My First Volunteering Experience

by IYWP intern Robyn Henderson

“If you could be the star of your own movie, who would play you and your friends?” I asked a small group of kids at the Jane Boyd Community House. Two boys, three girls, all between the ages of six and ten. One boy knew exactly who would be in his supporting cast. He specifically wanted Jesse Eisenberg to play one of the main characters, and wanted Kristen Stewart to play his love interest. He really enjoyed Twilight, he told me. I smiled and listened, and wracked my brain to figure out who would be a good actor to play me in my life-movie. Janelle Monae, I told him. Janelle Monae would play me.


I was so nervous. This was my first time ever volunteering with the Iowa Youth Writing Project, and on top of it all, I was working with kids in elementary school. I love writing and I love stories, but I didn’t have any idea how to make a group of six to ten year olds excited about writing. Fortunately, Mal Hellman, the site coordinator, and Katie, one of my fellow volunteers, know exactly how to do just that. Mal’s prompt for the day was to draw a picture of your favorite fictional character, and then imagine that you were the star of your own movie. What would the story be about? Who would play you? How would it end? The kids were really enthusiastic about writing and sharing their stories, and proudly held up their big, brightly colored pictures of themselves as they described their movies. Their ideas were hilarious, sincere and vivid, and a lot of them took their pictures home with them, to hold on to.


Each time that I go back to the Jane Boyd Community House, I am impressed by the focus and enthusiasm that each of the kids brings to these little projects. Whether it’s drawing their Halloween costumes and figuring out what they would do if they woke up the next day as the character they dressed up as, or drawing silly monsters and giving them names, the ideas they come up with, whether lighthearted or action-packed, are always great to listen to. When asked what she would do if she woke up in her Halloween costume, a girl who planned on dressing up as a bright pink monkey told us that if her mom didn’t recognize her, she would sing a song she made that only she and her mom knew about. A boy who wanted to dress up as Lil Wayne didn’t really see what the issue was. He’d go to school, perform at concerts, and come home for dinner at night, he told us. “I’ll make music and make money,” he said emphatically.


I have yet to design my own lesson plan for the kids at Jane Boyd, and the idea makes me almost as nervous as my first day of volunteering. But after coming back week after week, I know that these boys and girls can take almost any question and make a work of art out of it. And afterward, most of them will carry their stories and pictures back home in their backpacks and pockets, the same way that I’ve saved mine. It’s a reminder of a fun experience. Evidence that simple questions, when combined with blank sheets of paper, a multitude of color pencils, and inventive enthusiasm, can create something unique and wonderful.


A Great Writing Activity for Kids: Create Your Own Magical Creature


Finding good writing prompts for kids can be quite difficult sometimes. It often requires a lot of trial and error, but once a great prompt is discovered, the experience is extremely rewarding.

This summer, I led a Harry Potter themed writing camp called Word Wizardry. The 3rd through 6th graders who took the camp were incredibly wonderful and creative in all their writing. However, they responded especially well to one writing prompt in particular: “Create Your Own Magical Creature.”

We introduced this prompt by having the kids name a couple of magical creatures they already knew from the Harry Potter series and from mythology in general. They shouted out everything from hippogriffs to unicorns to werewolves, and it provided them with a relatively solid frame of reference. We then asked the kids to create a creature of their own. As a part of this creation, the kids described their creature, providing details about its appearance and abilities. Most of the kids also chose to draw pictures of their creatures, which allowed the visual artists a chance to shine as well. The last component of this prompt was for the kids to write a story about their creature. We presented many options for this aspect: they could write a scene in which they (or a character) was interacting with their creature, a day in the life of the creature, or some kind of history on their new creation.

Not only did the kids have an absolute blast creating their own creatures, but they came up with some super imaginative and hilarious stuff. One of my personal favorites was the “Giant Blob.” This blob was so immense that it consumed the entire Earth. The premise of the blob’s story was that we humans were all just living inside the Giant Blob’s stomach, completely unaware of the true nature of our existence. Pretty awesome, right?

Another great creature creation was the green serpent that guarded a volcano full of gold. The boy who made this creature created an entire back story filled with long-lost prophecies, daring adventurers, and even underlying messages about the cost of greed. Needless to say, it’s kind of amazing what elementary schoolers can create when given the opportunity.

