Monday, March 16, 2015

What I'm Reading Now: Books #41-50

Wow! I'm already half-the-way to 100 picture books! 

I'm starting to notice a big change in the way I'm checking out books at the library. While I still pick up and post a few picture books that may not directly help my current works-in-progress, I feel they have value indirectly in my growth as a writer.

These are a few things I know I like when I see it in a picture book and that help me narrow my selection:
1. Repetition
2. Alliteration
3. Strong friendships or supportive families
4. A twist on the expected
5. Original Characters with unique problems

What are the elements you would add to this list? ~Juli

41. NANA IN THE CITY by Lauren Castillo 2014 Clarion Books
(PB/1st POV/grandparents-change-differences-city living)

WHY: There is a need for more grandparent/child books. Many of my students live with grandparents. I have always been surprised how few books there are available about these special, often tender, relationships.

WHAT: One thing that I really like about this book (besides Lauren’s wonderful illustrations) is the poetic nature of the story. Lauren uses a trio of concepts repeatedly throughout the book: “The city is big. The city is loud. The city is filled with…” This group opens the book, signals the turning point and then is used again to restate the resolution.

HOW: In my junior high classrooms, I would use this book along with poems to stress this use of refrain in picture books. By looking at how the last refrain is changed in NANA IN THE CITY, students will be able to internalize the changes taking place poems that may not have such straight-forward plots.

42. MOUSE’S FIRST FALL by Lauren Thompson Illustrated by Buket Erdogan  2006 simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (Early PB/3rd POV/Fall-friends)

WHY: Picture books for young readers are a completely different breed to me. As a junior high teacher and a writer of primarily middle grade, sparse text and simplistic plot take me hours to read! (Which is why I often pick these books-- They fit my idea of a true challenge!)

WHAT: MOUSE’S FIRST FALL has a wonderful light rhyme and easy to follow pattern in fours. There are four colors in the leaves, four shapes, four actions, four stages of counting before four verbs describing the action of jumping in the pile. And then-- here’s the beauty of this book-- THEN, there are only three. Yep. Lauren uses this wonderful pattern to establish comfort and pace and then strips just a bit of it away to add the tension. (Read it to see how wonderful this technique is!)

HOW: Although it seems like this text must have come so naturally to Lauren Thompson, I’d be one to bet it’s similar to when I watch a ballerina dance. It looks easy. It’s not.
There are many elements working together in this story. Plot, rhyme, word choice, pacing and voice. As a writer (or a teacher working with student writers) making lists is something we should do regularly. If your topic is “circus” make lists about animals, sounds, acts, food, colors, etc. Then rearrange the lists. (I would put each list on a separate index card to manipulate.) Find an arrangement that speaks to you and then “tell” the story!

ADDITIONALLY: Buket has a super-cute website! Check it out!

43. PRESIDENT TAFT IS STUCK IN THE BATH by Mac Barnett Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen 2014 Candlewick Press (PB/3rd POV/Presidents-humor-tall tales-exaggeration)

WHY: Of course, I was curious! Was President Taft actually stuck in the bath? (You must read and find out!)

WHAT: There are so many things to love about this book. First, on the inside, jacket cover, the “tease” is a perfect example of a pitch one might use for a Tweet!
“George Washington crossed the Delaware in dead of night.
Abraham Lincoln saved the union.
William H. Taft got stuck in a bathtub and then got unstuck.
This is his story.”
The second detail caught my attention was how Mac Barnett starts in the present, talking to the reader as if he is by our side, and then by page two, takes us back in time--still present tense--but as if we are now sitting with President Taft!

HOW: From the afterwards, it’s apparent that Mac Barnett was inspired by a photograph of a bathtub believed to be made especially for President Taft. Mac’s description at the end of the book is worth reading aloud for inspiration. I’m a Pinterest addict and many of my stories start from that one photo. While telling the truth behind the picture is one way to approach a storytelling a long-windy is a fun alternative.

44. NOT YOUR TYPICAL DRAGON by Dan Bar-el Illustrated by Tim Bowers 2014 Viking Press
(PB/3rd POV/acceptance-differences-unlikely friendship)

WHY: I do not write about dragons (yet), but I find stories about them so dang cute!

WHAT: The plot in NOT YOUR TYPICAL DRAGON is straight-forward. It fits easily onto any plot chart you want to try. For this reason, it’s a great sample text for learning about plot.

HOW: In our ReFoReMo group (and on Carrie Charley Brown’s website) we are encouraged to use a plot connector to help define and compare the picture books throughout the month. As I mentioned, this book fits without stress.
Crispin Blaze be “normal” and breathe fire, BUT every time he does, something different comes out instead. SO… he runs away and meets a knight who helps him return home. THEN…. surprise! (I’m not giving it all way! Try it out!)

45. MARVELOUS MATTIE: HOW MARGARET E. KNIGHT BECAME AN INVENTOR by Emily Arnold McCully 2006 Farris Straus and Giroux 
(Bio./PB/3rd POV/female inventors-STEM-determination)

WHY: With the push in education towards more STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) books in the classroom, MARVELOUS MATTIE seemed like a wise pick.

