Writing Prompt Ideas to Use with Julie Murphy’s Dear Sweet Pea

Check out my earlier post on Dear Sweet Pea for a synopsis and review of the book.

Since Dear Sweet Pea is intended for elementary school-aged readers, it would be a great class read. In addition, since a large part of the plot focuses on advice columns it lends itself to fun student writing prompts.

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Media and how we consume it has changed so rapidly over the last few decades, I’m betting that many middle grade readers haven’t read advice columns. Reading and discussing advice columns, before eventually having students write some of their own, can be a great way to teach students about genre (something even my college students still struggled with from time to time). Genre is a category of writing that differs from other categories of writing in terms of its content, characteristics, and even its formatting. It is a great concept for students to learn to help distinguish informal writing (like social media) from formal writing (like academic writing).

Class brainstorming: Collect some age-appropriate advice columns for your class. Have your students read the columns. Then, in small groups, students should brainstorm about the genre of an advice column. You can prompt them to respond to questions like: What are the different parts of an advice column? What are some similarities among the advice columns we read? Then, the class can share their brainstorming ideas to help solidify the concepts of genre and what that specifically translates to in an advice column.

Writing prompts: There’s many different writing prompts you could use to springboard from the genre brainstorming in the previous step.

Writing Prompt A: If students are still in the middle of reading Dear Sweet Pea, you might have them write a letter of advice to Sweet Pea herself. Sweet Pea has quite a few situations where she is unsure of how to act. Pick a specific moment the students have already read. Ask them to write a response to Sweet Pea’s dilemma, explaining what she should do and why.

Writing Prompt B: If you’re reading Dear Sweet Pea towards the end of the school year, you may want to use this prompt to have the students reflect on the previous year. Ask the students to write an advice letter to themselves on the first day of the school year. Looking back, what would they tell themselves to help prepare for this year?

Have fun writing along with Dear Sweet Pea!

Dear Readers

Review of Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

I remember standing in Target’s book section several years ago and picking up a book titled Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy about a fat girl who loves Dolly Parton and enrolls in her local beauty pageant. Enchanted, I picked up a copy but didn’t get around to reading it right away (although its cover of a blonde woman in a red evening dress standing in thrall to a tiara never failed to elicit a chuckle when I walked past). Fast forward to December 2018 when said book was adapted into a Netflix movie. It’s heartfelt and funny with a great Dolly Parton soundtrack. So, last winter my reading consisted of a binge of all of Murphy’s novels (including Puddin’, a sort-of-sequel that focuses on some of Dumplin’s secondary characters). Then, once I exhausted her canon, I pre-ordered of her new middle grade novel (designated for readers roughly eight to twelve years old), Dear Sweet Pea, which is on bookshelves now.

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Dear Sweet Pea is set in a small Texas town where, following a recent and amicable divorce, thirteen-year-old Sweet Pea’s mom and dad live in near-identical houses on the same street. Sweet Pea finds this same-but-not-the-sameness frustrating as she splits time between the two houses. School is equally challenging as well since a former best friend, now frenemy, creates new drama. In the middle of all these changes in Sweet Pea’s life, her eccentric neighbor and newspaper advice columnist, Miss Flora Mae, asks Sweet Pea to water the plants and forward the advice column correspondence while Flora Mae’s out of town. Sweet Pea intercepts a few letters and gives some advice of her own.

Despite transitioning to a middle grade book after her earlier YA novels, Murphy’s writing is confident in both its style and storytelling. The vocabulary and sentence structure are streamlined for younger readers (but also kept this big kid reader very entertained). Murphy creates a beautiful array of characters from Sweet Pea and her classmates to assorted teachers and parents. My favorite might just be the deliciously eccentric Miss Flora Mae who keeps her most important documents in the oven and who the local kids suspect may be a vampire. Murphy perfectly captures the feeling of being caught halfway between childhood and teenagedom as well as the uncertainty of not knowing how to move from one stage to the next. Dear Sweet Pea is ideal for fifth to seventh grade readers (and anyone who remembers what those in-between years were like).

For fans craving the next movie adapted from Julie Murphy’s work, Disney Channel has your back as they are developing a movie version of Dear Sweet Pea!

Read if you like: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh as well as Dumplin’ and Puddin’ by Julie Murphy.

