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How I Became An Author

Ralph Fletcher shares his journey towards publication today.
Ralph Fletcher shares his journey towards publication today.

Today I’m an author of books for young readers, but the journey I took getting there was an improbable one. It started in New York City when I began the MFA writing at Columbia University. Our program had a high-powered faculty: Gail Godwin, Richard Price, Joseph Brodsky. I even got to take a seminar with E. L. Doctorow! I dreamed of writing fiction in the tradition of Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, and Wallace Stegner.

One day I strolled from Columbia University uptown to Teachers College on 120th Street. Eventually I wandered into the office of a woman named Lucy Calkins, who had just started her career at Teachers College. After speaking with Lucy, I signed up for her course on the teaching of writing.

I loved that class. What a professor! The woman was on fire. Lucy would become an important mentor me, as she has to many others. One day she told me: “You know, Ralph, you could be a leader in the field of literacy.”

Me? Me? You could have knocked me over with a sheet of paper.

A few months later Lucy invited me to teach at the Teachers College Writing Institute. I found that I loved working with teachers, helping them discover themselves as writers.

When I graduated from Columbia I started working full-time at the Teachers College Writing Project. I worked in classrooms all over the city, helping teachers fine-tune their writing workshops. I dragged around a big canvas bag stuffed with picture books. What books did I have in that bag? Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger. Dear Al by Arthur Yorinks. Brave Irene by William Steig. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. Gorilla by Anthony Browne. My bag included many books by Cynthia Rylant—The Relatives Came and Birthday Presents, just to name a few.

Whenever I did a demonstration lesson I shared those books with students. After we closed the book I told them: “See what this author did? You could do something like this in your own writing….”

Here’s where the story gets interesting, at least to me. As I shared those books, day after day, I began to fall in love with them. Falling in love isn’t something you can plan for—it just happens—and it happened here. These picture books moved me deeply. They spoke to the child within me, but also me as adult. I was struck by the beauty of the writing. I watched those kids react, enthralled, to the powerful language.

Until now I had aspired to be the next Ken Kesey (no, I have never quite given up on that goal) but now I saw that writing for children might also be an honorable way to live as a writer.

So I set my goal—I would write a picture book and get it published. I wrote three, four, five different manuscripts, stories that I considered QUITE good, thank you very much, and sent them off.

These manuscripts got rejected. Rejection wasn’t new to me. I was tough inside. I tended to reject rejections and keep on submitting, except in this case the rejections all had a similar theme. The readers told me that my stories were too didactic.

I met with the great Adrian Peetoom, a man who had been kind enough to read my work. Adrian told me the same thing.

“You’ve written lessons instead of stories,” he told me. “Kids don’t want a lesson. They want to be captured by a marvelous story.”

I chewed on that for several weeks. Then I went back to the drawing board, and revised those stories. Meanwhile I had written a collection of poems, Water Planet, and decided to publish it myself with the help of a high school friend.

During that time I had started speaking at various educational conferences where I got the chance to meet my heroes: Bill Martin Jr., Jane Yolen, Cynthia Rylant. When Water Planet got published I sent a copy to those authors.

At first nothing happened. Then a month later I got a letter from Bill Martin—the author of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom had written to me!—saying that he liked one of my poems, “A Rainbow in Ice.” He asked if he could reprint it. You bet he could!

A few weeks later I received a formal permissions request from Bill’s literary agent, Marian Reiner. I picked up the phone and called her.

“Do you represent other authors?” I asked. “Because I, uh, well, see, I’ve got a bunch of material, stories and such, that I’m trying to sell.”

“Send them to me,” Marian said.

So I sent her some of the chapters for a book I was working on.

A few days later she called me up, laughing.

“These stories are hilarious!” she exclaimed. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do my best to sell them.”

My new agent sent those stories to Nina Ignatowicz, an editor at Clarion Books. Two weeks later Nina telephoned me.

“These stories are wonderful,” she said, “though they don’t quite work. Not yet.”

