A blog about the amazing things teenagers do, about writing for teens, books for teens, and occasional forays into my world and the world of publishing.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Using the Buddy System--Japanese Students at Chinook Middle School

It's been a busy couple of days for our friends from Japan. On Monday they had their first day at Chinook Middle School, their host school for the week. Each of the 33 Japanese students has an American "buddy" that they are shadowing this week. Most of the students are shadowing their host brother or sister. The students who don't have a host brother or host sister at Chinook were assigned someone else to be their buddy. We were overwhelmed with the response from the Chinook students when we went looking for buddies. It seemed like everyone wanted to have a Japanese friend for the week.

In the end we came up with thirty-six buddies, (extra to cover for a field trip on Friday), that were eager to share their classes, their lunch break, and the rest of their school day with a new friend from Japan. Its an interesting situation on both sides. The Japanese students are trying to make their way in an unfamiliar school, with an unfamiliar language, in this great big unfamiliar country. The Chinook students are trying to navigate a normal school day with a tag-a-long who speaks little English. The Japanese students go everywhere with their buddy--from P.E., to Applied Technology, (shop class), the library, teacher's assistant assignments, band, and lunch.

It's fun to watch the exchanges between the American students and the Japanese students. One girl was laughing as she and her buddy skipped in gym class, (skipping for exercise I didn't say skipped gym class, don't get any ideas.) She smiled as she skipped by and said, "This is fun." A Japanese student named Hikari showed me a bracelet that an American student had given her. The girl was a friend Hikari's host sister, and she had taken the bracelet off her own wrist to give it to Hikari as a momento. I was also touched when I watched one of the Japanese students talking to an American student in a wheelchair and then helping that girl clear her tray. Simple generosity--something that both the American students and Japanese students have shown throughout this visit.

The Japanese students have been fully immersed in the American middle school—classroom time, craziness between classes, cafeteria food—but luckily, no homework. (Except for a nightly journal.)

The comments I've heard from the Japanese students are great. "Chinook is big", "lunch is big", (sensing a trend with the big thing here), and often, "students are nice".

Despite the language barrier, missed buses, and a bee sting, it’s been a good experience for both the students at Chinook and the Japanese kids.

We're grateful to the students at Chinook for sharing their school days with our Japanese students.

I'd like to hear some of your stories. How has it been to be a host buddy? What have you learned? If you could be an exchange student in any country for a week, where would you go?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Japanese Exchange Students--Arrival Day

I get to spend this week with 33 teenagers from Japan as a coordinator for CHI--Cultural Homestay International--a non-profit group that places exchange student groups around the world. I've been a coordinator for CHI once before with a group of Korean students. That was a great opportunity and I'm excited to get to know this group.

They arrived yesterday at 9:30 AM with brightly colored suitcases, name tags that had they had decorated with their hobbies and interests, and excited faces, (despite jet-lag and being in a foreign country). The kids range from age 12 to 16.

I was greeted immediately by a girl with a black and white hat and a big smile. She said, "Please, will you help me learn English?"

The students were eager to show me their name badges and share their hobbies. Their hobbies are the same as American teenagers--music, sports, dance, and food. I met the student who will be staying with us for the week, a 13-year-old girl named Mina. She said, "Please teach me your family rules." Mina immediately reminded me of my twelve-year-old daughter. Both are outgoing and surrounded by friends.

As we waited for the bus the Japanese students crowded around and asked me how to pronounce the names in their host families so they could make a good impression.

After the bus arrived, we rode to Chinook Middle School in Lacey, Washington. Chinook will be the students' base for the week that they are here. We piled the suitcases in the corner and sat down for an orientation. The host families came and stood outside the glass doors, excited to meet their students, while we finished our orientation. It took longer than the English version because it was repeated in English and Japanese, but the families were patient.

Finally we let them in and the families met their student. I love that moment--shy smiles, hand shakes, introductions--two cultures coming together, learning that we really aren't that different. Our welcome party included a potluck dinner and clowns (members of one of the host families) to break the ice. Soon we had balloon sword fights between American and Japanese kids, shared flower hats, and various balloon animals floating around the room.