This writing prompt accomplished two awesome things: it generated super cool work from the kids, and it was also incredibly fun. Remember that this prompt is easily adaptable for any workshop; it does not need to be Harry Potter themed in order for it to work! I would highly recommend “Create Your Own Magical Creature” as a writing activity for 3rd through 6th graders. Happy creating!

Reading about Kids of Color: Superheroines

by IYWP intern Robyn Henderson


Comics have a special place in my heart. Maybe it’s because I’m still attached to picture books of pretty much any kind, but there’s something about bright colors and beautifully drawn pictures that makes the kid in me very happy. When I found these books, I was even happier to find brown girls being superheroes while grappling with very real questions of family, friends, school and work. Just a heads up, these are all Marvel comics simply because Marvel has been working to create and reboot series with characters of color as their protagonists. We’ll see if DC comics catches up. Enjoy!

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur vol. 1

moon-girl-and-devil-dinosaur-coverLunella Lafayette is an Inhuman preteen genius who wants to change the world! That job would be a lot easier if she wasn’t living in mortal fear of her latent Inhuman gene. There’s no telling what she’ll turn into—but Lunella’s got a plan. All she needs in an Omni-Wave Projector. Easy, right? That is, until a red-scaled beast is teleported from the prehistoric past to a far-flung future we call…today! Together they form the most Marvelous Team-Up of all—the Inhuman Moon Girl and time-tossed Devil Dinosaur! Lunella soon learns that there are other problems with having a titanic T. Rex as a pet in the modern-day Marvel Universe. School, for one. Monster hunters are another—especially when they’re the Totally Awesome Hulk! Then there’s the fact that everyone’s favorite dino didn’t journey through time alone. Beware the prehistoric Killer-Folk, New York City’s deadliest tourists. Can Lunella handle all this turmoil and keep herself from transforming into an Inhuman monster?


Lunella is a nine year old genius who is trying to solve a problem that nobody else can figure out. In the most recent events of the Marvel Universe, there are a lot of people who have a gene that could give them superpowers if it’s activated, and mysterious green clouds that have been appearing all over NYC have been causing more and more people to get superhuman—or, as the people are called, Inhuman—abilities. While some kids might be excited by that idea, Lunella isn’t too thrilled, and decides to science her way out of it. And, yes, along the way, a giant red T. Rex gets involved. Lunella is a wonderful character because her smarts don’t keep her from being a kid. She’s just a super intelligent child who feels left out, and who is scared of the unknown consequences of having a superpower. She’s a strong, bold girl who stands up for herself, thinks on her feet, and who has no problems bossing around a giant red dinosaur. This comic is great for kids aged eight and up, and I recommend it to anyone who likes comics in general.

Ms. Marvel vol. 1: No Normal

ms-marvel-vol-1-reviewKamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City—until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! When Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she also unlocks a secret behind them. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her prove too much to bear? Kamala has no idea, either. But she’s comin’ for you, Jersey City!

Remember those mysterious green clouds I mentioned before? Kamala Khan is a Pakistani-American Muslim teen who is trying to navigate high school and life in general. She sneaks out to go to a party and gets caught up in a green cloud, which gives her the powers of Captain Marvel. Shenanigans ensue. I adore this series for many reasons. It juggles representation, religion, family dynamics, pressure to fit in, and expectations from parents and family as well as dealing with more serious issues like gentrification and casual racism. And it does it all beautifully, in a lighthearted way that is both fun and realistic. Ms. Marvel is a series I’d recommend for middle school aged kids and up, and if they love the first volume, they should check out the rest!


Silk vol. 0: The Life and Times of Cindy Moon

silkAs Silk, Cindy is on her own in New York City, searching for her past, defining her own future, and webbing up wrongdoers along the way! But she’s about to cross the Black Cat’s path, and that’s not good news for her. Silk has been picking at the edges of Black Cat’s operation, and Black Cat has had about enough. She gets the drop on Cindy, and Silk hits rock bottom.