I tried not to get defensive. “No? What’s wrong with them?”

“Well, the stories have a reminiscent quality to them,” Nina replied. “It sounds like an adult looking back fondly at his childhood.”

Which, I realized, is exactly what I had done.

“That reminiscent tone rings false to children,” Nina continued. “Kids aren’t looking back on their childhood. They’re IN it. So these stories have to feel more immediate and dramatic. Understand?”

“Sort of,” I murmured.

“One more thing,” Nina said. “The narrator, Cliff, is the least developed character in the book. He tells the story but he doesn’t really participate or react. We’ve got to know what he thinks and feels.”

“Oh, right,” I said, trying not to sound too crushed.

“Take another crack at it,” Nina told me. “You’ve got great material…now your job is to bring it alive.”

So I did. Nina liked the revisions enough to offer me a contract for Fig Pudding. Nina was my editor for Spider Boy, Flying Solo, Twilight Comes Twice, Grandpa Never Lies, and The Circus Surprise.

Meeting of the mindsThere’s a Ralph Fletcher who writes books for writing teachers, and a Ralph Fletcher who writes books for young readers, and yes they are the same person. Ralph’s newest professional book, Making Nonfiction From Scratch, will be published this fall by Stenhouse. Right now, he’s working on a new collection of Marshfield Dreams stories to be published by Henry Holt. When he’s not writing, traveling, or working with teachers, Ralph enjoys taking photos and hanging out with his grandson Solomon. 

Ralph blogs at The Writer’s Desk and tweets @FletcherRalph.

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION (from Stacey):

  • This giveaway is for a copy Making Nonfiction From Scratch, which will be published this fall. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Making Nonfiction From Scratch, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, July 8th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, July 10th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at Stenhouse will pre-order Ralph’s book for you.  You will be one of the first people to receive his book when it gets published this fall. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – Making Nonfiction from Scratch. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Comments are now closed.

Thank you to everyone who left a comment about Ralph’s forthcoming book.  Laurie Pandorf’s commenter number was selected so she’ll receive one of the “hot off the presses” copies of Making Nonfiction from Scratch.  Here’s what she wrote:

What a nice surprise! I met him once when he keynoted at TC writing. He was eating lunch in the lounge; I pulled up my chair and we had a great conversation. His books are a mainstay in my writing workshops, especially the ones on fiction and nonfiction writing. Can’t wait for this new one, which I am sure will be just as dog-eared as the others!

112 thoughts on “How I Became An Author Leave a comment

  1. Love this interview. Thanks for sharing. I didn’t realize the timeline. I thought Fletcher came before Calkins. I am looking forward to sharing this with students in the fall.

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  2. Our staff have chosen to study writing this year as part of our Professional Development. This book will give us strategies for teaching nonfiction writing.

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  3. I loved Ralph’s story of how he entered the world of writing for younger readers. Who knew it would launch a career of writing for teachers of those young readers, too? Thanks for your relentless work, Ralph!

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  4. Love the fact that you were asked to revise and add feeling! ! This is something we work on with our writers the time! can’t wait to read Ralph’s new book! !

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  5. Oh I am so excited for Ralph Fletcher’s new book. We are working on building a mentor text library at my school for teachers to use to teach the craft of writing and we are especially interested in building the nonfiction text. Thanks for this wonderful opportunity!

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  6. Thank you, Ralph, for sharing your story. Even though you taught many others to be better writers, when you submitted your own writing for publication, you were rejected and given suggestions to make your writing better. You took those suggestions and made your own writing even better. It shows us all that we write better in a community of writers and that we all need coaching at one time or another.

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  7. I have been a fan of Ralph Fletcher since taking a writing course with him. I love how he supports all writers, especially, boys.

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  8. Live Ralph Fletcher’s books and how they give me great ideas about teaching writing to my students!! I help them love writing too!!

