New graphic novels workshop for high school students and adults


Jess Hagemann is an award-winning author and accomplished biographer. She owns and operates Austin’s premier ghostwriting service, Cider Spoon Stories, through which she helps seniors, veterans, small business owners, and others write their life stories as books. She’s helping us celebrate National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo) with this guest post about her upcoming workshop, Graphic Novels and Novel Graphics.

I was six years old when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992. Protected in my little corner of Kansas, I watched Sesame Street, not the news. I didn’t know that 100,000 people were dying in this artificial conflict, the result of one group of people asking for their independence, and another group of people deciding they had no right to live at all. The largest European instance of ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust didn’t end for three bloody years. By then I’d graduated from PBS to MTV: a rapid coming-of-age that left me wise to the ways of pop culture—but not the politics to which pop culture responds.

It wasn’t until college that I read Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, a graphic novel published in 2000 that recalls the journalist-author’s four months spent in the middle of the conflict. Based on the stories of several Bosniaks that Sacco interviewed in Gorazde between 1994 and 1995, the extent of the violence is revealed through a series of graphic vignettes and black-and-white illustrations more powerful than any photo essay. I learned then what it means for an author to give voice to the voiceless. For an artist to render truths we couldn’t otherwise have known. For trauma victims to share their stories, and finally be heard.

This eventually led me to start Cider Spoon Stories, a ghostwriting and editing service, in 2014. Ghostwriting means that if you have a story to share, but don’t have the time or confidence to write it down, you’ll tell it to me, I’ll write it for you, and you get the credit. It’s just that important to me that firsthand experiences and critical truths be disseminated.

When I’m not writing, I’m teaching other people to write. This month, the topic is (naturally) graphic novels. On Saturday, November 18, we'll be discussing Lynda Barry, Marjorie Satrapi, Mat Johnson, Mark Danielewski, Chris Ware, Tom Phillips, Sophie Calle, and more. We'll look at how they use illustration, obfuscation, and found objects—all layered with (or revealing) text—to create beautiful, whimsical, or disturbing stories—some for the social good, some for the sake of telling a dang good tale.

If you want to learn to create engaging, active characters; develop coherent narrative around those characters; write detailed, scene-by-scene story outlines; and script through page breaks and panel descriptions, register here. The class is appropriate for ages 16+.

Jess Hagemann

You’re never too young for your first draft: A roundup of resources for kids who write

As National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, gets into full swing this week, I thought it might be nice to review some of the options out there for kids who love to create lots of words—poetry, short stories, nonfiction, and yes . . . novels! I’m reminded every day that we live in a sort of golden age for young makers of all kinds, including writers. Kids can create their own blogs for free, and even produce books for their friends and family almost for free. They can review books and share their own work via YouTube, Facebook, Wattpad, and other social channels for creators.


Last year we talked about the Austin Public Library Foundation’s Badgerdog writing program, and we really can’t recommend those folks highly enough for their amazing summer workshops and other events throughout the year. This month, the library is holding NaNoWriMo workshops on Wednesday evenings at the drop-dead gorgeous new Central Library, and for younger kids, they’re sponsoring a songwriting workshop on Saturday, November 11, at Twin Oaks Branch Library. Details about both are here.


As for the elephant in a room of its own: the nonprofit Young Writers Program (YWP) is sponsored by the folks who bring the world NaNoWriMo every year. Kids and teens set their own writing goals, often along with a teacher or mentor. Some ambitious young writers over 13 choose to join the adult NaNo community and shoot for the full 50,000-word goal. Both kids and teachers have plenty of tools available, including workbooks that help with character building and plotting, prompts, and community events. Author superstars, including John Green, Daniel José Older, and Jenny Haan provide inspiring pep talks.

