Thursday, March 12, 2015

What I'm Reading Now: Books #21-30

One of the joys of teaching, reading and writing, is being able to share the books I love with my students. This is the fifth day of reading five picture books a day for ReFoReMo (Reading For Research Month) and my students have caught on to my efforts. 

Wednesday, an avid reader in one of my classes had nearly finished a current novel and was bored with only a few minutes left before the end of class. I handed her one of the picture books I had accumulated in my pile. She smiled, probably thinking, You know I'm almost in high school. I'm a much better reader than this... and politely took the book, read it and gave it back at the end of the hour. We didn't discuss the book. 

As she returned it, I gauged her reaction. She was nonchalant and quiet. I just smiled and said, "Thank you."

Today, she finished her classwork with closer to twenty minutes left of "free" time. Instead of pulling out the next novel she intended to read, she asked to read more picture books. I handed her four. She read them all and reread two.

Her actions remind picture book writers that these 30-40 pages are important. These books are for kids. All ages of kids. (And adults too!) And in their hands, they can be trans-formative and inspiring.

As I think more about this particular student, I'm reminded of something she said at the beginning of the school year. I was explaining the writing/publishing process. I described the various jobs at the professional level. I compared editing and peer review to the job of a professional editor. She raised her hand and said, "I think I would like to do that." 

I love my job. ~Juli

My ReFoReMo Resources and Booklist continued:

21.BRONTORINA by James Howe. Illustrated by Randy Cecil 2010 Candlewick Press
(PB/3rd POV/Dreams-dinosaurs-never give up- encouraging others)

WHY: It’s a Dinosaur book! One can’t have too many dinosaur books...which are closely tied to dragon books!

WHAT: I truly loved this one. Out of the piles and piles of books I have read thus far, I gave this one 5 stars. It has such a wonderful message about never giving up and encouraging others to dream big! All the peripheral characters have as much to learn from Brontorina in this story as Brontorina does about herself. Additionally, the light touch of a few ballet terms adds to the character and charm of this book overall.

HOW: One of the stand-out features I adore is how James uses the comments of the children to help drive the story. It’s a great example of “show don’t tell”. For example, one little girl continually says, “But she still doesn’t have the right shoes!” helping to foreshadow events in the plot. Instead of telling about how Brontorina is too large for the studio, James let’s the characters explain: “Hey, watch your tail!... The piano!” As a mentor text, this is definitely one to take another look at!

22.A BALL FOR DAISY by Chris Raschka 2011 Schwartz and Wade Books
(Wordless PB/Playmates-Friendship-Responsibility)

WHY: This book won the Caldecott Medal in 2012. I’m an avid supporter of Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz Awards for children’s books.

WHAT: I love the surprise of the character reveal near the middle of this story. It’s such a creative twist that I haven’t seen before. Essentially, Chris has centered the story around the dog, Daisy, but used the cartoon technique of only showing the legs and feet of the other “character” in the story (a real “mirror” character--one that’s carrying a similar plot/problem) until the reader hits the climatic change in the story arc.

HOW: Mirror characters and character foils are fun to play with. Whether it’s a friend, an enemy, or an in-animate object, sometimes what one character doesn’t say or do, can be done by the other in such a way to successfully move the story along or complete the action. Look for characters like Daisy and her girl in other PBs. Are the identical or opposites? Do they compliment one another like Shrek and Fiona?

23.OTIS AND THE PUPPY by Loren Long 2013 Philomel Books
(PB/3rd POV/ Empathy-Fears-New Friends)

WHY: I have read other Otis books before. I find the character so soft spoken and caring. If my boys were young again, we’d have all the Otis books.

WHAT: One of the best things about this particular Otis story is that it at first seems like only the puppy is afraid of the dark, but when the puppy is lost, the reader discovers that Otis has fears of night too. This is a typical theme for children’s picture books. I find it reassuring to know that other characters have the same fears. It’s like saying “It’s okay, I’m afraid too.” without coming out and directly stating it.

