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1. SCHOOL'S OUT! Or is it . . . ? by Anna Wilson

In January I wrote about the joys of giving children notebooks and letting them run riot with their story ideas. Since then I have met many teachers and parents who have done just this. They have told me how wonderful it is to see this space being used. The freedom to write or draw whatever the child wants has fed into stories she or he has often then gone on to polish in class in structured writing time. (This has not, of course, always been a direct result of my post – many teachers and parents were already giving their children the chance to explore their writing in this way.)

I would not be blogging about this again, were it not for something I witnessed on a long train journey last week; something which had me thinking again about how constraining we can be in our approach to our children’s education and the damage that can be done when pleasure is forsaken in favour of ticking boxes and getting things ‘right’. And, perhaps more importantly, when this approach leaks into home life.

A mum got on the train with her two small daughters, whom I guessed to be about five and six, and her son, who, I thought, looked about eight. They settled into their seats and the mother brought out some pens and pencils, paper and notebooks.

The little girls immediately clamoured, ‘I want my notebook!’ ‘I am going to write you a story!’

How lovely! I thought. What a great way to spend a few hours on the train.

‘Yes,’ said the mother. ‘You each have twenty minutes to write a beautiful story, and then I will read it and check it. Now – remember I want to see “wow” words, good punctuation, proper spelling, neat handwriting and lots of interesting verbs and adjectives—’

The boy groaned loudly (or was it me?) and put his head in his hands. ‘I don’t WANT to write a story!’ he complained. ‘I don’t like writing stories and I am no good at them.’

His mother placated him with promises of chocolate biscuits if he would only ‘be good like the girls and write for twenty minutes without making a fuss’. His sisters were indeed already scribbling away and reading aloud what they had written, eager to share it with their mother. She praised them and told them to keep going for the full twenty minutes.

What is it with this twenty minutes thing? I thought. Maybe she is desperate for a bit of peace and quiet. Don’t judge! You were in this situation not so long ago yourself: long train journeys with young children are tiresome and they have to have things to do otherwise you go crazy and so do they.

The boy then handed over his story. His mother, glancing at it, said, ‘Well, that’s not very interesting, is it? You haven’t used good connectives, there are no “wow” words, your handwriting is messy and you just haven’t made an effort.’

Pretty harsh, I thought.

Then came the killer blow.

‘You really have got to start making an effort with your writing, you know,’ the mother went on. ‘Next year you will have to write for twenty minutes and put all these things into your stories. You have been on holiday for a week already and you have done no writing. You must promise you’ll concentrate on this for another twenty minutes, or you will be no good at this next year.’

I must confess that, at the time, I wanted to lean across and engage the boy in conversation. I wanted to ask him if he liked reading and, if so, what kind of stories did he like best? What about his favourite films? I wanted to get him chatting about his likes and dislikes and encourage him to scribble them down, to use this precious ‘writing time’ as a chance to let his brain go wild. I wanted to tell him that it was OK to do that, and that afterwards he could go back over his story and concentrate on the connectives and the punctuation and the neat handwriting. I wanted to say that all those things his mother was talking about were indeed important, but that perhaps the reason he hated writing so much was that he was struggling with remembering the rules; that if he could forget the rules to start with, he would then perhaps find he loved writing stories, and that he had piles and piles of them to tell. I might perhaps have added that, as a published writer, I would be paralysed if I had to write a clean first draft from the off which obeyed all the rules of Standard English . . . 

Of course I didn’t. I did not want to upset his mother – after all, it was none of my business. In any case, on reflection, it was not her behaviour with her children that upset me the most, rather the fact that she clearly felt anxious that her son was not up to scratch with his English. Indeed, she was so anxious that he improve that she was insisting he work on it over the summer holidays, and work on it in the exact same way he is required to at school. She was armed to the hilt with educational jargon and was turning this terrifying arsenal on her weary son.

I was an editor before I was fortunate enough to develop my career as a writer. I know as well as anyone the importance of good grammar and correct punctuation. I appreciate clean, clear writing and a well-structured plot. I know good dialogue when I see it. My own children will roll their eyes and tell you that I am the first person to howl at the misuse of the apostrophe on a street sign or restaurant menu. Of course I can see why we have to teach these things and why parents should care about their children’s level of competence in English.

However, it makes me extremely upset that an obsession with such technicalities has the potential to wreck a child’s love of their own language. When you are as young as that little lad, creative writing should be fun, shouldn’t it? Leaving aside the dubious value in making your child work over the summer holidays in such a joyless way, I found it heartbreaking that the mother seemed not to see the potential for fun in giving her son a notebook and letting him run riot with his imagination before giving him guidance and advice on how to hone his ideas. Even more heartbreaking, though, was the thought of how anxious the woman seemed to feel about her son attaining certain targets in the academic year to come. She cannot be alone in feeling this.

I only hope that, come September, her son will find himself fortunate to have one of the many inspirational teachers we have in this country who are still in love enough with their subject to occasionally throw out the rulebook and teach from the heart instead.


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2. Illustration Samples: Karate

hl-karate 4 up samp

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3. El Deafo, by Cece Bell

After an illness at age 4, Cece loses her hearing.  She is soon equipped with a hearing aid that involves wearing a pouch around her neck attached to some "ear globs".  Cece is happy to hear again, but now has to learn how to understand once more.  To top things off, Cece now has to go to a new school.

A good thing about the new school is the other kids are wearing hearing aids too, and Cece is learning some useful skills like lip reading and using visual, context and gestural clues to help in understanding.  Cece is just finding her way, when her family decides to leave the city and head to the country, where she will be going to a regular school.

Cece gets a brand-new-BIG-for-school-only-around-the-neck hearing aid (The Phonic Ear) that comes with a microphone for her teacher to wear and is superpowerful.  What nobody expects is that it comes with the added feature of having a super long range, allowing Cece to hear not only her teacher teaching, but whatever her teacher is doing when she is out of the room as well (yes...even *that*!).

Cece has to negotiate the things that all kids go through at school - including navigating a friend who is not-so-nice, and getting her first crush.  Things unique to her situation include dealing with friends who TALK TOO LOUD AND TOO SLOW, and those who refer to her as their "deaf friend".

This is more than a graphic memoir - it is a school and family story for all kids.  Cece is an imaginative and emotional kid with whom readers will identify.  There is an accessibility to Bell's art that immediate draws you in and you can't help but cheer with her successes and cringe with her tears.  Fans of Telgemeier and Varon will readily scoop this up off of the shelves, and it *will* be passed hand to hand.  I am certain I will see many doodles of Cece and her friends in the margins of writer's notebooks this coming school year.  Do yourself a favor...get more than one!

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4. Yaqui’s text set

medina yaqui delgado1 Yaquis text set Since I wrote recently about using a text set built around the idea of respect and the title Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina, a few people have asked what other texts we used alongside it. Our* essential question was “What makes someone worthy of respect?”

We were aiming for a set that spanned genres, and so the resulting set was both too big to use in our short time but also made of texts that weren’t only from the YA world. It included the some of the following:

  • Poems like “The Ballad of the Landlord” by Langston Hughes and “Ex-Basketball Player” by John Updike
  • A series of quotes about respect from famous people
  • The short story ‘Chuckie’ by Victor LaValle
  • A couple of articles about bystanding and upstanding when bad things happen to others
  • Lou Holtz’s famous first locker room speech at Notre Dame
  • A couple of pieces from the This I Believe collection having to do with self-respect (thisibelieve.org)
  • Several anecdotes from the book Discovering Wes Moore about choices, misunderstandings, and facing adversity

This group of texts are all related to the idea of respect and who gets it and who doesn’t, and the different readings allowed us to consider respect from a variety of vantage points as we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of Piddy and Yaqui in the anchor novel.  They also gave us lots of time to dabble in writing different genres.

