Story Book Game….and much more!

Story Book GameFive Below comes through again!  The Story Book Game is a tin full of picture cards that can be used for telling stories.  You know how it goes:  pick a card, use the object in a sentence; the next player picks another card and adds to the story with that word.  This is fun for verbal narrative, and can also be used for written narrative.  But why stop there?

With students who need phonological awareness practice, use the cards for identifying initial and final sounds, sound blending, and counting syllables.

With language students, use the cards for naming, categorizing, describing, and comparing.  Name 3 in the array and ask the students to identify how they are related.  Give the student a question word and a picture card for practice in generating questions.

For auditory processing, spread the cards on the table and give descriptive clues.  Name 3-4 cards in row; have the students repeat back in sequence.

Of course, your artic, fluency, and voice students can benefit from any of these activities.

That’s a lot of therapy for just $5!

UPDDATE 4/25/15:  I just found another use!  I’m working with a little girl who is learning to use TouchChat HD with Word Power on an iPad for communication.  These cards were great for “going on a hunt” for vocabulary!  She looked at the card, hit “groups” to open the categories, then we figured out the correct category and found the word.  She loved it…and learned a lot about vocabulary organization on her device in the process!

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Becoming a Children’s Author, Part 1: Deep Roots and Inspiration

I have always been a writer at heart.  I won a prize for a poem I wrote about a kangaroo in first grade.  I loved diagramming sentences (a lost art today, alas!).  I read everything I could get my hands on.  And I attacked every writing assignment in English with passion.  My junior year Advanced English thesis was on the relationship between the libretto and musical motifs in Handel’s “The Messiah,” complete with footnotes and graphic examples;  oh, what I could’ve done with this theme on Prezi!  My teacher didn’t know a thing about music, but he gave me an A+ and wrote that I should be given a B.S. in English.  I’m not sure he meant Bachelor’s of Science.

In high school, I worked as a stringer reporter and contributor to the Teen Beat section of our local newspaper, received the school’s journalism award as a senior, and flirted with the idea of journalism as a major in college.  Instead, I went into a different area of communication — speech/language pathology — but my love of writing never waned.  As an SLP, I published more than a dozen books and software programs with Mayer-Johnson Company, contributed a series of articles to “Exceptional Parent Magazine” and “Closing the Gap,” and self-published materials for SLPs on my web site, Speaking of Speech.com.  This blog is another extension of my passion for writing.

About 5 years ago, a kernel of a children’s story worked its way into my imagination.  The inspiration came from the work I do as an SLP and assistive technology specialist.  In those roles, I support students who have little or no verbal skills, and who rely on alternative and augmentative communication (AAC), from no-tech systems, such as pointing to pictures, through high-tech, multi-thousand dollar devices that generate speech output. I have worked with countless students, teachers, aides, and parents to provide a means of effective communication and a reason to use it.  I’ve taught undergrad and graduate courses in AAC, and have devoted hours of lecture time on the barriers to using AAC.  I won’t get into them here but, suffice it to say, there are many….and all too many are related to reluctance, resistance, or flat-out refusal of adults to use AAC with children who would benefit from it.  Implementing AAC and other assistive technology (AT) takes lots of time and effort, sometimes enormous amounts of both, and that can be a barrier right there.  Sometimes, people just don’t realize how life-changing AAC/AT can be for children and adults who have significant disabilities.  Demonstrating the benefits, then, was one goal of the story I wanted to write.

Another source of inspiration, and the reason I wrote the book from the perspective of classmates who don’t know how to be friends with with a girl who has multiple disabilities, came from the reason I went into speech/language pathology and specialized in AAC/AT in the first place.  My dear uncle was stricken with a progressive neurological disease; the first function to go was his ability to speak, followed by a loss of writing skills, and then a loss of facial expression.  As communication skills diminished, so did his humanity.  Family members, friends, even medical professionals (who should know better!) were unprepared to communicate with someone who couldn’t communicate back.  After a brief greeting to him, he seemed to cease to exist, as people talked around him, over him, and even about him, but not TO him.  And, sadly, this is frequently the case in other families, and in classrooms, too.  As a society, we all too often just don’t know how to communicate with people who can’t talk.  There is also the tendency to view people with disabilities as “less than,” as we focus on what they CAN’T do, rather than what they CAN do.

So, demonstrating the value of AAC/AT and telling the story from the perspective of those who feel unable to relate to people with disabilities became the story line for How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname).  I will talk more about the process of writing the book in future posts, and would be happy to answer any questions you have about my book and the process of becoming a children’s book author.  Please post your questions in the Comments section!  Check out my author site, www.patmervine.com, for more info, videos, and freebies.