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  9. Reading this blog sent shivers down my arms. I have just returned from a workshop at Columbia myself and was in awe of those old classrooms with the traditional wooden benches, marble tiled bathrooms so I know exactly what he is talking about. I walked by the teacher institute he references (somewhat with envy although not necessarily justified given my own good fortune) the current teachers at Bernard College going to their teaching seminar. One cannot help but be go smacked by this history. So Ralph Fletcher, my guru, so am bursting with excitement to read yet more of your wise and sage opinions on writing. Let’s hope I get lucky on this drawing too.

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  10. Ralph Fletcher has shaped my view of writing and teaching writing. I not only use his teacher resource books to plan for units of study, but I find inspiration for my own writing in his words.

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  11. I really found trhis conversation constructive on my inner writer soul. I had been working on a historical fiction story and a lot of Ralph’s thoughts make me think different, I need to work again in some of the ideas and how to better develop them to engage readers…
    Thanks for this wonderful material.

    Alfonso

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  12. Ralph Fletcher has been a mentor to me as a teacher of elementary students. I constantly refer to his books on teaching writing and have passed them along to many of my colleagues! Can’t wait for this new book!

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  13. The teachers on my campus are Ralph Fletcher fans, and they’ve made me one as well. Thanks for sharing your writer’s story!

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  14. Since his first edition of What A Writer Needs, Ralph Fletcher has been my writing teacher. I have gobbled up each of his books in an effort to improve my workshop. After 41 years in education, I eagerly await his new one!

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  15. I read Ralph’s memoir before he visited our school this year. His stories about his adventures as a young boy inspired my students’ memories and inspired them to write in his style. Then we got to enjoy his retelling of some stories and his advice on writing. Ralph made many personal connections with the kids!

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  16. Thanks to Ralph for his career-spanning inspiration. My NH fifth graders and I had the pleasure of hosting Ralph as a guest author in our classroom (yikes!-almost 20 years ago…!) I learned and appreciated so much from both his chat with my class that day, as well as via incorporating his stories and professional work in my practice. Fig Pudding, Twilight Comes Twice, A Walk In Early Spring, Breathing In Breathing Out, What a Writer Needs, A Writer’s Notebook…all integral in my work with fifth graders and, as an inspired writer myself.
    The metaphor he provides and describes in Fig Pudding’s “A Steaming Bowl of Sadness” is one I have relied upon, shared, and appreciated in a myriad of contexts over the past 20 years. Thank You, Ralph!

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  17. Being in the presence of great authors like Ralph is like my daughter watching my husband on the trampoline: “But you make it look so easy.” It’s good to know that the struggle is there for all of us and that every road to publication is different.

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  18. I have always been a fan of Ralph Fletcher — and a fan of many of the books and people he mentions here. Thanks for sharing another story with us, Mr. Fletcher!

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  19. The 6th grade students and ELA teachers in my school were so fortunate to have spent a day with Ralph last fall. I wish the rest of us could have taken part, too!

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  20. I had no idea that Ralph started his career with Lucy. She is certainly a person that lives doing what she is most passionate about. What a great story about once again how persistent writers are. Their work is guarded yet open to new possibilities. Thanks for sharing I love Ralph Fletcher. He has inspired to grow in my profession.

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  21. Thank you for sharing your journey with us! I especially enjoyed reflecting on the people who have been on your path. It’s amazing what a supportive and encouraging word can stir in us-we must be mindful of this when working w our children, too.

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  22. I read Walking Trees years ago, which was Ralph’s book about his time as a writing consultant for TCRWP in the NYC schools. It was such a fascinating read. I also love his books on Live Writing and The Writer’s Notebook. I am so excited for his new book! So exciting to hear his voice on the TWTblog.

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  23. What a nice surprise! I met him once when he keynoted at TC writing. He was eating lunch in the lounge; I pulled up my chair and we had a great conversation. His books are a mainstay in my writing workshops, especially the ones on fiction and nonfiction writing. Can’t wait for this new one, which I am sure will be just as dog-eared as the others!

