The mind works in mysterious ways. I know I lean towards upper grade picture books such as narrative nonfiction and expository or historical text, but why do I love the subject matter I choose? Well, that takes a bit of “mind-mining” as we like to call it in my 8th grade Language Arts classes. Often deep rooted memories are the seeds writers use to develop and create something entirely new. I may write a story, craft a piece of artwork, or simply share the memory with a friend.
For the last posts of this month, I’m narrowing my choices of picture books, looking at books that represent ideas, subjects and writing styles I would like to work on. these are more reflective of my own individual taste than the books I have previously chosen to highlight.
61. LONG NIGHT MOON by Cynthia Rylant Illustrated by Mark Siegel 2004 Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers (PB/3rd POV/Native American Legends-full moon-mood)
WHY: I’m a big fan of Cynthia Rylant as a middle grade author, but I’m not familiar with her work with picture books. (Yes, I know about DOG BREATH, but that doesn’t mean I’ve read it!)
WHAT: I instantly loved how Ms. Rylant used this book to look at the different names of various seasonal full moons. The text has a very distinct pattern. Month-moon name-action verb-prepositional phrase. Second sentence for each “moon” comprises of a pronoun and another reaction or action as a result of the seasonal moon.
HOW: Recently, my classes have worked on the Hero's Journey, a 12-step story. I like how this book connects with that. Each moon is reflective of the month, but each moon is really the SAME moon, with a slightly different story. As a mentor text, the format that Ms. Rylant has used, a repetitive form, nearly identical for each of the twelve descriptions, would be beneficial to try out with other subjects that have different aspects, variations or shades of meaning.
62. RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS: A YEAR IN COLORS by Joyce Sidman Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski 2009 Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
WHY: Poetry always appeals to me. Many picture books are obvious poems. Others are not. This text is lyrical and poetic.
WHAT: While it's not rhyme, as I mentioned, the text is lyrical and uses personification for each of the colors, presenting them as "characters". Each season also has it's own "role" as characters in a subplot. I also like how the text starts with red and green then ends with green and red. It's cyclical and dynamic in the bookends of beginning and end.
HOW: Educators might use this text along with a poetry unit while discussion both color poems and figurative language. I find it's greatest strength is in Joyce's power to create character for each transition of color. They are unique and different, but all part of the same over-arching story.
63. OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW By Kate Messner Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal 2011 Chronicle Books (PB/creative NF/1st POV/hibernation-animals-winter)
WHY: This is a heavy, hardy book. I like the way it feels in my hands. I wouldn't want this book as an e-edition. Which then makes me wonder-- who made the decision to print OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW this size and weight? Why? (If you know the answer, please leave a message in the comments section!)
WHAT: I love the split pages. The text and images are not divided left and right, but top and bottom, over and under. Genius!
HOW: Immediately, I'm drawn in by the opposites. What other opposites can writers play with and combine with nature? science? technology? Kate Messner kept with the season of winter. What about another season? Another setting?
(Narrative NF/PB/3rd POV/Loggerhead Turtles-life cycle)
WHY: Sea turtles are a fascinating subject. Maybe it’s because I live so far inland and therefore, sea creatures are oddities to me. But nonetheless, I think that’s the reason so many children love to read about them as well. Because many of the books I’ve reviewed have come form my local libraries, I get a glimpse at their “popularity” by the date stamps logged on the ticket sheets. This one was full.
WHAT: Plenty of facts are packed into this book. At first read, the narrative voice takes you through the life cycle of a female turtle. Everything is well researched. There are no breakdowns in logic, but then again, the reader becomes so caught up in the story, you don’t want to stop the first time through to ask! During subsequent readings there are more directly expository facts tossed throughout to correspond with the lyrical story.
HOW: What I noticed most about this text was the wonderful way that Nicola varied the sentences to add depth to the story. In order to keep her story fresh and unique, it was important that she told the story in a new way. By varying sentence structure and word choice, the author makes a life cycle that we may be aware of seem new.
65. THE BUFFALO ARE BACK by Jean Craighead George Illustrated by Wendell Minor 2010 Dutton Children’s Books (Nonfiction PB/3rd POV/Buffalo-prairie-Native American history-Theodore Roosevelt-preservation)
WHY: When I think of an author that understands nature and American history/culture, I think of Jean Craighead George. I was one of those kids who wanted to run away to MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN and live in a tree.
WHAT: I can’t believe that after all the picture books I’ve read thus far, I haven’t ran across ONE that hits me with cause and effect the way this one does. It is definitely a picture book for older readers. The word count is high ( ) and the subject matter discussed with many references that younger children may not be able to relate to. Jean Craighead George grabs the reader’s attention right off the bat with idea that the disappearance of the American Indians, the buffalo and the prairie grass are all connected. And then she tells us exactly how.
