what if that pencil on your desk starts to wriggle, and grow fangs? What if all the windows suddenly burst open and twelve small blue pigs fly in, singing “Good King Wenceslas”? What if…….?
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A drawing idea from Tomie dePaola

A fun drawing topic would be to draw yourself doing all kinds of things that you like to do.
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Writing exercise from Sarah Dessen

I found, when I taught writing, that one exercise my students really liked was to write letters. From anyone, to anyone, about anything. Imagine you’re a son dropping out of college writing his parents, a girl writing a boy to admit she has a crush, someone apologizing to someone else. Tell as much of their story as you can. Then, write a response to the letter from the recipient. It sounds strange, but you can tell an entire story that way, and it’s in a form most people feel comfortable with already. Email works too.
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Tips for young students who hope to start writing from Jack Gantos

The first tip is to get a good journal or small notebook—not too big as you want to be able to slip it into your back pocket. Then get a decent pen. Then I want you to draw a map of your house, or a map of your neighborhood, or map of your school and I want you to draw where everything funny, serious, insane, unexpected, heroic, lousy, triumphant and tragic took place. And then I want you to think about your life as the best material in the world, and each one of your small drawings where something interesting happened will be the opening material for your story. Your discipline should start with ten minutes per day—start small and meet your goal. Then extend your goal as you wish.

A fun writing topic to get you started from Jack Gantos

My suggestion is for them to remember the last ten times they had a really good laugh—and then write about why they laughed. I want each young writer to be at the ‘center’ of his/her writing life.
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Joe Hayes suggests a fun writing topic

One kind of story I like to tell and write is a tall tale—not the broad, literary ones like the stories of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, but the more traditional style tall tale, the personal yarn. These are what if? Stories. You ask yourself what if? And then think of a wild answer and then start telling it as if it really happened.
I asked myself, What if I had a pair of shoes that got really stinky? I answered; a skunk might fall in love with them. And I started making up The Love Sick Skunk.
What if you had a pair of smelly shoes, or socks?
I asked myself, What if a hen mistook some big hailstones for eggs and sat on them? I answered; She hatched out a bunch of baby penguins. What if she sat on some light bulbs? What if she sat on some marbles? What might she sit on to hatch out a woodpecker? An owl? A roadrunner?
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Writing and Drawing topics from William Joyce

I’d take something that made me feel—happy, sad, scared---a painting, a movie, a book, a cartoon, and figure out why it made me feel. What did it do to give me an emotion?
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Writing ideas to get you started from Gordon Korman

Titanic and The Medusa Plot are both driven by a lot of adventure, so here’s my favorite adventure-writing activity: Take any adventure topic and brainstorm what can go wrong. Then put yourself in your characters’ shoes: Are you prepared for this reversal? Is there a damage control plan? What’s the worst-case scenario? Can it be avoided? Can you rescue yourself, or will you need help? Finally, how do you get out of this mess? Now write the scene, putting the greatest detail into the moments that are the most exciting – “I tried A, but B thwarted me.” How does it all turn out?
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Uma Krishnaswami suggests an interesting writing topic

Draw a map of a place, real or imaginary or some combination of the two. Put in roads, rivers, buildings, lakes, seashore, woods, farms, or whatever else you think that place contains. Put in a person, then another, an animal, then a few more. (I can't draw people and animals to save my life, so I use pictures from magazines for this part). Put in events that happened in those places—an accident, a natural disaster, a rescue, a celebration, or anything else you choose. Now write the story of this map.
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A letter writing idea from Dorie Lawson

When I was working on my book Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to their Children (Doubleday, 2003) I realized that many of the best letters were written when a parent was very angry or very sad – when emotions were running high. I would suggest writing a letter to someone about a subject that makes you spitting mad!
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Gregory Maguire suggests a fun writing idea

