Archives For Picture Books

In a previous post, I questioned a question:

“How did [the character] change? What caused this change?”

This question is part of an assessment in Teacher College Reading Units of Study in Grade 3. But many of the elementary texts that students can read independently at that grade level do not contain a character change at all. Why ask this question as an assessment if the ELA Common Core State Standards do not address character change until grade 6?

By definition, change denotes a making or becoming distinctly different and implies a radical transmutation of character. In literary terms, those characters that do change are called dynamic characters.

A dynamic character undergoes substantial internal changes as a result of one or more plot developments. The dynamic character’s change can be extreme or subtle, as long as his or her development is important to the book’s plot or themes.

Of course, the language in this literary definition of a dynamic character is too high for elementary students K-3. There are also few characters that students encounter in reading grade level texts with “substantial” internal changes, subtle or otherwise.

But what many elementary texts, especially picture books, do show are characters that learn. The novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) has commented on creating characters that “increase in wisdom”:

“There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters.” 

Readers of his novel A Clockwork Orange would credit Burgess as a master in crafting a character (Alex) who undergoes a moral transformation.  But his suggestion that a character can have “an increase in wisdom” is a good explanation of what younger students should look for in the elementary texts they can read.

For example, there is an increase in wisdom seen in Alexander in Alexander and the TerribleHorrible, No Good, Very Bad Day who concludes that there are just bad days…even in Australia. Many picture books serve as examples where the chief character experiences an increase in wisdom:

In some stories, this increase in wisdom is made obvious by a shift in a character’s feelings or opinion. This may seem to be a matter of semantics, whether a change in feelings or opinion is the same as an increase in wisdom. For example, the character “Sam-I- am” character reverses his deeply held opinion after (finally) tasting Green Eggs and Ham. But is he wiser? One could argue that his change in opinion about a food choice is just a change in opinion, not an internal change in his character.  (Of course, the same could be said for Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Her character does not change, but her opinion of Mr. Darcy is far more favorable after she visits Pemberley!)

A direct question about what lesson was learned will also prevent students from confusing a physical change in a character with a character change.  For example, when Camilla’s love of lima beans in A Bad Case of Stripes is revealed as the cause of her colorful outward appearance, she (eventually) gains the wisdom to care less about what others think. In another physical change, the donkey Sylvester’s transformation into a rock in  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble could be read as a commentary on fate or chance because, as a rock or not, he remains Sylvester who loves his family. Students should understand that the physical changes that some characters undergo are not character changes.

There are some examples at the elementary level where the moral transformation is inferred, simplified, without “substantial internal” deliberations. The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, convert from being dangerous highwaymen to generous stepfathers when the little girl Tiffany asks what will they do with their ill-gotten gains. On one page, they are bad, and on the next page, they are good. The radical change in their thinking is inferred, and the evidence of their moral transformation is in their actions, adopting unwanted children.

As students move from picture books, chapter books, and series books, they will encounter other examples of moral transformation of a character with the kind of evidence that shows “substantial internal” deliberation that Burgess referenced. Jerry Spinelli’s Crash and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy each feature a protagonist who undergoes a moral change in character.

But it also should also be noted that in the literary canon, not every novel features characters who undergo moral transformative change. Which characters really experience this kind of change in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or Catcher in the Rye? 

Ultimately, asking students “How did [the character] change? What caused this change?” in the elementary grades without laying the literary groundwork can muddy their understanding when they tackle more complex texts. Asking students a question about an increase in wisdom or “what the character learns” instead can be a better way to begin to build their understanding of what character change is, or isn’t, in the texts they can read independently not only in Grades K-3 but in Grade 4 and Grade 5 as well.  Students should be encouraged to look for a shift in a character’s feelings or opinion as evidence for an increase in wisdom. They can learn to make inferences about a character’s increase in wisdom, such as what Duncan learns about creativity in The Day the Crayons Quit.

Then, by Grade 6, they will be prepared to respond to an assessment question that is based on the CCSS standard “…describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution. (RL.6.3)”

There is, however, a bonus to discussing the shifts in a character’s feelings with K-3 elementary texts that is not always available in the upper grades. Students in elementary grades can use the illustrations in a text as evidence to support information on the differences a character may feel.  And what better evidence is there for showing all the different shifts in a character’s feelings than through the expressive illustrations of Mo Willems’ Pigeon?

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Is there evidence for a change in the Pigeon’s feelings? Certainly. But, an increase in Pigeon’s wisdom? Well, maybe.

One of the first literary elements that students understand as they begin to read is character.  They learn that a character is a person, animal, being, or thing moving the story along a plot line. Many of the characters in books they can read independently have recognizable traits:

  • The Pigeon in Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is always stubborn and demanding;
  • Horrible Harry of the Horrible Harry Series is always rebellious.
  • Jack Smith of The Magic Treehouse Series is always smart and courageous.
  • Judy Moody of the Judy Moody Series is always determined and…well, moody.

The characters in series books at these elementary grade levels (K-3) are predictable. Students are able to practice reading because they are familiar with characters such as Ramona, Dog Man, Nate the Great, Captain Underpants, Amelia Bedelia, and Frog and Toad.