Text sets are such a fun way to really think hard about important stuff, and I’m excited to keep adding to this set about respect.

*This curriculum for the BGA/BU Summer Institute was developed in collaboration with my awesome friends Marisa Olivo and Lucia Mandelbaum from BGA and Scott Seider from BU. 

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5. Educational Materials

Having a teacher's guide for your book will help sell more copies. 


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6. Using Dear Mr. Henshaw to encourage students to write

dearmrhenshaw 200x300 Using Dear Mr. Henshaw to encourage students to writeDear Mr. Henshaw, a Newbery medal-winning book by Beverly Cleary, is a great way to get students to think about some of the therapeutic benefits of writing. Of course, you don’t have to mention how helpful writing can be when you need to sort out feelings but you can let students figure this out on their own as they read the book.

Leigh Botts writes to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw, as part of a school assignment and when the author writes back and asks Lee questions, his mother says he has to respond. Through his correspondence with Mr. Henshaw Lee learns about accepting life’s difficulties and — with the encouragement of Mr. Henshaw — starts to keep a journal.

In addition to coping with his parents’ divorce and missing his father, Leigh also deals with moving, adjusting to a new school, and having his lunch continually stolen — certainly timeless topics.

While some children may not think of writing letters to an author, they may keep a journal or know someone who keeps one. There are a lot of projects that can be added to the study of this book, including writing letters or journal entries as one of the characters. Students could also write to offer advice to the characters. Introducing students to the basic format of a personal letter (or e-mail) will provide valuable experience.

Mr. Henshaw certainly proves to be more interesting (and interested) that Leigh probably imagined. Reading this book could also foster discussion about the kinds of people your students admire (authors, celebrities, athletes) and what makes a person worthy of admiration. Ask if there are any local, “hometown heroes” that your students admire in addition to people who are nationally or internationally famous.

One of the many takeaways from the book for adults is that adults encourage Leigh to write and while he is hesitant at first, it grows on him. Students who would not write on their own may learn to enjoy it more if a teacher or parent lays the groundwork for them to get comfortable first.

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7. Third grade transitional books

Third grade is a funny transition period between picture books (“baby books”) and chapter books (“big kid books”).  Personally, I think there is much to say about a great picture book, but my students tend to balk at the idea of reading them; they want long books with as many chapters as possible. I think what my students are really searching for is more challenging content, but not all students are ready to enter the realm of the chapter book or even a very complex picture book (meaning fonts, vocabulary, and overall visual structure). So I try to encourage students toward picture books that are meant to be more academic or informative, and relatively straightforward. Here are two of my many favorites.

michelle 233x300 Third grade transitional booksMichelle by Deborah Hopkinson; illustrated by AG Ford
When I was working for AmeriCorps, my nonprofit purchased this book as a Christmas gift to all its student participants. My students were enthralled by this book because of its subject, Michelle Obama. The book’s text was complex but straightforward enough that it was accessible. It narrated her story without over-fantasizing, and told my students that by working hard, anything was possible. The pictures helped with the comprehension but what shone was Michelle’s values and strength of character. Because of the population I was working with (low income, racially diverse community), I think Michelle continues to be a relevant role model and the reason why the book remained so dear to my students.

redwoods 199x300 Third grade transitional booksRedwoods written and illustrated by Jason Chin
Another great find while working for AmeriCorps, I wanted my students to grasp the height and girth of a redwood tree without ever visiting one. I read this book aloud because the text was sometimes too long and detailed, and needed summarizing or simplifying. This is probably more appropriate for an older grade, but my students enjoyed this nonfiction picture book nonetheless.  Jason Chin also wrote and illustrated two other nonfiction books (Coral Reefs and Island: Story of the Galapagos), but I found this one to be the simplest for 3rd grade.

I know what you’re thinking: what about graphic novels for 3rd grade? That’s another blog post in the making. Until then, what picture books have you found that are both engaging and academic?

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8. Batter up!

With baseball season in full swing, it is the perfect time to check out one of the many great picture books featuring baseball. Here are some of my favorites.

Wise SilentStar 219x300 Batter up!Silent Star: The Story of Deaf Major Leaguer William Hoy by Bill Wise with illustrations by Adam Gustavson (K-3)
Today many baseball fans may not know this, but in the late 1800’s one of the best major league players was William Hoy, who also happened to be deaf. This book tells his story with wonderful oil painting illustrations that will help readers understand both the time period and Hoy’s life.

Perdomo Clemente 235x300 Batter up!Clemente! by Willie Perdomo with illustrations by Bryan Collier (K-3)
Told in English with scattered Spanish words, this book follows a young boy named Clemente as various family members tell him about his namesake, the great Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente. While the book details Roberto Clemente’s baseball career, it also includes other aspects of his life, including his charitable work. It is a great option, particularly for those looking for a book that incorporates Spanish language text.

Adler LouGehrig 300x247 Batter up!Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man by David A. Adler with illustrations by Terry Widener (K-3)
Though he is perhaps best known now for the disease named for him, Lou Gehrig was an important figure in baseball well before he was diagnosed. In this book, readers learn about his early life, including his studies at Columbia University and his fourteen years in major league baseball, during which he played in a record number of consecutive games. While the book does not shy away from Gehrig’s illness, it tells the inspirational story of his life both before and during that period.

Winter SandyKoufax 247x300 Batter up!You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax? by Jonah Winter with illustrations by Andre Carrilho (K-3)
In a striking departure from many sports biographies for children, this book focuses on Koufax’s struggles and early failures before recounting his rise to the top of the game. Readers also learn about the important role that Koufax’s Jewish faith played in his career, causing him to face discrimination and also leading to his refusal to play in the 1965 World Series because it fell on a high holy day. Though this book will appeal to all baseball fans, those who love baseball statistics will particularly enjoy the way that it integrates important stats into the illustrations at key points in the story.

Meshon Yakyu 300x249 Batter up!Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon (Preschool)
In this fun, brightly colored book, a young boy goes to baseball games in both the United States and Japan. Side-by-side pages show the differences between the experience in each country, both at the stadium and outside of it. The book integrates Japanese words in the text and unique details of baseball culture in each country into the illustrations.

Thayer CaseyattheBat 182x300 Batter up!Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer with illustrations by Joe Morse (K-3)
This entry in the Visions in Poetry series takes the classic poem “Casey at the Bat” and moves it to an urban setting. The poem is a classic for a reason, and a new generation of baseball fans can enjoy it with the modern, updated images that accompany it.

Bidner JoeDiMaggio 298x249 Batter up!The Unforgettable Season: The Story of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of ’41 by Phil Bildner with illustrations by S.D. Schindler (K-3)
Whether you are looking for a baseball book or an exciting glimpse into a period in history, this book won’t disappoint. It follows the separate paths of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams as they each chased baseball records over the course of the summer of 1941. The illustrations bring the time period to life and make this book a great way to make baseball fans into history fans — and vice versa.