    Like

  24. What a journey! I loved reading Ralph’s writing/publishing history as much as I’ve enjoyed reading his teacher-oriented books throughout the years. Who knows? Maybe I’ll muster up the courage to take my own writing/publishing journey! Thanks….

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  25. Wow! What a journey Ralph had to become such an amazing contributor to the field of writing instruction! I will share his story with some of my older writers. Ralph reveals so much about how a children’s audience perceives stories.

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  26. Ralph’s masterful writing is a well from which I gulp and sip knowledge writing craft and especially about poetry writing ever since I started teaching in the USA fifteen years ago. I am simply in love with his way of writing whether it’s for the teachers or children. I have most of his books in my collection and use them regularly. I would be more than happy to win this newest one.

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  27. I absolutely love Ralph! I never knew he worked with Lucy. I Especially his craft books. They are so easy to use. I often see myself going to those books first! So I would LOVE to win his newest book on non fiction!

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  28. Ralph, I’ve been using your teaching books to learn and your children’s books to teach for 17 years. I can’t wait to read the new one!
    Rob

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  29. I use my tattered and marked up copies of Ralph Fletcher’s books frequently during writing workshop to share with my students. I refer to him is our friend Ralph Fletcher and they think I actually know him!

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  30. Love Ralph Fletcher! A master teacher and author. It’s hard not to feel like you know him after reading his work. I love reading professional texts by people you would actually enjoy talking to in real life. My fifth graders loved when I used Flying Solo for a read aloud, and I built my poetry unit from Poetry Matters. I don’t feel like teaching writing comes as naturally to me as reading, so his insights, anecdotes, and examples help tremendously.

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  31. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Ralph! I love that you fell in love with books and writing books while being a staff developer. That has been my own experience, exactly. How could you not fall in love all those books!

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  32. I read Walking Trees by Ralph Fletcher years ago and loved his description of teaching writers and teachers in NYC. His books on writing have influenced me very much. Excited to read his newest book!

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  33. Dear Ralph Fletcher,

    I loved reading about your journey from college student to writing guru! I also love that you write both for kids, and for writing teachers. Every year I launch my writing workshop with your book A Writer’s Notebook. My students are fascinated by your story of digging the trench in your yard to see what you will collect there. It’s a great metaphor for their writing notebook, and really hooks them.
    I look forward to reading your new book.

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  34. love this man and his work…my favorite line…“You’ve written lessons instead of stories,” he told me. “Kids don’t want a lesson. They want to be captured by a marvelous story.” I will make a poster of this for the top of my desk xo

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  35. Ralph Fletcher has been an inspiration for me as a teacher of writing. His Writing Workshop books are fantastic and a must for all teachers.

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  36. You were ahead of your time Ralph. The idea that the author of every book I read to my students or that they read themselves can be a mentor for their own writing is one of the most important lessons to be learned. Once we teach them to recognize great writing they can begin to emulate it! Looking forward to your new professional book and especially more Marshfield Dreams.

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  37. I enjoyed reading about your journey in becoming an author. I saw you recently at a conference and now it is interesting to learn more about your background.

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  38. Loved reading Ralph’s story. It’s always interesting to hear the story behind the work. Thank you for sharing. I have used your work in my classroom for years and the kids always love it and learn from it.

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  39. It’s wonderful to read about how Fig Pudding came to be. I love that book and have used it with my students. A parent was quite concerned about the sadness in the book and I talked about that with my 3rd graders. One wise little girl said that she was sad, but sad things will happen and reading about them may help the kids to deal with them as they grow up. She added that that was one of the reasons that we read good books.

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  40. An interesting history. I can recall years ago when I first read, What a Writer Needs–which I still think is his most eloquent work. I look forward to reading his new book this fall. Thanks:)

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  41. I have read and loved several of Ralph Fletcher’s books for teachers. It is so inspiring and helpful to hear how he began as a children’s writer, which is a dream and a hope of mine too. Thank you for sharing this story!