New Adventures in TV Land

Review of Prodigal Son, Mondays at 9pm EST on Fox

Growing up, I did not have cable television (except for when my family stayed in hotels). So the advent of Fall TV meant that there were actually new shows to watch on television every evening of the week (and not just on PBS)! Now we live in a blessed age where approximately three shows a day drop onto streaming platforms and even broadcast networks have started programming more seasonal offerings outside of the traditional September to May schedule. The result is that we’ll all likely have ten shows still on our watch lists when we ascend to the Great Big Couch in the Sky. As an avowed pop culture addict, I wouldn’t choose to live any other way. Still, I look forward every year to seeing what new offerings network television has to offer, creating a schedule of what I want to check out, and determining what I’m willing to commit to (at least for a few more weeks).

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Admittedly, there were not a huge amount of shows that intrigued me enough to watch even the pilot this year. (Optimist’s Translation: more time to watch streaming shows as they drop throughout the fall and winter.) That being said, I test drove the police procedural Prodigal Son that premiered last week.

The premise of Prodigal Son is that Malcom Bright (Tom Payne) is both a criminal profiler and the son of Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), a serial killer known as the Surgeon who was captured and incarcerated in the late 1990s. The pilot episode sees Bright working as a consultant to an NYPD case only to discover that the case is a copycat of four murders his father committed years ago.

Familiar territory? Yes, and that is one of the show’s biggest potential pitfalls. A detective/profiler/forensic pathologist with a personal connection to a killer/landmark case/crime is a trope mystery lovers have seen before in television, movies, and books. However, the police procedural format as a whole is not particularly new either and that doesn’t stop viewers from enjoying interesting characters and unusual cases. More episodes should help shed light on whether the writers are able to find new perspectives on these tropes or fail to make them work with these characters and within the particular environment they’ve created in Prodigal Son.

My other biggest concern with this show is that it too often uses shock factor to elicit viewers’ emotion rather than relying on the strength of the writing and acting without layering on gore. For example, the show’s opening scene depicts Bright entering a butchering process plant that has a series of severed heads preserved in jars in the background. Obviously, that is a horrifying concept. However, on screen I couldn’t help but think they looked like cheap Halloween masks in jars filled with goop. It certainly didn’t scare me; it just seemed hokey. Similarly, later, the director uses a tight closeup of Bright’s face screaming, eyes bugged out, after he has a nightmare about his father. This kind of in-your-face, “isn’t this scaaary?” tactic definitely backfired for me (and I’d wager for many other viewers as well). Rather than letting the storytelling and filmmaking stand on its own in evoking reactions from viewers it seems like the creators are smashing the “break open only in case of emergency” toolbox too frequently.

The show’s house style is fairly stark, relying on low-key lighting and heavy shadows and filters that seem to leach almost all color from the screen. A very minimalist color palette of creams, grays, and blacks only enhances this effect. Many shots also used shallow focus, meaning only part of the image is in focus and the rest remains blurry. To be fair, this cinematographic choice may be trying to illustrate how much viewers don’t know. We only know a little bit of the history between Bright and his dad and we know about it primarily from Bright’s perspective. However, I found the frequent use of shallow focus a bit distracting because it was so pervasive.

Now, what I really liked about the show were the actors and performances. Michael Sheen’s Dr. Whitly/Surgeon was truly creepy and seemed to hint at layers of characterization that will (hopefully) develop over the course of the season. The show also did a good job of using him enough to establish his backstory and relationship with Bright without letting him overly dominate the story.

In addition, there are a trio of treasures playing supporting characters that I hope to see more of in the coming weeks. First, certified National Treasure Lou Diamond Phillips plays Gil Arroyo, an NYPD cop with a connection to Bright that’s explained at the end of the pilot. We don’t learn much about his character in the pilot other than his trust in Bright but I always enjoy Phillips. He also serves as a more grounded character compared to the heightened Bright and Whitly and their strange father-son relationship. Second, the show features Gilmore Girls treasure Keiko Agena who played Lane in the beloved coming-of-age series. Here, she’s Dr. Edrisa Tanaka, a forensic pathologist who nervously geeks out over identifying wounds with Bright, injecting a nice bit of comedy into an otherwise grim show. Finally, Scandal treasure Bellamy Young, who played Mellie Grant in the political drama, now plays Jessica Whitly, the mother of Malcom Bright and wife of serial killer Malcolm Whitly. In the pilot she appears like an aristocratic society mother, almost as if Edith Wharton’s matriarchs were revamped for the 21st century. Still, Young’s performance hints at the trauma below the character’s shiny superficiality and I hope the show will explore that as it progresses.