Cindy Moon was originally introduced in one of the more recent Spiderman storylines, but as a whole, Silk stands on its own as a distinctive story. We begin with Cindy juggling a double life as a reporter and as Silk, as she searches for her family, who she has not seen for more than ten years. There are some references here and there to other comic book series, mainly Spider Man, but Cindy stands on her own as a strong woman who is searching for remnants of her past, all while taking care of the people around her. Just to let you know, the series starts from volume zero, not volume one. Recommended for teens 14 and up.

My Favorite Children’s Book: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein


giving tree

By IYWP intern Megan Wynn
I haven’t read this book in years. I remember running my stubby fingers along a small collection of children’s books, searching to find the thin green book. I flip through the pages now, sitting in my childhood home, squeezed tightly into the corner of our sectional couch in the basement, closest to the bookshelves, as I did when I was small. I read the words carefully, hearing my mother’s voice. She slightly raises her pitch at the end of every sentence as if slightly winded. As a child I mostly loved the illustrations and the idea of being friends with a tree, but as I grew older, I became perplexed by the progression of the story. Why did the tree give and give to this seemingly ungrateful boy? Why did he take everything the tree had to offer without giving anything back in return?

The Giving Tree wasn’t like any of the other books that my mother would read to me. The other books had happy endings and resolved conflicts but this book just ended because the boy was old and the tree had nothing else to give. I would make my mom read it over and over to me. Maybe I was searching for something between the black and white pages. I remember bringing the Giving Tree into class for show-and-tell and ignoring the writing inside the front cover that read, “Merry Christmas Ryan, my brother, Love Aunt Judy and Uncle Tom,” and claiming the book as my own. I loved the look on my classmate’s faces when I finished the book. They glanced at each other awkwardly and some stared into the play area carpet in frustration. Why did the tree give so much to this boy? Why did he take everything the tree had without showing any gratitude? I could see these questions in their faces.

Growing up our house was always spotless. Everything had its place and its purpose, or else it would be given to charity or tossed in the trash. My mother kept everything around me together, but I hardly noticed. I didn’t until I went off to college and my life got messy without her in it. Our yard was always perfect. There was never a single flower that wilted and the grass never went brown. A literal white picket fence surrounded the back yard and a small playground with an emerald green slide towered over everything. Everything except a large oak tree that sprouted from the middle of our lawn. It was an unusual place for such a large tree to grow. It shaded our entire backyard and was the most popular hiding spot among my three siblings and I during hide-and-seek. I named this abnormally large oak tree The Giving Tree. I loved this tree very much. When I knew my mother wasn’t watching me through the window I would try and wrap my small arms around it in a big hug. I would whisper, “thank you,” and give its rough bark a kiss. One day, the tree died and the “tree-people” came and cut it down within a few hours. I cried from the window. There is no stump left to sit on. I didn’t touch the thin green book for a while. My mother was the one who picked it up after months. I remember that the tree kept on giving and giving and the boy taking everything from her, but I couldn’t remember what the illustrations had looked like. I started not to care about them. I fell in love with the book all over again, but as I grew older the book felt different to me. Whenever my mom was out of town I would pluck it from the bookshelf and curl up with it. It was comforting. This book reminds me of her. Not just because she would read it to me, but because the tree is my mother and I am the boy.

This weekend, while I sat in my childhood home, I realized why the story of the tree’s generosity and the boy’s ignorance stumped me. I couldn’t see all that my mom had done for me, and I really wish I would have appreciated her more. I wish I hadn’t set such a high expectation for what a mother should be like. I wish I hadn’t blamed her for tearing down my Giving Tree. I wish I would have realized sooner that she is not perfect even though she tries so hard to look it. I wish I would have known that perfection does not make a great mother, love does. The Giving Tree is about loving someone so much that you would do anything for them without wanting anything in return. The Giving Tree is about unconditional love.

Image result for the giving tree tree hugging boy

Reading About Kids of Color: Book Recommendations

By IYWP intern Robyn Henderson

As a book lover from a young age and as a person of color, one of the major things that I have discovered is that it matters who is the hero or heroine of the books you read. When I was younger, my mother would hunt for books about black girls like me having fantastic adventures, solving mysteries and occasionally discovering that they had superpowers. There is something really magical about seeing someone who looks like you in the books that you read, and I was fortunate to have that experience. The older I got, the more I realized how hard it is for people of color to find themselves in literature outside of history books. So with this series of book recommendations, I’ll be posting every other week about books by people of color, about kids and teens of color, for anyone who is interested. Enjoy!


Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove, Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon 

Ashanti to Zulu

It would take volumes to describe the cultures of all the African tribes, but here are insights about twenty-six of them, from Ashanti to Zulu. This picture book describes ceremonies, celebrations, and day to day customs. Some of them are shared by many peoples, others are unique, but all are fascinating.

Going from A to Z, Ashanti to Zulu is a picture book that introduces kids to some of the customs and stories diverse African tribes. The book describes the markets of the Ouadai people, how the Ikoma gather honey, and how the Wagenia fishermen catch fish, to name a few. The short descriptions are accompanied by stunning illustrations of the people of the different tribes. I personally adore the illustrations in this book because of their rich, dramatic colors and amazing attention to detail. They are what bring me back to this book every time.


The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

The Gauntlet

Nothing can prepare you for The Gauntlet. It doesn’t look dangerous, exactly. When twelve year old Farah first lays eyes on the old-fashioned board game, she thinks it looks… elegant. It is made of wood, etched with exquisite images—a palace with domes and turrets, latticework windows that cast eerie shadows, a large spider—and at the very center of its cover, in broad letters, is written The Gauntlet Of Blood and Sand. The Gauntlet is more than a game, though. It is the most ancient, the most dangerous kind of magic. It holds worlds inside worlds. And it takes players as prisoners.

The Gauntlet is a middle grade novel that follows the story of Farah Mirzah, a twelve year old Bangladeshi American girl who loves playing games, as she and her friends are swept into the world of the Gauntlet, a world within a game where they must beat challenge after challenge in order to find her little brother, Ahmad. This book reminds me a lot of Jumanji, and I would argue that it is even more fun. With complicated twists and turns, intelligent characters and incredibly high stakes, The Gauntlet draws you into a rich world of puzzles and mystery.


Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older


Sierra Santiago planned to have an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather stars apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears…  Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on. With the help of a mysterious fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one–and the killer believes that Sierra is hiding their greatest secret.

Shadowshaper is a YA urban fantasy novel that follows Sierra Santiago’s discovery of her family’s magical abilities and her own. There are quite a few books where a completely ordinary teen discovers that they are the Chosen One who will save the world, but Sierra’s story is about saving her family and her community, not the world. She is racing to protect people that she knows and loves, as well as her community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the author makes the world that she lives in feel very real. From the prose that blends Spanish and English, to Sierra’s vibrant cast of friends, Shadowshaper paints an intimate picture of a community and the magic hidden in it. Also, she has a giant afro and it’s amazing.


Staff Spotlight: Assistant Director Lisa Roberts

The Iowa Youth Writing Project is a machine of many cogs. An incredible number of people make up the organization, and they are all vital to its success. From volunteers, to donors, to the amazing kids we work with, none of it could be possible without their support. With all of these wonderful people, it is important to spotlight specific members of the organization who go above and beyond to make the IYWP as great as it can be. One of said people is staff member Lisa Roberts. Lisa is the Assistant Director of the Iowa Youth Writing Project. She officially began the position this fall, but she has been working with the IYWP for many years and is considered a core member of the team

Because Lisa has been with the organization for so long, I asked her what her inspiration was for joining the IYWP in the first place: 

“When I first moved to Iowa City in 2011, I was looking for a way to meet like-minded people and use some of my training to give back to the community,” she explains. “Turns out, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, since the people I’ve met have been incredible. They’ve helped me grow as a teacher by expanding my ideas on what can happen in a workshop. My interactions with the kids have been amazingly rewarding as well.”

Lisa often works with kids at workshops in addition to executing her administrative duties. She finds that these two actions can work well in conjunction with each other, especially when it comes to programming. For example, her greatest accomplishment with the IYWP melded both administration and on the ground work:

“My greatest accomplishment was probably getting our therapeutic writing workshop up and running at the John McDonald Residential Treatment center. I wrote the grant that inaugurated the project. In fact, that was the first grant I had ever written, and it was exciting to have it accepted by the Iowa Women’s Foundation. Then there’s reaching out to JMRT, connecting with administration, and training new volunteers in therapeutic writing techniques. Of course, the most important part of all was being able to work with this amazing group of young women every Saturday during the school year for two years. It was amazingly satisfying to see that program through its initiation to full on development, until it was so successful that we could pass it on to new site coordinators and a new group of volunteers,” she said.