These characters’ thoughts and feelings may shift when they react to different problems or conflicts. But these characters do not change. They are static; they are not complex characters.

The dominance of static characters in the elementary grades can be an issue when students are faced with an assessment question:

“How did [the character] change? What caused this change?”

This particular question comes from the Teacher’s College Grade 3 Reading Units of Study, but other literacy programs also ask about character change.

It is important to understand that the word “change” is synonymous with a radical, transformative process. The etymology of the word change (c.1300) is “to undergo alteration, become different.” The Collins dictionary defines change as:

1. to put or take (a thing) in place of something else; substitute for, replace with, or transfer to another of a similar kind
2.  to give and receive reciprocally; exchange; switch
3. a. to cause to become different; alter; transform; convert 
    b. to undergo a variation of

The kind of change in character that matches this transformative meaning is difficult to find at the lower reading levels. A well-crafted character who “converts” or “alters” in a low-level text is unusual for any combination of reasons including choices in brevity, vocabulary, and text structure.

For most students who are reading at or below a Grade 3 reading level, there are few complex texts that they can independently read to determine a character change. Instead, the characters in the book series that are favored by students such as  Geronimo StiltonThe Boxcar Children, or Ivy and Bean, are intentionally crafted by authors so the characters remain the same while the plot or the settings change.

There are exceptions, of course. The Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s classic story (not film) The Grinch that Stole Christmas undergoes a transformational character change, but at the Lexile 731/level P,  the book is most often used in the classroom as a read-aloud. There are few mentor texts like the Grinch that can give students the opportunity to practice for an assessment on character change.

The limited number of stories with complex characters at the lower grade levels means that students do not have enough independent practice on their own with this concept. The leap from the predictable characters in a series (Babymouse, Henry& Mudge, Little House on the Prairie) to the kind of complex character change that is found in Maddie in Eleanor Estes The Hundred Dresses or in Jonas in Lois Lowrey’s The Giver can be a high bar for many elementary or even intermediate readers.

So, why ask students at the lower elementary levels about character change at all? The phrase “character change” does not appear in the ELA Common Core State Standards (CCSS) until Grade 6 when students should:

“…describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution. (RL.6.3)”

Instead, the CCSS states students in grades 3-5 should be able to:

  • describe characters (traits, motivations, or feelings) and “explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events” (RL.3.3 )
  • describe character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text ( a character’s thoughts, words, or actions (RL.4.3)
  • compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (RL.5.3)

Maybe the intent of asking students at the lower elementary levels about character change is to prepare students for the complex texts they will read in the upper grades. If this is the case, there should be some consideration of what resources could be used to support this kind of character study, especially as most books in elementary reading libraries feature characters that are purposefully crafted to be static. The characters are designed to be familiar to allow students to practice fluency and accuracy. Asking students to find evidence to show a character change when there is no change is an inauthentic exercise.

There is also a danger in assessing a student’s understanding of character change too soon in their literary lives. Teachers also should be careful not to elevate what is a shift in a character’s attitude to be equal to a  change in character. Guiding elementary students to answer “character change” by using evidence that shows how a character may think or feel differently can muddy a later understanding of what character change really means.

Students should not have to answer assessment questions that ask for evidence of character change where there is none. Instead, at the lower grade levels, students should be ready to answer assessment questions that draw attention to the differences in a character’s attitude, thoughts or feelings:

  • “How did the character react to the problem?”
  • “What caused the character’s reaction?”
  • “What are the character’s thoughts and feelings now?”
  • “Does this character have a different attitude?”

Most of the books in elementary school libraries can support these kinds of questions, which are closely aligned to the ELA CCSS for grades K-5. Finding the evidence that shows a difference in a character’s attitude, thoughts, or feelings is a task that elementary students can do in both mentor texts and in their leveled reading.

Identifying a character’s shift in attitude can also help students better understand the theme or message of the book, for example:

“Yes, this is where I want to be! The Circus is the place for me.” –Put Me in the Zoo. 

“Pete, you don’t need magic sunglasses to see things in a new way! Just remember to see the good in everyday!” Pete the Cat and the Magic Sunglasses

“And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”-The Story of Ferdinand

Of course, there are those iconic characters who have been designed to be so static that a question about a difference in attitude, thoughts or feelings is pointless. Just ask Max of Where the Wild Things Are.  He is still in his wolf suit when he returns home “where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot.” Continue Reading…

Today marks the 200th birthday of American writer (poet, essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist) Henry David Thoreau. I remember my first encounters with Thoreau were traditional, his essays read in my high school English class. Soon after, my choice of for a quote under my yearbook photo (a serious decision made after much deliberation) was his:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

“That’s a rather depressing sentiment,” my Aunt Rita had commented.
“It’s what I believe,” I had replied.

Therefore, I was surprised to discover that although I have taught his essays and discussed his literary impact on American Literature,  I have not yet written on this blog about Henry David Thoreau.  This post will correct my oversight.

