writing ideas: the ultimate guide

January 28, 2011

Before reading, you must check out the disclaimer. And promise no pouncing or guilt.

Ultimate guides are well-loved around here. Currently Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Ultimate Guide has been found sprawled in various settings around the house, attesting to its popularity–with T, anyway. An ultimate guide is simply a rather cockily titled information guide. (Sometimes they’re called, more humbly, insider’s guides.) There are ultimate guides to soccer and baseball, to Indiana Jones, Wonder Woman and Sponge Bob, to scootering and movie-making and thumb wars. And let’s not forget Hauntings and Horrors: The Ultimate Guide to Spooky America. (Okay, I’ve never seen that one. I just appreciate the fact that there seems to be an ultimate guide to about everything.)

Something about the ultimate guide format seems to have appeal particularly–though not exclusively–for boys. My two boys have always found them irresistible. Just the other day, one of Lulu’s teenage buddies was over, and saw that Percy Jackson guide lying on the counter. “Ooh, I love ultimate guides,” he said, and squirreled it away into our office.

There’s no fixed format to an ultimate guide; they’re really just a mish-mash of interesting information.

The Percy Jackson guide, for example, has lists of characters, maps, an activity schedule for Percy, a list of Artifacts and Curiosities from the books, quizzes, a bestiary, a section called Ten Signs that You May be a Half-Blood. Oh, and removable character cards, like Pokemon cards, which, of course, are a fave with Mr. T.  Another well-loved guide around here is The Artemis Fowl Files, subtitled, predictably, The Ultimate Guide to the New York Times Best-selling Series. This one includes a translation of fairy code, A Spotter’s Guide to Fairies, diagrams of fairy helmets and pods, quizzes, “interviews” with the characters and more.

It’s precisely this mash-up quality that makes ultimate guides so promising as a writing format. Kids can choose any area of interest and write a guide for it. When it comes to content: anything goes. Maps, diagrams, jokes, glossaries, interviews, illustrations, recipes, quizzes, whatever sounds fun.

As I’ve mentioned here, Mr. T has been learning about the Ancient Greeks. He was trying to come up with a project, and I suggested an ultimate guide. T is a master at coming up with new ideas, but he doesn’t always have–how shall I say it?–follow-through. He likes an idea when it’s new and exciting, but then quickly becomes bored. A guide is a great option for a kid like him, because it’s a compilation of many small parts. There’s always a new way to explore his topic.

He decided to write The Ultimate Guide to the Trojan War. We flipped through the Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl guides for inspiration, and then brainstormed a list of possible topics together. Here are some of the ideas we’ve come up with so far:

  • trading cards
  • maps
  • Ten Signs You’re a Trojan
  • Ten Signs You’re a Greek
  • Interviews with the characters
  • A Warrior’s Schedule
  • Guide to Which Gods Help Who
  • Warriors’ Equipment
  • Places of Troy
  • Cut-away diagram of the Trojan horse
  • Dictionary
  • A Greek Soldier’s Meal
  • Inside a Greek Medic’s Bag
  • Greek jokes

He’s starting to make pages on different types of soldiers.

And here’s his interview with Achilles, dictated to me.

Why did you join the Trojan war?

Those Trojan dogs anger me so! Taking other’s possessions! I had nothing to do with Helen of Troy! But when that Greek—Odysseus was his name—came and called upon me to join the war of Troy, I knew I shouldn’t. But something urged inside me and I went along with it.

Why did you kill Hector of Troy?

I have at least three reasons. Obviously, the first one was that we were in a war, and killing Hector meant that Troy would lose its greatest warrior. And also, he killed my great friend, Patroclus. And last but not least, I wanted to strike fear into the heart of Troy, to show my Greek companions that I was not worthless. Oh yeah, and the fact that I wanted his stuff.

What’s your favorite food?

By far, steamed shrimp mixed with garlic and spinach.  With a slice of bread on the side. Buttered up and ready to go!

I’m not quite sure where the food insight came from. I mentioned that the Greeks might have preferred olive oil with their bread, but T was pretty keen on his Buttered up and ready to go! line. Whatever tickles him. Ultimately, it’s his ultimate guide.

I suppose what I like most about this type of writing is that it’s fun. Much more fun to write than a book report, or a straightforward science or history report. Yet it requires kids to delve deeply into their source material. They have to know their content just as well as they would for a typical report; maybe even more so. But the writing itself is much more creative and exciting to read. The form allows kids to explore different genres of writing in short bursts. Kids who like humor can play with it; kids who like statistics and facts can have fun with those too. And as they write, they’re experimenting with tone, style and genre. So much more sophisticated than traditional report writing.

Of course, the sheer ultimate-ness of an ultimate guide implies an encyclopedic completeness. Kids should know that they don’t need to write a complete ultimate guide. One or two entries may be enough for them.

What might your kids like to write guides for? Legos? The Wee Free Men? Emperor penguins? All-of-a-Kind Family? Valentine’s Day?  I’d love to hear some of your ideas in the comments. (Not that our kids’ ideas always match our ideas…)

If this is the sort of writing your child might enjoy, try flipping through some ultimate guides at your library. (Search the catalogue for “ultimate guide”–in quotes–or just “guide”, and limit the search to the children’s section.) Kids will probably be more inspired to write their own guides if they’ve browsed some published ones. If your kid gets excited about the format, throw out the idea of writing one. Help your child brainstorm possibilities for content, and see what happens. And for kids who enjoy design and making things, there’s lots of potential for turning their pages into handmade books. Check out Bookmaking with Kids for inspiration. (Browse the book structures category.)

And if your kid writes an ultimate guide, or part of an ultimate guide, do come back and share!