When I was looking for an example of a young writer who embraces the spirit of NaNo, Alice Sudlow, an editor at a writer-enabling enterprise called The Write Practice, suggested I check out a 17-year-old writer and super-reader who goes by the name of The Magic Violinist. A homeschooled dynamo, she and her family do NaNoWriMo together every year, and she has written novels, short stories, and hundreds of blog posts about writing and reading. In fact, she just wrote a post to help people find extra time for writing during November. And for skeptics, she explained 4 Reasons NaNoWriMo is Great for Writers. For kids who may feel isolated in the lonely endeavor of putting words on a page, The Magic Violinist praises the community created by NaNo:

Some of my best blogging friends have come from NaNoWriMo, and we keep in touch to this day. It’s hard to go into something like this alone, especially if it’s your first year.

When you sign up, if you sign up, poke around the forums for people who are attempting this for the first time. Strike up a conversation, ask the experts for advice. They’re more than happy to help a newbie out.

The amazing 826 Project is a national nonprofit that celebrates “the power of young voices, the possibility in their ideas, and the value of their words.” Long a community-based project with groups in seven big cities, 826 is affiliated with Austin Bat Cave but does not have an official presence in Austin. We talked about the valuable programs Austin Bat Cave provides for young Austin writers earlier this year, and we encourage everyone to check them out. In addition, the 826 Project recently added a rich digital component to reach more kids, parents, and communities—and this may be especially helpful for homeschooling parents or parents who want to supplement their kids’ school experience with more writing opportunities.  

Calling All Young Writers.png

The 826 digital site requires a sign-up and asks for a donation (which you can skip if you’re just looking around and exploring). I like the fact that it includes a variety of skill-building activities that are grouped by age and also by type of writing (informational, persuasive, poetry, etc.). There are lessons built around particular topics and genres and examples of student writing to inspire kids from age 7 or 8 through the teens. For example, Alexa Torres, a  Detroit fourth-grader, shared a poem about pizza that she wrote in English and in Spanish:


Smells like melted mozzarella cheese.
dripping on the side of the plate.

The pepperoni smells like spicy wasabi.
I can see pepperoni faces that are happy,
and the cheese looks shiny,
the dough peeking out the side.
The crust looks like crazy bread, and it
looks like a long snake.
On my tongue, it feels hot like chips from
the fryer.
When I chew, it sounds like mushy
Tomatoes, squish, squish.
When I eat five pieces, I feel as happy as
when I get presents from Santa.
The pizza feels heavy from the toppings,
and the cheese is like a gray tiny rock.


Huele como queso derretido de mozzarella
goteando de un lado del plato.
El pepperoni huele como wasabi picoso.
Yo puedo ver caras de pepperoni que están
Felices y el queso se ve brilloso,
la masa asomándose del lado.
El borde parece pan loco y como una serpiente
En mi lengua se siente caliente como papas
recién sacadas del sartén.
Cuando lo mastico sueno como tomates
pulposos, squish, squish.
Cuando me como cinco pedazos, me siento tan
feliz como cuando recibo regalos de santa.
La pizza me cae pesada de todos los toppings, y
el queso coma una roca pequeña color gris.

Writer and editor Maya Rushing Walker and her daughter, young writer Allegra Walker, recently appeared on a podcast called Mom Writes, talking about their experience writing novels together and independently. Allegra, who is now 15, has written several novels during NaNoWriMo, the first in elementary school. Allegra is thinking of self-publishing some of her work and is in the process of revising a novel. She publishes now through the Wattpad platform and has a following of devoted readers. The podcast discussion provides an interesting user’s view of Wattpad’s pros and cons. Maya cautions parents to “take a look around” before suggesting Wattpad to their kids, and to understand exactly what’s on the platform. And Allegra talks about comments sections, reassuring listeners that negative comments are rare or nonexistent in her experience:

You can comment quite a lot on people’s individual chapters. . . . The people who bother to comment are the ones who love it. . . . If you don’t love it, you’re probably not going to say anything.

Another recent episode of Mom Writes discussed how young writers can use fanfiction to improve and distribute their writing. The guest was Michelle Hazen, who advocates for the creative power of fanfiction.