I used to keep several folders of images I would cut out of the newspaper or book catalogs. You could photocopy pages of picture books if the library lets you. In one folder I kept images of characters palpably imaginary: dragons, Santa Claus, ghosts, aliens, elves, werewolves, witches, skeletons. In a second folder I kept pictures of ordinary real-life people: a toddler on a bikes with training wheels, grandfathers on a park bench, a window-cleaner, a teenager with jeans down about his hips, the President of the United States, a dentist, a French baker. Then I would close my eyes and select one image from each file, and ask myself the question: What happens when these two characters cross paths? Incidentally, this is how I got the idea for my book called What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy. I came up with a meeting between a novice tooth fairy who wasn’t really sure how to do his job meeting an ancient grandmother who only had one natural tooth left in her head, and thought the fairy was the Angel of Death coming to reunite her with the rest of her dentures
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Sam McBratney's two ideas to stimulate the imagination

I used to teach in primary school. The story-writing session was always a highlight of the week. Two ideas worked particularly well, in that they stimulated the imagination of the children: 1. Bring in a bunch of keys, interesting keys, and spend some time talking about what they might open - what they are guarding, what you might see if only you could get through there, etc.

2. With the class, build an Adventure Machine out of cardboard boxes - at least eight foot high, with a slot big enough to post a person through. (Lights, too, if you want to connect with the science curriculum.) The Adventure Machine stands tall in the classroom. It has buttons. These are labeled real life/ghost/ sci-fi (etc). Before each child posts her/himself through the slot and writes a story, he or she must press a button and choose a category (real-life, ghost, sci-fi, historical fiction, horror, etc).
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Songwriting tip from John McCutcheon

I like to set goals or projects for myself. For instance, write a little song for a family gathering or reunion. Talk to the oldest person in your family and find out what their earliest memories are.

First, you'll be amazed at what you find. Second, you'll be surprised how eager a lot of older people are to talk about their lives, especially to young people.

Talk to other people that person mentions.

Pick a theme from the stories you've heard and make it a repeating line. For instance,

"And then the roof caved in"
Pick a line that rhymes with that line. For instance,
"It was cold as sin"
You can then create a template like this
<first line>
It was cold as sin
<third line>
And then the roof caved in

Then you can take the stories, create and 1st and 3rd line that don't have to rhyme and, bingo! You've got a story/song. Here's an example of a couple of such verses.

The winter I was four years old
It was cold as sin
It snowed and snowed for 7 days
And then the roof caved in

My father came in from outdoors, said
"It is cold as sin"
He laughed, "At least it's warm in here"
And then the roof caved in

This is just a silly example, but creating a template is an old, traditional tool, creates the rhyme structure for a song, and also means you've also got half the song already written!
That's just one little trick to make songwriting easier.
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A writing idea from Shelia P Moses

Topic: What’s in My Book Bag?
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Fun drawing idea from Jon J Muth

Draw someone you know wearing clothes that are WAY too big. Or WAY too small.

Jon J Muth's story suggestion

Write a story from the point of view of your pet, or your sibling or a stuffed animal, and try to really think of what they would say or feel.
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A great writing topic to get you started form Kadir Nelson

Draw a picture of yourself doing what you love to do most!
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Drawing tips from Chris Van Dusen

When I was a kid I loved to draw things like aliens, robots and monsters. I think you should draw what you like. But I also used to play a couple of drawing games with my brothers that were fun.

One was a scribble game. One person would draw a simple scribble on a piece of paper and then pass it to another person. They had to try to turn that scribble into a picture of something.

Another game we'd play was to take a piece of paper and fold it into thirds. The first person would draw a head on the top third and continue the outlines of the neck on to the middle third. He'd then fold the paper over, hiding the head he drew and passed it on to the next person. He'd draw the body, fold it over and pass it to the third person who'd draw the legs. When he was done drawing, we'd open it up to see what we created! What made it fun was mixing up people and animal and monster parts
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A great writing topic from Rita Williams-Garcia

Objects, like Delphine’s Timex watch, can reveal a lot about a character. Delphine is responsible, dependable and does things in a timely manner.