In 2013, I created a Livebinder for my seniors who were reading the Bill Bryson book A Walk in the Woods. A Livebinder is a digital file cabinet where anyone can upload or link materials for others to use. The about page explains their purpose:

“We created LiveBinders so that you could do with digital information what you do with the piles of papers on your desk – organize them into nice presentable containers – like 3-ring binders on your shelf. With our online binders you can combine all of your cloud documents, website links and upload your desktop documents – to then easily access, share, and update your binders from anywhere.”

The materials on Livebinders can be accessed on all digital platforms, so that students could access it on their own devices. My Walk in the Woods Livebinder allowed me to place the link Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” explained in its republication in The Atlantic magazine

“In May 1862, the magazine published ‘Walking,’ one of his [Thoreau] most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.”

I still remember the opening phrase from the essay, “I wish to speak a word for Nature…”.
A student had grumbled, “There’s a lot more than one word here…”
His was an understatement. This particular Thoreau essay runs about 20 pages; a total of 12,188 words.

I did not require my students to read the entire essay, although I encouraged them to try. Instead I had them peruse the text until they found a passage that seemed interesting. They had to choose a quote, much like I had for my yearbook photo, that they found particularly profound and then write an explanation on why this quote was interesting or meaningful. . I still remember some of their choices, and their reflections on why they chose a particular passage such as:

  • Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?
  • In short, all good things are wild and free. 
  • When we should still be growing children, we are already little men

I learned that Thoreau’s sentiments spoke to their frustrations of growing up, or being talked at by know-it-all adults. Many of my students were vocational agriculture students who wholeheartedly agreed with Thoreau’s attitude towards ditching the classroom and getting outside:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.of having to spend time indoors.”

Using Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” was my attempt to complement Bill Bryson’s memoir of his hiking on the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Bryson’s writing was more accessible to the students than Thoreau’s 19th Century prose which is stuffed with allusions of all types. Unlike Thoreau, Bryson makes background instruction unnecessary.

Another accessible text for students was the picture book I placed on the Livebinder, the charming  Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B.Johnson.

Thoreau reimagined as a bear, enjoying Nature!

In this tribute to Transcendentalist philosophy, Johnson cast the naturalist Thoreau as a bear who hikes his way on a route (actually taken by the author), stopping to engage with several of his famous American neighbors (Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson) also as bears. Henry’s bear companion chooses to work in order to take the train, setting up a story that implies money cannot buy the experience of nature. Students found the message profound, and unanimously agreed that a bear was the perfect choice for Thoreau.

I also placed links to a number of other essays by famous (British) writers on walking:

…and some (American) song lyrics on walking:

I asked students to find their own walking songs to share in class.

There was also an audio essay from the series “Engines of Our Ingenuity” based on an invention (using clay) that Thoreau used to make better pencil out of inferior graphite. Who could have been more inspired to make a better pencil than a writer who used pencils in his writing?

I had hoped that students would be equally inspired to see the connections that Henry David Thoreau had to their lives, to see how he had inspired Bill Bryson and others to take walks in nature. How he promoted Nature as a way for students to gain knowledge about themselves and the world around them…. To encourage others to spend time in the kind of thought that “transcends” or goes beyond what they may see, hear, taste, touch or feel.

My hope was that my students could have Thoreau explain the importance of self-knowledge, “… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

40 years after choosing that yearbook quote, I have not shifted in that belief.

last-stop“…and what is that award for?” the boy asked pointing to the right corner of the book.

I was showing students in a 2nd grade class the cover of the picture book Last Stop on Market Street, written by American author Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson.

The boy was pointing to a black medallion, pasted under the silver foil award marking the  2016 Caldecott Honor and under the gold foil award marking the 2016 Newbery Medal. He was pointing to the shiny black circle that marked the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, that lists the qualities of peace, non-violent social change, and brotherhood on its emblem.

“It has so many awards….and it’s only a few months old,” his classmate noted.

This fall, I have been reading Matt de la Peña’s story to students in different elementary grade levels.

The students are hooked from the beginning when the picture book’s hero CJ bursts through the church doors, and into the rain that “smells like freedom.”

They notice the white trunks of the birch trees, drawn to look like they are “drinking through straw.” They like Nana’s sharp retort as she grows irritated with CJ’s questions.

“Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire.”

These repeated readings have made me aware that that CJ’s journey is a sophisticated journey. CJ travels through an urban landscape, a setting that is familiar to these students, but combined with same fantastic elements of an archetypal narrative pattern known as The Hero’s Journey. 

The Hero’s Journey or mono-myth was introduced by Joseph Campbell an American mythologist, who wrote in his most famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949):

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

This narrative pattern of myth and legend has been followed by other characters on journeys. In the literary canon there are many examples such as  Odysseus (The Odyssey) and Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit). The same narrative pattern is seen also in film with Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars trilogy.

Campbell drew parallels between these journeys of legend in literature and mythology with the journeys that everyday heroes make. He suggested that the everyone in life meets complications and obstacles, but it is the individual who goes through each of the stages and completes them successfully who society regards as a hero of any kind.

The Hero’s Journey follows a pattern of adventures that are generally organized in 12 stages. There is evidence that de la Peña’s little hero CJ experiences each stage, even in the short text (32 pages) of this picture book:

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-10-24-53-pm1. Beginning in the Ordinary World

This is where the hero CJ begins his journey, oblivious of the adventures to come. We learn his his shortcomings; he complains  (“How come we don’t got a car?”) and he lacks the imagination of his Nana (“…he never saw a straw.”).