HOW: From the very beginning, Loren sets the mood. I find this true in all Otis books and it’s worth exploring more. In this book, the author starts with the setting… and the impression that even though the animals and Otis are doing hard work, they have fun afterwards. It establishes that closeness, compassion and empathy that come across throughout the story.

24.THIS PLUS THAT: LIFE’S LITTLE EQUATIONS by Amy Krouse Rosenthal Illustrated by Jen Corace 2011 Harper Collins Children’s books
(PB/1st POV/Math-friendship-family-relationships-algebra)

WHY: Math picture books make me curious. I find the subject difficult and as a teacher, reader, writer, I’m always looking for ways that other help children to make it a bit easier to understand.

WHAT: This is NOT your typical math picture book. No counting M & Ms, no sorting, no eating… yet it IS a book about equations (as expressed in the title). It doesn’t take long to get that + means ‘and’ while = means ‘equals’. Amy creatively uses this idea to “express” simple algebra equations. While the themes revolve around friendship and family, Amy sneaks in multiplication, division and concepts like associative and commutative properties! Definitely the most UNIQUE math picture book that I’ve read in a long time.

HOW: Ultimately, this book is an expression of ideas and precise, descriptive words strung together. As a teacher, I want to try to have my students think of their lives or events in their lives and express them as math problems.

25.STUCK by Oliver Jeffers 2011 Philomel Books
(PB/3rd POV/Humor-Problem-solving-Surprise Ending)

WHY: A title can say a lot! The moment I read “STUCK” on the cover, I didn’t need pictures, I didn’t need a back cover description. I knew the problem. What I didn’t know is the story or the solution. This one is a doozy!

WHAT: Oliver Jeffers must be one of those adults who had a ton of fun as a kid! Just when the reader starts to see where the story is going, Jeffers ups the anty and intensifies the situation and hilarity. The ending is a fantastic twist that as the illustrator as well, he was able to really make distinctively ironic.

HOW: Irony. Lots and lots of irony. As an author, especially if writing humor, you have to be aware of the irony of situations. Without it, this would not be a story at all. By taking a normal occurrence and twisting it to the absurd just ever-so-slightly, the normal becomes hilarious! Also, there are subtle explanations for the insane obstacles such as the whale: “A curious whale, in the wrong place at the wrong time..” added so the reader doesn’t question the purpose of such a character.

26. SHOOTING STAR: ANNIE OAKLEY, THE LEGEND by Debbie Dadey Illustrated by Scott Goto 1997 Walker Publishing Co.
(Fiction/Creative NF/PB/3rd POV/Legends-Annie Oakley-wild west-Fact vs Fiction)

WHY: Annie Oakley has always fascinated me. I love strong female characters, and as history has shown, she was not one to pick a battle with.

WHAT: I found this book fun from the aspect of deciphering the fact from the fiction. Debbie stretches the legend enough in that it remains a fictionalized version of the real sharp-shooter but she also sprinkles the story with the “BIG” events of Annie’s life: signing up with Buffalo Bill’s show, marrying, becoming close friends with Sitting Bull etc.

HOW: What I would like to do is separate the factual elements from the legendary and exaggerated points. First, by taking the big picture and events, analyzing which stand out and fall into one category or the other. Second, I like looking on the word level. Some of Debbie’s choices are perfect for twisting the tale one way or another. This is a good mentor text to model how word choice can sway a story.

27. CHICKEN BIG by Keith Graves 2010 Chronicle Books
(PB/3rd POV/Humorous-Synonyms/antonyms-acceptance)

WHY: I admit it. I cheated. I’ve read this before. However, I couldn’t remember why I liked it so much, so I checked it out again. Now I remember why I liked it. It’s funny!