We ate and learned to communicate with varying degrees of English, hand gestures, smiles, and especially laughter. During the meal I learned that Japanese pizzas are a lot smaller than American pizzas and American cookies are very sweet compared to the cookies in Japan. I also learned how quickly teenagers can become friends, even across international boundaries.

In the twenty-four hours that Mina has spent with our family, I have learned that everything in America is big compared to Japan. Besides the pizza, our family is big, our house is big, our yard is big, even the pancake mix and bottle of syrup are big. (Okay, we buy a lot of things at Costco. We'll have to take her on a trip to Costco while she's here.)

Through YouTube Mina introduced us to Full Metal Alchemist, her favorite television show. We introduced her to the Kid's Choice Awards on Nickelodeon (including Taylor Lautner and Justin Bieber--whoa! She did know what Twilight was.) Mina taught us Japanese words and practiced her English. We showed her our swing-set and trampoline. She got to meet our pets, a dog, a hamster, a guinea pig, and a tortoise--she loved all of them, even brought a Japanese doggy sucker for our dog Tosha.

I was touched with a letter that Mina's father had written. He expressed his gratitude to us for taking care of Mina and apologized humbly for his poor grammar and handwriting, although both were exceptional. My sons loved the Pokemon cards and tracing books that Mina brought, my daughter adored a pair of toe-socks, and I was impressed and touched by two pairs of homemade slippers from Mina's grandmother.

Today she went with us to church. She got a little taste of our beliefs and a big taste of what it's like to have a sister and three brothers. (My kids held back the sibling rivalry until about twently minutes after Mina got here.) Luckily, she fits right in, even if she is an only child.

I'm looking forward to a week of learning and friendship as I interact with the Japanese students and the students at Chinook Middle School. It will be so fun to watch the international friendships develop. Twenty-four hours into this, I'm already dreading the moment when we all
have to say good-bye.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Building a Bridge--Aspire Middle School

We call our festival "The Bridge Project," for tonight we build a bridge, not with traditional materials, but with our creativity, our talents, and our skills. We build this bridge connecting our community to the peoples of Haiti and Chile, and we invite you to join us. We hope you enjoy our music, our dance, and our stories. We also hope, with sincere appreciation, that you will consider a donation to the Red Cross for those who continue to struggle after the recent devastating earthquakes.--From "The Bridge Project" program, Aspire Middle School

As a Young Adult writer I have a tendency to look for the drama that follows teenaged life, (teenaged angst makes for great reading) but I love to hear stories about high school and middle school students reaching out and doing something good. I was excited when I heard about Aspire Middle school's Bridge Project--a festival of performing arts turned into a fundraiser for the earthquake victims in Haiti and Chile.

Aspire Middle School is a public middle school in which the emphasis is on performing arts. Aspire is nestled safely in the heart of Lacey, Washington--far away from the destruction left in the wake of the two recent earthquakes. Aspire's dance, drama, and music students were preparing for their first ever festival of the performing arts (this is Aspire's first year in existence), when the leadership class suggested that the school hold a fundraiser for the people devastated by the two earthquakes. The ideas married up and the "Bridge Project" was born. The students had already spent months preparing for the festival, but when the "Bridge Project" was introduced, the rehearsals took on more meaning.

The Bridge Project ran for three days, March 18th, 19th, and 20th. The performances ranged from dance to drama, from tap to swing, from pop to classic. The band played Bach and the theme from Halo (the popular video game). The drama students shared folk tales from around the world. The orchestra wore sunglasses for the "Banana Slug Blues". Three mulit-legged, wild-socked, "Furry Lees" danced while two other students played Beethoven's "Fur Elise" on the piano. The choir sang and danced to "Jump Jive and Wail". Soloists ranged from award-winning tap performances, to ballet, to a song written and performed by one of the students and her father.

When it was over, the audience had been well entertained and the Bridge Project had raised $700 for the Red Cross relief effort. More than that, the Aspire performers had shared their talents with their own community and built a bridge to two communities who were in need.