Becoming a Children’s Author, Part 2: The Process Begins

Katie cover“Write about what you know.”  I took this age-old advice to heart when I first thought about writing a children’s book.  My previous post detailed the personal and professional experiences that led to the theme in “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname),” but that was just the beginning.  Characters, plot, point of view, purpose….these elements rolled around in my head for a good year.  I can’t speak for other writers, but my style is to “write” the story in my head at the oddest times–in the shower, driving, making dinner, folding laundry–but it doesn’t actually make it onto paper until it’s nearly fully formed.

Characters:  Central to the story, of course, is Katie.  To be emblematic of children who use augmentative communication and other assistive technology, Katie needed to have significant physical impairments.  I put her in the fourth grade, because I felt her classmates needed to have a degree of maturity to tackle the challenge of having Katie in their class. This is not to say that much younger children can be equally accepting and empathetic, but 4th grade just seemed right for this story.

Katie’s classmates were chosen very carefully through a backwards-writing process. (If there is a writer’s term for this, I don’t know it;  I only know that this approach was essential for the development of the story).  First, I made a mental list of all of the things that Katie would be able to do once she had access to assistive technology.  Then, I developed classmates who could each do one of those activities. This initially created a stark contrast between Katie and her classmates, but eventually led to very personal connections by the end of the book.

The list of Disability Etiquette rules at the end of the book includes one on how to talk to a person who is nonverbal and who has a companion.  It was witnessing people who didn’t speak to my uncle that propelled me into a career in speech/language pathology and assistive technology. Hence, Katie needed to have a Personal Care Assistant, and Miss Hanscomb was born.

Mrs. O’Boyle is based on a real teacher I know who exudes good humor, enthusiasm, and encouragement.  Students who use AAC need educators with those qualities, teachers who will do what it takes to include every child and maximize their involvement in any way possible.

Shamelessly, the SLP is the behind-the-scenes hero of the story.  What can I say?

Point of View:   I did not want to tell the story from Katie’s perspective for two reasons:  I didn’t want it to be a “woe is me” story with Katie feeling left out and alone, as I don’t see Katie as the victim here;  indeed, she becomes empowered as the story progresses.  I wanted to make it clear that the main problem in the story is the classmates’ lack the experience in dealing with someone who is significantly different from them;  obviously,  this directly relates to what I witnessed and even felt when my uncle could no longer speak or gesture.  Having her classmate, Miguel, tell the story provided me with the opportunity to show how limited he and other students in the class felt when trying to involve Katie; in that sense, they were the ones who were handicapped.  Katie has significant limitations in the beginning of the story, but the introduction of assistive technology enables her to overcome those limitations and show everyone around her that she is more like them than different, which is the second lesson in the story.

Setting:  The story takes place at Cherry Street Elementary School.  I am the SLP of a wonderful, small town elementary school that is located on Cherry Street, although the school has a different name. When I read this book to the students in my school on Guest Author Day, the students were delighted to put two and two together, as they recognized that this story was named after their school’s location.  

Plot:  Well, obviously, I wanted the story to show Katie’s development through assistive technology, and how that led to a significant change in the way she was viewed by her classmates.  The idea of nicknames came about because it (1) reflected the importance of differences in each of the characters, and (2) it created a real dilemma when Katie asked for a nickname.

Purpose:  I didn’t want the story to be preachy, although clearly there are lessons and issues embedded in the story that make for good discussion;  a Discussion Guide/Writers Prompts can be downloaded from www.patmervine.com.  I included a list of “do’s and don’ts” regarding disability etiquette after the end of the story so that the reader could learn about appropriate interactions with people who have different conditions from Katie’s.  These lessons are illustrated in a Power Point, available at myTeachersPayTeachers page.

So, that’s a summary of my thought process as I developed the story.  In my next post, I will talk about the learning curve from writing to publishing my book.

Becoming a Children’s Author, Part 3: Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? An Adventure In Translation

A month or so ago, I received a lovely email from Katja Lauther, an occupational therapist in Germany.  She had read my children’s book, “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname),” and fell in love with it.  “We have to have this book in Germany,” she said. “Can you make this happen?”

