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Story Starters: Helping Children Write Like They've Never Written Before Review by Kate Kessler

Karen Andreola
Charlotte Mason Research and Supply Company

I was really excited to see this come cross my desk. Writing is one of those subjects that can be very tricky for children with no previous experience, but many children really want to do it. This resource makes it available and very understandable, but also interesting and engaging. Story Starters is a large softcover book of 458 pages full of gorgeous Victorian artwork in the same vein as Karen Andreola's previous work, Simply Grammar, but much larger.

Story Starters begins with Notes for the Teacher. Here is where Mrs. Andreola writes one of her gems: "At the heart of writing is the ability to tell - the ability to narrate." What your child will learn in these pages is "how to tell." She begins by explaining the importance of quality books as the main source of your child's composition. "Putting what he has read (or what has been read to him) in his own words, he is learning, from the authors of these books, how to use words." How often I have seen my children use certain phrases they have learned from our reading time (or their own) in their writing with no prompting from me at all. They enjoy the way the words sound or feel on their lips (or pen) so they use them.

She goes on to discuss Creative Narration, ways to prompt a child to narrate imaginatively, Writing with Feeling, Stories of Virtue, Worth a Thousand Words (the use of creative pictures included throughout the book), New Attitude (which delves into empowering your child to write "at a new level of vibrancy that communicates the best of what is going on in his developing mind and emotions."

How does one develop Creative Narration and Writing with Feeling? She discusses it in detail with all sorts of helpful instruction to both you and your child. The child is free to write whatever he wants and he can delve into his own stores of knowledge he may have from his own reading, his own experiences, or anything his imagination can concoct!

So what are these Story Starters and how are they used? Each starter has one or more mostly full-page pictures in the Victorian style of some event or portion of a story that has yet to be resolved. Examples of these include things like a house fire with older children in the process of rescuing younger ones, a kitten staring at a crab ready to snap, a brother in the process of rescuing siblings from a flood through an open window, light shining through a curtained window on a baby with children looking on in astonishment, a young girl discovering a hidden baby in the shrubbery, a crow with lace in its mouth, a porter being upbraided by a stationmaster in the process of rescuing a dog, a boy offering a horse oats, a man with a mysterious trunk, an Indian with a small child, a seaside scene with an old sailor and children, a shoeshine boy with a gentleman, a battlefield scene, various animal stories with excitement involving tigers or whales, small children with small animals and various things like crabs with candles on their backs, knights and ladies, and many many more!

The "story" portion is provided in various ways. Most of the 67 Story Starters are labeled with level of difficulty so if your child is new to writing you will want to start with a beginner story. Once you find the level of difficulty you will choose a picture that appeals to your child (we let our children pick their own to start) and then read the story's beginning that has been written for you; the "starter." For example, story number 8 is called "Morning Wake-Up Call" and has the picture of a boy sending a crab into a bedroom with a candle burning on top of it (not harming the crab) and another picture mentioned above with the crab and a kitten. It begins like this:

Getting Rosie up in the morning was the hardest work. Ever since the baby had been born, six-year-old Rosie had taken to staying in bed while Mother attended to the baby in the next room. Brother Lionel had an idea. "I know how to get her up, Mom." he said one morning.

"Rosie, it's time to get up!" he called.

"In a minute," she answered.

But Lionel knew that his dawdling sister would be lying in her bed for more than a few minutes. A big smile spread across his face as he energetically ran down the stairs to the kitchen, remembering the basket of crabs he had caught the day before. (...)

Lionel was in high spirits. He worked quickly and quietly, all the while suppressing his urge to laugh. From the dining room he collected candle stubs.

"Continue the action of the story as if you were in the next room watching all that takes place. Explain step by step how Lionel got Rosie out of bed. You are free to use the picture of Lionel's cat, too, to add to the action."

This is one of the more brief starters as some of them are really quite in-depth but leave a potentially great story for your child to write! Following the story starter she has listed "Writing Help" with thoughtful questions to help provoke the child's mind to think and write. She encourages action and dialog and asks, "Do you think Lionel's stunt helped Rosie break her slothful habit of staying in bed?" She then provides "Additional Challenge" that offers more inspiration for the writer.

"Tell the story from any point of view you would like. 'Point of view' determines the perspective from which the story is told. Changing the point of view, therefore, can radically change the perspective of the same story. How would the story about Lionel and Rosie be told differently if it were told from Lionel's point of view, or from his mother's point of view? We tend to justify our actions. How would his mother view Lionel's method of getting his sister out of bed?"

There is also much more instruction given beyond this to help the writer examine different aspects of his story and what the writer might do with it. There are many pages of writing help, encouragement, Hints for Polishing a draft of a story, Sensory Language, Vivid Verbs, Artful Adjectives, Advantageous Adverbs, Three Kinds of Narrators, Description of Setting, Character Description Physical Appearance/Personality, and a review section. Then she offers an entire section of Just Pictures for your child to really set to work on his creativity as well as more narration help, an Index of Literary Terms and Techniques, and Writing Resources. There is so much included in this one book!

This resource is multi-level and extremely flexible. I really liked that aspect of it. They say it can be used by grades 4 up through 12 and we are finding that to be true. When this crossed my desk I knew the potential of it and proposed a writers club with two other homeschool families I know. I could tell right away with only a cursory glance that this was going to work for us. The two other families thought so too. We have children ranging in age from nine to thirteen with varying degrees of writing knowledge (some have no previous experience, but a lot of exposure to good literature and some had a lot of previous writing experience). I do not have a great deal of writing experience under my belt, more than some, but not any formal training, and our first meeting centered on choosing a story starter, discussing the importance of bringing a story to life and making it interesting and exciting if the story starter called for that, making your audience "feel" it, and how dialog can be helpful and interesting. We did not go into much detail beyond that, but used examples from literature they had all read, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to explain our instruction.

The results of our first "First Draft Day" were astonishing. The two children who had no previous writing but who had been exposed to good literature wrote some of the most interesting stories! Some of the children used the starter as it was originally written and other children modified it either slightly or a great deal. We gave them carte blanche to do what would work for them and they really used it which was wonderful to see. Some of them wrote them out themselves, some typed into the computer, and one or two narrated their stories to mom as she typed it in and helped along the way. We had them sit in the "Author Chair" and read their stories aloud. They knew this was coming so it was no surprise to anyone and they all did really well. The three moms as well as the other children gave positive constructive feedback or asked questions for clarification on a portion of the story or to find out if that particular item was actually around in those days. We encouraged them all and did not in any way tear down their work, but put forward suggestions that might help to improve upon already very interesting stories. It was really a wonderful successful day and we will be putting together a book for each family of all the stories at the end of the year.

It was especially wonderful to see into the hearts of our children through their writing. Some of them included their faith in some manner in the stories and they were very touching. It is marvelous to see inside a child in that way and to help them bring out those thoughts onto paper. Story Starters might not be for you is if you really like a scripted program or a very detailed teacher manual. This is not a language arts program, but solid grammar knowledge and good word and sentence use are integrated into it throughout. It will not be for you if you do not like creative writing or if you have a hard time letting your child explore his interests in an imaginative way. This is not for you if you prefer textbooks and do not see much value in "living books." If however, you believe as Charlotte Mason did, "If we would believe it, composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed due use of books." Then Story Starters is just the book for you.

Product Review by Kate Kessler, Product Reviews Manager, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, July, 2006