Monthly Archives: April 2012

Revisiting: Engaging Informational Picture Books

I’ve been very interested of late in the attention being paid to the Common Core State Standards recommendation for more nonfiction in classrooms. There are many ways to do this, one of them being a greater emphasis on nonfiction picture books. Here are a few older books I’ve much admired for their spare and elegant texts, compelling voices, original design, fresh ways of presenting information, superb research, and engaging illustrations. They are ideal for classroom teachers looking for great nonfiction to add to their libraries and teaching.  Please add your own suggestions in the comments!


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Jacqueline Woodson Speaking on Saturday here in NYC

The 92nd Street Y, in addition to providing the usual Y-sorts of things (athletic, pre-school, etc) also has a remarkable Poetry Center with a number of exciting speaker series including one for children.  And on the afternoon of Saturday, April 21 the wonderful Jacqueline Woodson will be the honored speaker.  And the Y is making it free for readers of this blog!  All you need to do is say “Our friends at 92Y are offering free tix to Jacqueline Woodson’s reading this Saturday afternoon.”  in person or in an email to Unterberg@92y.org.

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Coming Soon: Geoff Rodkey’s Deadweather and Sunset

So let’s see. It is easy to see a certain kind of formula that came about over the last decade or so involving male Cinderellas. You’ve got Harry Potter with those nasty Dursleys making him live under the stairs. There’s Percy Jackson with his dyslexia. Both, of course, have sidekicks with whom they banter and battle highly dangerous foe. The result of Harry and Percy’s success among young readers has generated a whole lot of heroes of their ilk. Now there are plenty of young guys treated badly who find out they are special and, of course, have sidekicks and some sort of maybe- first-love interest (who may or not be a sidekick).  Most of these are entertaining and immediately after reading, forgettable. So my initial response when I received Geoff Rodkey’s Deadweather and Sunrise, the first in The Chronicles of Egg, was a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  Chronicles?  Pirates?  A boy and a girl on the cover?  Yawn.

But, but, but then I began reading and was immediately and completely hooked. Rodkey has created a witty and intriguing alternate world, one that is filled with pirates and feels along the lines of 18th and 19th century British Empire or something of that ilk. His male Cinderella is one Egbert, who understandably prefers the nickname Egg. He lives on the putrid outlier island of Deadwater which is largely populated by pirates. “There were two kinds on Deadwater: the normal ones who hung around down in Port Scratch, drinking and getting into knife  fights whenever they weren’t off raiding Cartager gold ships; and the busted-down, broken ones,who’d lost too many limbs or eyes or organs to crew a ship, but not enough to kill them outright.” It is the latter who work on his father’s ugly fruit plantation, seemingly the only legal enterprise on Deadwater.  Tormented by his miserable older siblings Adonis and Venus (both of whom are nothing like their namesakes) and ignored by his taciturn and always-working father, Egbert’s life is that of the classic downtrodden male Cinderella. But suddenly everything changes. There’s a map, a girl, her villainous father, gruff and good pirates, nasty dangerous pirates, and something more sinister lurking in the wings that may involve the original people of the area, termed Natives, who we only see far, far off, toiling on the nearby island Sunrise’s silver mine.

Egg tells his own story with humor and a  likable lack of self-pity. There is adventure galore as he goes from one cliffhanger (one is literally a cliffhanger) to the next and wit as well. For it is Rodkey’s writing that made this rise for me above the others of its type — a dry sense of humor, the sort of throw-away lines Dickens does so well, great pacing, and excellent world building.  I can see that some might be worried about the mention of those mysterious Natives, but my sense and hope is that Rodkey is setting us readers up for something significant about them in future volumes. In this start to the series they are far-off figures Egg is only very vaguely informed about through hearsay and stories of the past related by various characters.  That they are so barely known and then only as myth feels intentional on the author’s part and something I am hopeful he will bust open in good ways in future volumes.

Of course there is much more that we readers will be waiting for as well — what exactly did happen to Egg’s family after they went off?  What and where is he headed next? Geoff Rodkey has definitely got my attention and I’m eager to see where he is going to take this chronicle next.  Oddly enough, when searching for a link for the book I came across a review by none other than Rick Riordan who describes it as “Lemony Snicket meets Pirates of the Caribbean,with a sprinkling of Tom Sawyer for good measure.” Not too bad a description at all.