Go Teen Writers is a blog (plus Facebook community) that offers teens helpful tips, general encouragement, and a way to share ideas. It’s run by three published authors and writing coaches who clearly enjoy connecting with young people. They’ve written a book, also called Go Teen Writers, about how teens can go from first draft to published book.

Are your kids in search of real-life instead of online comrades for their writing adventure? In Austin, Recycled Reads Bookstore, which is affiliated with the public library, holds “write-in” events on Saturdays and welcome kids, teens, and adults for a little community and discussion after the writing is done. So pack up your crayons, pencils, or laptop, and let’s go write!

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Nurturing young writers and entrepreneurs through NaNoWriMo

Staffmembers at The Joule School in Cedar Park, just north of Austin, join us on the blog today to explain the school’s approach to National Novel Writing Month and the ways it has changed how its young students view writing, entrepreneurship, and themselves.

When first-grader Ripley Martinez walked into a school assembly, she had no idea she would soon be showered in cash. Within 30 minutes, she was jumping up and down with joy as $76—all her own—rained down around her onto the floor.

Ripley celebrates her writing and entrepreneurial achievements at The Joule School’s NaNoWriMo kickoff

Ripley celebrates her writing and entrepreneurial achievements at The Joule School’s NaNoWriMo kickoff

That's how much Ripley made selling her novel since last November. You read that correctly: a 5-year-old had written and marketed her own book. Even more impressive, Ripley’s book, Lollipop Girl in a Lollipop World, had just broken the school’s record for number of copies sold. She was surrounded by cheering classmates engulfing her with hugs, and her teacher was crying with pride.

The Joule School, a progressive K–8th private school in Cedar Park, participates each year in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Young Writers Program. You might be familiar with the adult competition, in which anyone can attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. The NaNoWriMo organization offers suggested word-count goals and a certificate for grade-school students who complete a modified version of the competition.

The Joule School does NaNoWriMo in a big way. First, it raises the bar—increasing the word count minimum for their students by up to 3,000 words per grade level. Suggested word-count goals for Kindergarten, when Ripley wrote her book, range from 20 to 200 words, but she was encouraged to hit 500. (This is equivalent to the “advanced” category for second-grade students in the national program.) If students rise to the challenge, Joule celebrates by arranging to have their hard work published and placed for sale on Amazon. Then, at the beginning of every November, authors from the previous year are recognized at an awards ceremony and handed cold, hard cash—their royalties from a year’s worth of online sales.

Of course, merely placing the book on Amazon doesn’t sell copies. Ripley publicized her book all over Austin, wherever she went. Her mother reported, “I went to get my oil changed and stepped outside for a few seconds. When I came back, Ripley was encouraging the receptionist to buy her novel.” (She even went behind the desk and pulled up the link to make the checkout process easier!) Her sales pitch was simple: “Can you please buy my book? It’s on sale on Amazon if you look up ‘Ripley Martinez.’” Determination and a dash of innate childlike charm did the trick, and now Ripley has 76 more bucks to spend on “Hatchimals, LOL Dolls, and . . . more books.”

Ripley’s novel is about “a candy girl adventuring and finding her friends,” according to the young author. When asked where she derived her inspiration, she said simply, “Candy.” (A glimpse into the mysterious creative processes of a visionary.) Her teacher, Meredith Allen, said Ripley was encouraged by meeting—and then exceeding—her incremental word-count goals. All over the school, individual floor-to-ceiling progress trackers (similar to a fundraising thermometer) were plastered on the walls. At the end of each day, Ms. Allen would type up her students’ handwritten work and let them check their totals. (Incidentally, this is not unlike Margaret Atwood’s writing process.) She says the students felt gratified when they used the word-count tool to see how much they had accomplished each day. It quantifies their success in a way that is readily accessible to them.

Students’ published works on display at The Joule School

Students’ published works on display at The Joule School

The Joule School’s approach to NaNoWriMo develops more than just literacy skills. As the students complete the process, they learn about gross versus net income, active versus passive income, marketing, and other elements of entrepreneurship. The entire student body, from three-year-olds to eighth-graders about to matriculate to high school, can opt in. Ripley’s novel grossed $285 in 12 months, but she knew she would have to pay publishing costs and taxes. She also knew that the money she would get on November 1st was all her own, free and clear. What better way to teach a young child about net profit?