WHAT: While Chicken BIG is our protagonist, the idiotic chickens that live in the hen house (the antagonists) are such fun! I love their banter and discussion about what type of creature BIG really is. Their failed logic is what makes this so funny. (Along the lines of A Pig Parade, this story is a lesson in poor reasoning.)

HOW: Keith has successfully woven the classic Henny Penny story into his plot. The repetition of the ridiculous classic, “the sky falling,” paired with the silly synonyms and antonyms that describe (or fail to describe) Chicken BIG work. I would love to play with classic nursery rhymes and I think it’s a great way to introduce analogies to younger readers.

28. A DADDY LONGLEGS ISN’T A SPIDER by Melissa Stewart Illustrated by John Himmelman 2009 Windward Publishing.
(Creative NF/3rd POV/insects-science-lifecycle)

WHY: Narrative Nonfiction books are powerful tools to introduce the sciences to children. My own children grew up on Magic School Bus books and I credit their success in Chemistry to Mary Pope Osborne.

WHAT: What I like best about this story is how the narrative structure really, clearly, follows a plot arc. Female Daddy Longlegs explores the world but loses one leg, then another, and then is taken downstream forcing her to acclimate to new surroundings before finishing the scientific subplot of the life-cycle of Daddy Longlegs.

HOW: There are many asides and fact boxes that have been used to draw attention to key points without overwhelming the reader with details. The entire book is a lesson in restraint of information. Anything beyond what Melissa chose to include would be distracting. As a writer using this book as a mentor text, I would dig into my notes with caution while first writing the character-driven plot. The choice to pinpoint specific elements of fact are used only to highlight the dramatic features of this plot. (Such as the difference between the number of legs etc.)

Lola Schaefer is a children's book author
29. LIFETIME by Lola M. Schaefer Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal 2013 Chronicle Books
(NF/Counting-Animals-math averages-facts)

WHY: This is truly what I would call a STEM theme book. For those of you who are not familiar with the acronym S.-Science T.-Technology E-Engineering M.-Math. Lifetime fits.

WHAT: Unlike a narrative nonfiction, Lola’s book is straight-forward facts focused on the average of something within the framework of a lifetime of an animal. The numbers increase as the pages progress but the best part is Lola’s explanation of averages and how she figured out the numbers. The book is definitely one for those of us who love to count everything!

HOW: What a great book to introduce a scientific study unit! I envision classrooms of children with clipboards and magnifying glasses “out in the wild” counting! (I would go for blades of grass or number of ants in a square foot.) It’s a one-concept nonfiction book but with a lot of back story in facts!

A Splash of Red
30. A SPLASH OF RED by Jen Bryant Illustrated by Melissa Sweet 2013 Alfred A. Knopf
(Biography/Creative NF/3rd Pov/Artist-overcoming obstacles)

WHY: Isn’t it thrilling that there are so many wonderful PB biographies on the shelves these days?! My parents are both retired art teachers and I know how they dreamed of having books like these when they were teaching in the 70s-90s,

WHAT: Horace Pippen is not an artist I was familiar with. Jen understands that and therefore, she starts the story from the very beginning. She sets up the child-connection early on by showing Horace as a hard worker who liked to draw (even when he wasn’t supposed to be drawing). She doesn’t linger on lengthy details of the stages of his adult life, instead she gets to the point straight away. Horace’s drawings changed, he was challenged, after he was injured in war. From that point on, Jen picks up the pace, leading readers rooting for Horace to pick up that paintbrush and “Make a picture for me!”

HOW: Similar to a few other PB biographies that I’ve read recently, A SPLASH OF RED incorporates direct quotes from the subject. The careful reader notices how these quotes guide and direct the author to give shape and focus to the overall story. As a writer, it might be fun to take a long list of quotes from a notable person (find an example here for Betsy Ross), cut them apart and sort them, looking for patterns, story and theme. Whew… it’s a bit like being Michelangelo--”Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it” -- except as a writer, your “stone” are words.

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