Take a character from a story you’re writing, or plan to write, and think of an object that will be associated with them. Take a few minutes to fully imagine your character and the connection between them and the object. Then write one or two paragraphs of the character in a scene with that object.Kadir Nelson
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Fun writing topic from Mary Brigid Barrett

Write about the day that is different. Anne of Green Gables begins on the day that the wrong orphan arrives. Fern is the first one up in the morning on the day her father is about to kill runt pig; Charlotte’s Web begins on that gruesomely exciting different day. Harry Potter’s story truly begins when he receives a letter delivered by an owl inviting him to Hogwarts; not your normal day. Think about your favorite stories, I bet you they start on the “different” day, the day when something out of the ordinary happens.
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Writing exercise presented by Holly Black

Take a fairy tale and break it down into the basic plot points and then reinvent it by working through those plot points with a character in a different setting. This works well because, in classic fairy tales, the characters are not very developed - they're just "the youngest prince" or "the goose girl" and so there is a lot of room for the stories to be retold in interesting ways.
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Writing exercise presented by Joseph Bruchac

One of the simplest exercises that I often use with young writers is the use of memory. Think about things you remember in terms of your senses. Things you've smelled or tasted or touched. Then begin by writing down the words "I remember. . ." and go from them, always remembering to bring in that sensory information as you write. Each of those sensory cues can lead to other memories. For example, "I remember the smell of bacon frying on my grandmother's old cast iron stove on a winter morning when it was so cold that my fingers froze to the railing on her porch. . ." (And that sentence is one I just composed right now.)

Storytelling advice from Joseph Bruchac

Something I've already mentioned--to listen. Listen well and you'll hear things that others miss. Remember that stories are all around you. There are stories in every person and every thing. Don't worry about memorizing stories word for word. Just try to tell them in your own words, seeing them as you speak them.
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Writing tip from Michael Buckley

I always love to come from a place of secrets. I think they make the foundations for great stories. Try writing about the secret life of your grandmother. What does she do when no one is looking?
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Writing exercise from Sharon Creech

Choose a painting or photograph that interests you and pretend that you are either a person in the photograph or someone on the edge of the scene. Describe what you see and what you are thinking. I like this exercise because the artist or photographer has already selected composition, color, tone, detail, mood, and if you now render the same image(s) in words, you are likely to come up with something intriguing.
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Fun writing topic from Doreen Cronin

A great exercise is to write something really simple from someone else's perspective. Write about your breakfast from the point of view of the spoon.
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Writing topic presented by Carmen Agra Deedy

One morning, when you are at the breakfast table, your dog talks to you. No one else in the room seems to hear him. It took all the telepathic energy he could muster to send you this one all-important message: what does he say?
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Paula Deen’s fun writing suggestion

Why I love my favorite sandwich! Tell me why it's your favorite sandwich. Tell me how it tastes, what's in it? Do you have a special memory sharing that sandwich with a friend or relative? Most of the time, a favorite food is associated with a happy memory.
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Writing tip from Kate DiCamillo

Get on a city bus with a notebook. Write down some of the dialog that you overhear. Write a story incorporating some of that dialog.
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Creative writing and drawing exercise from Tony DiTerlizzi

Here is a simple exercise that simplifies the questions I asked myself when I created the picture book, Ted (one of my personal favorites).

  • Conjure up an imaginary friend – even if you are too old for such things. Wait, ESPECIALLY if you are too old for such things.
  • What is it? A person? A monster? An object? Food? A robot? A sock?
  • Are you still pals with this imaginary friend? Why?
  • Have you ever had a fight or argument with it? What was it about?
  • What does your friend like to do for fun? Eat? Swing? Race cars? Time travel?
  • Where does it sleep?
  • Can anyone else see it? If so, what happens when they do?
  • How does it get around? Fly? Swim? Run? Hop? Walk? Evaporate?
  • Does your character have a name? What happens when you say it? What happens when someone else says it? What if you say it backwards?
  • Based on all of this, what does your imaginary friend look like? Draw a picture of it.
  • Now, can you come up with an adventure with you and your imaginary friend?