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9. The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair: Kate Bernheimer & Jake Parker

Book: The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair
Author: Kate Bernheimer
Illustrator: Jake Parker
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair, written by Kate Bernheimer and illustrated by Jake Parker, is my favorite type of picture book. That is, it is largely nonsense, but is based on an issue that will resonate with young kids. There's a girl who has beautiful long brown hair, and who decides that she doesn't need to brush her hair. "It's just my way", she tells her (largely invisible) parents. Because her hair is such a mess, a mouse decides that it's the perfect habitat, and moves in. Before she knows it, the girl has something like 100 mice living in her head. but there are consequences. 

Kate Bernheimer ratchets up the nonsense from page to page. Like this, after the mice ask the girl not to bathe anymore:

"Much to the mice's relief, the girl agreed. For though she was becoming quite dirty, she had grown fond of their company. They had set up such a marvelous home for themselves -- a palace, really, atop her head. It had secret passageways and a cheese cellar and a tiny circular moat."

Seriously? Mice with a moat on her head? It's hilarious. 

Jake Parker's illustrations (rendered in pencil and digitally colored) suit the story perfectly. The girl's hair is a gorgeous, tangled mess. She has bright brown eyes in her heart-shaped face. She  looks like a doll, really. The mice are perky and cute. The girl's doll, Baby, manages to look forlorn as the girl's attention is taken up by the mice. There's a slight soft-focus to the pictures that works well with the story. 

I can't wait to share The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair with my own daughter, who has, shall we say, issues with hair-brushing. In our house, we've been telling her that birds will come to live in her hair if we don't get out the tangles. But mice work, too, and, as it turns out, are more fun. The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair is hilarious, and well worth picking up. Especially recommended for preschool girls who have long hair. 

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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10. Head over Heart by Colette Victor and writing outside of your experience

Head over Heart jacketA rich and warm-hearted coming-of-age tale, Head over Heart is an impressive and important debut novel from Colette Victor.

An adolescent girl is smitten with a boy in her class. But she fears her family would disapprove of her spending time with him. How can she balance her wishes with those of her family? How does she work out what she really feels, when whatever course of action she takes may make someone unhappy?

Victor’s novel is finely told, with an eye for emotional complexity, but what makes it stand out for me is how very relevant it is today in Britain with all this talk of “British values”; the heroine in this story (which made me cry quietly as I reached the final pages) is a Muslim girl, trying to work out some of the issues any teenager might face to do with friendship, love, lust and just who they see themselves as, who they want to be, but she is having to do this at the same time as trying to find a comfortable place between or across two apparently very different cultures.

Ideas of what is right or wrong, what is appropriate or not are thoughtfully explored. There are no easy answers, but there’s lots of respect and understanding, quietly woven into the pages. Whilst it is brilliant to see some publishing diversity (how many other novels for young teenagers can you think of with a Muslim main character?), I firmly believe this is story relevant to any adolescent (and indeed any parent of young people just entering that crazy time of their lives when hormones run riot), whatever their cultural or religious background.

If you enjoyed Anne Booth‘s Girl with a White Dog I’m confident you will love this book, which also explores how life in Britain today is incredibly enriched by the many cultures that find a home here. Pertinent, moving, and at times challenging Head over Heart is a book which makes the world a little better for enabling us to walk in each others shoes and understand our neighbours and ourselves a little more.

Perhaps the last comments of my review should go to a friend of mine: I lent my copy of Head over Heart to a Muslim friend who first warned me that it might take her ages to read the book. Within pretty much 48 hours she was back: “I couldn’t put down the book!” “Her writing is so beautiful.” “I would definitely give my daughter this.”. She also talked about how for her as a parent who didn’t grow up in the UK (but in Pakistan) it was very interesting and helpful to think about the differences between her own childhood and that of her UK born children.

Authors write outside their experience all the time but I still felt it would be interesting to hear what Colette Victor had to say about the experience – she was born in South Africa and now lives in Belgium. Here’s what she had to say to me:

“The magic of being a writer is being able to leave your own predictable and familiar existence to temporarily take up residence inside another person’s skin, a different set of circumstances, a new world all together. If the only viewpoint I was supposed to write from was that of a white, middle-aged South African woman living in Europe, I doubt I’d be doing any writing at all. I certainly wouldn’t have any readers.

So why did I feel I had the authority to write from the perspective of a Muslim teenage girl living in Europe? Well, it all boils down to my job, really. I live and work as a community worker in an ex-mining city in Belgium with a large immigrant population. I’ve worked with many different groups of people over the years – children, senior citizens, ex-convicts, job seekers, resident groups and mothers. Many of the young people and mothers I work with are of either Turkish or Moroccan origin – their families came out here over fifty years ago to work in the mines. I’ve heard countless personal stories, been inside scores of homes and spent hours in the company of young Muslim girls and their mums. I also spent a lot of time interviewing some of these girls to find out their viewpoint on various issues and, I can tell you, they’re as vast and varied as any other group of women.

One of the reasons I set out to write Head over heart was because there are so many misconceptions surrounding the headscarf. People often see it as a symbol of female oppression. Through my work I’ve met many proud, strong women who choose to wear a headscarf as a symbol of their identity, despite the opinions for or against it. I know married women, widows, single mums and emancipated university students who wear a headscarf because that’s who they are and not because there’s a man standing in the wings demanding it. On the flip side, I also know many women who would seem Westernised and wear Western clothing but live an existence of subjugation and submissiveness behind the scenes. I know Belgian women, Christian women and atheists – some lead proud, strong lives, some live in fear and submission. Ultimately it’s about looking further than cultural accessories and seeing the person underneath.

My daughter, Stella, who’s about the same age as Zeyneb, had a Muslim best friend for all her nursery and primary school years. The two girls were always together, doing homework, dressing up, sleeping over at each other’s houses. As my daughter’s friend got older and her body started changing, she often expressed concern about the fact that soon her carefree childhood would be behind her and she’d have to make the choice of wearing a headscarf or not. This is what got me thinking about all the cultural pressures at play in making such a decision and this is what I explored through Zeyneb’s eyes in Head over heart.”

My thanks go to Colette Victor for her thoughts on this. And thank you – this has been a long post, but I really think this book deserves the time and space I’ve devoted to it dtoday for it is an excellent, thoughtful, and highly relevant début.

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11. Two Arthurs

Here in Boston we are getting ready for a sideswipe by Hurricane Arthur. They’ve even moved the Boston Pops and fireworks festivities to tonight instead of tomorrow. Meanwhile, Arthur is headed for the southeast coast here in the US today. It’s pretty rare for that first storm of the season — the one named with an A — to do much damage, but still one worries. I hope everyone stays safe.

Thinking about this hurricane’s name reminded me of the most famous children’s lit Arthur, Marc Brown’s aardvark. I admit to never watching one of the cartoons all the way through, in part because I don’t like how the character’s face was made so generic for the cartoon version. It’s as if Arthur’s makeover role model was Michael Jackson: lighter skin tone (or is it fur?) and smaller features. I never did understand the color change, but regarding the nose, it’s probably difficult to animate a character with a large droopy nose and short arms. How would he carry anything?

Still, when you compare the first book — which is about Arthur learning to come to terms with having a very large nose — to the present incarnation, I have to wonder what children make of this change.

arthursnose Two Arthurs       arthurnow Two Arthurs

Has anyone had a conversation with a child about the different physiognomies? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

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12. Made by Raffi by Craig Pomranz & Margaret Chamberlain & other knitting picture books

Indulge me: Have a quick brainstorm about picture books you know for young kids which explore what it feels like to be different?