Verdict: I’m not yet ready to hit the “record series” button on my DVR. However, I was intrigued enough by the setup and the actors to keep watching for several more weeks to see how the story develops.

Pumpkin Spice Confessional

Review of Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks with color by Sarah Stern

I write to you, dear readers, from inside my pumpkin spice confessional. Today is the first official day of fall, but for me once Labor Day passes all I can think about are cooler fall temperatures and all the seasonal trappings that are soon to follow from mums on front porches to cider in the stores and then, later, the smoky smell of fire pits at twilight and stories of supernatural beings as Halloween approaches. Needless to say, I’ve already tasted my first Reese’s pumpkin of the season and have a pumpkin decorating plan locked in (spoiler alert: my pumpkin’s going to look like a unicorn!).

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For the autumnally inclined among us, then, the young adult graphic novel Pumpkinheads, written by Rainbow Rowell, illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks, and with color by Sarah Stern, could not come at a better time. This may well be the ideal read for a fall night. What’s more, you can easily devour it in one sitting if you choose. Set at what Rowell describes in an interview as “the Disneyland of pumpkin patches,” Pumpkinheads follows two patch employees, Deja and Josiah, on their last night working at the patch in their senior year of high school. What follows is a delightful blend of friendship, romance, and bursts of adventure.

First, the patch itself will make you want to launch yourself headfirst into a fall festival as it sports a pumpkin slingshot and haunted hacienda in addition to the more traditional haystack ride and corn maize (this book has puns galore and I find them adorable). The inside cover of the book features a map of the über-deluxe patch to help readers orient themselves during Deja and Josiah’s journey to various attractions. In addition, Hicks’ renderings of converted barns and families in costume coupled with Stern’s warm colors create a cozy canvas for the characters to ramble through on their last night.

Second, have your snacks ready when you read this because each of the patch’s many food stands outdoes the one before it from the Kettle Corn Kettle to the Chili Fries Stand to— my favorite— the Pumpkin Bomb Stand. (I wish I could add sound effects here to give this last one the flourish it deserves.) The Pumpkin Bomb is a mythical concoction of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two slices of pumpkin pie, covered with chocolate, and mounted on a stick. In other words, it’s pumpkin spice heaven.

Of course, all this delightful scene setting wouldn’t add up to a story without characters and conflict. Luckily, Rowell delivers on both fronts. Although we only spend one night with Deja and Josiah, Rowell capably demonstrates their personalities as they interact with each other and patch employees and visitors. Here, again, Hicks’ panels provide beautiful facial reactions during conversations and a sense of movement in the action sequences. The protagonists’ quick-witted dialogue made me laugh more than once but they also talk about ideas like fate and free will without those conversations seeming pretentious or out of context for their situation. As It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown demonstrates, the pumpkin patch has long been a site for existential contemplation and this remains true for Deja and Josiah.

I would happily read many more stories with Rowell’s lovable characters in or outside of the patch. The graphic novel hints that they may apply to be Christmas elves for a mall Santa, and I can only hope this leads to more holiday sequels! For now, though, I’m off to try and recreate the Pumpkin Bomb in my kitchen. Happy Fall everybody!

How to Become a Citizen Sleuth

Review of Chase Darkness with Me by Billy Jensen

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Gone are the days when Dateline and Forensic Files were the mainstays for murderinos (the affectionate name given to fans of the podcast My Favorite Murder) seeking details on infamous or puzzling cases. True crime podcasts now routinely place in the top ten of Apple’s podcast chart and whether you’re flipping through channels on basic cable, tuning into HBO, or searching Netflix, true crime is sure to be one, if not more, of the offerings. Now, the problem is not seeking out true crime stories but discerning which ones to spend time consuming when faced with a plethora of choices.

Enter Billy Jensen. He spent much of his journalism career writing about true crime, specifically unsolved cases. In recent years, he’s gained attention for helping to finish Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about the Golden State Killer who was famously identified and arrested just months after the book’s release in 2018. McNamara died unexpectedly while writing the book and Jensen worked with a collaborator to piece together drafts and write new material as well, focusing on techniques like familial DNA searches and geoprofiling that McNamara was using to help solve the case. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is already a true crime classic not only because of McNamara’s stellar writing but also because the techniques she advocated for were actually used to identify the suspect after decades of searching. I highly recommend I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (although it is disturbing and, full disclosure, it did give me nightmares).