2. Call To Adventure

CJ’s adventure is a call to action, but the action is not clear until the end of the story.

3. Refusal Of The Call

Standing at the bus stop, CJ is uncomfortable.“How come we gotta…?” he complains to his Nana.

4. Meeting The Mentor

CJ’s  mentor figure is his Nana. She gives him whatever he needs: wise advice and self-confidence. She dispels his doubts and fears and gives him the strength and courage to continue his journey.

“Nana gave everyone a great big smile and a ‘good afternoon.’ She made sure CJ did the same.”

5. Crossing The Threshold

Climbing into the bus, CJ crosses the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that fantastic world which he is not. He climbs into the “…bus that breathes fire” and immediately the bus driver performs a magic trick with a coin.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

As every hero on a journey, CJ  needs to find out who can be trusted and who can not, and these characters on the bus initially seem a little sketchy.

“They sat right up front.
The man across the way was tuning a guitar.
An old woman with curlers was holding butterflies in a jar.”

CJ is out of his comfort zone and is confronted with challenges that help the reader gain a deeper insight into his character. The characters he meets are illustrated: the guitar player, Bobo, and the lady with butterflies, the boys with earphones, the blind man, and the blind man’s dog.

7. Approach To The Inmost Cave

In the mono-myth, the hero must make final preparations before taking that final leap into the great unknown. That comes about when the man with the guitar begins to play, and CJ follows the advice of a blind man:

“To feel the magic of music,” the blind man whispered, “I like to close my eyes.”

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-10-24-24-pm8. Ordeal

By closing his eyes, CJ experiences the mono-myth’s “metaphorical resurrection” that (literally) grants him the hero’s insight:

“And in the darkness, the rhythm lifted CJ out of the bus, out of the busy city.
He saw sunset colors swirling over crashing waves.”

9. Reward 

During this stage, CJ is transformed into a new state, emerging with the prize or elixir. The background illustration by Robinson is not an urban landscape, but a full page spread of CJ’s imaginings. The prize or elixir is magic of music that activates his imagination.

“CJ’s chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.”

10. The Road Back

At this stage in this hero’s journey, CJ returns with his reward.  According to the pattern, he may still need one last push back into the Ordinary World. This is the moment before the Hero finally commits to the last stage of his journey,  moment in which he must choose some higher cause. Here, CJ notices the “Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores,” a stark contrast to the beauty that the elixir of music provided.

11. Resurrection

This is the climax of the picture book, the “a-ha” moment. Responding to his disappointment, CJ’s Nana tells him,

“Sometimes, when you’re surrounded by dirt, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

Her knowledge has far-reaching consequences to his ordinary world.

He wondered how his Nana always found beautiful where he never thought to look.”

12. Return With The Elixir

This is the final stage of the Hero’s Journey, which is now revealed to have been a journey to a soup kitchen. On this journey, CJ has grown as a person; he has learned many things. He is a fresh hope to others, and, like his Nana, can offer a solution to problems.

“I’m glad we came.”

The final reward that he obtains may be literal or metaphoric. Ultimately the hero CJ will return to where he started, but he has a new point of view, one of empathy.

You can see Matt de la Peña reading selections from the book here:

In proposing The Hero’s Journey, mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested that everyone goes through a series of challenges in life, but it is only the hero who successfully meets each challenge at each stage of the journey.  CJ is the literal and archetypal hero of Last Stop on Market Street, reminding all audiences, young 2nd graders and adults, that the hero can be anyone who makes that challenging journey and who returns to bring hope to his or her community.

CJ’s reward is Nana’s approval to his statement, “I’m glad we came.”
She responds, “Me too, CJ. Now come on.”

CJ’s reward as a hero in completing his journey is captured for all audiences in a picture book by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, in a picture book that is decorated with book awards.

Screenshot 2016-03-29 10.37.46In a previous post, I discussed how the “Chicken or Egg?” conundrum is a way to view which agency-  National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – is responsible for the recommendations for fiction vs. non-fiction in a student’s reading diet.

In 2015, the NAEP the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas” provided a voluntary survey on which teachers could select the literary genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.” NAEP noted that over the past six years, there has been a steady increase in nonfiction in grade 4 and 8, a phenomena that coincides with the adoption of the CCSS and the revisions to the NAEP reading content. As the primary reason or as a result, the CCSS has promoted expectations that a student’s reading diet reflect a ratio  30% fiction and 70% nonfiction across the content areas by the time he or she graduates from high school.

Creative

The Evolution of Creative Nonfiction

Complicating the question of which came first, the CCSS recommendations or the NAEP, another genre has been evolving and gaining popularity with students at all grade levels, the genre of creative nonfiction. Creative non-fiction or the narrative non-fiction genre features the same techniques that fiction writers, playwrights, and poets use in order to present real people and events as stories while still using factually accurate prose. The goal of the creative non-fiction writer is to make nonfiction stories as exhilarating, arresting, vivid, or dramatic as anything in the fictional story.

