New Voice: Debbie Gonzales on New Zealand’s Gilt Edge Readers Series

Debbie Gonzales is the first-time author of Birthday Skates, Charlie the Sleepy Bee, Kindness, Plunk! Dunk!, Raspberry Fizz, and Stormy, all to be published as part of the New Zealand’s Gilt Edge Readers Series, which will be released in winter 2009.

The books in the Gilt Edge Readers Series offer research-based multifaceted reading instruction to all children learning to read. While the series offers teachers the opportunity to provide explicit instruction in decoding, the texts are written with natural language which supports vocabulary development, fluency practice, comprehension instruction, and–most importantly–a love of reading.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft?

I’ve had many, many marvelous “ah-ha!” moments in this writing journey, but there are two particular experiences that have been life-altering.

The first happened in 2001, when I attended an annual creative writing conference sponsored by Florida International University. I will never forget the mixed emotions I felt while there–complete exhilaration and utter despair.

You see, I’ve always dreamed of being an author. As a child, I remember stroking an author’s name printed on a book cover. Oh, how I wished that my name would be printed on a book like that. However, during that first FIU conference, I was shocked into awareness: making this author dream become a reality was going to be hard, hard work.

At the FIU conference, I met some excellent and highly prominent writers whom I now consider to be mentors and friends, people who have generously shared their support, criticism, and influence with me over the years: John Dufrense, Lynne Barrett, Brewster Robinson, Madeleine Blais, Denise Duhamel, and Connie Mae Fowler, to name a few.

I continue to learn so very much from these folks. Simple, yet profound things. Good writers read. There is method to the madness of plotting. Approach the act of query submission with tenacity. The first page of a novel tells the entire story. Poetry is power.

Connie Mae Fowler taught me that, though the writing life can be grand, the real magic lies in privately honing the skills of the craft.

And Madeleine Blais told me that I was a writer worthy of pursuing a master’s degree. Me? Wow.

I wrote two pieces under FIU’s inspiration that mustered up a little recognition. I return to Florida and attend this conference every year, a homecoming of sorts. I love these people.

Madeleine’s words changed the direction of my life. As a direct result of Maddie’s (and my beloved husband John’s) encouragement, I’ve gone on to earn an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Connie’s words stayed with me throughout the two rigorous years of study, and I mean rigorous.

First and foremost, I came to Vermont to hone my skills and to learn all that I could about the craft. That’s where the magic lies, remember?

I literally sat at the feet of VCFA’s masterful faculty and absorbed all the wisdom I could from them. I was blessed with brilliant semester advisors who accepted no less than my very best: Jane Kurtz, Uma Krishnaswami, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Sarah Ellis. These excellent and highly-prominent authors have become my mentors and friends, as well.

I’m still quite active in the VCFA writing community, serving as a graduate assistant and participating in alumni activities. I love those people, too.

And now I live in awesome Austin, Texas, smack-dab in the middle of an amazing children’s writing community. Today my life is constant series of “ah-ha!” moments. Lucky, lucky me.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about teaching has been a blessing to your writing?

I would say that everything about being a teacher has blessed my writing. I have affectionately referred to my over thirty years in education as my “adventures in teaching.”

I’ve worked with high-schoolers to preschoolers, wealthy and poor, brilliant and disadvantaged, and had a blast with it all. As a teacher, a person walks shoulder to shoulder with a child, privileged to witness all the angst and elation involved in simply being a kid. And talk about characters! There is a plethora of them just skulking down the hallway!

I am trained to teach with the Montessori Method of learning, which is solidly founded on observation of the child. It is a simple, yet highly complex way to teach. In a nutshell, Montessorians are trained to closely consider the physical, intellectual, and social needs of a student and then design an individualized course of study for them.

Isn’t that what we do as writers when we create characters? Don’t we wait and watch, pondering just what direction the character will go? Then, don’t we orchestrate settings and scenes that compliment or conflict with their character traits?