Chris Traber, the drama and dance teacher at Aspire organized The Bridge Project. She said, "It is my hope that the festival becomes an annual event, each year creating a new bridge connecting our Aspire community to others who are in need."

Congratulations to the many Aspire students and teachers who participated in the Bridge Project. It was a great success and I hope that it continues for many years to come.

What do you think of Aspire's Bridge Project? What other projects have you heard about or participated in where high school and middle school students did something to help out those in need?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Oh the Drama--Chinook Middle School Presents Aladdin

Through my video work I get the opportunity to see a lot of plays. My favorites are the ones put on by high schools, middle schools, and even grade schools. I love to watch a production come together, but even more than that I love to see the cast come together, learn to work with each other, and develop friendships.

This week I got to watch students from Chinook Middle School in Lacey, Washington, rehearse Disney’s Aladdin Jr. Aladdin Jr. is the story of an Arabian street boy, Aladdin, who discovers a magic lamp. A quick rub of the lamp and a genie appears, complete with a song and dance number, three wishes, and the answer to all of his problems, (or so he thinks), including how to get close to his romantic interest, Princess Jasmine. But Aladdin has bigger problems then keeping his "street rat" identity a secret. The evil Grand Vizier, Jafar is bent on taking over the kingdom and marrying Princess Jasmine. The plot moves along with the help of the genie, a sultan, some bumbling guards, a magic carpet, and a host of villagers. The show is close to Disney's animated film version and has most of the same songs.

Watching the students work on Aladdin was especially fun for me because I saw this play performed about six times this summer through Bretschneider and Kirkwood Musical Production's summer theater project. The script is the same, the directors are the same, and even some of the actors and actresses are the same. With all of these similarities it’s still a unique interpretation of the story. Actually, the differences are what make it fun.

For example, in the summer production, Iago, the parrot, was played by a girl. She played this sidekick role as kind of a smart “eye-candy” (her mother’s term, not mine)--the beautiful woman who’s always associated with bad guys in the movies. This time around, Iago is a boy, played by Kadin Hyatt (who’s former stage credits include a troll in Three Billy Goat’s Gruff). He’s more of a wise-cracking, little-guy know-it-all. Kaydin says, “The funnest part of the being a parrot is acting like a bird. “Actually, that’s the hardest part too.”

Another interesting twist is the hero turned villain, Daniel Roe. Daniel was Aladdin this summer, but in this version he's playing Jafar. Daniel says, "Playing Aladdin was great, but I like playing the villain better because I get to put more into it and the performance is bigger."

As with most productions, (middle school or not), a lot of the drama in this play took place back stage. When the original Aladdin had too many conflicts, Connor Hawthorne was asked to step into the role at the last minute. He says, "It's exciting to play Aladdin because its a big responsibility. I was worried about learning the part, but it was easier than I thought it would be."

Aladdin is full of great music, quirky humor, and of course, magic.

Performances are Friday, March 12th and Saturday March 13th at 7:00. The performances are at the Koval Center for the Performing Arts on 600 Sleater Kinney Road NE Lacey. (Next to North Thurston high school). Tickets are $5.00 per person or $20 for a family.

This play is a fun family night and out and a great way to support the artistic talents from Chinook Middle School.

The photos featured in this post are courtesy of Ami J. Davenport at A Day to Remember Photography.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Trailer Gone Wild

As a post-script to my blog about book trailers I'd like you to take a look at what a book trailer could be (provided the author has $30,000-$50,000 minimum, to spend on a trailer). This is a trailer for Rules of Attraction by Simone Elkeles. Kudos to Simone and the production studio. This is truly awesome.

HOWEVER something like this is not practical for most authors, and (disclaimer here--I have not read this book or the first one in this series) I would worry that the trailer would eclipse the book itself. (No, I'm not bitter that I don't have a full camera crew, location scout, Hollywood actors, and the host of extra hands that went into making this trailer.)