[Go on! Play the game!]

Of those you’ve come up with, how many are about emotions rather than physical characteristics?

How many of them feature humans rather than animals?

How many of them have a boy lead character rather than a girl?

[I came up with very few, and even then I needed help from the ever resourceful and generous Letterbox Library. Between us we came up with Oliver by Birgitta Sif, Eliot Jones, Midnight Superhero by Anne Cottringer and Alex T Smith, Weslandia by Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes but that was pretty much it.]

raffifrontcoverSo when Made by Raffi written by Craig Pomranz, illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain (@madgiemadge) appeared in my hands for the first time I sat up and noticed; it’s about a boy who feels he doesn’t quite fit in, for instead of football, his passion is knitting and sewing.

Although he’s a curious and generous kid, he feels sidelined at school. Unlike most of his classmates, he doesn’t like noise and rough play. But thanks to a supportive teacher he discovers a new passion – making his own clothes. When it is time for the school play could this new skill help him gain the respect of his peers? Without giving the game away, the ending is upbeat, but also authentic. This isn’t a sugar-coated story. (For the really interesting background to the story, take a look at this article).

This book deserves to be in every school and read in every family for a whole plethora of reasons. It’s bold, tackling gender issues that many adults might skirt around: I love Pomranz daring to use the word “girly“, and it certainly helped us talk about how being a girl interested in ‘boys’ things’ is often more accepted by society than a boy interested in ‘girls’ things’. It’s big hearted; not just the warm, loving family Raffi is part of, but also his supportive school. It shows all sorts of children playing together, with different skin colours and different physical abilities, as well as different interests. It’s a joyously inclusive book, which tackles big themes gently and playfully.


Margaret Chamberlain’s illustrations are delightful. She uses colour very cleverly to portray moods and to mirror how much more interesting – indeed colourful – the world is for a diverse range of characters; wouldn’t the world be a dull grey place if we all liked only the same things?

A book about loneliness, respect, difference, and learning to trust your instincts even when it means you don’t follow the crowd, Made by Raffi is a vital, delightful and unusual book I urge you to share.

M and J were recently shown how to knit by their Grandma, and reading Made by Raffi offered the ideal opportunity to practice their recently acquired skills. (Here are some Youtube tutorials we found helpful to refresh our memories of what Granny had taught us: Casting on, knit stitch, casting off.



Having a ball of wool with lots of different colours on it was an effective tool in motivating the kids; each child would knit one or two colours and then hand the needles and ball over to the other. It gave them easy targets to aim for, and I’m sure this is partly why they completed a long scarf far more quickly than I was expecting.


Whilst knitting we’ve been listening to:

  • Lots of songs by Raffi (an Egyptian-born Canadian singer-songwriter who creates great kid-friendly music), – here’s a whole playlist on youtube.
  • The Knitting Song by Bill Oddie
  • Knitting by Arthur Askey. Massively old fashioned but a great rumble through all sorts of stitches and garments.

  • Other activities which would go well with reading Made by Raffi include:

  • Learning to finger knit. Here’s the youtube video we used to learn how to fingerknit.
  • Letting the kids embellish their own clothing. I found this the easiest/most satisfying way to let the kids have a go at making something themselves – they chose buttons they liked and sewed them onto a couple of pieces of clothing. Simple sewing but with a relatively big (and ‘real’) result.
  • Making a cloak as described in the story. Alternatively, if you can find a department store selling off curtain samples (eg in John Lewis or House of Fraser), you can pick up pretty much prepared cloaks – all you need to do is add something (eg a large hook and eye) so you can have the cloak safely stay on your shoulders as you zoom around wearing it.
  • If in a school or a library setting, making a display with images of clothes designed by men (Galliano, Versace, Gaultier for example, cut out from glossy magazines) and as the centre pieces place Made by Raffi and The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams. Whilst not for primary school kids, I’d also encourage you to read Boys Don’t Knit by T.S.Easton, a hilarious take on a teenage boy who loves to knit. Ben Fletcher and Raffi would definitely like to meet each other!

  • Other picture /illustrated books which feature knitting include:

  • Socks for supper by Jack Kent
  • Knitting Nell by Julie Jersild Roth
  • Mr. Nick’s knitting by Margaret Wild and Dee Huxley
  • Shall I knit you a hat? : a Christmas yarn by Kate Klise and M Sarah Klise
  • Derek, the knitting dinosaur by Mary Blackwood and Kerry Argent
  • Annie Hoot and the knitting extravaganza by Holly Clifton-Brown
  • Mrs. McDockerty’s knitting by Ruth Martinez and Catherine O’Neill
  • Noodle’s knitting by Sheryl Webster and Caroline Pedler
  • The knitting of Elizabeth Amelia by Patricia Lee Gauch and Barbara Lavallee
  • Knitty Kitty by David Elliott and Christopher Denise
  • The truly terribly horrible sweater that Grandma knit by Debbie Macomber, Mary Lou Carney and Vincent Nguyen
  • Carrie measures up! by Linda Williams Aber and Joy Allen
  • knittingpicbooks1

  • Pa Jinglebob, the fastest knitter in the West by Mary Arrigan and Korky Paul
  • Pa Jinglebob and the Grabble Gang by Mary Arrigan and Korky Paul
  • The best little knitter in the West by Sermsah Bin Saad and Samantha Cook
  • The three billy goats Fluff by Rachael Mortimer and Liz Pichon
  • The long red scarf by Nette Hilton and Margaret Power
  • It’s gone, Jac! by Rob Lewis
  • A winter’s yarn by Kathleen Cook Waldron and Deborah Turney Zagwyn
  • Love from Woolly : a lift-the-flap book of woolly gifts by Nina Michaels and Nicola Smee
  • Pelle’s New Suit by Elsa Beskow
  • Milo Armadillo by Jan Fearnley
  • knittingpicbooks2

    If you like the sound of Made by Raffi and are anywhere near Edinburgh in August, don’t miss the chance to meet author Craig Pomranz talking about his book as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival.

    Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publishers.

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    13. What do I get if I read this?

    Despite a preponderance of research that shows that external motivators do not increase student engagement and motivation over the long-term, it still seems that you can’t find an elementary school where reading is not at some point tied to coupons to free food, stickers, certificates, or miscellaneous prizes.

    These gimmicks and contests do reiterate that reading is fun — but only if you get something for doing it. Recently my own school had one of these contests and the experience not only proved ineffective at cultivating a passion for reading in my students, but actually reduced the excitement that some of my them had for reading.

    This time around the incentive that was supposed to spur children to become lifelong readers was bikes. For each book read, that child would receive one ticket to be entered into a drawing for a bike.

    Each classroom would have two winners: one girl and one boy.

    Initially, what upset me most was the division between males and females. My students and I have done a lot of work around gender and stereotypes and this contest seemed sure to reinforce binaries that my students had been learning to question. Additionally, my class has a tremendous gender imbalance, so the odds of winning the bike were almost three times higher if you were a boy — a fact one of my bright young mathematicians pointed out during one of our conversations about the contest.

    Though I inquired about the possibility of having a single classroom box and two of the “boy” bikes as the prizes for my classroom, I was told that the “bikes had already been ordered.” As a new teacher, I felt I had to settle for taking the boy box and the girl box, even though it went against my better judgment. While we had some great student-prompted conversations about why there were two boxes, it was difficult to settle for “that’s what the adults who set up the contest said that we had to do.”