So, back to Billy Jensen. If his involvement with I’ll Be Gone in the Dark fails to convince you of his pedigree, let me explain what distinguishes his new book from other true crime releases. While Jensen’s work on both the Golden State Killer case and McNamara’s book about it are woven throughout his true crime memoir, Chase Darkness with Me, he focuses on a number of cases he worked (and sometimes solved) using targeted ads on social media platforms to solicit witnesses and tips leading to suspects. The majority of these are cases are likely unknown to readers since most of them rarely received media attention outside of the area where they occurred. Yet, Jensen clearly outlines the stakes for the families and communities impacted by each crime, making each compelling. Although he covers a large number of cases, his explanations of the details make them unique enough to remain distinct rather than blurring together. In addition, Jensen explains how his techniques have actually solved crimes and includes an addendum explaining best practices for those who want to be become citizen sleuths, as he refers to them.

Jensen’s years as an investigative journalist have honed his prose into concise yet informative sentences. Yet because this book is at least partially a memoir, the crimes and investigations are always filtered through Jensen’s perspective and that prevents the book from feeling too clinical or like a mere list of facts. Rather, he weaves stories about his own life into the book in ways that feel organic instead of forced, providing brief respites from the crimes themselves. Much of his interest in true crime came from his father, and those anecdotes are particularly evocative in placing the reader within Jensen’s point of view.

I knew Jensen from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and the podcast he currently co-hosts with retired investigator Paul Holes, The Murder Squad, but this new book and his work on citizen sleuthing is sure to establish his important role in the future of true crime. Jensen’s strong writing skills and compassion for everyone affected by these crimes are striking. Chase Darkness with Me is a page turner that asks how citizens can harness technology to help chip away at the ever-growing backlog of unsolved cases in America. True crime fanatics and people interested in the future of criminal investigation should seek out Chase Darkness with Me.

Back to School Fears Legitimized: Review of The Swallows by Lisa Lutz

I fan girl hard for Lisa Lutz. Reading her Spellman Files series (about a family of private detectives who are always tailing or phone tapping at least one other family member) was a treat I reserved for special reading occasions, like after I finished an onerous task, and I put off reading the final novel in the series because I did not want it to end. In fact, I adore Lutz’s work so much that she’s one of the writers whose names I frequently search on bookselling websites, social media, and her own author website so as to know exactly when her next novel will be released. Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting the release of her most recent novel, The Swallows.

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For fellow Lutzites (Lutzians? Lutz Loons?), the archetypes of her previous novels are still present in her new novel: dysfunctional parents, witty women who somehow still don’t have their life put together, precocious teen girls who are almost too smart for their own good, and lovable male allies who prove to be dependable sidekicks for the female protagonists. While the characters feel consistent with others in Lutz’s fictional universe, the story itself is quite a bit darker than the beloved Spellman series.

In The Swallows, set at Stonebridge (a less than prestigious boarding school in Vermont), Lutz depicts a level of scumbaggery heretofore unseen in her other works. The novel’s conflicts center on a series of sexual scandals (some at other schools and in the past as well as at Stonebridge) that, once uncovered, spiral into tragic and disturbing consequences for everyone involved.

Set in 2009, The Swallows focuses on a pre-#MeToo era but one which is no less filled with predators and prey as well as drastically inequal power dynamics. Smartly, Lutz does not divide the heroes and villains neatly along gender lines nor between faculty/staff and students. The spiral of abuse and retaliation becomes increasingly messy as more about the scandals are uncovered. As a former teacher, I found the corrupt and enabling school administration and teachers extremely unsettling (and that is due to Lutz’s skill in depicting these characters and showing their flaws). This is not a feel-good story and it is to Lutz’s credit that it is not. In fact, the overarching metaphor for the book is one of war with section titles such as “Allies,” “The Army,” and quotes from the likes of Winston Churchill and Sun Tzu prefacing each section. Ultimately, I read the book not as offering solutions to the abuses it documents but as showing what happens when people try to dismantle dehumanizing systems.

