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Writer's flock: Classes, clubs help children to express themselves in print

Young Writers Program
A group of teens meets at Bowman Library in Stephens City recently for a meeting of the Young Writers Program. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

Vanessa Bittel looks at a book
Vanessa Bittel, right, of Stephens City, looks at a book during the club meeting. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

Kitty Dwyer talks about the club
Kitty Dwyer, facilitator of the Young Writers Program at Bowman Library, talks about the club recently. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series about local writing clubs.

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

Vanessa Bittel has been writing since she was 6. Her first story, "Jane is Mad," helped her realize a passion for storytelling. The Stephens City resident now enjoys writing mysteries, especially ones that begin with a death.

Though only 15, Vanessa is working on her second book. The first one, "Glacia," a manuscript of about 8,000 words, has been set aside in favor of a new project, "The Secret of Willowyn Harbor," the novel Vanessa is planning to write for this year's National Novel Writing Month.

She will join nearly 132,000 other writers, young and old, around the world for NaNoWriMo, 30 days of near-continuous writing, which begins Sunday. NaNoWriMo has been held each year since 1999.

Writers under the age of 18 who participate may choose their own challenging but achievable word goals.

Last year Vanessa fell short of her lofty 50,000-word goal; this year she has chosen to focus instead on page count: 200 pages by Nov. 30.

"I do it for fun right now, but I think it'd be really cool to get my books published," she said.

Area children and teens interested in writing have an abundance of assistance available. From library clubs to school programs, there's something for any age, depending on the topic of interest.

Local libraries plan more programs all the time, said Donna Hughes, youth services division head with Handley Regional Library, which includes Bowman Library in Stephens City, Handley Library in Winchester and Clarke County Library in Berryville.

Bowman recently wrapped up its summer writing program, which encourages children to write about their environment and paint images with their words. Its current program, the Young Writers Program for NaNoWriMo, began on Tuesday. The club, which focuses particularly on novel writing, will meet every Tuesday in November, with a wrap-up session planned for Dec. 1.

"When we get together we give them ideas on how to get past writing blocks, take a subject and write as many descriptive words as possible," Hughes said. "I think what happens is you gain some momentum."

Samuels Public Library in Front Royal offers its Teen Creative Writing Club once a month.

"It's our most popular ongoing teen program," said Michal Ashby, youth services librarian at Samuels. Club members work on a creative piece of writing, such as a short story or novel, during each meeting.

"Everyone offers constructive criticism," she said.

"We usually do a writing exercise almost every single time," Ashby said.

Sometimes the group invites speakers, such as poets or other writers. Author Regina Doman will speak on Dec. 12 on the topic "Which comes first, the plot or the character?"

This month's meeting is today at 2 p.m. Teens are invited to come and, among other things, talk over their ideas for their novels for NaNoWriMo. The club will meet again on Nov. 28.

Samuels also partners with the Royal Oak Bookshop in Front Royal and Warren County schools on the Holiday Writing Project. Open to both public and private schools, the contest, now in its 31st year, offers children the chance to spotlight their writing, culminating in a publication of the top three winners in each grade of every school, Ashby said. The deadline for submissions is Nov. 16 at 8 p.m.

"Kids for the most part always enjoy creative writing," said Lisa Rudacille, principal at Ressie Jeffries Elementary School in Front Royal. "Writing about the holidays at the elementary level is also a big deal."

The children have fun writing about that time of year, she said. Those too young to write are invited to participate in the Holiday Writing Contest anyway.

"Sometimes they will do an illustration; they'll dictate a story," she said of younger children. "There are some ways that every child can participate."

Schools around the area work to keep writing fun, whatever the topic.

"We do a lot of nonfiction writing every day," said Christa Owens, an eighth-grade teacher at James Wood Middle School in Winchester. Her classes combine social studies with English for an hour and 40 minutes each day.

One of the year's main projects focuses on writing faux travel journals for a fictitious autobiography, or the "Oxymoron Story."

"They create a character and they will use the 12 components of culture," Owens said. "What is nonfiction is the setting; what is fiction is the problem." Students develop a fictional character and place that person in different situations depending on the unit the class is studying, traveling around the world in the process.