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  42. I love Ralph Fletcher’s down-to-earth writing style. I am curious how he took his writing from “reminiscent” to writing for children who were IN the midst of childhood. What strategies create that kind of shift?

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  43. Dear Ralph Fletcher, I had the pleasure of listening to and learning from you a few years ago when you and Katie Wood Ray came to the Central Virginia Writing Project’s workshop in Charlottesville. I had just begun my first year in a new job- as writing workshop coordinator- at my school. You filled my brain with so much the day you spoke. I am a huge fan of what you’ve written for both teachers and children. And like you, one of my early fiction heroes was Wallace Stegner. Crossing to Safety remains one of my all-time favorites, and one of the things I find most interesting is how I read it with a different lens as I get older. Thank you so much for sharing bits of your story with us.

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  44. I loooove Ralph Fletcher! He has been teaching alongside me for years (metaphorically, of course). His Fierce Wonderings have pulled things out of my students that still blow me away. I can’t wait to see what he shares next!

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  45. Ralph Fletcher is amazing and is always so inspiring. I had the pleasure of meeting him during a conference at Vassar College and was utterly gobsmacked. He made me think in a completely different way when it comes to teaching nonfiction. As a literacy coach, Ralph Fletcher is always my go to for both my teacher learners as well as my students.

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  46. I’ve admired Ralph Fletcher for many years now. I particularly like “A Writing Kind of Day” and use many of those poems with my first graders.

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  47. Ralph as always is such an inspiring writer and mentor around a things writing. I recently saw him at a conference at Vassar College and was utterly gobsmacked the whole time. He has opened me to an entirely new way of thinking about teaching nonfiction. I am a literacy coach and Ralph is always a go to for both my teacher learners and my students.

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  48. This post is GOLD. Ralph Fletcher is a hero of mine too. I love hearing the story of how he became a writer. I can’t wait for his new professional book, but I am SO EXCITED to hear there are more Marshfield Dream stories coming. I LOVE that book!!!! Thank you so much for sharing the story of this wonderful author!!

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  49. I read his book A Writer’s Notebook every year to my 3rd graders as a read-aloud every year. They love it. I’ve used several of his “teacher” books as I strive to become a better writing teacher. I’m planning on purchasing some of his children’s books to use in the next school year.

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  50. Enjoyed reading Ralph’s post. I’m a fan of both his professional and children’s books. I would love to have a copy of his latest book!

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  51. I’m going to take the advice Ralph’s editors gave him, to myself- I know I need it! Thanks for sharing this story. The photo looks like Ralph is now inspired by a grandchild- a fun test sample for future kid’s books!

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  52. Ralph was so lucky to meet who he met. But I also know of his charm. When I met him at NCTE and had the opportunity to sit next to him, I was sitting next to a regular guy (who happens to be my hero). I love hearing of his process.
    Readers, you may want to follow him on Facebook. He’s a wonderful photographer, too. Thanks.

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  53. Ralph Fletcher’s stories are so rich with details and well-developed characters, and his resources for teachers are all stellar! He has not only helped me become a better writer, but more importantly to love writing!

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  54. I loved reading about Ralph Fletcher’s journey to writing. He’s had an amazing journey because he’s had the drive and tenacity to put himself out there and take risks. I admire his honesty and courage. I would love to read his newest book and can’t believe I’ve never read Fig Pudding! Guess what’s on my library list for today!?

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  55. I absolutely love Ralph Fletcher’s work- as an author for all of us! Stop telling me about all of these great books- I keep vowing I will limit my book purchases, but then reviews like this come along!

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  56. Ralph’s Fig Pudding holds a special place in my heart. It is that novel that I read slowly and noticed my own thinking and took post it notes to then sort and use to build a theory while I was reading the units of study for teaching reading. I’m at the Reading Institute now and yesterday Mary suggested naming the 5 books we’d take to have if stranded on a desert island. I’d bring Fig Pudding – it makes me laugh and cry and understand the importance of family. Ralph is a true gift to the world! And my fingers are crossed to win his next book!!

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