More importantly, however, students at The Joule School associate joy, achievement, and success with the act of writing—something that can be a hard sell in the elementary grades. “I’ve seen kids go from reluctant writers to enthusiastic just by completing one round of NaNoWriMo,” said Madison McWilliams, the school’s founder and principal. “You see their whole attitude change—it’s suddenly I CAN do this. Once they start believing in themselves, we can roll that over to the classroom. Suddenly the kid who wasn’t such a huge fan of writing is the most attentive student in Language Arts.”

These days, Ripley often chooses her own book to read as her bedtime story. In doing so, she generates new ideas and thinks of ways she could improve her writing. One year later, she’s decided to tackle a more complex subject: this November, she’s working on a rags-to-riches tale of redemption about a young girl living in poverty. Soon, you’ll see it on Amazon. Soon, you might just see a young girl around town asking you to buy her second book.

The Joule School staff

Time to get your story-loving kids on board for NaNoWriMo!

We WRITE, practicing the arts of storytelling and poetry. We SHARE—reading our own work aloud in the classroom, performing in public, or having work published; sharing brings writers in contact with readers, helping build literary communities in our own backyards.

—The Badgerdog writing program of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation


For most of us, November 1st means digging a few sweaters and sweatshirts out of the back of the closet, ramping up the panic as Thanksgiving’s culinary pressures approach, and enjoying the sights, sounds, and tastes of peak autumn. But for a certain group of word nerds, November 1st means one thing above all: It’s time to begin the NaNoWriMo marathon and not look up from the notebook or keyboard until midnight, November 30th.

NaNoWriMo, an acronym for National Novel Writing Month, is an international writing challenge community that started as a tiny idea in 1999 in San Francisco and eventually turned into a nonprofit in 2005. Today, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe participate by signing up online and pledging to write the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. If you make that goal, you “win” NaNo, but even if you don’t reach the word mark, participants get a great sense of camaraderie and accomplishment just from process.


For young people, there is a special community, called the Young Writers Program, where kids of all ages can join in the challenge with their teachers and parents. In 2015, more than 80,000 students and educators took part, not counting the teens who participated, as many do, in the main NaNo community. Kids generally set their own word limits, and aren’t bound, of course, by the 50,000 goal, which is about the length of The Great Gatsby. For a little taste of the excitement involved in plotting, world building, and sharing stories, take a look at some of the many videos created by past teen participants by searching “NaNoWriMo2016” on YouTube.

In Austin, the place for young writers to learn more about the NaNoWriMo experience is at the Austin Public Library. At Faulk Central Library, kids ages 10 and older are invited to attend a NaNoWriMo kickoff Tuesday, November 1, at 5:30 p.m. called “What’s Your Story.” This will be followed by “Keep It Up,” a meeting halfway into the month, on November 15. At the end of the intense and fabulous month there will be a celebratory meeting on December 1, when kids can talk about their experiences, learn a little about how to revise the first draft they have created, and even share their work.

In addition to the library activities, if you have girls in 3rd through 8th grade who are aspiring writers, they may be interested in a couple of workshops happening on Saturday, November 5, as part of the We Are Girls TX conference. Here’s the schedule.

The NaNoWriMo activities at the library are sponsored by the Badgerdog writing program, which operates year-round and sponsors spring break and summer writing workshops for elementary, middle, and high school kids all over Austin.

Cecily Sailer, Programs Manager for the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, says her best advice is that kids of all ages should have fun with NaNoWriMo and set their own, personal goals. “If you spend November writing a little more than normal, you win!” says Cecily. “And make sure to talk about what you’re creating with someone else—take it outside the keyboard or notebook and into the world.”

Follow the Library Foundation on Facebook for updates about this program, and definitely check out the Unbound blog, which features writing and artwork by students!

Need more inspiration?

Shelley Sperry