    As the date for the bike drawing approached, only about half of my students had participated in the contest and I had observed no changes in my students’ reading behaviors. I did, however, witness a number of contest participants quickly flipping through books so they could add the title to their “books read” lists. As with most contests of this type, accountability is difficult to ensure and enforce and the enjoyment of reading a book becomes reduced to a simple means to an end.

    On the day of the drawing, my students were moderately excited. Two highly gender-stereotyped bikes had been sitting in the atrium of our school for over a week to drum up excitement. (The boys bike was red and black while the girls was white, purple, and pink — with streamers, of course.) When it was time for the winners in our classroom to be drawn, I halfheartedly pulled out the two names — one from the boy box and one from the girl box.

    I was so relieved that the contest was finally over, but my students were certainly not done thinking about it. A few minutes later, a girl who hadn’t participated in the contest came over to me and told me “it hurt her feelings that she had to sit there and watch other kids get stuff.” Another three students in my classroom left the assembly in or close to tears. The melancholy that had swept over my students was palpable and painful to witness. The assembly certainly hadn’t felt like the “celebration of reading” that the organization sponsoring the program had promised.

    After the assembly, we talked as a class and discussed ways that the contest might be improved. Their ideas included having a prize that the whole class could win for reading, having everyone win bikes, and having books as prizes. At the end of the talk, one girl said — to nodded approval from her peers — “I just wish that this contest had never happened.”

    Another student, who had read the most books in our class but didn’t win, kept repeating: “I read 82 books and I got nothing.” Despite my reassurances that she had gotten to enjoy the experiences of all of those wonderful books and had definitely become smarter as she learned things from the books, she remained dejected.

    Whether it is with pizza, stickers, or free movie passes, attempts to incentivize reading fail to cultivate the habits of lifelong readers and send the message that reading is something you should do only to get something in return. Yet these contests continue to proliferate and are constantly dressed up with flashier prizes and greater promises to improve reading habits.

    What explains the ubiquity of these contests? I think it is in part, because they seem so harmless. An outside organization or sponsor generously offers to support reading — most likely with the best of intentions. The seemingly innocuous nature of these contests is what makes them particularly sinister. After all, who would argue that giving away bikes to kids who might not have one is a bad thing? The school and local community would most likely vilify a teacher daring to stand up in opposition to such a program. (I’ll let you know how that goes when I argue against repeating this contest next year.)

    I am convinced that we must rescue our students from contests of these sorts. If we don’t, we may end up with students who refuse to read a book without the promise of getting something. Surely there must be better ways to engage community partners in joining us on our journey to create lifelong readers who are intrinsically motivated to explore the wonderful world of books without resorting to contests that leave students reflecting that they read but “got nothing.”

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    14. Curriculum Guides

    Make it easier for teachers to incorporate your book into their lessons by providing a detailed curriculum guide.


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    15. Trial and error: lit circles

    Since my inaugural post here, my class has changed quite a bit. We began with a few rather difficult classics, but I began to feel rather desperate about introducing my students to great accessible reads without emptying my pockets. This is where literature circles come in.

    In general, lit circles are scaffolded reading clubs. Each group of three to five students has a unique book they read, and every week they meet and discuss. Each person has a role, which means that the students who are usually quieter and more likely to let others lead the discussion, now must discuss! Also, because these are smaller groups, they are a bit more comfortable for my less confident students.

    I was very excited about trying this out in my class, which is a mix of English Language Learners, struggling readers, and accelerated readers. Best of all, I didn’t need a set of books for the entire class; I just needed about four or five of each!

    I prepared my students by first walking through a short story and doing each of the group roles together as a class. All the while, I did a quick introduction of each book and really talked up the books.

    Then on Friday I put out four to six novels and had students form groups of twos and threes at the back of the classroom. There they rifled through the books and wrote down one to three books they were interested in (with a star next to their “hot choice”), and one book that they really do not want to read (optional). Prior to Choosing Day, I had already divided my students into three reading groups based on reading level so when they went to the back, only books that were in their general reading level were available. As I progressed up the levels, I would replace some of the easier books with harder books so that students generally had a few at-level and a few reach books to choose among.

    Then I had the whole weekend to look at my students’ choices and determine who would read what. I considered each student’s behavior, motivation, and reading level. In the case where students really wanted to read a book that was too difficult for them, I would either let them into the group because I felt they could rise to the level, or I would let them know that currently they weren’t ready, but perhaps they could work really hard and read the book during our next set of lit circles. It is really a cool motivation.

    In my next post, I will write more in detail about how the lit circles progressed, but for now I will leave you with a few popular books at varying levels for middle school students.

    Short story for classroom practice
    Anything by Langston Hughes is good since he writes with a pretty straightforward plot that has great characters and themes that, as one student put it, “get you in the feels.”

    stepfromheaven 195x300 Trial and error: lit circles A Step From Heaven by An Na 
    Although this is an easier book in terms of length, type size, and even lexile, the topics of domestic abuse and immigration are pretty difficult and emotionally accessible for middle school students. Also, Na’s style of poetic prose can definitely throw students off in the beginning. I had intended for my weaker students to choose this, but it ended up that a group of three medium to high readers took this up. At first, they were a bit skeptical about the book, since it was an unfamiliar style, but towards the end, they were very engaged in the trials of the narrator as she navigates the life of an immigrant from ages four through eighteen. It was a group of two boys and one girl, and both sexes were very engaged. This was also very useful for applying figurative language knowledge.

    thissongwillsavelife 200x3001 Trial and error: lit circlesThis Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales
    This was a hugely popular book. I had it for my higher readers since it was longer and the subject material seemed a bit older, but I think medium readers could handle this because the plot is super engaging for boys and girls alike (they were clamoring for a sequel). The story follows a female protagonist who is just pathetic at school — no matter how hard she tries, it is not just a question about fitting in with the popular group, she doesn’t fit in at all! She begins to find her niche when she starts deejaying at an underground indie club. It’s a great coming-of-age book that requires students to start critiquing the decisions of the protagonist, the supporting characters, and even the parents. Topics covered include love, cutting, and popularity.

    breathingunderwater 188x2681 Trial and error: lit circlesBreathing Underwater by Alex Flinn
    Three of my best girl readers read this book.  It is from the first-person perspective of the sixteen-year-old male protagonist who is convicted for hitting his girlfriend. There is some heavy and difficult subject material in the book, including sexual references and confessions. The cover itself concerned one of my parents as it is a picture of a boy and girl about to kiss. Yet if possible, I would definitely allow mature readers to try this book. My girls in general are more dutiful about reading but are not thrilled by it. This book, however, broke that barrier, and they would come up to me and gush about what was happening in the book. I ended up buying the sequel, Diva, so that they could read to see what happens next. This never happens!

    I could go on about other books, but these were definitely the winners out of the seven books we read together in class. In my next post, I will cover more in detail the roles and how I facilitated these groups. I will also cover a few more books that were popular.

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    16. Picture books for launching mathematicians

    My school uses a play-based approach to teaching math, which is advantageous because as an early childhood teacher, my students still love math and they love to play games. They enjoy learning and working with numbers and I can build on this through math games.

    For me, teaching math is often challenging because my own mathematical background emphasized “doing” math over understanding with drills, formulas, and math algorithms rather than reinforcing why we use specific math procedures. Add to this the new Common Core Math Standard’s focus on conceptual understanding, fluency, and application and you get a recipe for highly reflective lesson planning!