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In the Classroom: The Problem with Bullies

Bullying. It is an age-old issue that has become high on our radar these days what with legislation requiring schools to institute bullying curricula, dreadful  stories of young people killing themselves because of being bullied, the movie Bully, and so forth. One that is much in the media, often in ways that I find problematic.

And so I was mighty pleased to see Marjorie Ingall‘s article, “How to Stop a Bully” in which she considers the new movie, the current cultural notions regarding bullying, what doesn’t work to address it, and what does.  I loved her bluntness, that the movie is  “… torture porn….You’d never know from watching the film that experts agree that physical bullying is by far the least common form of bullying.”  That the current rhetoric around this topic  “…feels like just another part of this zeitgeist-y trend—a somber, self-important, self-promoting tone standing in for real commitment to the difficult work of edification.” And that”Pledges and zero-tolerance policies, wherein we ban the bully from our midst like a goat sent into the wilderness, sound great but do more harm than good. They let us pass the buck without helping the bully change.”  Yes, yes, and yes!  And most of all yes for this,  the money quote,  from clinical psychologist Rona Novick:

“We struggle in this country to get social and emotional learning the same attention, time, and effort as academics,” Novick said. “And there’s social exclusion and bullying among adults, so to expect that kids will be better at this than grown-ups are is downright foolish.”

That is because I feel that we adults need to look honestly at ourselves and how we model the very behaviors we are trying to stop among children.  In years past whenever I did training to address inequities in my classroom I was first required to consider my own biases and behaviors. In considering race (in my Peace Corps training and later in this country) I was asked to think about my own view of race, to tease out my own stereotypic and even possibly racist notions, my own stance of white privilege.  Similarly when looking at gender in the classroom I have been asked to examine my own beliefs carefully to see how they impact on my classroom practice.  I wish we’d do that more in terms of bullying — consider how we model it in obvious and subtle ways.  That said, it is an elephant in the room — how do you even begin to look at this?  I see adult bullies everywhere — what someone else might consider strong and necessary strength often looks closer to bullying to me.  What is tough love and what is just tough meanness?  Tough stuff indeed.

Thank you, Marjorie Ingall, for so articulately and thoughtfully addressing a very difficult topic.

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The One and Only Diana Wynne Jones

Invited to be part of the blog tour celebrating the grand Diana Wynne Jones (here’s what I wrote last year upon hearing of her passing), I’ve had her works on my brain for the last few weeks.  And so how serendipidous to have a very odd and intriguing link present itself. I have no idea if Diana Wynne Jones had any interest in Dickens, for all I know she hated him, but I’ve been listening with unexpected pleasure to The Pickwick Papers (expected tedium and found hilarity) and was delighted and surprised to encounter the bagman’s story of the queer chair.

Tom gazed at the chair; and, suddenly as he looked at it, a most extraordinary change seemed to come over it. The carving of the back gradually assumed the lineaments and expression of an old, shrivelled human face; the damask cushion became an antique, flapped waistcoat; the round knobs grew into a couple of feet, encased in red cloth slippers; and the whole chair looked like a very ugly old man, of the previous century, with his arms akimbo. Tom sat up in bed, and rubbed his eyes to dispel the illusion. No. The chair was an ugly old gentleman; and what was more, he was winking at Tom Smart.

That sentient piece of furniture made me immediately think of another one, the scruffy and cranky “Chair Person” (in her collection Stopping for a Spell), a story that is quintessential Diana Wynne Jones — some children have to deal with an irritating magical being within a very domestic situation — and one I’ve always found a great read-aloud for my fourth graders. For as much as Jones appeals to older readers, she was and is spot-on for younger ones like my students. Happily for those new to this delightful writer, the recently posthumously published Earwig and the Witch is an excellent introduction for these younger readers to her delightful and unique style. There is irritating magic, much domestic mess, and a complicated child protagonist. Others I’ve found to be great for 4th graders are Witch Week (one of the many fabulous Christomanci stories), Dogsbody, and Howl’s Moving Castle. There are many other older works as well including A Tale of Time City, one I have especially fond memories of reading so am thrilled that is being reissued so that I can  reacquaint myself with it and pass it on to my students.

