Madeleine’s Declassified: Volunteer Survival Guide

Volunteering for the first time can be difficult. Luckily, there are a few simple guidelines that you can follow in order to have an incredible volunteering experience!

  1. Review the lesson plan before coming to your site. It’s always best to be as prepared as possible, so make sure you are familiar with the lesson plan. This way, you don’t have to waste time at the site, and you are fully capable to answer the kids’ questions.
  2. Bring as much energy as possible! Kids always respond well when their volunteers are energetic and excited — it really is contagious! This fosters creativity and fun for both you and the kids.
  3. (Almost) Always say yes. IYWP workshops are a place for imagination and expressive freedom, so we very rarely say no to ideas. We try to encourage kids in their creative growth, not put down any ideas that seem “too silly” or “unrealistic”. We WANT silliness! That being said, we don’t want to condone any violence or offensive language. Use your judgement to determine what is appropriate.
  4. Trust your intuition. It can get easy to become overwhelmed with self-doubt, but fight against it! Don’t second guess yourself, because more times than not, your instincts are right.
  5. Have fun! The only way for the kids to have fun is for you to have fun as well. IYWP workshops are meant to be educational and fun at the same time, so have a BLAST!

Now you’re ready to go inspire kids through literacy and creativity. Good luck!



Reading about kids of color: Magical Families

by IYWP Intern Robyn Henderson

Every family has its struggles and internal dramas, and these families just happen to have magic that factors into every aspect of who they are. This week’s recommendations focus on girls whose magic and love for their families challenge them to see the world around them differently. Enjoy!


Cici, A Fairy’s Tale: Believe your eyes by Cori Doerrfeld and Tyler Page

ciciA lot is changing for Cici. Her parents are separating, her wacky abuela is moving in, and on her tenth birthday, she wakes up with fairy wings! Cici’s new magical powers let her see people as they truly are. But what she learns about her friends and family isn’t always easy to accept. She has only one day to decide whether to keep her wings. When Cici wishes life could just be normal again, will she choose to believe in the power of fairies?

Believe Your Eyes  is the first volume in a graphic novel series about Cici, a ten year old Latina girl whose life is going through a lot of changes. However, despite all of the changes that she struggles with, Cici is all about perspective. The first half of the story focuses on how she sees the world around her as just a regular girl, while during the second half, her fairyhood (I think that’s a word…) pushes her to find a different perspective. Cici is a great, relatable protagonist, who handles change by avoiding it and the people who love her because she honestly doesn’t know what to do or say. I really enjoyed how the story brought her closer to her family when she discovered that both she and her Abuela had magical powers in common. This is a sweet, genuine story that shows the value of looking at the tough parts of life from a different perspective. I recommend it for kids from ages 7 to 11.


The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste


Corinne La Mer isn’t afraid of anything. Not scorpions, not the boys who tease her, and certainly not jumbies. She knows that jumbies aren’t real; they’re just creatures that parents make up to frighten their children. But on All Hallows’ Eve, Corinne chases an agouti all the way into the forbidden woods. Those shining yellow eyes that follow her to the edge of the trees, they couldn’t belong to a jumbie. Or could they? Corinne begins to notice odd occurrences after that night. First sehe spots a beautiful stranger speaking to the town witch at the supermarket. Then this same beauty, called Severine, turns up at Corinne’s house, cooking dinner for her father. Danger is in the air. Sure enough, bewitching Corinne’s father is the first step in Severine’s plan to claim the entire island for the jumbies. Corinne must call on her courage and her friends and ancient magic to stop Severine and save her island home.

The Jumbies has the feel of a folk tale. You know the kind I’m talking about, where three sisters who are sent on an errand and only the youngest is clever enough to outsmart a witch or something like that. Corinne, our Afro-Caribbean protagonist, feels like that type of heroine, one who is so rational and scientifically minded that she barely even believes in jumbies, but strategic enough that, when she does, she can make a plan and act on it without falling into a panic. This story is about family, and Corinne’s love for her father, as well as her mother who died when she was young, motivates her to protect the people around her in whatever way that she can. The Jumbies is a great middle grade novel for kids who like fantasy with a folk tale flavor mixed in.


Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova


Nothing says “Happy Birthday” like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives. Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange markings on his skin. The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland….

Labyrinth Lost is an exciting, fast paced YA adventure that follows Alex’s quest to rescue her family back from Los Lagos after she accidentally banishes them to Los Lagos, a sinister magical world. Accompanied by  Nova, the aforementioned Mysterious Boy, and, spoiler alert, her best friend Rishi, Alex learns to accept her magic and use her power to set her family free. If you know a kid who loves YA, especially YA with (spoiler) LGBT characters, then they will probably enjoy this book. It follows the expected formulas and has a lot of the expected cliches, but it fills the roles differently and does very interesting things with the expected tropes. However, the summary that only focuses on Alex’s quest does the book a bit of a disservice. The first third is about Alex’s relationship with her mother, two sisters, and her aunt who died about ten years before the story starts. At its heart, this is a story about a family that has magic in its bones, and Alex’s acceptance of both her magic and her place in her family. The novel is very much female driven, so if you’re looking for stories about strong female characters who are growing into their powers, this one is for you.

My First Volunteering Experience

By IYWP intern Megan Wynn


Kids sprouted from every door and corner of the hallway. Most were smaller than me but some were inches taller. I suddenly felt like a baby buffalo trying to learn how to walk along with its herd. Some kids walked impossibly fast with their books held in an aggressive embrace, while others lazily swung their folders around and made short conversation with their friends. I couldn’t imagine what being back in middle school would feel like. I hadn’t been back to a middle since, well, I was a middle schooler. I can’t say I miss it.

I started to get a bit nervous then. From my own experience, middle schoolers can be mean. I started to worry. Will they think I’m just weird? Will they listen to me and respect me? Am I too shy for this?

The front office woman at South East Junior High unlocks a classroom for us and I wobble in awkwardly trying to dodge an approaching mob of kids coming down the hall. We set our things down and wait a few minutes looking at the clock and mumbling about the lack of attendance.

One girl walks in. She’s older and she speaks oddly like an adult. She tells us that there are a bunch of kids who are in the wrong room because there was a confusion with the announcements. My coordinator tells me to go with the girl to retrieve the rest of the kids. We make small talk on our way there and I’m surprised by her voice and how it sounds more mature than mine. We go downstairs to another room where six more kids are waiting. She announces to them that they are supposed to be in a different room. They all storm out of the classroom and we head back upstairs. I was so relieved that they were interested. They told us that more eighth graders joined but they weren’t able to come this week.

All of them were extremely passionate. They all introduced themselves: one kid was writing his own fiction novel that he was looking to publish, another girl had a popular fan fiction blog, and two boys were budding rap artists who wrote their own lyrics and put their stuff on SoundCloud. They all truly wanted to be there, it was incredible. Then my coordinator and fellow volunteer introduced ourselves. I said that I like to write scripts for film and all of the kids either perked up or had bug eyes. One girl even said, “Really? That’s so cool!” I realized then that despite being interested in writing for the majority of my life, I had never really considered screenwriting until I was exposed to it in college. I guess it’s kind of a new and interesting form of writing. It made me excited to maybe bring what I know into my days with them and maybe get some of them interested in it.

Towards the end of our short thirty-minute session, we played a writing game where someone would start writing something for one minute and then pass their notebook to the person next to them. The notebooks made it around the room and the results were both hilarious and creative. The kids were super excited about them and left the class in a rush, still laughing at their work. I’m not going to lie, I was a little sad to see them go. Each student had their own unique personality. They were all so interesting, creative, and passionate. With my first volunteering experience under my belt, I’m really excited for next Friday!

Reading about kids of color: Familiar Fantastical Worlds

by IYWP intern Robyn Henderson

I have a soft spot for stories that are set in worlds that look and feel a whole lot like ours, with a couple of minor tweaks. Worlds where an ordinary kid might wake up, eat breakfast, go to school, and then play a magical game of tag at recess. I also love worlds that seem foreign and fantastical, but are actually very similar to our own if you look closely enough. Whether the story takes you from the mundane to the magical, or shows you how fantastical things can become very ordinary, the books in this week’s list highlight characters whose worlds are both familiar and fantastical. Enjoy!