    One way to bridge this gap between doing and understanding math is with picture books. They provide purposeful ways to ground students intuitive use of math and easily get them using and talking about the most effective strategies.

    There are so many wonderful math concept and picture books out there, yet selecting books that effectively support mini lessons and launch play requires a bit more searching. The books need to interest students, embed rather than simply present math concepts, lend themselves well to differentiated extension activities, and of course, be fun!

    Some books I’ve successfully used and that meet these criteria are:

    I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean — This is a Kevin Sherry’s story about a giant squid who thinks he’s bigger than everything in the ocean. He’s very big, but is he the biggest? This book is great for introducing relative size, comparisons. This is an alternative text for introducing standard measurements as well as scale when students are challenged to rank by size or to think of reliable ways to determine how much bigger he might be than other animals.

    roostersofftoseeworld 218x300 Picture books for launching mathematicians Rooster’s Off to See the World — This classic Eric Carle book can help launch math activities about number sets. In the book, Rooster seeks company as he travels around the world. Along the way, he encounters different types of animals and invites them along. The best part of this book is that every time he meets a new animal, the number of them increases. It’s a great way to introduce students to counting in groups and helps students to distinguish between total numbers and sets of numbers. With this book, students played sorting games and counted number sets.

    Ppigswillbepigs 300x259 Picture books for launching mathematiciansigs Will be Pigs — This is the hilarious tale of a family of pigs who need to find enough money to pay for dinner at a restaurant. The author Amy Axelrod wrote this book to teach explicitly about money and she does a fabulous job. I especially love this story because it can also be used across the curriculum. I’m connecting this to a social studies unit on access to healthful food. Grocery store or restaurant math games using coins are natural extension activities with this book.

    alexanderwhousedtoberich 300x229 Picture books for launching mathematiciansAlexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday — Judith Viorst’s Alexander tales normalize my students’ every day experiences and emotions. This one is no different. Alexander has just spent every cent of the money his grandparents gave him. As he recounts how he spent it, students add up how much he spends or can subtract from the initial total. I love this one because a few of the items have prices that some students might find awkward to work with. As with Pigs Will be Pigs, it also lends itself well to cross-curricular connections, especially the basic economic principle of scarcity: Alexander had to learn the hard way about saving versus spending his limited income. For this book, a game to help Alexander save is also a next step for money.

    When using picture books to teach math, pre- and post-assessment of student understanding can easily get lost. Talking to students about the math concepts in the books before sending them off to play math extension games can give you a sense of their thinking. For post-assessment, reviewing student work and requiring them to either to write or share out their strategies for success on the games lets them talk about their math knowledge and provides natural entry points for correcting misconceptions or pushing learning.

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    17. Summer reading remixed

    Far too many of our students enter as ninth graders reading woefully below level. Part of the problem, we believe, is due to the Matthew effect. The gist of this theory is that kids who struggle with reading for whatever reason avoid it all costs, causing them to fall even further behind. And of course, the farther behind they fall, the more they avoid reading.

    As a result, our school’s English department has set out to create a culture of reading. We envision a school full of students who read for fun and engage in informal conversations with each other about books as readily as they do about last night’s basketball game. Students who would talk about the film version of a text and proclaim the book was way better. By focusing our efforts on creating such a culture (rather than on, say, scripted remedial curriculum), we hope that students will enjoy reading more and then read more.

    One of the first things we changed to this end was our summer reading, as summer reading loss among inner-city students is well-documented. Previously, each grade level had an assigned text to read over the summer. Students would read the book and then write an essay or create a project that they would submit upon their return in the fall. As well-intentioned (and plagiarism-prone) as this was, it did not create the culture we wanted.

    So last year we gave students more choice. We created a list of books with a few selections per genre. Students were given a packet that featured the cover, a brief synopsis of the premise, a simple approximation of difficulty, and page count for each book. After a week, they submitted their top three choices were then assigned one of those titles. Over the break, students completed a log in which they had to summarize and annotate each chapter and create a few discussion questions. In the fall they took part in discussion groups in their English classes with others who had read the same book.

    Of course, things weren’t perfect. One thing we learned (i.e. were told by students) was that we needed more sports-related selections (we’re in all-boys school). We’re also going to encourage all faculty members to read at least one of the books from the list, and we’re considering creating cross-grade level reading groups.

    But overall, I liked the results. Some students claimed it was the only book they had ever read all the way through outside of class. Others cited their summer reading book as their favorite book on my beginning of the year survey. And I had numerous old students stop by to talk about how great their book was and did I have the sequel for them to borrow. By these indications, I think we’re getting there one page at a time.

    What does your school’s summer reading look like? Do you have any recommendations for books that should go on our list this for this summer?

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    18. M. T. Anderson is my favorite punctuation teacher

    feed M. T. Anderson is my favorite punctuation teacherI suppose I am a “writing person.” I study it, and teach it, and teach about teaching it pretty regularly. The most common question I get, over and over, no matter what level teachers I am with, is about the best way to teach conventions.

    In my experience, teachers have often tried things they don’t feel that great about, and they are looking for new strategies. One tactic I love that is used less often in the upper grades, is to use mentor texts to teach about technical features, which leads me to M. T. Anderson as a punctuation teacher.

    I’m not sure how he’d feel about that label, and it certainly isn’t the first thing I want to talk about when discussing his books. But no one is more masterful at punctuating sentences to find a very particular character’s voice. He writes a shifting mix of simply structured, infrequently punctuated sentences mixed with purposeful run-ons here and there to give that fractured feel of being disconnected in Feed. octaviannothing 192x263 M. T. Anderson is my favorite punctuation teacherOr he uses long sentences with highly academic uses of punctuation marks to give that classically-trained, high brow feel in the Octavian Nothing books. Each set of punctuation decisions makes you read in a particular way, and each is precisely and perfectly matched to the story being told.

    I think too often we give students the idea that there is a right way to punctuate their work or a wrong way, but that feels limiting. With any idea, there are bunches of right ways to use punctuation, as well as a slew that don’t work as well. Part of the fun of writing is making those choices, and I hope students get to have that sort of fun in our classes by learning from great writers.  And if we get pulled into reading more M. T. Anderson as a happy side effect, well, so much the better.

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    19. Women in STEM

    STEM Women in STEMThough there is an increasing focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the U.S., there remains a gender disparity among workers in these fields. According to a  2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report, women are less likely than men to have an undergraduate degree in a STEM field and they are also underrepresented in the STEM workforce.

    Female role models and examples can be particularly helpful to combat this disparity and to encourage all children — and particularly girls — to pursue careers in STEM fields. Fortunately, there seems to be an increasing focus on women in STEM in children’s literature, which makes it possible to offer these role models in your classroom or library. The books below are some particularly good options for kids interested in STEM and they all focus on the contributions women have made in these disciplines. All of the books perfect for kindergarten through second grade unless otherwise noted.


