Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review: WriteShop Story Builders

People assume that because I am a writer, and because Mr. Blandings also makes his living off of words, our children are naturally inclined to the art. While I can't say that it hurts to be raised by parents who love books and find words fascinating, I can also vouch for the fact that genetics alone do not a talent make. I was raised by a father who subscribed to the weekend paper so that he could scan the car ads, a mother who thinks of Harlequin romances as high literature, a grandmother who has, in her lifetime, only read one entire book (the Bible) and an illiterate grandfather. I still manage to bring in a few dollars every year off of writing, so apparently, genetics aren't to blame for my incessant need to pound out words.

In my own little brood, the writing bug has nibbled far more than he has actually bitten. Jo dabbles in writing; she has a large collection of stories housed in a dozen or more of the blank books I pick up each year at our state homeschooling conference. She prefers to write on her own time, in her own way and with very little direction from me. Were I more teacher than writer, I would probably find this to be something I struggled with. Since I also prefer to be given free reign over my own creativity, I find this a fairly natural approach to writing.

Atticus has also taken a flying solo approach to writing. When given the chance to draw his own comics or pen his own tales, he will happily dive in. But since Atticus is still at a very formative stage of the writing process and is still picking up the tolls of the trade, I watch over his shoulder a little more. I also assign him some specific writing tasks--which he hates, as a rule.

Logan is an enthusiastic writer, but not given to stories or description in the least. He is my list maker, letter writer and one-sentence journal entry boy. Given his druthers, he wouldn't write in his journal at all, actually. He'd simply illustrate his thoughts.

So how do you pry those great works out of the pens of young writers? How do you help them leap from doe-eyed horror at the sight of a blank page to flowing ideas spilling out line by line?

One method I've used with regularity over the years is the story starter. I picked up this particular tool when I first started coaching writing camps nearly a decade ago. After a quick gauge of the general interests of my students, I'd throw out either a sentence that was open ended, or a handful of words that I asked the children to weave into a story of their own choosing. The results of these story starters never ceased to amaze me with their variations; when given the words mouse, turtle and lake, I might be handed stories of valiant mice defending their lake home from an invading horde of malicious turtles, a nice buddy tale of two animals gliding through the waters on a sunny day and a story about a little girl who collected animals during her summer vacation.

I've always assembled my own random story starters, and was somewhat amused to find that an entire market had been created around offering up ideas for homeschoolers. At one point, running low on time and dry on inspiration, I checked one such book out of our local library (I think it specialized in story starters for boys) and was disappointed to find nothing that I hadn't already tried, and quite a few that were so lacking in creativity that I was shocked.

Such has been the case with pre-made story starters and me for the past few years. I like the idea, but feel that the products run from implausible and confusing to dry and boring. Thus, when I received a review copy of WriteShop's Story Builders, my expectations were dismally low.

I'm happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I dug deeper into this product. Based on the same "customize this story" idea listed above, WriteShop's Story Builders offer literally thousands of possibilities in just one deck of cards--and there are several different card sets to chose from. Each set comes with nearly 200 individual cards containing elements such as characters, situations, actions and emotions. Parents simply cut out the cards (I suggest laminating as well) and begin piecing together the outline that will lead their young writer closer to their imagination.

The characters are a far cry from the usual simplistic "boy" and "girl." No--writers using this program choose from snowboarders, peacocks and other possibilities designed to fan the flames of "what if?" For writers that need a little more direction, adjectives are included. Can't think of anything to say about a boa constrictor? How about a picky boa, for you?

For only $7.95 per set, I think that these themed decks are a deal for moms too rushed to pull together their own creative writing prompts. There are tips for using the sets included, as well as blank cards for throwing in ideas that fit the interests in your house. Our set now boasts cards labelled Titanic, rebel, Han Solo and knight. I wonder what would happen if I threw all four on the table at once?


The Small Scribbler said...

This looks good, something to keep in my bag of tricks, though I'm like you and prefer to give the kids free reign when it comes to putting pen to paper.


mideastmom said...

Oo, oo, I *love* story starters! For myself and from when I taught language arts in a classroom setting (I did a project in university for an education class creating a book of black and white pictures I'd taken in high school to use with students as story starters; I still have it).

I think just about everyone in our house could benefit from a deck of these. I'm sure dh would enjoy trying to wrap a tale around a set of parameters every now and then. Putting them on my wish list, for sure.