Oct 13, 2019

Warming Up for Cybils Nonfiction Decisions

I'm so excited to be knee-deep in Cybils Nonfiction Nominees for Elementary and Middle Grade readers. (Nominations are still open until October 15, 2019, so click on that link to look over this list and add your own nominee if it is not there!) My library hold list is long enough to wrap a Halloween mummy. My TBR (To Be Read) pile grows and grows. My stack of likely shortlist titles is NOT short at all! 
I had already posted reviews and comments on a few of these nominees earlier in the year when they first caught my eye. I'll share links to those posts next time. After that I'll begin posting new reviews and comments on many of the the other nominees in the coming days and weeks.
WORDSONG, An Imprint of Highlights
For now, though, I want to share one set of titles that combine the glory of informative, intriguing, and unusual nonfiction content about subjects found in nature, but do so using poetic forms. That means that they won't be evaluated in my nonfiction category. In fact, this trio of titles from talented author/illustrator teams were all published before the Cybils 2019 qualifying dates. 
But, oh, they do deserve some attention, and three are wonderful examples of the ways in which nonfiction books can sparkle and shine. 
They provide a closer look at a talented author, David L. Harrison, who writes and successfully publishes MANY books, including fanciful fiction and other appealing approaches to nonfiction content. Illustrator Julie Bayless is also prolific. Her style is hard to characterize, other than being very kid-friendly while incorporating both scientifically accurate details and playful twists on those details. 
For example, their recent pairing wins grins in lyrical nature romps: CRAWLY SCHOOL FOR BUGS: Poems to Drive You Buggy
The premise of this clever bug fest is a "bug school" located in a rotting log. Vaguely familiar school issues and relationships unfold, depicting the various personalities of 


The charming appeal of the rhymed verses  and colorful illustrations is their artful balance between scientific accuracy and anthropomorphized details in expressions and costuming. The premise is established with the school rule: NEVER EAT A FRIEND AT SCHOOL. Then various insects and other bugs each deal with species-specific coping lessons, ranging from ticks with sore bottoms (from being extracted), stink bugs who are unpopular, a wasp who zaps a nosy dog, a school nurse who tends toward drawing blood (mosquito, naturally), and a janitor who happily gathers muck and dung (Mr. D, the dung beetle) to name a few. Smiles are generated on every page, while science slips in as slick as slime.

NOW YOU SEE THEM, NOW YOU DON'T: Poems About Creatures That Hide takes the science a step hider, wider, and deeper. This light-hearted but image- and information-dense collection of verses is organized by animal classes: sea life, amphibians/reptiles, mammals, insects/spiders, and birds.
This title provides the back matter I longed for in the above book, offering common species names and latin labels, with just enough explanation to clarify references in the main text. Each  animal family page also provides a kid-friendly science resource for curious readers. 
The rhymed verses in this title are less giggly and more informative, as are the illustrations. Giles Laroche uses an artful layering of drawing, cut paper, painting, and gluing, with the resulting scenes suggesting an authentic natural world, but one that will likely inspire young artists to explore similar techniques. The verses, too, are laced with intriguing specifics and evocative moods, inviting further observation and investigation. 

A PLACE TO START A FAMILY: Poems About Creatures That Build is another creation combining the considerable talents of Harrison and Laroche. This, too, organizes the information about animal homes in categories: underground, on the land, in the water, in the air, (with a bonus surprise at the final turn). It, too, features the delightful rhymed revelations of familiar and unusual critters and their nesting patterns. Laroche's complex media and layering technique results in surprisingly natural and scientifically accurate scenes. 
The back matter is helpful in this title, too, and the "Learn More" resources noted for each category are ideal choices for curious young minds to pursue. 

When it comes to delivering information, details, and other facts- real facts that can be verified and confirmed- there are many formats to use, for any age. In these books the blend of rhymed verse, skillful art, helpful back matter, and reliable resources elevate entertaining books to learning tools. That's a winning combination for any age. 

Oct 2, 2019

A Stone Sat Still: The (World) Is Lovely, Dark, and Deep...