Overall, I thought Lutz’s portrayal of the abuse and its intersections with gender was thoughtful and refrained from using stereotypes. However, the book is almost purely heteronormative in the way it documents sexual relationships. I wish Lutz had included LBGTQ+ characters or just addressed these relationships as some part of the school’s social scene. It would have added a different perspective on so many of the male-female heterosexual conflicts and been more realistic for a 2009 high school. Still, readers interested in gender and power dynamics, specifically how they impact people long before they reach the workplace, will find a lot to think about in this novel.

So, if you’re still not sure whether or not to read The Swallows, I suspect the Netflix headings for it would be something along the lines of: Boarding School Capers, Strong Female Leads (way to turn something nice into something weird, Netflix), and Feminist YA. Since the assorted algorithms of Amazon, Spotify, et al, have utterly ruined me, I tend to sort books in a similar way (especially since I sometimes cluster read books in a particular genre over time). Read The Swallows if you liked: any of Lutz’s previous novels, A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. (Or, if you haven’t read these other books already, go ahead and check them out. I enjoyed all of them!)

Writing Your First College Paper, Part III

This is the third in a series of posts about writing your first college paper. Look back at the last two posts for some tips on getting into the right mindset and making a plan for your writing.

Do not be afraid to ask for help.

As a college student, you likely have a number of resources at your disposal. Do not be afraid to use them. Resources like these are the reason you pay tuition. If one of the resources you try is not helpful, try another one. In fact, by trying different resources you will find which ones work best for you and that will be a great advantage not just for this paper but for later ones as well.

While getting feedback from a relative or roommate is okay, keep in mind a couple of things. First, you paper is not their responsibility. Second, they may have different expectations than your instructor for competent, college-level writing. Finally, they have not been in class with you learning the material that you are applying in this paper. It may work better to have a relative or roommate read a more polished version after you get some feedback from your instructor or a tutor.

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Consider attending your instructor’s office hours.

Most, if not all, college instructors hold office hours. These are times set aside in their schedule specifically to meet with students. Where and when your instructor holds office hours is often on the front page of the syllabus. (Please, please, check the syllabus before emailing your instructor. You will learn to be more resourceful as a student and your instructor will greatly appreciate that you took the time to use the document he or she spent hours preparing for just this kind of occasion.) Most instructors expect that students will drop in during designated office hour times. However, if it is the day before your paper is due (the day everyone realizes they need help with the assignment) it might be worth checking ahead of time or making an appointment (if your instructor allows that) to avoid long wait times.

If your paper is for a composition or writing-focused course, your instructor may hold conferences. Take advantage of this opportunity to see how your instructor evaluates your work before you turn it in for a grade. Your instructor may ask you to prepare some pre-writing (such as an outline) or a portion of a draft to discuss at your conference. If there is no requirement about what to bring to the conference, at least come prepared with two to three specific questions about the assignment or your writing. This shows your instructor that you are taking the assignment seriously (metaphorical bonus points!) and will help make your conference more productive. A conference is precious one-on-one time with the person judging your work so think about what kind of help you need before you are seated in your instructor’s office, staring awkwardly at him or her and wondering what to say.

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Take advantage of any writing centers and/or tutors your school may provide.

Many colleges and universities staff writing centers with tutors who provide free feedback and assistance with many kinds of writing assignments. Here again, a quick look through your class syllabus or search of your school’s website will tell you if, where, and when you have access to this kind of help.

Both of the options above (office hours and writing center tutoring) can be utilized at any stage of the writing process. If you are having trouble getting started or even understanding what the assignment asks you to do, do not hesitate to get help earlier rather than later.

Focus on doing good work, not just earning the grade you want.

Think back to my first piece of advice: maintain perspective. Worry more about doing quality work than about the number or letter grade you want to achieve. You cannot control the number/letter your instructor assigns your paper. However, you can control the effort you put into writing the paper. Looking back through class materials, the assignment sheet, and a grading rubric (if one is provided) as you finalize your paper can help you create high quality work.

As part of maintaining perspective, you could also look back at your syllabus to remind yourself of how much this paper contributes to your overall grade in the course. Similarly, check the syllabus to see if your instructor has a revision policy that allows you to correct graded work for an improved grade. Knowing that there is a chance to improve some grades down the road may remove a bit of the pressure as you are drafting.

Happy writing!