Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook
By Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter
Illustrated by Matt Phelan
Roaring Brook Press (a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing)
On shelves now
I was child writer. Which is to say, I was one of those kids who wrote endless stories between the ages of nine and fourteen or so. Of these stories, I finished only one. And I remember taking a writing class over a summer once that I enjoyed, but otherwise I didn’t have a lot of direction when it came to my writing. I dabbled a bit in high school, but for the most part my creative side floundered for many years before getting a bit of a revivification in adulthood. So it’s impossible for me not to wonder how all of that might have been different had I encountered a book like Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook as a child. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t anything like Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter’s book back in the 80s or 90s. For that matter, there hasn’t been much like it in the 2000s or 2010s! Mazer and Potter have essentially come up with a juvenile-friendly version of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I don’t invoke that standard of inspirational writing lightly when I compare it to this book, either. Though there might be the occasional detail I’d expand upon or move about in this title, for the most part Spilling Ink is the perfect book (or gift, for that matter) for any child who dabbles in putting their words in other people’s heads.
Kids may know author Anne Mazer best from her [title: The Amazing Days of Abby Hayes] series. Ellen Potter, on the other hand, is better known for the Olivia Kidney series or her individual books like SLOB. Now these two authors have joined forces to provide their young readers and incipient writers with a bit of guidance. Spilling Ink: A Young Writer’s Handbook splits into three neat and tidy sections: “Part I: Ready, Set, Go!”, “Part II: Crafting Your Story”, and “Part III: The Writer’s Brain”. Within those sections, the authors discuss everything from voice and revision to writer’s block and writing partners. The result is an exhaustive but not exhausting series of practical points of advice for kids interested in becoming that most glorious of occupations: writers.
Mazer and Potter work as well as they do together partly because their written voices meld well and partly because they consistently make good points. For example, right from the start they make it clear that in your book the main character is going to have to want something. I can’t tell you how many published children’s books I read where the characters noodle about, not wanting anything in particular while interesting things happen to them. Some adult writers could benefit from the advice in this story, I think. Another good point is made about making sure your title matches your text. You don’t want a funny title on a serious book, after all. “If your story is dark and grim and your title is funny, your readers are going to expect a few chuckles. People hate to not chuckle when they are all set to chuckle. It’s like holding up your hand for a high five and not getting one.”
The usual groundwork is covered in this story, but there are also some unique choices as well. For one thing, I was surprised to see that Potter and Mazer include an entire section to the art of writing picture books. It would never occur to me that a child writer would want to write a picture book, but why not? I bet some of them would enjoy it. Around the time Anne brought up what it was like to write a series, though, I was intrigued. It seems as if the authors here are making a point of not talking down to their child readers. They’re treating them like real writers, and bringing up the areas they themselves know best. I noticed that they didn’t discuss what it was like to write a graphic novel or a nonfiction title, but that probably has as much to do with the fact that the authors haven’t traipsed all that often into those worlds as it does with the fact that this is really a book about straight up fiction writing. Nonfiction and GNs are a whole different ballgame (though you can hand a kid Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles Into Comics if they really want to know how to do it).
There were three things in this book that really set it apart from the usual writing advice stock out there. After all, advice is not inherently fun. You need to spice up your text a bit, even if everything you say is good, sane, and healthy. To combat the potential snoritude of the book were the fiction examples, the “I DARE YOU” exercises, and the illustrations. I will explain. Often when going over the finer points of constructing a strong story, Mazer and Potter would write little fictional sections to include as examples. My favorite of these, bar none, were the sections discussing the made up tale of “Boris the Bullet Boy”. Potter uses this story to explain where a person might want to begin a story. She does an excellent job of it, to the point where the reader really does want to know more about Boris and his puny little head. The “I DARE YOU” exercises appear as separate portions dotted throughout the text. They’re not strict assignments, more lures to get kids writing. By saying “I DARE YOU” the authors are encouraging kids to write on their own, not forcing them into doing one thing or another. Of course, once this book starts getting handed out in Creative Writing classes, then those suggestions will actually become assignments. Ah well. As for the third part, Matt Phelan was the artist asked to create small interstitial illustrations to complement the text. He does a good job of it too. There are really only so many ways to show kids writing or thinking about writing, or excited about writing. He seems to have meticulously covered each and every one. He even illustrates some of the side stories (like the aforementioned Boris).
Now, there is one way in which kids today write that I wish the authors had touched upon just a little bit more. Fanfiction. For a lot of kids today, that’s how they start writing. The closest the authors come to mentioning Fanfiction is in Section 6: Blackberries, Raspberries, and Story Ideas, where they suggest at one point, “If you can’t get any ideas at all, you can build on other people’s ideas . . . You can also take a favorite character and write a story about him or her. This is different from copying someone else’s words. We all can and should be inspired by other people’s work.” Amen to that. Now the way in which most kids do this, and then show off their work, are through various Fanfiction websites. Should Mazer and Potter have mentioned this fact? Maybe warned kids away from sites where the Fanfiction is a tad, uh, adult for their tastes? It probably couldn’t have hurt.
I think again about when I was a child writer and I wonder, “Would I have wanted this book back then? Would I have read it? And if I had read it, how would I have read it?” Knowing me, I probably would have skimmed the book for the parts that really interested me. Maybe I would have gone to all the “I DARE YOU” sections and done those exercises. Maybe I would have gone from the back of the book and read forwards. Part of what I like about Mazer and Potter’s work here is that the book is infinitely flexible in this way. There will be a certain breed of child reader who will feel that it is necessary to start at the beginning of the book and to read it from cover to cover. But knowing children (and heck, knowing writers) a lot of them will use the book for skimming and browsing. They’ll find what they need, use it, then come back to find another little tidbit of what they need. And that’s an okay way of reading too. No matter how they come to it or read it, though, Spilling Ink is pretty much one the best young writer’s handbooks of its kind I’ve ever seen. Inspiration can come from a lot of places. Now a lot of inspiration can come from a single place. A necessary purchase.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: These days if you want to sell a book to both boys and girls equally, try making the cover of your book black and yellow. I don’t actually have any proof that this is the reasoning behind such color choices as The Water Seeker or Countdown by Deborah Wiles but it’s not a bad notion, is it? Plus I love how Phelan has turned the ink into a simultaneous thought bubble and made the background yellow lined paper. The color choices here make perfect sense, and the jacket is striking as a result. Beautiful.
- Book Aunt
- Ghost Medicine
- Two Writing Teachers
- The Reading Zone
- Reading Countess
- teen books (and beyond) blog
- Kitten’s Purring
- Kids Lit
- Just Ellen at Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup
- It’s Non-Fiction Monday. Head over to the Simply Science Blog for the round-up.
- It would be a useful thing to note that this book has its very own blog called the Creativity Blog where other children’s writers talk about writing and process and all that good stuff. There is a teacher’s kit and some free downloads for kids. I’m also fond of their Inspiration Library.
- Ellen Potter talks a bit about the idea behind the book on the MacKids blog.
- Matt Phelan talks about his own creative process.
- Anne Mazer talks at Hunger Mountain about My Mother, the Writer.
- And here’s an article in the Pasadena Star about Anne Mazer’s trip to a class of students in conjunction with this book.