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Crowe January 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Oh–this is an excellent idea, and I’m going to suggest it for our Shakespeare studies around here. Annabelle has both the Percy Jackson Guide and the Artemis Fowl guide, so I think it’s safe to say she’ll understand (and like) the assignment entirely!

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patricia January 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm

An Ultimate Guide to Shakespeare would be fabulous!

Have you seen Top Ten Shakespeare Stories by Terry Deary?
http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780439083874

It covers several Shakespeare plays with a varied, wacky format: excerpts from Miranda’s Diary, the revenge of Caesar’s ghost, the seven ages of Shakespeare according to his “diary”, a quiz about the dangers of the Shakespeare theater, lots of fun Top Ten lists and so on.

One of my favorite memories from high school was working as a group to make a National Enquirer-style newspaper based on Othello. It was hilarious–and slightly inappropriate, but our teacher loved it.

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Just Peaches January 29, 2011 at 2:09 pm

I think the only “guide” we have around here is “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe” (my son’s!) I do think it is a terrific idea though. Thinking back over my kids homemade books and interests I thought they would have liked:
The Ultimate Explorer’s Guide
The Ultimate Treasure Seeking Guide
The Ultimate Guide to Gnome Fashion
The Ultimate Treehouse Guide
But the real beauty of it is that it would work for anything wouldn’t it? Dinosaurs, Cowboys, Pioneering, Fairies…whatever their interest is.

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patricia January 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Yes the format would work for just about anything!

(But I would really love to see the Ultimate Guide to Gnome Fashion! This is one of my favorite books ever:
http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780810954984 )

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Just Peaches January 29, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Thank you for the link Patricia. It’s one of my girls’ favourite books too. I got it for my middle one at Christmas a couple of years ago when she was at the height of her gnome obsession. I remembered it from when I was a girl: I loved the detail and the illustrations.

It competes with Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairy book (an earlier obsession).

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Kathi Weiss January 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm

My son has a mad fascination with Percy Jackson right now. I’m going to talk to him about some of your ideas.

Kathi Still trying to figure out science for my 3rd grader.

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patricia January 31, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I know about that mad fascination with Percy Jackson. My nine-year-old has the same…

Thanks for stopping by!

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Nancy February 4, 2011 at 10:17 am

Love it! My oldest son LOVES books of this type. He’s read all the Boys’ Books – of Survival, of Dangerous Things, etc. Right now I am wondering why I didn’t think of this. Thanks!

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patricia February 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Nancy, if your son loves this type of book then it’s worth exploring this format as a writing style.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep in mind all the various forms of writing out there. But it’s helpful to pay attention to what kind of books your kids enjoy reading (or having read to them) and to consider whether those might work as writing models. It’s always best to go with their passions!

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Carrie Pomeroy February 18, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Inspired by this post, we have played a bit off and on with also doing an Ultimate Guide to Greek Mythology, because along with the Incas and pirates, Greek myths are really big around here right now. So far, my kids have dictated a “Which Greek God Are You Most Like?” quiz, and my daughter and I did an interview with Persephone (sample: “It’s hard adjusting to the darkness again after being up in the light for six months. I try to take Hades a present from above ground when I go back.”) Bridger and I did an interview with the Hydra, as well. I’m amazed at times by the details that they remember that I simply have NOT retained.

So far, I’m noticing that one of my weak points as a dictation-taker is my desire to edit and revise as we go instead of letting the ideas rip without a lot of massaging on my part. This has also been one of my weak points as a writer–over-editing too early in the process. Interesting. . . Thanks for the inspiration!

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patricia February 19, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Thanks so much for sharing what your kids have done with this idea! It’s a thrill for me! Their examples are fantastic. And yes, isn’t it amazing what kids retain? And they can bring all of those small details to play in their writing, which is what makes it so interesting.

I have to laugh at your tendency to revise too much up-front: that’s definitely a problem I have with my own writing! I’ve learned not to offer too many suggestions to T as I take dictation–because he usually doesn’t want my suggestions! If I offer them less often, he’s more likely to consider them, so I try to bite my tongue. I have better luck asking him genuine questions when I’m a little confused or I want to know more–but even then he doesn’t always want to add more. It’s a balancing act!

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Valarie February 21, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Greetings,
I just had to stop in and say that over the summer we read all of the Percy Jackson books. We couldn’t put them down and we love the ultimate guide. My guy is studying all about the Greeks now as well and we are planning a “Jump Into A Book” Percy Jackson/Greek party. I love ultimate guides as well because it takes small bits of information and really entices the mind. I just really liked this post. I can relate to it so well currently. Hope all is well .

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patricia February 23, 2011 at 9:52 am

Thanks, Valarie! It’s fantastic that so many kids have been drawn into Greek history via the Percy Jackson series, isn’t it? Your Percy Jackson/Greek party sounds like loads of fun. T would love that too.

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amy October 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Reading thru your writing posts, bit by bit. I want to write an ultimate guide to something!! How fun does that sound? Also, my sister had that Gnome book, I knew just what I was going to see before clicking on that link. I wonder if she still has it? I remember being confused–it was presented like a guide book, so then…gnomes were real? (I was pretty young when she got it.)

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patricia October 29, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Amy, I think I might like to write an ultimate guide to bees and honey. Not a comprehensive guide, just a random, eclectic mishmash of fun stuff!

When I was a kid, my best friend had that gnome book and it fascinated me. Later when my oldest was about three, we visited my best friend’s mom, and my son become fascinated with the book. The following year she gifted us with the old copy from my childhood. Such a treasure.

Whenever anyone says they are reading through my posts, they instantly become my new favorite reader. :-)

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