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Writing advice from Sharon M. Draper

Write about what you know about. Write about things you love. If you love dogs and you know how they run and pant and sleep and eat and smell, then write about dogs. Use lots of details and have fun with it.More about Sharon Draper

Poetry idea from Margarita Engle

Go for a walk. Let the music of your footsteps turn into the rhythm of a poem. It doesn’t have to rhyme, and the topic doesn’t matter. It can be a snail on a leaf in the park, the shadow of a passing cloud, or your hopes for the future.
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Writing suggestion from Mem Fox

Never write on a topic suggested by someone else. You need to write what you need to write; and you need to write for a reaction and a response from readers you care about. Write things that are about you and meaningful to you, even though the names and characters you choose will probably hide the fact that you’re really writing about yourself. My book Koala Lou is ALL about me yet the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ never appear.
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Writing exercise presented by Neil Gaiman

What would happen if you shrank to mouse size? Or grew to house size? What if you discovered that your teacher was planning to eat one of your class at the end of the semester? (And who? And why? And how would you stop him or her?) What if you turned invisible after eating ice-cream?
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Fun writing idea from Margaret Peterson Haddix

Imagine that you're somebody else. Write a story from the perspective of someone who is much bolder, braver and louder than you are in real life. (Or, possibly someone quieter, shyer, and more likely to observe than talk.) Or write about a disagreement you've had--from the other person's perspective. See how much the story changes from when you take someone else's viewpoint.
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Shannon Hale’s suggestion for writing your own fairy tales

Our graphic novel, Rapunzel's Revenge, takes Rapunzel from the fairy tale and puts her in the Old West. Now instead of waiting in a tower, she uses her long braids to swing free and becomes a hero, whipping and lassoing bad guys and dangerous creatures. When you take a fairy tale and change the setting, you get a new story. First choose a tale: Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack & the Beanstalk, etc. Next choose a new setting: the moon, under the sea, New York City, your school. Now write your new story!
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Writing tip from Phillip Hoose

Imagine that you are a pigeon – maybe even a presidential pigeon – and you live in the White House or the monuments of Washington, DC. Write about your life as that pigeon.
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Images for inspiration

Some photographs and paintings from the Library of Congress collections for inspiration

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Liz Kessler – a writing warm-up exercise

OK, here’s one – which is taken from a book by a friend of mine. It’s called How to be a Brilliant Writer by Jenny Alexander. (Definitely get this book if you enjoy writing – it’s brilliant, and really helpful!) This is a quick 'writing warm-up' exercise.

Make a list of ten subjects that interest you. Then pick one of the things on the list and write for one minute about it. Don’t stop to think about it, just write – but stop after a minute. Then pick another one and do the same. Then pick a third, but this time write for five minutes. This is a good exercise to do with a few friends, and then you can all read out what you’ve written to each other – which can make it even more enjoyable.
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Writing advice from Lois Lowry

Everyone has to find his/her own stories. I think one good way to start is to look back through your own experience and recall something—a moment, an incident—that did two things: 1) caused you to feel deeply; and 2) caused you to change in some way.
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Fun writing topics from Megan McDonald

  • Bad moods
  • Bugs
  • Mysteries
  • Sisters
  • Secrets
  • Sock monkeys
  • Penguins
  • People with wacky names
  • Getting in trouble
  • Famous girls in history

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Brad Meltzer's scary writing idea

Tell me about the night you saw the ghost. Also: Tell me about the greatest adventure you had with your imaginary friend.
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Writing advice from Pat Mora

My advice to writers 4 or 94 is write about what you like. What animal would you like to be? What would you eat? How would you play? Where would you sleep?
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Interesting poetry idea from Marilyn Nelson

I think it would be fun to try to imitate the “reverso” poems Marilyn Singer wrote for her recently published book, Mirror, Mirror. (Note: A reverso poem has one meaning when read down the page and perhaps an altogether different meaning when read up the page.)
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A list of suggestions from Linda Sue Park

