5 Questions With Barbara O’Connor

I love waking up on days where I am co-hosting a trifecta with Nerdy Book Club and Mr. Schu. Today is one of those days. Not only am I honored to be able to interview Barbara, but I also get to visit Nerdy Book Club to read Barbara’s post and Watch.Connect.Read. to see the book trailer for her next book On The Road To Mr. Mineo’s.

1. I am a gigantic fan of your blog. My favorite regular post that you do is Writing Tip Tuesday. I’m really looking forward to sharing these post with my students in the fall, and possibly even “borrowing” some of your tips to use as writing lessons that I teach to my students.

If you could give two quick writing tips to young aspiring writers, what would they be?

First, I always tell young writers, “Never be afraid to write something that isn’t very good. You can always make it better, but you can’t fix what you haven’t written.” I think sometimes students get frustrated when they think their writing isn’t perfect and wonderful or as good as the kid sitting next to them. When you give them “permission” to just write and to not be concerned about how good it is, that’s often very liberating. Then, during revision, the student can focus on improving the writing.

Next, I absolutely love focusing on the writing technique of “Show, Don’t Tell.” I do writing workshops concentrating on it, using it for different functions in a story and moving from simple to more complex. We brainstorm verbs that show a particular feeling, like anger or happiness. Then we use dialogue. What would someone say if he was feeling tired? We also use it to show character traits, like lazy or rude.

I also stress to them that revision is a great time to concentrate on “show, don’t tell.” Did you write, “He was furious.”? Revise that to, “He stormed out of the room and slammed the door.”

I know that’s two, but I have to squeeze in one more tip to improve writing: read, read, read. Reading is one of the best things you can do to improve your writing. You learn what you like and can think about why you like it (and vice versa). You notice the author’s use of strong verbs or description, dialogue or narrative, etc.

2. You’ve written books that include things like: stealing a dog, a boy finding a gigantic frog, and a one-legged pigeon. My students would consider you “the bomb” at picking topics.

What tips would you have for young writers that struggle with figuring out what to write about?

Oh, I love being “the bomb.” 🙂

Picking topics should be fun. The three examples you gave above a good ones. As for stealing a dog (How to Steal a Dog), that is something I would never do, but it sure was fun pretending to do it. Students should create characters who aren’t perfect (either perfectly good or perfectly bad). Give them some flaws. Think of something naughty you have done in the past or maybe would never do but would enjoy pretending to do. Hide in the janitor’s closet during the math test. Put a frog in your sister’s bed. Tell a lie. (Parents and teachers are probably not happy with me right now.) My point is, those things can be fun to write about and fun to read about. BUT, it’s important that the character learn and grow from her mistakes and become a better person in the end.

A gigantic frog? I love frogs as a child and once caught the biggest, greenest, slimiest bullfrog in Kenner, Louisiana (using a birdcage). So I drew on a childhood love and experience to write The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. I would encourage kids to try that some time.

As for a one-legged pigeon (On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s), I was watching my birdfeeder in the backyard and a mourning dove came by. Mourning doves look like pigeons. Why one-legged? Well, this might sound a little odd, but I needed the rhythm of the phrase “one-legged pigeon.” Rhythm is very important to me when I write. So I would encourage kids to be observant. Notice things around them. Even the simplest things can be embellished, exaggerated or altered in some way to make them more interesting. Did you find a marble on the playground? See a dog with one white eye and one blue eye? Hear a boy singing in Spanish? Use that as a starting point and take it anywhere you want to.

3. Your next book, On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s, is filled with a lot of amazing characters. My personal favorite being Mutt Raynard.

Which character in On The Road to Mr. Mineo’s did you enjoy writing the most?

I’m glad you loved Mutt (named after my grandfather). He’s a perfect example of writing a flawed character (in this case, a habitual liar).

The sections I enjoyed writing the most were the ones with the little brown dog because of Amos and Ethel. I loved writing their arguments. Amos is so lovably grumpy and Ethel is so kind-hearted. I always enjoyed bringing the story back to them.

4. If you had only 3 sentences to describe On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s what would you say?

When a one-legged homing pigeon named Sherman won’t go home to Mr. Mineo, folks around Meadville begin to take notice. Before long, the naughty pigeon is being chased by Mutt the liar, Stella who wants him for a pet, her scabby-kneed, germ-infested brother and his friends, and even by a little brown dog. When they all converge on the road to Mr. Mineo’s, Sherman has managed to give them all a summertime adventure.

5. I plan on sharing this interview with my fourth graders in the fall. If they are anything like my students from the last couple of years, they would kill me if I didn’t ask this final question.

What are a few great MG books that you have read lately that you think young readers should try?

I adore Linda Urban’s writing. Her newest, Hound Dog True, is Urban at her finest. She writes with such focus on the human spirit and the imperfections of characters. She makes us love them for their mistakes. That scene in the cloakroom involving the backpack and the girl reading “ogre” is an all-time classic for me.

I adore the Alvin Ho books by Lenore Look. I realize I’m sounding like a broken record here (a broken iPod?), but I like this flawed little character so much. And the humor is spot on.

The Bink and Golly books by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGee are super fun. They are masters at characterization. And again, humor is a big bonus for me.

Thanks for visiting, Barbara! I can’t wait for everyone to read On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s.

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Be sure to check out the trailer to Mr. Mineo’s on Mr. Schu’s blog.

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Barbara wrote a lovely guest post for Nerdy Book Club today.

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