As for her books for older readers, I get an enormous kick out of her Tough Guide to Fantasyland in which she absolutely perfectly and hilariously skewers trope after trope. Ramdomly opening my 1996 edition (as I can’t seem to find my copy of the more recent and terrific definitive edition) I find on page 60:

Coats  do not exist in Fantasyland— CLOAKS being universally preferred — but TURNCOATS do.

Take that George R. R. Martin!

Quirky, odd, remarkable — Diana Wynne Jones is not to be forgotten.

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“Peter and the Starcatcher” on Broadway

I saw this delightful production Off-Broadway last year; playing off the particular style of the  British musical hall and pantomime of earlier times I found it great fun indeed.  Since much of its charm was due to its smallness and intimacy I did wonder how it would manage in a larger Broadway venue, but evidently it did so just fine.  While some reviewers are not fans of the campy nature of the enterprise others feel as I do, appreciating its frothy fun.

From New York Magazine:

Peter and the Starcatcher is a tiny show, but spectacle, wit, and joy spill out of it like treasure from a magic pocket. A cast of twelve, a couple of trunks, and a versatile length of rope yield more storytelling than most oversized spectaculars can manage. There’s a naval battle, an island full of savages, and a mermaid chorus, all packed onto a stage that feels no bigger than a conch shell. It’s a measure of the production’s low-tech delights that when Molly, the cast’s sole female, ingests a dose of “starstuff,” crosses her legs and levitates, Jeannie-style, it looks like a miraculous effect, even though we can clearly see the plank, the pivot, and the hand on the seesaw’s other end.

From the New York Times:

And yes, the humor is sub-adolescent, with the sort of groaning puns and flatulence jokes that schoolboys have always found irresistible. But there’s infectious art in how these cast members convey the primal joy we take in such idiocy. And throughout this production they’re sounding chords within us that we don’t even know are there: our hunger for certain kinds of fables and types of heroes and villains, and our wonder that a flying orphan invented more than a century ago continues to loom so large in our imaginations.

And here’s a brief video to give you another taste. (One of the main attractions is Christian Borle who you can now also see in the television show Smash.)

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Book Trailer Project: Production

I purposely have waited to mention the book being featured in this trailer project as I didn’t want to put any of you off.  However, at this point I will reveal that it is (unsurprising to those who know me) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  As I have done for decades I read the annotated version aloud while my students followed along in my large collection of illustrated editions. They loved the different approaches to the art, the puns, the characters, dancing a quadrille, playing indoor croquet, and everything else we do as we read the book. Because I know how much fun the book is for them I challenged them to communicate that in a book trailer, especially to those who are dubious that it is still a book for children.

My wonderful colleague and tech specialist Ellen Nickles who has embraced the project did a lesson taking apart my model trailer to show different ways it could be created. We then asked the children to consider the mood they wanted to impart in their trailers and then to come up with some text, quotes, and images to use in it.  They did a great job with this, getting the sense of the book in their text and choices of quotes from the book. The only problem for some was having too many quotes or just too much text. When this was pointed out they eagerly return to rethink this.  As for the illustrations they could create their own or use John Tenniel’s as they are out of copyright.

After Ellen did a fabulous Imovie demo, they were off creating their trailer. I was amazed at how well they did this.  Not only did they require minimal support, but the room was incredibly quiet — they were completely focused and engaged. Admittedly, they have been working on various tech projects all year and most of them had used Imovie before so they quickly adapted to the specific demands of this project tech-wise. Still, I think it was their complete engagement in the project that was what mattered more than their tech ability.

Students drafted versions of their trailers and then I looked them over with them and gave them suggestions (just as I would a piece of writing).  They did, as was to be expected, get a bit carried away with effects, often putting way too many for such a short piece of video.  But once I pointed this out to them, they were very open to bringing them down into a reasonable and less distracting number.  Lastly, we introduced music.  Ellen made several versions of my trailer with different kinds of music (from this royalty-free music site)  so the children could easily see why some did not fit.  With remarkable ease they selected their own and added it to their own trailers. Interestingly, I had expected them to go wild with this and have to suggest better choices, but that wasn’t the case at all. They made excellent choices, every single one of them!