In meeting that goal, consider how the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman (author of Children of the Wild WestLincoln: A PhotobiographyWashington at Valley Forge) has dipped into the fiction trademark, the story, by saying:

“A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has sworn an oath to tell the truth.”

That desire to imitate a storyteller has been generated by a primitive need to communicate and to remember. The story, as author and consultant Lisa Cron explains in her book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, allows humans to be human. She writes:

“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it—a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 9.46.08 PMSimilarly, Thomas Newkirk, a faculty member of the University of New Hampshire, has argued that that we are hard-wired for the story format in his brilliant book Minds Made for StoriesHow We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. He writes that, “…as humans, as time-bound mortals, we must tell stories” as though the need to tell stories is instinctive as embedded in all humans as is our DNA. Newkirk explains:

“We rely on stories not merely for entertainment, but for explanation, meaning, self-understanding. We instinctively make connections of cause and effect, and always have. To deny the centrality of narrative is to deny our own nature” (146).

Examples of Creative Nonfiction by Grade Level

Consider the following examples of great openings that use the poetry, humor, or suspense, associated with fiction in different kinds of non-fiction.

The first is the short opening of the picture book Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate:

“In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla’s life begins.”

The poetic combination of “leafy calm” and “gentle arms” sets a peaceful tone that is soon disrupted when the infant gorilla is kidnapped from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought to Tacoma, Washington, to live his real life in a mall.

Or read the opening from the Ludwig Von Beethoven chapter, one of 19 truncated biographies collected for How they Croaked:The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg. Bragg knows her teen audience and keeps the pace moving quickly and informally:

“Beethoven’s dad forced him to practice the piano, like dads have done since the dawn of music. We don’t know what tunes Beethoven practiced, but today, kids are forced to play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, melodies that Beethoven wrote. Practice paid off for Beethoven and he became a musical genius. He played his first gig when he was eight years old. He performed for kings, he did concert tours, and he had a lot of fans. And he had long hair just like a rock star. It turns out Beethoven’s hair helped uncover how he died.”

Yes, this does follow a standard biographical timeline, starting in Beethoven’s youth, and, yes, there is the gratuitous connection to rock stars and “gigs”. This entry-and all of the others in the book- capitalize on a multitude gory details in describing how famous real people in history “croaked.”

The last example is from the  opening of the 2013 multi-media Pulitzer Prize winning article in the NY Times  Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch. This digital form of storytelling is an excellent piece for secondary students. It begins in medias res (middle of action):

“The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: ‘Avalanche! Elyse!’

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.”

Accompanying the text are snowfall loops of digital GIFs embedded with video, audio interviews, graphics, and other interactive features. I have written before that the text of “Snowfall” marks a new step in storytelling, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose. Real stories are breaking the 3rd wall in storytelling.

Preference for Narrative Nonfiction

In their books, both Lisa Cron and Thomas Newkirck have identified how our brains have preference for reading and writing the narrative. That preference is advancing genre adaptations that may render recommendations for reading diet ratios unnecessary, whether they come from the NAEP, the CCSS, or some other agency.

Because we are human, and because our brains want stories, the evolving genre of creative non-fiction is rapidly becoming another egg in the reader’s basket.

 

“You can’t swing a teddy bear around here without hitting an artist,” quipped Lane Smith, a children’s picture book artist (It’s a Book, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs) with two Caldecott Medal awards to his credit. Smith was sitting next to my friend Catherine at the Roxbury Minor Memorial Public Library in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

He was correct. The illustrator Wendall Minor  (Nibble Nibble; The Eagles Are BackIf You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond) was sitting only a few seats away.

The geographical map of Northwest Connecticut is an “Area of Maximum Artist Density” where artists of all kinds reside. Catherine and I were spending Saturday afternoon in the small library conference room listening to a lecture by Leonard S. Marcus one of the world’s leading authorities on children’s books and their illustration. (See Catherine’s post here).

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The subject of his talk was illustrator Leonard Weisgard who (no surprise here) had also lived in Roxbury until the late 60’s. The title of the talk was “Modernist in the Nursery: The Art of Legendary Illustrator Leonard Weisgard” and Marcus came prepared with multiple slides that highlighted the influences and illustrations in Weisgard’s long career as both a picture book artist and author and as a commercial artist (New Yorker).  In offering this talk, Marcus was surrounded by members of Weisgard’s family and former Roxbury neighbors. For them, this was a reunion; for us, this was a star-studded affair.

Marcus is an author himself including: Show Me a Story!; Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way). He was the curator of the New York Public Library 2014 exhibit, “The A,B,C of It: Why Children’s Books Matter” (which I wrote about in a post here).

Introducing Weisgard as a Modernist, Marcus discussed the development of children’s picture books as separating into those “Once upon a time…” stories of morals and lessons or those stories in which a child could insert himself or herself. Weisgard illustrated the later, and he often paired with Margaret Wise Brown to create books that appealed to a child’s sense of play and imagination, including:

In his 1947 Caldecott Acceptance speech, Weisgard spoke of this approach in his illustrations:

“We experimented with color for sound and shapes for emotion, letting the child bring the magic of movement, in a series of Noisy books. So that a radiator would be placed in a shape suggested by the hissing noise it makes, and the round sound of a ticking clock would put it into a circle.”