  • Barrier #1 was pretty obvious:  I don’t speak German.  Katja had already anticipated that and said she could do the translation. 
  • Barrier #2:  I had invested a LOT of money into the beautiful illustrations (all hand-painted and inked works of art), so I couldn’t afford to pay for any work related to the project.  Katja said she wasn’t expecting payment;  this was just something she wanted to do.
  • Barrier #3:  How to print and distribute in Germany.  Printing and shipping from the US would be cost-prohibitive.  I did some research and found that Amazon has a German division, so using their CreateSpace site to publish would take care of all of those logistics.  Yahoo!  We agreed to take on the project.

Within a few days, Katja had completed the first draft of the translation.  She sent me a copy, but it was all Greek…er, German…to me.  She also asked three friends to proofread it for her.  Their consensus was that the translation was too formal, since the story is told by a fourth grade boy, so she redid the translation in more kid-like German.

As Katja was working on the translation, interesting questions started popping up.

  • The names of the characters represent many ethnicities.  Should they be kept or replaced with German names?  We kept the various ethnic names.
  • The nicknames of the characters are common American slang:  Bugsy, Bookworm, Jokester, etc.  Katja substituted nicknames that reflected the spirit of the names but that would make sense in Germany.
  • In translating my bio, Katja needed clarification:  “are you speech or language or AAC or all of that?”  The answer is “all of that.”  She was surprised because, apparently in Germany, one can either specialize in speech or language.  And much of AAC work is done by OTs.  Hearing that, I was surprised!  Wow!  No wonder SLPs in the USA are always exhausted!
  • One of the funniest questions centered around the old chicken joke that Katie tells with her communication device. In the story, Katie only asks the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”  The punchline isn’t given so Katja asked for the answer.  When I replied, “to get to the other side,” she assumed that meant that the chicken was going to heaven.  No, not THAT other side!, I explained.  I never thought about the chicken becoming roadkill!  We went back and forth about this for a while, but the joke was just so dumb that Katja couldn’t translate it to be funny in German (and frankly, it’s not so funny here…which is what makes it so funny, I guess!), so I agreed that she could substitute a dumb German joke instead.  It’s something about a frog, but she said she really couldn’t explain it in English, and Google Translate didn’t help.  I found it very interesting that the simplest humor (and you don’t get more simple than a chicken joke!) simply didn’t translate.

Once we had these and other subtleties of translation worked out, Katja sent me her final draft, for which I had to download the same German font.  Then, my work began.  Remember, I’m an SLP, not a graphic artist, so I was limited in the software I had available for laying out the book and inserting the illustrations. This was quite challenging for me in that I had to keep taking sections of German text into Google Translate to make sure I was matching up correct illustrations and text.  I had a rather amusing experience once with online translation,* so I knew not to pay attention to the actual translation, just the gist of each paragraph.   I did the best I could, then sent it to Katja for approval.  She very diplomatically asked if I would mind if Annette, a graphic designer friend of hers, played around with it.  Of course, I agreed, but I was very impressed….and also curious….about these two women who were devoting hours, days, and weeks on this project for which they were not getting any pay or profit.  For anyone who thinks I am getting rich from writing children’s books, ha! ha! ha!  For all the investment of $ and time that goes into writing, producing, and marketing, I net a royalty of about 10%.  No, these books, like my websites, are a labor of love for me, and it seemed the same was true for Katja and Annette.

Well, Annette did such a wonderful job in laying out the book and creating a new cover for the German version that I insisted she get a credit line and bio in the book, along with the credit line and bio that Katja already had as translator.  When she submitted the final cover and text, I saw Annette’s name in a paragraph on the author page so I Google Translated that, and found that, in addition to being a talented graphic artist, she was involved in designing a communication app for the iPad.  The app is called MetaTalk, named after her daughter, Meta, who uses AAC. (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/metatalk/id450698633?mt=8).   And in many Facebook chats with Katja, I learned that Katja works in a school for students who have special needs, and is also involved in the development of the AAC app, which is used in Germany and now is in English.  Both of these women were so dedicated to the Katie translation because the story is about a girl with significant disabilities who is in a regular education class.  This is not yet common in Germany, but is a trend that is slowly growing there.  They are very hopeful that Katie’s story will be seen in Germany as illustrative of what is possible when children who have significant disabilities are given the assistive technology and support needed to succeed.  As Katja said to me, “Annette and I are spending a lot of time making the world for the AAC kids a bit better.”  From the meticulous attention and careful consideration they devoted to this project, I knew I had found kindred spirits in Germany, and have been enriched by this experience.

“How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)” will be coming out on Amazon.de in Germany in June.  Thanks, Katja and Annette, for planting this seed and helping it to grow!