So what do you think of this trailer? Is it too much, or is it what a generation raised on high quality, big budget, special effects stuffed productions expects to see?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Kirby Larson Comes to Town

Last week I met Kirby Larson, an author who is (in my humble opinion) a master of the art of storytelling. Kirby came to visit my kids’ school. She got down on a personal level with them by sharing experiences from her childhood as well as the experiences she had writing her books. My favorite moment came after she signed my son’s book. He said in his shy, halting, little voice, “Thank you Kirby Larson,” and she answered back “You’re welcome Zach Wolf.”

As a writer I drank in her personal experiences and advice about what it takes to be an author (persistence, rewriting, persistence, rewriting, and did I mention persistence?). But what I was most impressed with was the stories she chooses to tell.

In her book TWO BOBBIES (co-authored with Mary Nethery), Kirby tells the true story of a dog and a cat lost in post-Katrina New Orleans and how they relied on each other to survive. In NUBS, THE TRUE STORY OF A MUTT, A MARINE, AND A MIRACLE, (also co-authored with Mary Nethery) we see how a dog of war lifted the spirits and stole the hearts of a group of Marines in Iraq and the incredible lengths that Nubs and the soldiers went to so they could stay together. I would recommend these two books to anyone. They are picture books, but I don’t care how old you are. I have a hard time reading either of them without getting choked up.

I also enjoyed, HATTIE BIG SKY, Kirby Larson’s 2007 Newbery Honor book. While this book isn't a true story, it is based on the experiences of one of Kirby’s relatives. I laughed and cried with Hattie through her battles with the weather, crops, the young and dashing rancher who lived (relatively) next door, and a cantankerous cow. (That part of the story I could totally relate to. I had to milk cows on my grandpa’s farm when I was a teenager—trust me, any bad words you say to a cow are completely forgivable).

These three books show how an author can bring bits and pieces, images, and family stories together to touch the lives of the people who read them.

Thank you Kirby for writing inspiring stories, for taking the time to inspire the students at my sons’ school (and me), and for forgiving me for spelling your name wrong in Ann's book trailer. (Note to everyone, double-check the spelling of any award-winning authors you might end up meeting.)

I want to know... What books have touched you and why? What is it about the story that stayed with you?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wolf Trailers

Yesterday while I celebrated the launch of my little blog, (I treated myself to a licorice tea between laundry loads), my mentor, sounding board, crying shoulder, and darling sister-in-law, ANGELA MORRISON, celebrated the launch of her second book, SING ME TO SLEEP. She began her official release in London, Ontario (that's Canada, not England), with the family of the boy who inspired her to write the story and with AMABILE, the amazingly talented youth choir featured in her book (and also in the book trailer, but more about that later).

I won't review SING ME TO SLEEP here except to say it's an awesome, beautiful, sweetly-sad, satisfying read. Check it out. You won't be disappointed.

I couldn't be with Angela, except in spirit, so I spent the day doing the next best thing--meeting another incredible author, KIRBY LARSON. (Kirby's visit to my kids' school will be the topic for another post.) Interestingly enough, Kirby Larsen was a writing teacher for an author named Ann Gonzalez who was my writing teachers. And that segues nicely (shameless plug alert) into another part of my life and writing I wanted to post about.

First, I have another mental health related confession to make...I see visions. Okay, before you hit the little x in the corner of this post and write me off as a nut job, let me explain. Besides being a mom/blogger/aspiring novelist I do BOOK TRAILERS. "What is a book trailer?" you might ask, or "Why do I care?" or even, "Why am I still reading this when I have homework to do, dinner to cook, or reruns on the CW to watch?"

For those of you that are scratching your head (and not reaching for the mouse and/or the remote control) I'll enlighten you. A book trailer is a lot like a movie trailer--showing you all the best parts, ruining the best jokes, making the plot look way more interesting than it usually is. (Oh, wait, that’s movie trailers. A book trailer would never do that.)

Simply, a book trailer is a short video that introduces and promotes a book. Do a search on "book trailer" on YouTube and you'll find a bunch of them. They're all the rage. Seriously. Go look. I'll wait...