    Rachel Carson Women in STEMRachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World by Laurie Lawlor with illustrations by Laura Beingessner
    Nature enthusiasts will find inspiration in Rachel Carson’s story of building a career as a biologist writing about the environment. The book opens in Carson’s childhood and details her education as a biologist at a time when few women were employed in the field and her struggles writing Silent Spring, her most famous book. It does not shy away from her battle with cancer, which ultimately killed her, and offers a note with additional information about Silent Spring’s impact. The book also includes numerous notes and a bibliography of both Carson’s books and other works about her.

    me jane Women in STEMMe…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
    Jane Goodall is a particularly popular subject for books for all levels of readers, but this multiple award winner is among the best. Combining adorable illustrations, materials from Goodall’s own childhood notes, and selected photos, it shows how a childhood dream can become a reality, which is an inspirational message no matter what your goal in life may be.

    Florence Nightingale Women in STEMFlorence Nightingale by Demi
    Though Florence Nightingale is a well-known historical figure, this book brings to light aspects of her life that will be unfamiliar to many readers, including her determination to pursue a career in nursing despite her parents’ reservations and her innovations in hygiene practices. The illustrations bring to life her family and the hospitals where she worked and will keep readers engaged. The book also includes a timeline of her life and books for further reading at the end.


    Marvelous Mattie Women in STEMMarvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by Emily Arnold McCully
    Born to a poor mother in 1838 at a time when few women had the opportunity to have a quality education or the freedom to become inventors, Mattie Knight used the toolbox she inherited from her father to start inventing as a small child. Over the course of her life, she created numerous important inventions, including a guardrail to protect workers in textile mills and a machine that is still used today to create paper bags. The book not only details her inventions but also shows her strength in defending them from those who tried to steal them from her. The illustrations incorporate examples of diagrams for her inventions and the book also includes an author’s note and bibliography with more information on Mattie.

    Girls Think of Everything Women in STEMGirls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women by Catherine Thimmesh; illus. by Melissa Sweet
    This book, which is aimed at young readers in about second through fourth grade, collects stories of a variety of female innovators who created everything from a chocolate chip cookie recipe, to kevlar, to computer compilers. Young inventors are also included, offering great inspiration for young readers. All of the stories are illustrated with a combination of collages and paintings. The book ends with resources for young inventors.


    Rosie Revere Women in STEMRosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty; illus. by David Roberts
    Rosie loves to invent things and hopes to be an engineer one day, but when one her inventions fails, she thinks about giving up. Her great-great-aunt sweeps in to convince her that she is wrong and to explain to her the importance of trial and error. The cute story and entertaining drawings will be sure to make this book a favorite.


    Of Numbers and Stars Women in STEMOf Numbers and Stars: The Story of Hypatia by D. Anne Love; illus. by Pam Paparone
    This book tells the story of Hypatia, a woman in ancient Alexandria whose father chose to educate her the same as boys were educated at the time. Despite the limitations placed on women at the time, she became a respected mathematician and philosopher, a process that this book brings to life through its illustrations.

    Infinity and Me Women in STEMInfinity and Me by Kate Hosford; illus. by Gabi Swiatkowska
    Readers of this book follow an eight-year-old girl named Uma as she grapples with the concept of infinity. Friends and relatives all try to explain it through different analogies, bringing Uma to consider topics as divergent as music, friendship, and love in her quest to grasp the meaning of infinity.

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    20. A book outside the box

    notabox 260x260 A book outside the box“That sounds just like my dad!” one of my students exclaimed. “That must be a grown-up saying that!” offered another. We were in the midst of reading Antoinette Portis’s Not a Box and my second graders were bursting with excited insights about just who the off-page narrator might be.

    On its surface, Not a Box seems simple — a young rabbit repeatedly advocates for imagination by reiterating that no, his box is not a box, but whatever he wants or dreams it to be. The seeming simplicity of Not a Box, however, is extremely deceptive.

    As a teacher interested in cultivating curiosity and creativity in my students, I am always on the lookout for books that deviate from the standard idea of “book” that my students hold. Due to its intriguing off-page narrator and its clever illustrations, Not a Box certainly differs from the usual elementary school fare.

    The off-page narrator, whom we never see, drives the book with constant interrogation about what the rabbit is doing with the box. My students knew right away that the questions were not coming from the character they saw on the page, but from a source outside the book. They also knew that the rebuttals were coming from the rabbit and cheered its increasingly adamant responses to the off-page narrator.

    My students’ insights and understanding of the book spilled over into the illustrations, which are also outside-the-box and pull a lot of weight for this word-sparse text.

    On each page where an inquiry is made about what the main character intends to do with the box, the illustrations show what a narrator (presumably an adult) sees: a boring, old box.

    With each increasingly incensed rebuttal, the illustrations mutate slightly to show what that box can become with just a little bit of imagination. Due to the relative simplicity of the illustrations, my second graders had no trouble catching on to how they worked and what they were trying to convey.

    The spontaneous and sophisticated understandings that my students demonstrated surprised me; I had actually selected the book not to analyze its structure, but rather to discuss its message — that childhood curiosity is both valid and exhilarating, even if adults don’t understand it. And, that the book resonated so strongly with many of my students highlights that they do, perhaps, feel like adults don’t understand their imaginings.

    notaboxdisplay A book outside the box

    Nicole’s students are inspired by Not a Box by Antoinette Portis

    Following the reading of the book, my students channeled their creativity to make their own “not-a-box”-es. Their ideas ranged from body armor to a laptop to a castle. Clearly, Not a Box inspired my students to think outside the box. I can only hope that it will also inspire them to keep thinking innovatively, even as a culture of standardization and testing in schools threatens to undermine creativity. Now more than ever, it is essential that teachers seek out books that showcase the wonder and joy of thinking outside of the box.

    Readers, if you know of a creativity-sparking book, please mention it in a comment!

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    21. Third Grade Reads…a lot of series!

    This year, I’ve been fortunate to work in a school where the kids love to read for fun. Throughout the year, I’ve noticed a couple of standout books, the kind of book where there is waitlist for reading; the kind of book where if they can’t find a new book to read, they’ll reread one that they liked before; the kind of book that the students will hide in their desks so that no one else can have them. Intrigued, I snuck off with a couple copies and read them, noticing that all of them are part of a series.

    Here’s what my 3rd graders are reading.

    GeronimoStilton 185x269 Third Grade Reads…a lot of series!Geronimo Stilton series (Scholastic)
    The main character, Geronimo Stilton, is a smart and cautious rat, surrounded by a various cast of characters.  It lays out exactly what a 2nd/3rd grader would like to read — mostly plot and minimal (funny) dialogue.  There are graphics on every page: colors are dominant throughout, the font changes to emphasize certain words, and pictures of characters and maps are scattered among the chapters. Though I understand why my students like it, I found the graphics and colors overwhelming. I prefer the Bad Kitty and Diary of A Wimpy Kid series, which is the same concept of a strong mix of graphic and text (and humor), but the  layout is less jarring.

    whowasseuss 209x300 Third Grade Reads…a lot of series!Who was… series (Grosset & Dunlap)
    Though the covers are cartoonish, the content and graphics inside are not. This nonfiction biography series clearly outlines the childhood, adult life, and successes of a famous historical person. I enjoyed reading this because the content was rich without oversimplifying. The graphics support the text well, and there’s even a timeline comparing the person’s life with the overarching historic events of the time. My students also eventually used these for their biography book reports, providing that rare mix of useful teaching tool and pleasure reading.

    harrypotterextrabooks 296x238 Third Grade Reads…a lot of series!Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (Bloomsbury)
    Can anyone deny the power of this series? I’m not sure if it’s quite at their reading level, but I recommend the spinoff books (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Quidditch Through the Ages; The Tales of Beedle the Bard) as a good alternative for those looking for a “right fit.”


    worldsworstmonsters 318x231 Third Grade Reads…a lot of series!World’s Worst Monsters and Villains: Scary Creatures of Myth, Folklore, and Fiction by Kieron Connolly (Scholastic)
    This isn’t a bestseller book. However, it hasn’t been on the library shelf for months. Whenever I walk by a student reading it, the pictures are so vivid that even I will stop to read over their shoulder! The book is divided into mythical monsters, classic folk tales, literary monsters, and gods and monsters. It then takes on a faux-scientific format, providing drawn diagrams dissecting physical characteristics, a short history of the monster, and size comparisons. What this book does well is that it is graphically pleasing and easy to read, and provides interesting myth and folklore about worldwide monsters. Though not meant to be a series, there are companion books (Mythical Monsters: Legendary, Fearsome Creatures and Dragons: Fearsome Monsters of Myth and Fiction) that follow the same format and some overlapping content.