He also spoke of the brilliant colors in his pictures and pages filled with movement in this speech:

“There are times in illustrating when the artist of today must rub his nose against the reality of things and try to catch with the honesty of a child a yellow sun like a pat of butter in the sky, with clouds of cottage cheese and the smoke of boats flying in all directions, with no concern for north or east. Houses with windows gaping and people like raisins on the street, a fire engine tearing off the page and a policeman stopping everything.”

His appreciation and respect for his young audience is also summed up in this speech:

“Children are never as disturbed as grown-ups by contemporary arts, a streamlined plane, or a gallery of modern painting. They see an image with real meaning and vitality and sometimes with incongruous humor giving it a sharper reality.”

Weisgard’s acceptance speech contradicts some of the practices that have come about as a result of educators trying to increase rigor by choosing complex texts that are too often inaccessible for their young readers.  Here in his Caldecott acceptance speech some 68 years earlier, was Weisgard defending the ability of young children to read his illustrations that are very complex but also accessible.

Leonard Marcus with Leonard Weisgard's daughter Abby at the discussion "Modernist in the Nursery"

Leonard Marcus with Leonard Weisgard’s daughter Abby at the discussion “Modernist in the Nursery”

The only wrinkle in an otherwise perfect afternoon was the slight delay caused by a technology glitch. Marcus’s Powerpoint presentation was stuck in presentation mode, and try as he and the other artists might, they could not change out of the presenter’s view of showing several slides simultaneously.

“Oh, well, sighed Marcus, “You’ll get a chance to see what slide is coming up…”

While the artists Minor, Smith, and Marcus struggled together with  uncooperative technology for those minutes, I did come up with this riddle:

Q: How many artists does it take to set up a powerpoint?

A: It doesn’t matter. Only their art does.

One Word Text Complexity

March 23, 2015 — 1 Comment

I recently attended the 2nd Annual Conference for The Teaching Studio at The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Doing double duty as keynote speaker and presenter, author and blogger Vicki Vinton conducted two workshops on text complexity and how students read complex texts.

Vicki Vinton's previous book

Vicki Vinton’s earlier book on reading; Good news, she is writing another!

As an opening exercise, she asked those in attendance in the afternoon session to sum up their attitudes or feelings at that moment using only one word. She explained that while she is in the process of writing a book on the topic of text complexity, she sometimes feels overwhelmed in trying to meet deadlines and keep up with work responsibilities. She said she had chosen a word to sum up her feelings.

On a slide was her word: “Breathe.”

Some of the participants’ words?

Uncertainty
Joy
Time
Try
Action
Happy
Quality
Discover

My word? I combined the words try and action; my word was traction.

This opening activity mimicked how readers approach a complex text. In asking each member of her audience to select a word, Vicki explained that she was using the exercise as an ice breaker. She had established a purpose. Her request to have each person choose only one word to sum up an attitude required that each participant had to tap into his or her background knowledge (schema). As Vicki wrote each single word on the chart paper, the words formed a contextual coherence. Individually, these words were in the abstract, but listed collectively on the page, they provided an emotional portrait of the attendees in the session.

When readers read complex texts, they must perform many of the same steps we performed. Readers must establish a purpose for reading. Readers must tap into their own background knowledge, just as we did when Vicki requested that we select a single word. Our choices illustrated how readers must rely heavily on knowledge of word meanings when reading complex texts.  Finally, a reader needs to recognize a coherence; how words in a text connect to each other. The attendees in Vicki’s session had a chance to recognize the connection of their words to the education profession.

Had we been given the time, we might have explained in more detail why we had chosen our particular words. I would have had the opportunity to explain why I had selected the traction. The dictionary defines traction as:

1: the act of drawing : the state of being drawn
2: the adhesive friction of a body on a surface on which it moves (as of a wheel on a rail)
3: a pulling force applied to a skeletal structure (as a broken bone) by using a special device <a traction splint>; also: a state of tension created by such a pulling force

Of the three possible meanings, my reason for choosing traction is most closely associated with the second definition. One of my educational objectives this year is to help students in my district to make gains in reading and writing. While that means I may encounter some “friction” in meeting this goal, I must be careful about the degree of “tension” that I create as I work to be a “pulling force” in improving literacy.

The complex thinking that began Vicki’s presentation came from her request to choose only one word proving that text complexity has nothing to do with length; text complexity can be found in brevity.

Vicki’s opening exercise was an excellent way to highlight the stages all readers can experience in reading complex texts. Her presentation developed many of these ideas that she promised would be outlined in the book she is currently writing. While the working title Embracing Complexity is, according to her, “subject to change,” the book will offer problem-based approach to the teaching of reading.

I look forward to reading her book when it is published.

In the meantime, I have a new word: anticipation.

This morning I had to slow down in the children’s books section of the Friends of the Westport Library Summer Book Sale. I slowed to sort through the extensive offerings of books on tables in the big tent. I also slowed to keep an eye on three-year-old Pearl, my niece’s daughter, in the smaller tent. That slowing down resulted in a great payoff in picture books.