I’m a big fan of lists! I use lists for everything from brainstorming to getting unstuck when I’m stuck. Lists are fun and fast and they help wake up the writing cells in your brain and get them going. Here are a few ideas for lists:

  • Five things you love
  • Five things you hate!
  • Five objects in your room
  • The five best jobs in the world
  • The five worst jobs in the world
  • Five places you would love to visit

Choose three of the topics above and make your lists. Then pick one item from each of the three lists, think about how they could connect, and write a poem or story that includes those three elements.
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Tips on writing from James Patterson

I think it’s important for people to write about what they love. Jack (my son) has had fun getting started as a writer. He’s already written three novels, actually. The first one he wrote at the age of seven, and called it Death of the Butterfly Catcher. Here’s the story: The Butterfly Catcher gets on a plane, travels half way around the world; doesn’t catch a butterfly. He gets on a boat and travels another half way around the world; still doesn’t catch a butterfly. He gets on a train, catches the butterfly, steps off the train, isn’t looking and gets hit by another train -- death of the Butterfly Catcher, butterfly flies away. He dismisses it now, though, as a minor work from his early years. The point is, Jack took elements from what he already loved—trains and travel, for example—and ran with them. It’s a lot easier to start if you’re writing about something you’re genuinely interested in or are good at.
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“Fun” writing advice from Katherine Paterson

Well, fun is where you find it, and what might seem like fun for one person might feel very painful to someone else. For example, if I ask you to write about school lunches, as you remember them from first grade, would that be fun or awful?
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Fun writing topics by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Write about things that make you happy – your puppy, your friends, your favorite spot in the house.
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Writing topic presented by poet Jack Prelutsky

What's the funniest thing you've ever seen your brother or sister or dog or cat do?

Poetry exercise presented by poet Jack Prelutsky

Pick a poem you like, find a melody that works well with the poem's lyrics and then perform it for your friends and family. For instance, Jack Prelutsky's poem, "Deep in Our Refrigerator" from It's Raining Pigs and Noodles, can be easily set to the music of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "The Wabash Cannon Ball," and "America the Beautiful."
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“Fun” writing advice from Doreen Rappaport

I don’t think it’s a matter of a “fun” topic. It’s a matter of kids writing about what’s important to them, what’s puzzling to them. Get it down on paper and you learn about what’s really important in your life and then you revise it because you WANT to make it better.
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Writing advice from Rick Riordan

Ideas are something you have to develop yourself, because you have to live with them for a long time if you’re going to turn them into a good story. Me telling you what to write about is like telling you what you want for your birthday. Only one person should answer that question: You.
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Fun writing exercise from Jon Scieszka

Write about your family. That’s what I just did. I wrote stories remembering funny things that happened when I was growing up with my five brothers. It’s called Knucklehead. And I illustrated it with old family photos and my drawings from kindergarten and stuff from my scrapbook.
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Fun writing exercise from David Shannon

If you could have any super power (flying, super strength, a giant brain, etc.), what would you choose and what would you do with it?.
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Writing exercises suggested by Judy Sierra

Here are two exercises I remember from my first class in writing for children:

  • Go to the zoo, watch animals, and write five haiku about what you see.
  • Write the first paragraph of the most exciting book ever written.

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Jane Smiley's writing idea

Kids should write something they love or are curious about. My older cousin used to tell my other cousin and me stories about our dogs, and we always enjoyed their adventures.
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Poetry exercise presented by Charles R. Smith Jr.