WHAT: What I liked most about this book was how the author, Emily Arnold McCully, chose a historical figure who not only went against the dictates for a female during the Industrial Revolution in America, but also made a contribution to our everyday lives that before reading, I took for granted!

HOW: One of the conversations that I find many writers of nonfiction have is about the importance and relevance of their subjects. I imagine that the title alone, MARVELOUS MATTIE wasn’t enough to sell it, but the impact of Mattie’s invention in the lives of children is. While I love heading down paths that my research and writing lead me, often it’s important to check the needs of your readers. Look at the large themes and resolutions in your stories. Do they have impact on the lives of your target readers? If not, how can you retell the story so that it does?

46. LITTLE MELBA AND HER BIG TROMBONE by Katheryn Russell-Brown Illustrated by Frank Morrison 2014 Lee & Low (Bio./PB/3rd POV/dreams-jazz-sexism-racism)

WHY: Music has always been a part of my life. My local NPR plays jazz each Sunday evening. It’s smooth; it’s exciting; I love it! Put biography + picture book + jazz… I’m in!

WHAT: This is a story about a little girl who doesn’t give up, regardless of the challenges she faces. Out of all the messages this book sends, the one that comes to the forefront of my mind is the issue of gender bias (sexism). In the jazz world of the 20-40s, males still dominated the scene. Although Katheryn Russell-Brown doesn’t slam this issue over the head, she definitely doesn’t skirt around it either.

WHY: When I read through picture book biographies, I’m looking for the different ways that a writer can present a life. The author could have focused on Melba as a little girl and the struggles of playing a large instrument. The sights and sounds of the jazz scene could have been brought out and elaborated. Instead though, Katheryn choose to move through the hardships of childhood and into adulthood by focusing on one keyword: jealousy. I love this book for teaching me this lesson: What one word carries through my manuscript? Is it clear to the reader without having to say it?

Image result for shh we have a plan by chris haughton
47. SHH! WE HAVE A PLAN by Chris Haughton 2014 Candlewick Press
(PB/3rd POV/peaceful solutions-working together-independence)

WHY: When I picked this book up at my local library, I paged through and was amazed at the limited color palette. That is, UNTIL the climactic point in the story. I knew then, I had to read this book.

WHAT: Another very simple, very strategically minimalistic approach to a story, SHH! WE HAVE A PLAN sets up a perfect plot-- the characters, the problem, the repetition of three obstacles, the revelation, the solution and finally, a tease at the end.

HOW: This is one of the books that could be used by classrooms and writers alike for modeling plot structure. There is nothing misleading about it. As I mentioned above, even the color palette Chris Haughton uses leads the readers to find the point of change/revelation.

Additionally, I’m one who reads everything. I read each and every word including the credits and the dedications. It would be a shame to skip over the Albert Einstein quote Chris used on the credit page. For my upper grade students, I would ask them to explain how the book and the quote compliment each other. The theme is beautiful. (Thank-you, Chris, for sharing this with the readers!)

48.THIS ORQ (HE CAVE BOY) by David Elliott Illustrated by Lori Nichols 2014 Boyd Mills Press (PB/3rd POV/friendship-pets-prehistoric)

WHY: I’m not only a sucker for a dragon story; a cave kid story is a shoe in! (Cave-knee??) Plus, I like large picture books. This one is a full 9’x14”. I’m not an advertiser, but I’m sure the size of a book affects the overall mood...

WHAT: This story has great plot, great word choice, a wonderful “build” and a nice, although predictable ending. There’s something to be said for predictability. Children find comfort in it. As a writer, if you lead a reader down a path and don’t provide a satisfying ending, you mislead them. I don’t think I would like this book as much if David Elliot ended it differently.

HOW: There is a logic to this simple, cave-boy story. First, the word choice establishes the voice. The repetitive sentence structure makes it easy for the reader to move ‘into” this voice. In my middle grade manuscripts, I often debate how often I should repeat a word or phrase that is unique to the voice of a character. The answer is in the voice itself. The immature language we associate with a cave-boy equates to the need for repetitive phrases, but is that true for every character?
49. MY FIRST DAY by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page 2013 Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (NF/PB/1st POV/1st day of birth-baby animals)
50. NEVER SMILE AT A MONKEY by Steve Jenkins 2009 Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (NF/PB/2nd POV/animals-instincts-protection)

WHY: Steven Jenkins images draw me in, but honestly, I was looking for great examples of nonfiction picture books. I found them!

WHAT: I love the structure in these two books.  In MY FIRST DAY, each animal/story starts with the sentence “On my first day…” and then the second (and sometimes third) sentences describe the difficulties and successes of each first day. In NEVER SMILE AT A MONKEY, each animal no-no is stated, followed by a short descriptive paragraph explaining why (you) should follow Steve’s advice.

HOW: These books are fantastic mentor texts! There are A, B, C formats, and narrative structures, but for the vast subject matter that Steve and Robin cover in these two books, works! Both remind me of LIFETIME by Lola Schaefer. Gathering other nonfiction books with similar structure really help clarify how taking the same approach towards a large range of subjects can work! (Teachers might also point out to students the alliteration in NEVER SMILE AT A MONKEY.)

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