Saw a few? Any good ones? Okay, back to me. Since I have a degree in broadcasting, doing a book trailer seemed like a natural way to help my friend and writing teacher, Ann Gonzalez, promote her book. And hence I started to see visions--visions of what scene would pique a reader's interest and best sum up the book, and visions of how I could use book trailers to further my own writing career. (I know I promised this wouldn't all be about me, but I am writing this, so I get a few shameless plugs, right?)

So with way more fanfare than necessary, I introduce another part of my life...MY BOOK TRAILERS. The first is for RUNNING FOR MY LIFE, by ANN GONZALEZ--a story about a girl dealing with her mother's metal illness. The second is for THE RING by BOBBIE PYRON, about a girl boxer, (I got to hang out with some very tough girls at the Tacoma Boxing Club for that one.) And the third is for SING ME TO SLEEP by ANGELA MORRISON, it features a beautiful song written by Angela and sung by the real Amabile choir. (See how I tied everything back to Angela and the beginning of this post? Nice circular plotting on my part.)

My trailers are at jen18wolf on YouTube.

Later, I'll post the entire first scene from SING ME TO SLEEP, the way I shot it. I couldn't fit the whole scene into a two minute trailer.

Now that you've watched my trailers, (and a bunch from YouTube), I’d like to know...what do you love or hate in a book trailer? (Feel free to be kind/brutal with mine.) Do they give a good idea of what the book is about? Do you think they're a good way to promote a book?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Hello... do you hear the echo? Digital letters bouncing off digital components and sailing off into the emptiness of cyberspace. Starting a blog is kind of a lonely thing. Putting your words out there for the world and then... waiting... is anybody out there?

The question that all of you (all two of you, hi Mom) must be asking yourself is who is this person and what possessed her at 11:22 on an idle Wednesday (March 3rd, 2010 to be exact) to put her voice out to the world?

Well to begin with (since this IS entitled beginnings) I have to make a confession. I hear voices. All the time. Constantly. Really. Somewhere in the crowded confines of my brain, between my shopping list, a host of useless 80s lyrics, and what time soccer practice is tonight, I have a whole community of characters. All vying for a piece of my brain. All trying to talk to me at once. All trying to tell me their stories.

Okay so if you've stayed with me this far, (hi Hon) you're probably wondering why you should care about my slight mental imbalance.

Be patient, I'm getting to that part but that requires another confession...

I'm an aspiring novelist, (aspiring, pre-published, hopeful, delusional, take your pick). After trying for a year to get my community of characters out of my brain and into the real world I've decided I need a new forum to share them with you. (Yes you, that sweet, open emptiness of cyberspace soon to be filled with my adoring fans.)

But this blog is not all about me, or even about the voices in my head. Because that would be BORING and SELF-CENTERED and I'd probably be better off writing this all down in my illegible handwriting and shoving it in a drawer. Or better yet, I could wash the dishes, do laundry, vacuum, or pick up my kids from soccer practice (or football, or piano, or scouts depending on the day).

This blog is about YOU. Specifically the teenaged and young adult YOUS. Why? Because the majority of the voices in my head are teenagers. Because I look back on high school as a crazy, wonderful, mixed up, fascinating part of my life. Because I find myself suddenly given the INSANE task of raising teenagers. Particularly insane because in my mind I'm still a teenaged kid only now I have a mortgage, an SUV, and four little people who look to me for (yikes!) guidance, protection, and unconditional love. Because suddenly all of those horrible things I said to my parents are being spouted back to me. But mostly because if I close my eyes I can still remember the tingly feeling of my first kiss in the parking lot of our rival high school (yes, I still remember Rob, and thank you). I can still remember horrible sinking loneliness and feeling like I'd never belong. I can still remember long talks with the best friends in the world. And I can still remember the free exhilaration of jumping off a bridge into the river on the hottest day of summer.

So this blog is for all of the teenagers (and former teenagers) out there. Those who like to read. Those who like to write. Those who have a story to tell. Those who are looking for a story that will tell them something.

Is that all vague and warm and fuzzy enough for you? Is it just a whole lot of words that don't tell you much about me or what I'm trying to accomplish with this blog?

Shh. Listen. This is just the beginning.