*I can’t end this post without relating my first and funniest experience with online translation.  The first time my son traveled to Brazil, I sent him an email to greet him on his arrival.  Thinking it would be cute to do it in Portuguese, I wrote my brief message and put into Babelfish, Yahoo’s online translator.  I was about to copy/paste the translation into my email when it occurred to me that I should reverse it back to English to make sure it was correct.  Don’t ask me why that idea popped into my head, but I’m very glad it did.  My message to my son to “enjoy yourself in Brazil” was translated as “I hope you pleasure yourself.”  Oops!  Not quite the message a mother would send to her son. (blush).

“How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)” is available in English from www.patmervine.com.  There you will also find a Reader’s Theater version with PowerPoint scenery, a communication word search, a Discussion Guide/Writing Prompts, and a video about Disability Etiquette.

Becoming a Children’s Author, Part 4: Nuts and Bolts

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the “roots and inspiration” for becoming a writer.  In Part 2, I described how I developed the storyline and characters of “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname).”  Part 3 jumps ahead to how my book came to be translated into German.  Now, I’d like to take a step back and tell you what I’ve learned about getting a story published.

It isn’t easy.

I first put the story down on paper over 5 years ago.  I mulled it over, edited, edited again, and finally got it close to its final shape.  That was the easy part.

Traditional or Self-Publishing      I began researching how to get a story published, and read countless accounts of authors who submitted stories to dozens of publishers, waited months to years, only to receive the dreaded rejection letter. I was too impatient to take this slow road.  I researched the pros and cons of getting a literary agent, but since I felt I only had one book in me, I doubted anyone would be interested in taking on my project.  I then did what I thought was a lot of research into self-publishing.  In hindsight, I realize that I still had a lot to learn, but the information I was accumulating seemed to be pointing me in the right direction.

Self-publishing used to be known as “vanity publishing,” and was most often used by people who wanted to share their memoirs, family history, or dabblings in short stories or novels with family and friends, but never intended for large scale distribution.  With the increased availability of desktop publishing software came an increase in options for writers who, for various reasons, aren’t publishing with a major publishing house.  As with nearly everything in life, there are costs and benefits to be weighed as one considers available options.

Without going into a detailed lecture on the options, let me just explain the key issues in my decision to go the self-publishing route:

1.  I bought consultation time with two writing consultants.  Both said that my book, which centered on a child with disabilities, would be considered a “niche” market book that would not appeal to the masses.  Don’t even get me started on my moral indignation over this assumption, but since they both agreed on this, there seemed to be no point in submitting to a major publisher.

2.  I have a very popular website that was closing in on 5 million hits (today, almost 6 million).  If my story would only appeal to a “niche” group, then my website would be the way to reach that niche. Therefore, I didn’t need a big publisher to do the marketing for me. (I have come to find out that even authors who publish with traditional publishers still need to do a lot of marketing work themselves).

3.  Because the story is about a girl with significant disabilities and her use of assistive technology, it was very important to me that I work very closely with an illustrator who could get the nuances and details right.  Traditional publishers assign an artist to you;  while the author has some input, it wouldn’t be the same as the wonderful experience I had working with a friend and neighbor who is a professional artist and who shared my passion for the project and discussed with me every single detail of every illustration of Katie (Should her hands ever be placed anywhere but in her lap? What facial expressions could she use and to what degree?  Why is she always wearing a bandanna around her neck?)  and her AT equipment.  (I will say that the hand painted and inked illustrations are absolutely charming, but they do represent a very big cash investment on my part, which I may never recoup.  I only add this fact to inform would-be authors about one possible reality of using an illustrator who is not hired by the publisher).

4.  A couple of independent publishers I contacted said I could work with my own artist.  They would do the layout (which was fine with me), but I would be required to buy a large number of books on speculation (not fine with me at all!).

A Decision is Made       I finally settled on Trafford Publishing.  They allowed me to use my own illustrator.  For a fee, they did the cover and layout, which I did not feel I was equipped — with software or experience — to do.  They arranged for the book to get the ISBN # and copyright, and for the book to be listed with Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  I could buy as many or as few books as I wanted, could sell them through my website, and retained all the rights to the book — all very important to me.

It’s a Book!!       It took four years from the time I first thought of the story until a printed copy of the book was finally in my hands .  What a thrill!  I was so excited, and figured everyone else would be, too!   I put out a notice about my new book on my Facebook page, on this blog, and in my SOS.com e-newsletter.  And the result of these exciting announcements which reached thousands of SLPs around the world?  A resounding thud.  Oh, I sold some books, but monthly sales could be counted in the tens.  By the time I paid for the book from Trafford,  then paid the postage to ship it, my royalty was about $2.00 per book.  Good grief!  At this rate, I was sure I’ve never make back my investment, let alone a profit!  Fortunately, a profit was never my goal.  This book was truly a labor of love. My main goal was to get the story out there, with the hope that it would lead to increase acceptance and support of children who have significant disabilities. What could I do to make this happen???