"They own that character and they are into that character," Owens said. "Their barrier comes down and then they're writing like crazy."

"We incorporate our writing projects into the classrooms," said Beth Huddleston, English Department chair at Daniel Morgan Middle School in Winchester. The block instruction allows for breakout groups, she said, such as literary circle time during which students can focus on writing activities.

"All students at Daniel Morgan have writing portfolios," she said. The students' writing is based on the "Write Traits," she said, which concentrate on the six traits of writing: Organization, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, conventions, and publication.

"Being able to communicate is essential in any industry they hope to do in life," said Trevor Johnson, creative writing teacher at Sherando High School in Stephens City. The student magazine attracts a large number of students each year, he said.

This year the theme is "Down the Rabbit Hole" and will welcome poetry, creative writing and art dealing with Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" or any nonsense poems or parodies students feel are fitting.

"They want to have a mad hatter tea party for it," Johnson said. "They're really impassioned about it."

The journalism class at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock was recently working on headlines that will grab students' attention. The class of seventh-graders learns not only how to write for an audience of peers, but also how to put together a newspaper and edit photographs.

The P.M.M.S. Press publishes four to five times a year, said Donna Burton, seventh-grade language arts teacher. "We do it as many times as we can handle it," she said.

"I like writing and reading, so this is the main reason [for taking the class]," said 12-year-old student Sarah Rhodes, as she worked with photos on a computer. Rhodes also writes stories.

"I interviewed the people in the cafeteria for each grade ... [to discover] if they were packing or buying [lunches]," she said.

Trevor Wolf, 13, enjoys writing both news and sports.

"I decided to do it just because I think it would help me learn new writing techniques, and I thought that it would be fun to write articles that the whole school would see," he said. "I like writing."

Last year, Jessica Griffith, 12, of Stephens City, developed an interest in poetry when her teacher at Robert E. Aylor Middle School in Stephens City assigned poetry exercises in class.

Jessica writes about her life, mainly what she thinks and how she feels. Poetry is her outlet, her means of self-expression.

Her two best friends and neighbors, Lizzy Lahners and Destinee Backner, both 12, are also writers. They all attended the summer writing program at Bowman this year.

Destinee writes short stories, mainly romantic vampire lore.

"That's my passion," she said, though she stressed a disinterest in the "Twilight" series, by author Stephenie Meyer.

"Most of my characters come from real life," she said, though she translates them into fiction.

"I like writing some poetry," Lizzy said. "I'm more of a realistic writer; I write about what's going on."

Mainly, though, she focuses on writing her blog, Lizzy's Book Blog, which is linked to the Bowman Library teen blog, www.hrlyouthscope. blogspot.com, and offers reviews of books she has read.

"I like blogging because I get to influence other people's opinions about books," she said. "I know from personal experience."

Since Lizzy reads at a very high level, she finds it difficult to know ahead of time which books will interest a girl her age. She relies on book reviews to help her and believes other people do as well.

An avid reader, Lizzy credits books with helping her develop her writing skills.

"I want to be a teacher when I grow up. I want to be able to do this for a long time," she said of blogging. "I want to do the blog for as long as I can."

Programs for young writers

* The Young Writers Program for NaNoWriMo, at Bowman Library in Stephens City, meets every Tuesday in November with a wrap-up session Dec. 1. For more information call 869-9000.

* The Teen Creative Writing Club at Samuels Public Library in Front Royal meets once a month. October's meeting is today at 2 p.m. For more information call 635-3153 or visit the Web at www.samuelslibrary.net.

* The 31st Annual Holiday Writing Contest for Warren County is open to grades K-12. Participants should write a short story or poem about the winter holidays to submit to Samuels Public Library. The most noteworthy submissions will be chosen at the library and passed to contest officials from the schools where the three winners from each grade will be selected. The deadline for submissions is Nov. 16 at 8 p.m.

* NaNoWriMo begins on Sunday. Participants must sign up at www.nanowrimo.org by midnight tonight. Participation is free.

-- Source: Bowman and Samuels libraries


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