Clearly, Lisa has done an unbelievable amount of work in order to help the Iowa Youth Writing Project grow and further its mission. When I asked her about her most memorable moment with the organization, it was very difficult for her to pick:

“Oh, there are so many great times when kids who at first didn’t want to write finally got the spark and took off to do incredible work. I felt lucky to be able to be there when that happened. However, I’m probably going to have pick when I saw little Janice again, at the end of the summer, about a month after her Superhero Gear camp. She saw me from the end of a long hallway in the public library, and she yelled, “I didn’t think I’d ever get to see you again!” She ran at full force all the way down the hallway. When a gift like that comes at you at full speed, all you can do is plant your feet, bend your knees, and open your arms. She launched from about three feet away and just latched herself onto me in the biggest hug. That was the best way to end a summer of awesome camps.”

Lisa’s devotion to the Iowa Youth Writing Project is shown not only in her interactions with kids, but also in her long hours spent writing emails, coordinating sites, and developing programming. This administrative aspect comprises a large portion of Lisa’s job and is essential to the success of the organization. Lisa’s work is admirable, and it is the wonderful people like her who make the IYWP not only function, but thrive. Thank you, Lisa, for all the work you do.

My Favorite Children’s Book: Ashanti to Zulu


By IYWP intern Robyn Henderson

One of the first books that I can distinctly remember reading as a kid is Ashanti to Zulu by Margaret Musgrove, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. It was the first book that made me feel beautiful.


I was seven years old and my family had just moved from our townhouse on Chicago’s North Side to the southwest suburbs. We left our little shared courtyard and my Caribbean, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern playmates for a sprawling suburb full of houses with fences and big yards where we were one of only four black families in a subdivision with at least two hundred homes. For most kids, a move like this comes with a new school and new friends, but I was homeschooled and pretty much stayed around my family all of the time. My best friends were books, and I was delighted to find out that I could check out as many books as I wanted from the suburban library. For the first several months, every other week my mom, my siblings and I would visit and check out at least a hundred books at once. But I don’t remember those books.


I used to draw all of the time. My mom would get me these giant sketchbooks with hundreds of lightweight pages, and I would scribble to my heart’s content with my crayons. And one day, my mother noticed that I had stopped drawing brown people. My characters all had blonde hair, pale blue eyes and peachy skin. When she asked me why I didn’t draw myself or other brown girls, I told her that white girls were better, so I was drawing them instead. And that was when my mother started hunting for books with black characters in them. The one that stands out the most in my mind is Ashanti to Zulu, because I had never seen black people like me drawn in a way that looked so dignified and beautiful.


It took me a while to realize that the book was about different African tribes, but when I did, it just made me love it more. It is a simple A to Z book that describes small facts about 26 different African tribes, accompanied by illustrations. There were so many different pictures of people as brown as me, dressed in unique, meticulously illustrated outfits from each of their cultures. And they were proud, with deep skin and high cheekbones like my mother, had their hair in cornrows like me and my sister, and had full lips like my father and my brother. My favorite was—and still is—the page about the Tuareg people. It is accompanied by an image of a woman with her hair in long braids, playing a stringed instrument next to a man wrapped in white and blue cloth. The description talks about women and men sitting together, with the women singing, sharing poetry and telling stories.  I checked the book out over and over again, and even tried drawing pictures like the ones in it. I never quite got close, but I was drawing brown people again and giving them the full lips and high cheekbones that I saw in my face and my mother’s.


Of all of the books that I read during my childhood, this is one that stands out the most prominently in my memory. It stands out so prominently that, when I came to college, I decided to see if I could find it in the University’s main library. And I actually succeeded. The second that I opened it up, I was transported back to that moment when I was seven years old, realizing that there could be interesting stories about people like me, and distinctive pictures of people who look like me, and today, the same as back then, it makes me feel important. It makes me feel beautiful.