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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lessons in Writing Letters: Contacting Authors David McPhail and Elvira Woodruff

An interesting twist on the penmanship assignment, and a great way to include grammar, literary analysis, and spelling in one measure.

by Kathleen Blease

This year marks our seventh year of homeschooling. We started when Ben was entering third grade and Max first. Over the years, I've relied on some of my own educational concoctions, instead of turning to time-tested and prepackaged plans.

One year, I was trying to convey to the boys the importance of writing letters. Yes, it's old fashioned, but basic letter-writing etiquette and format are still necessary--even in this day of emailing, twittering, and texting.

To make the lesson more fun and less of a chore, I collected the names and addresses of the boys' favorite authors. One such address came to me in a funny way.

I was standing in line at our local pharmacy, when I noticed the woman in front of me. "Excuse me," I said sheepishly, "but are you, by any chance, Elvira Woodruff?" With a big smile and a ready handshake, the author made me feel right at ease. When I told her that my oldest son was a big fan, she quickly gave me her home address and encouraged me to have Ben write to her. With a little prompting, he did. Elvira responded very generously with several signed copies of her books, made out just to Ben.

If you've never heard of Elvira Woodruff, and you have a child who is between nine and twelve (especially a boy), then you owe it to your kids to go to the library and check out her books. At our local library, her titles take up just about as much shelf space as the books by Avi. What, you don't know who Avi is? Don't feel badly, I didn't either. Check him out, too. (To find these two authors, either click on their links, or click here to visit Kathleen's Book Shop for Kids.)

Back to the letter writing...

It was a penmanship assignment that, granted, was not all that sparkly at its onset. Boys are boys. They don't enjoy the details of forming proper letters in size, shape, and spacing. Their rewards came later, some sooner.

While Ben made contact with Elvira Woodruff, Max connected with picture-book great David McPhail. Tucked away in snowy New England, Mr. McPhail put together a little packet just for my son.

Here's an original piece of art from David McPhail. Remember Pig Pig?

And his note thanking Max for writing to him.
 He also sent along a signed copy of Henry Bear's Christmas, a real treasure. I always loved Mr. McPhail's picture books. In response, Max quickly wrote a thank you card. Grateful for his kindness, I included one, too, and mailed them off. Much to my surprise, he sent back another packet of art, this time with an original piece that had his handwritten note on the back, and it was just for me!

I never considered that my children--and myself--would benefit so much from this crazy penmanship/letter writing assignment. It was fun and a pleasure to connect with authors. Being a writer and editor, and after working in a major house in Manhattan, I also had the underlying objective to impress upon my children that creative people (in both the sciences and the arts) are living and breathing individuals just like ourselves. And in this way, I was hoping my boys would see that they, too, can create and affect other people's lives in a positive way.

Making contact brought the people behind the creations to front and center!

Maybe you'd like to try the same assignment, so here are a few of the steps/requirements we followed. This lesson can easily fill a week. Take it slowly; don't try to squeeze it all into a day or two. If your child is overwhelmed, the value of the lesson will be lost.

Letter Writing  and Penmanship Assignment: Steps to Writing to Authors 
(and how to include grammar, literary analysis, and spelling lessons)

1. Mom hunts down authors' mailing addresses. Many times (most times), I simply used the publisher's address, which is found on a book's copyright page. Publishers have assistants who forward all the mail.

2. Child is taught the proper form of a letter.

3. Child drafts a letter with mom's help. His letter introduces himself, tells the author which book he likes, and explains why he likes it. He finishes the letter by thanking the author for his work. This is an excellent way to discuss stories, both picture-books and chapter books, and introduce your child to literary analysis in an informal yet effective way.

4. Mom sits down and checks all spelling and grammar. This is a good time for a simple grammar lesson. For younger children, it's great to ask questions like, "In this sentence, can you point out all the nouns?" For older children, you can discuss proper tense and usage, and so on, to help them grasp strong writing. (Need a brush-up yourself? Check out Strunk's and White's  Elements of Style.)

5. After all spelling and grammar is checked and corrected, your child then copies the final letter in his best penmanship. Lined paper appropriate to your child's age is just fine. Pencil is fine, too, unless your student is in high school.

6. Child is taught how to address an envelope, and it's first done on scrap paper. When all is checked, it's carefully copied onto an envelope. Again, pencil is fine. For small children, you might want to pencil in exactly where the postage stamp must go.

That's all there is to it! Again, take your time and spread the assignment over a week, to avoid tears. You will find, if you are diligent, that you can mark your day schedule as completing the following subjects: penmanship, grammar, literary analysis, and even spelling. By collecting the words your child consistently misspells while drafting the letter, you can create a personalized spelling list to study the following week.

Have fun! And happy letter writing!


  1. This is such a great idea! We have become penpals with a friend that lives on the other side of town to practice letter writing. Writing letters to favorite authors would be even more fun! What a fantastic idea!

  2. Thanks, Melissa! I hope you enjoy and will share with us which authors you eventually correspond with.

    God bless.

  3. Wow, David Mcphail is one of my all time favorite author/illustrators. Which publisher did you write to? I'd love to write him a letter as well--he has inspired me for years.

  4. Paige, I wish I could remember exactly to which publisher we addressed the letter. And all those letters are now tucked in storage with the boys' portfolios from years past.

    However, I'm sure if you write to any of his publishers, your letter will get to him. He is so popular, I'm sure all his letters are readily forwarded.


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