The Arrival by Shaun Tan

the arrival

The Arrival is a migrant story told as a series of wordless images that might seem to come from a long forgotten time. A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.

The Arrival is a picture book about immigration, and it follows the story of a man coming to a country searching for a better life for his family. Along the way, the man meets different characters, who each tell him their stories of how they arrived in the strange new country. The most remarkable thing about this book is that there are no written words in it. There is no narration. The stunning illustrations tell the stories of the different characters that the man encounters, in a way that is both very strange and very reminiscent of immigration stories in the United States. This is a picture book that is great for all ages!


The Care and Feeding of a Pet black Hole by Michelle Cuevas

black hole

Caring for a black hole is rather complicated. Eleven year old Stella Rodriguez has to learn the hard way, when a black hole follows her home from NASA one day, and seems to want to live in her house as a pet. The black hole swallows everything it touches, which is rather frustrating but also turns out to be a convenient way to get rid of those items that Stella doesn’t want around. Especially the ones that remind her of her dad, who died recently and left a cosmically vast space in her heart. But then the black hole ends up accidentally swallowing something too precious to lose. Now Stella herself must go deep inside to embark on an epic, interstellar adventure. After all, her whole world is at stake. Who knew having a pet black hole could cause so much trouble?

Do you like astronomy? How about fantastical situations and spontaneous humor? Stella Rodriguez, the preteen protagonist of the middle grade novel, The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, is a genuine, dorky, and hilarious girl who somehow ends up with a black hole as a pet. The black hole—who she names Larry, short for Singularity—simply wants someone to hug it but can’t touch anything without accidentally absorbing it. A decent part of the book focuses on Stella trying to figure out how to keep Larry from absorbing everything, especially cute, fluffy things. However, Stella’s story only partly focuses on training Larry. A main theme of this book is about how kids deal with loss and grief, and I think that the story handles this idea very well. The story deftly explores Stella’s relationship with others and with her father in a sincere, lighthearted way that makes you feel as if she could be somebody you know. Minus the black hole.


Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata witch

Akata Witch transports the reader to a magical place where nothing is quite as it seems. Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Will Sunny be able to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own, or will the future she saw in the flames become reality?

Akata Witch is a Young Adult fantasy novel that follows Sunny on her journey from the mundane to the magical as she discovers magic, her own powers, and friends in her new home. She and her friends are strong characters who are intelligent and powerful, but whose magic complicates things that the average twelve year old struggles with. They still have to deal with bullies, but they want to use magic on them to get the upper hand, and other things like that. One thing that is really distinct about the magical world that Sunny inhabits is the idea that things that would be considered handicaps in the non-magical world actually lend a lot of power to those with magic. One character has a learning disability, according to the non-magical world, while in the magical world of the Leopard People, he is a prodigy with a rare power. Akata Witch is a high stakes, surprising, and fun magical adventure that turns the expectations of the reader on their heads, all while feeling very close to the world that we are so familiar with.

4 Last Minute Halloween Costumes for Kids

by IYWP interns Megan Wynn and Robyn Henderson

Are you having a hard time putting together a last-minute Halloween costume? Here are four super easy costumes inspired by your favorite children’s books and teen novels! Enjoy!


IYWP frodo

Frodo from Lord of the Rings

Do you want to be a world changing hobbit?  Wear shorts, a brown or green vest, and a cape. Add a ring on a string as a final touch, and you’ll be ready to start your adventure!






IYWP eloise



How do you become the world’s classiest little socialite? A black skirt, black shoes, and black suspenders are only the first steps. Add white tights and white suspenders, plus a red jacket and a red bow. All that’s left is your pug dog Weenie!




IYWP fox

Dr. Seuss Fox in Socks

Red jumpsuit…check!

Red tutu…check!

Red fox ears and tail…check!

Blue gloves and socks…check!




IYWP harry


Harry Potter

Do you happen to have a pair of round glasses, a stick and a long black cloak or coat? How about a white button down, a tie, and a grey vest? All you need to do is draw a lightning shaped scar on your forehead to be magically transformed into everyone’s favorite boy wizard!



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!