    By no means is this list supposed to be a list of quality “teachable” books. We have those already. We teach good literature all year. What can be more difficult to achieve are books that are the “right fit” and are fun to read. I hope this short list offers some more books to add to your library, and to help hook your students into reading for pleasure!

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    22. Teacher's Guides

    Teacher's guides aren't just for nonfiction. 


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    23. Caught in Charlotte’s Web

    charlottesweb Caught in Charlottes WebI teach ESL to adults and have often used children’s books as educational tools with these students who are trying to master English. I’ve read picture books to lower level classes, but the year I taught Advanced Conversation, I knew I needed something different.

    Having taught lower level classes, I can say that in comparison these students truly did have a good grasp of English but they needed help to get to the next level. While they certainly weren’t shy about talking, I realized that this group still needed listening practice. The books chosen for the class were good — providing conversation prompts and vocabulary exercises — but they were ordered without their audio components.

    Despite signing up for the class and despite their very real need to practice listening to English, my students seemed to regard listening practice as a form of torture and would groan whenever that part of class  began. I wanted to increase their vocabulary and get them into a focused conversation about a story. I thought Charlotte’s Web would work and borrowed the audiobook from the library.

    The characters, the plot, everything is masterfully done. And of course as a child I didn’t realize how many words were being defined within the story, sometimes by a character and sometimes through context.

    I introduced the story and we did pre-reading exercises with some of the more challenging vocabulary before listening to each chapter, but the idea was for them to listen to and discuss the story. They were not thrilled.

    After one or two audio-only sessions, I won a copy of the 60th anniversary edition of book, so the compromise was that they could pass the book around and they’d spend a little time reading along and some time just listening. They were surprisingly fair about it. The stronger students let the weaker students read along longer. After a few weeks one student had her husband get her a copy at the library so she could read along the entire time.

    Once, during a pre-reading exercise, I told the students the chapter they’d hear was called “Explosion” and asked what they thought might explode. One of the younger students, a man in medical school whom I suspect was looking for a more action-packed story replied hopefully, “The pig?”

    While there are no exploding pigs, life and death are major themes of the book. This book also depicts a slower, more agrarian lifestyle that fostered discussion because it is a way of life some of my students found familiar.

    At the end of the book, the two male students had eyes shining with tears they held back. The women, on the other hand, were quiet and thoughtful but their eyes were dry.

    One man affirmed that animals really do communicate with each other, even if we don’t understand them. The student who’d hope for Wilbur to explode said, “At first, I hated it…but it turned out to be a good story.”

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    24. Playing catch-up

    Normally I’d upload a post bright and early on a Monday, but today…it just wasn’t gonna happen. Unlike most of the bloggers here, I don’t have end-of-school-year burnout excuse. It was just one of those weeks followed by a busy weekend followed by a Monday that came too soon.

    People here at the Horn Book are gearing up for the American Library Association conference — either getting ready to go themselves, or stepping up their work because lots of us will take the end of the week off. With so many people out of the office, not to mention most of the folks we work with at publishing houses, it’s the perfect time to take a long weekend away. For me, everything I had to design is done and on it’s way to NV. If you are at ALA, stop by the Horn Book booth and grab our gorgeous new poster by Brian Floca before they run out.

    For those of you who are teachers rather than librarians, this ALA conference (in Las Vegas, baby!) is when the Newbery, Caldecott, and Coretta Scott King award acceptance speeches will be given. These are big deals for everyone who attends. People tend to choose their outfits with care and a few librarians have even taken to doing interviews on the “red carpet.” Here’s the 2008 video, a la Project Runway.

    We will print the acceptance speeches in our July issue and have been sworn to secrecy about their content until they are given next week on Sunday and Monday. Check this site later this week for profiles of Kate DiCamillo, Brian Floca, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Bryan Collier.

    If you want to know how the Horn Book reviewed all of this year’s ALA award winners, go to this page.

    We’ll be back on our regular schedule Wednesday — and Friday, too, even though I plan to sleep in that day!

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    25. Teaching perspective to first graders

    Perspective is a thing so integral to understanding a story. It can even be the reason why an author thinks to lift a pencil and write a story. Yet perspective is a difficult concept, particularly for six-year-olds.

    As a first grade teacher, I have found that teaching about a character’s perspective is at times an easier task than having students contemplate an author’s purpose. I have come to the conclusion that somehow characters are more tangible to students. They feel more real. They are living, acting, speaking things in the story, so of course they must think something too! Right?

    Authors, however, are an abstract people for them. Although they create a book’s very words and images, they are removed from the story. For an elementary school child, understanding that this person has a message to get across is not only an exceptionally high level skill, but it can also be downright confusing.

    Luckily two authors came to my rescue as I attempted to undergo teaching this comprehension skill. These authors have a clear purpose and point of view. Their stories carry with them important messages and ideas —and these messages come from the most unlikely of places: informational texts.

    Typically, when teaching students how to uncover an author’s purpose, I have thought strictly in terms of how they write. Do they write to entertain, to persuade, or to teach? This year I found that some authors can do a little bit of each.

    Suzanne Slade and Martin Jenkins are two of these very authors. They write stories that are not only instantly engaging through their images and diagrams, but informative. Most importantly, embedded within their facts and illustrations are persuasive messages they are trying to convey.

    whatifnobees 298x298 Teaching perspective to first gradersSuzanne Slade’s, What If There Were No Bees?: A Book About the Grassland Ecosystem, captures readers through its cause-and-effect plot. Students begin by learning about pollination, ecosystems, and food chains. Then, in a clever twist, Slade describes what would happen to these ecosystems if one animal, the honey bee, were simply removed. This text helps scholars learn about ecosystems and food chains, but there is also a message in this story: Bees are important and should stick around.

    canwesavetiger 258x312 Teaching perspective to first gradersSimilarly, Martin Jenkins creates a beautiful picture book detailing the background and history of extinct and endangered animals. In Can We Save the Tiger? students are exposed to stunning illustrations of tigers, emus and other animals. They learn facts about these animals, yet, they also learn how to prevent the extinction of current endangered species. Like Slade, Jenkins has a purpose: tigers (and other animals!) are in danger, but are worth saving.

    When Slade’s and Jenkins’ books are paired with more traditional informational texts, such as textbooks, or books in which facts are simply stated, their perspective becomes all the more clear and refined.  I found these pairings integral to the teaching of this reading skill this year. Students were immediately able to discover the distinction between the tones of the texts and thus — the authors’ perspectives!

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