Marketing      Thousands of books are published every year.  How to get one book noticed is the Holy Grail of every author.  At this point, my research shifted from publishing to marketing.  I discovered there are lots of “experts” in the field who lure you in with some usable information that is basically a tease to hook you into signing up for webinars and purchasing pricey software or books.  I also discovered some great support that one accesses by joining a group. Two of my favorites are Children’s Book Insider (loads of information on this site!!) and Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (great monthly magazine with all kinds of useful articles).

The best source of information I found came from Katie Davis (katiedavis.com), a “writerprenture” who supports children’s book writers through her book, “How to Promote Your Children’s Book,” her Video Idiots Boot Camp course in making book trailers and other author videos,  and her numerous podcasts on YouTube.  I learned a lot from Katie, but mostly I learned that I still had a ton of work to do!  So I did it.  I set up an author web site.  I created a book-related Facebook page.  I made book-related videos forYouTube.  I had my first Guest Author appearance.  I did a book reading at a local bookstore.  I blogged about the book.  I sought reviews from professional book reviewers.  And it helped…..a bit.  Now the book is translated into German, and I’ve been asked about translations in other languages.  Will “How Katie Got a Voice (and a cool new nickname)” join the ranks of “The Cat and the Hat” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar?”  Not hardly!  But will it help some kids and adults around the world learn about assistive technology, inclusion, and disability etiquette?  I certainly hope so!

Two More Books, Some Changes in Direction       Not long after my Katie book came out, I wrote a second book, “There Was a Speech Teacher Who Swallowed Some Dice.”  Again, I contacted artist friend, Ian Acker, to do the illustrations for this book.  Unlike the four years it took to complete the illustrations for Katie (a much longer book), Ian was able to get these illustrations done in just under a year.  I am in the process of doing the layout and publishing of this book, which will come out in July 2014, just in time for the ASHA Schools Conference and the beginning of the new school year.  So there’s no change in artist on this book, but there will be a change in publisher.

Since starting this series of blog posts, I wrote and published “The Mouth With a Mind of Its Own.” My situation was a little different this time.  Having sunk a fortune into the artwork of the Katie book and having committed another good chunk of money the illustrations for “There Was a Speech Teacher Who Swallowed Some Dice,” I set a much more restricted budget for third book.  I also wanted this book to come out more quickly — my goal was May is Better Hearing and Speech Month.

Because my illustrator was still busy with the “Dice” book, I posted the job on Fiverr.com and Elance.com, two sites where one can hire all kinds of talent:  illustrators, animators, musicians, voice-overs, etc.  Within a few days, more than 40 artists from all over the world bid on the job by giving me a price and showing me their portfolios.  I was amazed!  It was quite an experience, looking at all of the various styles of handdrawn and computer-generated art.  One portfolio jumped right out as being exceptionally colorful and playful, perfect for Matthew’s story, so that’s the artist I selected.  Although we didn’t have any face-to-face contact, we developed a good working relationship by email, and I’m very pleased with the result.

I could have used Trafford Publishing again but I had learned good things about CreateSpace, the publishing division of Amazon, so I decided to give it a try. By eliminating a middleman, the book price could be lower, which was very important to me.  As I said, I’m not out to get rich.  I just want the books to get into the hands of SLPs, teachers, and kids.  A lower price could help with this.  Another plus with CreateSpace is that they have international outlets, perfect for the German translation of Katie.  There’s a learning curve to using CreateSpace, but they have good customer support.  “The Mouth With a Mind of Its Own” and the German version of Katie were both published on CreateSpace, and I’ll be using that for “There Was a Speech Teacher Who Swallowed Some Dice,” too.  As with Trafford, I’ll still retain all rights to my books on CreateSpace, so if Disney contacts me to do a full length feature film of one or all of my books, I can agree.  (Disney, are you listening???)

Final Thoughts       Writing, publishing, marketing — I have learned so much while on this journey.  Lots of work?  Oh, yes!  Expensive?  Yes, to that, too.  Rewarding?  Absolutely!  Would I recommend this journey to others?  As long as you go into this with eyes wide open, have a LOT of time to devote to every aspect of the process, and use the information I’ve shared here as a guide to get you started, I’d say “go for it!”  Just don’t quit your day job. 🙂