One poetry exercise that I always use when working with students of all ages, from kindergarten to college is one that focuses on them called, “I Am.” The student repeats the phrase “I Am” to describe themselves in as many unique ways as possible. The objective is to express what makes them unique in this world. Not just physical description, but what makes up their soul. Even kindergartners can grasp this because they know each of them is different; the trick is showing them how to express that. I tell the students there is no page limit, they can write as many lines as they want because human beings are complex and their words should reflect that.
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Writing exercise from Cynthia Leitich Smith

For an exercise, write a description of your home and family from the point of view of a visitor from outer space.
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Writing suggestion from Rebecca Stead

You have just discovered that someone in your life has a real, comic-book-worthy, secret power. What is it, and how did you find out?
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Poetry topic suggested by Judith Viorst

I once wrote a poem called “If I were in charge of the world,” and many teachers have found this a good first sentence to get kids started on imagining—in verse—what THEY would do if they were in charge of the world.
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Begin writing with Jacqueline Woodson

Choose a year in your life and write down every single detail you can remember about that year – who your friends were, what your favorite outfits were, what your neighborhood was like, your room, the songs you loved, and on and on. When you get to the place where you can’t remember anymore, start making it up. Don’t stop writing to think about spelling or grammar – just write.
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Fun drawing exercise presented by Jan Brett

Most illustrators love to create their own world. Imagine being in a spaceship and looking down. What would your world look like? What plants and animals would you see? Draw your world. For lots more project ideas, activities and activities, visit my web site - www.janbrett.com.
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Sketch at the zoo with Timothy Ehring

Drawing from life is always great. Going to the zoo with a sketchbook gives you a fantastic opportunity to draw all kinds of interesting animals (and people)!
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Writing and drawing advice from Steven Kellogg

I think it is helpful to keep a journal, develop a correspondence with friends, and work in a sketchbook as you travel through each day.
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Cartooning tip from Jeff Kinney

I recommend that kids copy their favorite comic strips. That will give them an understanding of how a cartoonist created his or her work, which is a valuable tool to have when creating original material.
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Fun drawing exercise from Betsy Lewin

Try contour drawing. This is done by looking only at your subject, never glancing down at your paper, and drawing what you see in a continuous line, never lifting the pencil from the paper. You are "feeling" your subject onto the paper. It will most likely be disappointing at first, but it will force you to stay loose and not be intimidated by the subject. It will build confidence and eventually, you'll be happy with the results.
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Drawing advice from Kadir Nelson

I would suggest young artists learn to draw the human figure. They can use themselves, friends, or family as models. Hands and feet are vitally important to learn to draw. They are very difficult, but once you learn them they become fun to draw. Learn to draw them and you can learn to draw anything.
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Try this illustrating idea from Jerry Pinkney

Create an illustration using an animal to personify human qualities. The animal may be a pet, one from a favorite story, or an animal living in the wild. The creature may be placed indoors or outdoors, in the present or in the past. They may wear clothing or not. The use of other items may be applied to support and enlarge ideas. Example: A creature playing an instrument. The most important thing to remember is to use the imagination at its fullest. While research for ideas an aspiring artist should always use local and school libraries. The more knowledge one has, the more one can invent.
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Try this drawing idea from James Ransome

Draw a portrait of your family members and try to capture their personality in your portrait.
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Advice for creating pop-ups by Matthew Reinhart

Don’t give up, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and go to www.RobertSabuda.com for cool do-it-yourself pop-ups to start your instruction!
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Fun pop-up exercise from Robert Sabuda

Making paper snowflakes is a terrific way to learn how to use scissors as a tool for creating art. I spend most of the day cutting paper, so I feel it is very important to become comfortable with scissors.
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Charles Santore’s drawing tips

If you enjoy drawing and painting, begin by drawing the things around you – your pet cat, dog, things that are around you in the house. When you draw things, you are beginning to build a vocabulary of visual images you can draw on later.
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Drawing comics tip from Jeff Smith

Have a character flipping a coin as he walks down the street and have him miss catching it, instead it rolls away - so draw a comic about your character chasing the rolling coin. PS - Make sure it’s not easy to catch!
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Mo Willems’ advice on writing and drawing

Stop reading this blather and start writing and drawing; then keep doing it. I can’t emphasize how important it is just to sit down and do the work. And remember, what you’re doing when you write and draw isn’t pretend; it’s real. The only difference between what you’re doing right now and what I do is that you don’t have to give a cut to my agent.
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