Years ago I worked with kids that were deemed “troubled” or “at-risk” at a marvelous place called Dallas Can Academy. There I taught gang members how to reduce fractions. I helped desperate unwed mothers study for their GED. And there I learned just how a little bit encouragement can ignite a soul. Yes, I gleaned gobs of goodies for my writing bag of tricks in that place.

My middle-grade novel manuscript “Alien All-Stars” was inspired by a student’s response to writing prompt. In class, I dramatically described a dark and stormy night.

“You are all alone wearing your jammies,” I said. “And behold! A spaceship lands right in the middle of your backyard! What happened next?”

One of my students, an extremely shy fourth grader, came up with an incredible tale, complete with back-story! He cast himself as the protagonist, and rightly so. Earlier in the day, the protagonist had clobbered a baseball so high in the sky that no one could find it. The alien had come to return the ball. From that moment on, the alien and the boy became best friends.

Though the plot line of my novel differs from my student’s clever story, the theme of true friendship resonates throughout.

The role of teacher has totally prepared me for the early-readers I’ve written for Giltedge. Nothing is more exciting to a teacher than the moment when a child discovers that they can read! All that laborious sounding out of letters and struggle to blend them together to form words has finally paid off.

As a teacher, you want to fan that flame of enthusiasm by offering them interesting books that both challenge and delight the reader. They need stories that are alive and engage them, stories that they’ll return to time and time again.

The Montessori mantra for this sort of reading practice is “repetition equals mastery.” Novice readers need characters that they can emotionally connect with, settings that are believable, and syntax that respects their need for well-written literature. That is just what the books in the Gilt Edge Readers Series do.

How did you go about identifying your editor?

Actually an excellent illustrator, Brandi Lyons, told me about New Zealand’s Giltedge Publishing. She explained the book series’s concept and thought I might be interested in working on the project. I sent Kate McFlinn an email. She asked for a story. After a few rewrites and edits, Plunk! Dunk!–a book about overcoming the fear of learning how to swim–was born. Since then I’ve written five more titles for Giltedge and have a few others in the works.

Yes, I have been completely impressed by the books in the Gilt Edge Readers series that Joy Allcock and Kate have edited. These ladies insist upon excellence. Their early readers possess essential literary elements–age-appropriate and compelling stories, a dynamic change in the protagonist’s character, situations and settings that emotionally identifiable to the novice reader, as well as surprising plot twists.

Their teaching guides are academically sound, lively, and creative. They illustrate how to best instruct the skills of phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Techniques such as acting out plays or participating in reader’s theatre are employed to assure learning how to read continues to be an entertaining process.

And the illustrations are superb! For instance, in my book Raspberry Fizz, illustrator Robin Kerr created a little red bird with a story line of its own. I can just imagine a young reader searching the page for that tiny feathered friend, delighting in its role in the story. The concept was Robin’s doing and I love it!

The way the series works is that an entire story is written around a particular sound. It is critical that the sound is repeated throughout the story in a non-didactic or redundant manner, that it almost invisible, thus allowing the story line to be the central focus.

For example, the long ‘e’ sound is the focus of my book Charlie, the Sleepy Bee. There are number of confusing letter combinations that make the long ‘e’ sound. For example there is the ‘ie’ in Charlie, or ‘ee’ in bee, or even ‘e’ in regal. Yikes! This is like a very bad joke to a new reader. The reading rules keep changing! How can the beginner ever remember all of this?

The answer to that question is by practicing the act of reading. The solution to the problem of getting a novice reader to practice is to give them quality learning material that they willingly reread over and over again. The Gilt Edge Readers Series books do just that. I am proud to be a part of this important project.

Along with writing these early readers for Gilt Edge, I continue to write for the middle-grade audience. I have two newly completed novels that need a home, one is “Alien All-Stars,” which I mentioned earlier, and the other is “Bear Mountain,” a historical fiction action/nature story set in the Pacific Northwest. My current project is another middle-grade historical fiction piece entitled “Whistle Punk,” set in a 1930’s logging camp.