I shopped on the first day of the sale, Saturday, (7/19/14), prepared to haul away several bags of books for the classroom libraries. A check of the travel section did not disappoint. I quickly located seven copies of The Places in Between, a memoir by Rory Stewart who walked his way across Afghanistan in 2002. This memoir recounts how he survived:

 “…by his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the kindness of strangers…Along the way Stewart met heroes and rogues, tribal elders and teenage soldiers, Taliban commanders and foreign-aid workers. He was also adopted by an unexpected companion-a retired fighting mastiff he named Babur in honor of Afghanistan’s first Mughal emperor, in whose footsteps the pair was following.”

This memoir is an assigned text for the Honors Grade 10 summer reading, a non-fiction selection to meet the World Literature focus. The seven copies would retail for $74.90; I got all of these copies for $13.00. There were other trade fiction paperbacks that I added: Little Bee; Cry, the Beloved Country; and The Things They Carried. There were also multiple copies of different episodes in the Bone series for students who enjoy graphic novels.

After shopping for the classroom libraries, the browsing through the children’s books tent felt like a bonus sale. Here was an opportunity to get books into Pearl’s hands, and the Westport donators did not disappoint. The tables were piled high, and the aisle wide enough for patrons with small children in tow.
The books were in excellent condition, so much so that my niece commented, “Look, these pop-up books can still pop-up!”
I located copies of books from the classic picture book canon, and we ended up with a small pile including:

  • Make Way for Ducklings  by Robert McCloskey.
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.
  • Shrek by William Steig
  • Linnea at Monet’s Garden By Christina Bjork
  • Miss Rumphius  by Barbara Cooney
  • The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese.

We had to stop and read some of the books to Pearl to keep her engaged and were particularly grateful for the large areas roped off outside the children’s book tent. This space lets patrons check their selections before heading to the check-out tent. This space is critical for some of the patrons who stock up like I do with multiple bags and boxes.

Pearl and her mom enjoy "Make Way for Ducklings"

Pearl and her mom enjoy “Make Way for Ducklings”

In total, we spent an hour collecting books at the sale and fifteen minutes at the organized check-out tables. As they are every year, the volunteer who counted my five bags full was pleasant and well-trained. She was curious about where I taught, however.

“You are putting these into classrooms…where?” she asked.
I explained these were going to a middle/high school in Northwest Connecticut.
“Oh, I don’t know that area well…I guess I lean more to the New York area,” she offered.
“When possible, so do I,” was my response.

Totals spent? $96.00 for the classrooms, and $13.00 for Pearl who left the sale toting her “summer reading” picture books. From emerging to life-long readers, the Westport Book Sale offers a chance to stock up on picture books and memoirs and all the other genres in-between.

Cat in the HatMarch 2nd is Theodor Geisel’s (aka Dr. Seuss’s) birthday.

March 2nd is Read Across America Day as well, and Read Across America is an annual nationwide reading celebration sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA).

The impact of Dr. Seuss’s texts on young readers is enormous, but the impact does not stop there. Even at the high school level, I have made extensive use of Dr. Seuss’s classic The Cat in the Hat. I have posted about using this text to introduce Freudian psychology in I Wish I Had Thought of Id, Ego, and the Superego in Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat”.

At the end of that lesson, my students have a clear understanding about the differences between the Id, represented by the wild Thing 1 and Thing 2, and the Superego, represented by the dutiful Fish. The also have one lingering question:

“Does the Cat want the kids to lie to their Mom?”

Their question encouraged me to look more closely at the text as a possible means to introduce other literary concepts. But I am not the only one who thought there were other lessons to be gained from this text. I recently found a series of philosophical topics and questions for The Cat in the Hat on The Teaching Children Philosophy Wiki

The home page states:

This website is dedicated to helping adults conduct philosophical discussion with and among elementary school children.Contrary to what many people think, young children are both interested in and good at discussing philosophical questions. Picture books are a great way to initiate a philosophical discussion with young children and this site will help you get started.

Along with a long list of picture books, there are a number of Dr. Seuss texts represented on this wiki including Green Eggs and Ham for educators to teach a lesson on arguing reason vs. experience by Taiba Akhtar or The Sneetches for lessons on defining differences and noting prejudice by Lena Harwood.

The lesson for The Cat in the Hat was posted by Joey Shaughnessy and includes five topics and related follow-up questions, some of which include:

Trust

The Cat reassures the children that what he is doing is okay and that their mother won’t mind…

  • Would have you trusted the cat?
  • When can you trust strangers? What if they’re a teacher, or a policeman?
  • How do you know that you can trust your friends?
  • What is trust?

Responsibility

The Cat, with all of his games, made quite a mess in Sally and Sam’s house…

  • Is it okay that the Cat made a mess?
  • Since the Cat cleaned up his mess, was it more okay that he made it?
  • When is it okay to make a mess?

Wrongness

In the story, Sally and Sam had a very different view on what is right and wrong than the Cat did…

  • Is it okay if the children were entertained by the Cat, even though what he was doing was dangerous?
  • Is it okay to do things that are wrong to try and impress people?
  • Is it more okay to do something wrong if it’s fun? Why or why not?