HOW: Once you read this book, it’s easy to see how lessons in classrooms regarding cause and effect would fit in perfectly with any curriculum whether the book is used in a social studies/history class, science or English/literature classroom. There are connections and applications for this text abounding! As a mentor text, I like how Ms. George has focused on the three main subjects and weaves them throughout each section, using them to connect to one another throughout her descriptions of historical change.
66. THEY CAME FROM THE BRONX by Neil Waldman 2001 Boyd Mills Press (Caroline House)
(Narrative Nonfiction/PB/3rd POV/Buffalo-Native American Indians-Preservation)
WHY: Well, if I have ONE buffalo book… and I live near a buffalo preserve… then shouldn’t I read another?
WHAT: This book is quite different from THE BUFFALO ARE BACK. Neil Waldman has taken a narrative approach to tell the story of the disappearance of the buffalo from the prairies through the voice of a grandmother and her grandson. In contrast, Neil then uses a complementary timeline to describe what was happening to the remaining buffalo as they were being shipped to the Bronx Zoo. It’s an interesting perspective and one I hadn’t heard of before.
HOW: Now, I can’t envision using one book without the other. They are different in presentation but support each other on many points. As a teacher, I would love to have my students use these as supporting text for persuasive papers. As a writer, I love to see how the same subject can be presented successfully in many different ways.
67. SWIRL BY SWIRL: SPIRALS IN NATURE by Joyce Sidman Illustrated by Beth Krommes 2011 Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (Nonfiction PB/3rd POV/Fibonacci-nature-spirals)
WHY: In schools, math teachers are in a constant battle to incorporate language arts standards into a mathematics curriculum and vise-verse. SWIRL BY SWIRL fills this need.
WHAT: At a mere 153 words, Joyce has mastered description. In a way, it's a formula: "A spiral is a ____ shape. It…" but in a skillful way, Ms. Sidman builds speed and pace by increasing the sentences length to cover across many pages. As tension builds with the "tempest", she then lets the story arc drop to a calming end. The last swirl in the book represents comfort and possibly sleep. It's beautiful in many ways!
HOW: I know it seems like this is a math book, but the plot is such fun! Use a plot structure chart like this one, and see what I mean! Blending science or math as if the subject, so inanimate, is a character in a story makes for an enjoyable read.
68. HOOT OWL: MASTER OF DISGUISE by Sean Taylor illustrated by Jean Jullien 2014 Candlewick Press (PB/1st POV/Owls-humor-characteristics)
WHY: Simplicity of subject presented when I paged through at the library. Bold, basic word choice, easy to read, bold graphics etc.
WHAT: I didn’t quite expect the humor I found. I was looking for ways to approach nonfiction, different angles. Well this is it! I found myself smiling as I was reading this, wanting to take it back to another room and read it out loud instead of reading by my computer. I really enjoyed the combination of learning about the habits of an animal but at the same time, looking at a narrative through character.
HOW: I love that there is one essential chorus repeated throughout the story. Sean promotes the idea that owls are wise, but this one is crafty. Each time he approaches his potential meal, he disguises himself to catch his prey. Another bonus in this wonderful text are all the similes.
69. MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS by Eliza Wheeler 2013 Nancy Paulsen Books
WHY: A beautiful fable can make sense of everything in the world. Put a twist on the answer to a curious question like “How does a seed know where to go?” and wallah! a story unfolds!
WHAT: I was not disappointed. This is a calming, soothing, serenade for seeds. Eliza Wheeler has done a wonderful job establishing a mood for her fable. The story has the “feel” of being rocked gently, fed warm milk and comforted with kind words.
HOW: Because mood is so strong in this story, if you are struggling to establish one in your writing, you might want to inspect the word choice and sentence structure in this mentor text. Miss Maple’s repetitive whispers combined with the perfect verbs and precise adjectives bring this story to life.
70. GO TO SLEEP, LITTLE FARM by Mary Lyn Ray illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal 2014 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (PB/2nd POV/night-sleep-lullaby)
WHY: I have vivid memories of reading lullabies to my children over and over each night before bedtime. Lullabies always have a place on a bookshelf.
WHAT: If you like GOODNIGHT MOON; you'll like this one. In fact, in a side-by-side comparison, I know that I could place a good bet on where Mary Lyn Ray found inspiration! It works. Like MISS MAPLE'S SEEDS, the mood is calm and peaceful. The story progresses at a steady pace, almost in time with a rocking chair. That's what lullabies do.
HOW: This book is gentle and the mood soothing. It doesn't have extreme highs and lows like a traditional narration. It's essential to read this one out loud and hear your voice. If I were using this as a teaching text, I would instruct students to read it LOUD or fast. It doesn't work. Mary Lyn Ray's choice of words and steady rhthym set the constraints for reading aloud.