Next: The finished trailers.

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Book Trailer Project: Introducing the Project

To prepare for this first session I had found several book trailers that I felt would be good models for my students.  Like the the ones they would do these relied on images rather than live action, had only text to read and no voice overs, and were all books familiar to them.

I began with this one for Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt, a book I was reading aloud to them.

Student observations:

  • Not very long, but tells the story without giving it away.
  • Quotes from people about the books.
  • Make people want to read it.
  • Make it look intriguing.
  • Music gives a tone.
  • Short, but not complete sentences.

I followed this with a student-created trailer for Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (familiar to them all because of the recent movie).

Student observations:

  • Music was good for the book.
  • Very mysterious titles make you want to read.
  • Used art from the book to let you know a bit of what it is about.
  • Art matched the titles.
  • Ken Burns effect used well.
  • Maintained the black/white color of the book.
  • Questions about the book: What does it all mean?

Next came a video for Cat Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Cat had visited us recently and the children knew we were soon to begin a unit reading the book.

Student observations:

  • Very strong music. Lyrics are about the story. Mysterious.
  • Tone is gentle, but story is not (ironic).
  • Had a slightly more adult feel even though the audience is kids.
  • Object that was in every image — the key.
  • Some images moved (e..g the clouds).
  • Fairyland is indicated by music and images.

Next: Presenting to them my process in creating a book trailer and then setting them up to begin preparing for their own.

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Marc Aronson’s Master of Deceit

I’m old enough to remember J. Edgar Hoover and also old enough to want to forget all about him. However, young people are not me and so with a sigh I dutifully opened up Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies — and was immediately gobsmacked by the start of the prologue:

FACT: In November 1964, William Sullivan, an assistant director of the FBI, set out to blackmail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into killing himself.

With that Aronson had me and kept me until the end. Beginning with the Russian Revolution and the rise of Hoover, moving on to the development of the FBI mystic, and on through wars of honor and stealth, Aronson weaves a tale that you absolutely could not make up. With a clear and engaging voice he questions, probes, connects, and brings to light a remarkable time in American history. From John Reed to Joseph McCarthy and back to Martin Luther King, Jr. the book is a rich brew of personalities, historical details, and revelations — of the King suicide plot, of the crafty doctoring of photos and documents by the FBI, and of many other manipulations by Hoover’s men (and male they pretty much all were) within the complicated context of the times. Enhancing the powerful text and imagery is the book’s superb design: the fonts, the placement of images, and organization; Aronson’s author note detailing his research process; the expansive notes, and index. It is all and all an outstanding work of history for young people.

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Book Trailer Project: Making My Own First

After reading several articles about making book trailers with kids I figured the best way for me to figure out how to proceed was to make one of my own. Now it so happens I have a book coming out next year, Africa is My Home: The Memory Book of Sarah Margru Kinson and some years ago I put a version of it on a private blog for my students to read during their study of forced immigration. Since we all knew it well I figured it would be a good subject for my model book trailer.

I began by doing something logical: storyboard the trailer. But I discovered after a while that what I was doing was writing a complete summary of the book, much too much for a trailer. I then thought harder about what I wanted to communicate in the trailer and realized I wanted to make it serious, solemn, respectful, not too scary, and also intriguing. For it is not just the story of the Amistad through Margru’s eyes, but also the story of how she returned home to Africa. I also realized that I had to keep it simple; I knew from other projects that without some boundaries and limitations as to what sort of film effects they could use many of my students would become overwhelmed. And so I set some guidelines: no voiceovers, no live action, and a finite number of images.

For my second attempt at a storyboard I took a paragraph I’d written at one time to introduce the story and used it as the text for the trailer. I then selected several images (I originally conceived the book as illustrated with primary sources) to go with them. After that I dived into Imovie where I experimented with title placement, timing, and special effects. I added in music (from this site with royalty-free music), tinkered further with it, and finally — voila, I had a book trailer! Still a bit rough and very rudimentary (probably need something more professional when the book comes out), but adequate to show my students. Certainly the making of it gave me quite a bit of insight into what I’d be asking the children to do.

And my book trailer? For what it is worth, here it is:

Next: Introducing the project to my students.

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