Social Expectations

In the story, the Cat invited himself in, and started taking action…

  • Was what the Cat did an okay way to act?
  • What are inappropriate things to do in a friend’s home?
  • What makes them inappropriate?

Lying

At the end of the story, the reader is left to wonder if they would tell their mom what had happened…

  • Would have you told your mother what happened? Why?
  • Is it okay to lie to hide something that you’ve done wrong?
  • If we lie and get away with it, can people still be hurt by what we’ve done?
  • Should we tell the truth, even if no one would believe us?
  • If you tell someone only part of what happened, is this lying?

Screenshot 2014-03-02 19.37.23The last question (If you tell someone only part of what happened, is this lying?) was easy to discuss. My students agreed telling someone only part of what happened was lying.

They also mentioned something about speaking from experience.

Banned Book Week is held annually during the last week of September in order to bring attention to the controversial practice of banning books, but an exhibit at the New York Public Library is proclaiming the same message through March 24, 2014. The exhibit “The ABCs of It: Why Children’s Books Matter”  celebrates the development of children’s literature in picture books, in chapter books, and in young adult literature.

The exhibit which opened on June 24th, is curated by Leonard S. Marcus who has also curated exhibitions at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts, where he is also a founding trustee. This comprehensive exhibit is a must see and does not shy away from controversies in providing…

an examination of why children’s books are important: what and how they teach children, and what they reveal about the societies that produced them. Through a dynamic array of objects and activities, the exhibition celebrates the extraordinary richness, artistry, and diversity of children’s literature across cultures and time.

The differences in opinion on the role of children’s literature are raised at the exhibit’s entrance. Should children’s literature be foremost a means to deliver lessons of morality? (as Cotton Mather urged the Bible on young Puritans) Should children’s literature “delight and entertain”? (as John Locke believed with Aesop’s fables) Or should children’s literature tell the bare truth, not tales that “cover truth with a veil”? (Jean-Jacques Rousseau). From fairy tales to the Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy, the controversy rages on, and the exhibit presents them all.

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A life-size set of “Goodnight, Moon” at the New York Public Library

There are tributes to William Blake’s poetry, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and a original copy of Janette Sebring Lowrey’s The Pokey Little Puppy. One large panel features the rhyming words (Sam I am & green eggs and ham) of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Along another long wall are the serial contributions of publisher Edward Stratemeyer: Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew. There is a tribute to comic books complete with silhouettes of Marvel and DC heroes, and tribute to books successfully made into films. A glass case holds the original Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger from A.A Milne’s 100 Acre Woods; Eric Carle’s colorful panels (Brown Bear, Brown Bear and others) glow brightly in the cases. Pictures of the exhibit are on the New York Public Library’s Facebook Page and the NYTimes slide show review.

There is a wall that bears the distinctive outline of one of Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” around the corner from a life-size set of Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night, Moon, waiting for the quiet old lady to whisper “hush”. You can listen to E.B. White read the last chapter of Charlotte’s Web, and try not to sob when hearing him say the line, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

The exhibit also points out the role of children’s literature in politics or in nation building.  On one wall of the exhibit, there is a sculpted relief of the world surrounded by three quotes; each quote makes an important point about the significance of children’s literature. The first quote is by Noah Webster from an essay titled “On the Education of Youth in America,” American Magazine, New York, December 1787:

“The Education of youth is, in all governments, an object of the first consequence. The impressions received in early life usually form the character of individuals, a union of which forms the general character of a nation.”

Political writer, author, and developer of the dictionary, Webster was an early advocate for education as key to America’s growth and development.  The next quote, however, gives the viewer pause…and a few chills:

“Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”
Interview with H. G. Wells -September 1937- said by Joseph Stalin

Similarly, the last quote does demonstrate how in astute political hands, children’s literature can be a powerful propaganda tool:

“Rise up children and learn to be free independent children of China, learn how to wrest this freedom from the yoke of Japanese imperialism, and transform yourself into masters of a new era.”
Mao Zedong from the Journal Children of the Border Areas- 1938

These voices provide a serious reminder that children’s literature is more than board books, rhymes, and fairy tales. There are powerful messages in these stories; some so powerful that they have banned. For example, there is Munro Leaf’s story of the peace loving Ferdinand, the Bull which “caused an international controversy” when it was first published; banned in Spain the book was burned in Nazi Germany. Exposing those horrors of the Holocaust is a copy of Art Spiegelman’s breakthrough graphic novel Maus.

Marcus’s exhibit presents the questions and controversies about children’s literature, but does not provide answers. The exhibit has examples of how this genre of literature can contain both powerful political tools and playful trivial entertainment. There is no answer to the exhibit’s opening questions as to whether children’s literature is a means to educate, a means to enforce a moral code, or a source of joy. On seeing the stories of childhood so beautifully arranged, I opt for joy.

At the end, a large screen posts a continuing stream of Jeopardy-styled quiz questions in an interactive, and serious time-killing, activity.
I stood answering questions (“curiouser and curiouser= Cheshire Cat” or “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile= The House on 88th Street“) for some time before a young boy noted, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this..”

“Thanks,” I said, “I really like these books.”

“So do I,” he responded before leaving.

Thanks for making that moment possible, New York Public Library. Continue Reading…