Chronicle Books 2019

Just look at this cover. 
Really look at it.
A STONE SAT STILL is written and illustrated by award-winning Brendan Wenzel. It invites readers to do just the same, to sit still, to REALLY look at this single, very specific stone. 
To look intently, from various perspectives and points of view, over time, with all of our senses. 
In the opening and closing endpapers we encounter the stone, recognizing hints of the passage of time and circumstances surrounding the stone. With that passing time, the story of our world has dramatically changed, but the stone remains. 
I wrote out the full text, all 233 words of it. I did that because each phrase within that short text, each perspective, unfolds its own powerful truth through Wenzel's earthy bend of media: cut paper, colored pencils, oil pastels, and computer. The rhymed but free-form text incorporates rhythm so effectively as to feel, to me, like breathing. It's the kind of breathing I do when meditating or doing yoga. Each phrase, each panel, each perspective elicits engagement, draws me into the moment portrayed. 
Is this:
 a quiet book, a reflective book, a bedtime book, a nature book, a calming book? 
Yes, to all of those.
The magic of Wenzel's creation, in my opinion, is that this book is also:
an environmental book,
a climate change book,
an endangered species book, 
a science book,
a habitat book, 
a food chain book,
a call-to-action book.
You get the idea. 
In a recent post I shared a book and message about starting our future citizens young in developing an appreciation of the natural world in which they live and expanding their awareness of their relationship with that world (HERE). 
This, too, is a must-have book for sharing, at any age. It begs readers to step outside, to transfer the experiences modeled in the book about that stone, the one  that sat still on the pages but changed at every turn. 
That exercise requires attention to all of our senses, to fine details, to surrounding conditions and creatures, to imagination, and to predictions about how nature will change that object over time- days, seasons, decade, and centuries.
Then it invites us to ask the hard questions. 
Among those- is it nature that is changing or are we changing nature? 
And, if so, how? Why?
Public and individual activism about climate change in relation to our personal choices is, in my opinion, essential. Taking time to examine what climate change actually means, right outside our doors, both natural and human-made, is even more essential.

Alladin Books
When I had my own classrooms, (again, with students of any age), I used Byrd Baylor's and Peter Parnell's  EVERYBODY NEEDS A ROCK to activate science and literature reflections, including using it as mentor text for writing in both categories.
This latest release reflects the importance of the values Baylor presented in her classic picture books about nature, and the two titles pair well. I encourage getting both books to share and compare, as well as to initiate field activities, writing, and further reading in fiction and nonfiction, (yes, at every age). 
Particularly with established readers and writers, I urge you to write out the full text of each book, to share it with students and consider how and why such spare and simple text, such ordinary word choice, such straightforward statements can achieve such power. Consider line breaks, repetition, pacing, rhythm, internal and near-rhyme. Both books are brilliant  examples of writing craft without using big words, even including run-on sentences. Struggling readers and writers can access and evaluate these books as readily and with as much (or more) success as stellar students. Often it is those speedy students who struggle most with the reflective nature of books like these.
Empowering books can empower lives- and maybe even change our world for the better.

Sep 29, 2019

Facing the Truth: Feeling Better!

I can say with confidence that we all have hidden stories about ourselves. They may be hidden from the general public, from our circle of family and friends, from those closest in our lives, or even from ourselves. At a time when privacy feels (and usually is) elusive, the last, most sacred, private spaces are within our own heads and hearts. As a very private person myself, this feels like a good thing, something to help kids appreciate and develop for themselves. 
When those inner secrets haunt us, make us sick, twist our guts, or torment our thoughts, finding safe ways to let them out is the healthy thing to do.
Healthy, but not easy.
Once again, using picture books (and other books- see below) allows us, at any age, to live through intense or seemingly threatening inner struggles through the eyes of a character. That slight distance from the personal and often visceral distress of trying to talk about our own turmoils, whether those are minor or major, provides a sense of safety and  perspective.
NorthSouth Books, 2019

I AM A THIEF is written by Abigail Raynor and illustrated by Molly Ruttan, both of whom seem to be deeply connected with the emotional distress some prickly secrets can generate, at any age. 
The text introduces the issue in Eliza Jane Murphy's matter-of-fact first person voice: 
"I am a thief. Me. Eliza Jane Murphy. Line leader. Caring friend. Captain of the Worm Rescue Team."
This confident and clearly empowered girl is not in denial, only in SHOCK! The reality of what she has done appalls her, and her self-worth is in question. She lays things out as facts, even if they are mind-boggling facts, to her. 
When that sparkly green stone on the classroom display table caught her eye, it stole her heart, her attention, and then stole its way into her little bag. 
"Having" it made her heart sing, until she reflected (wonderfully demonstrated in a bathroom mirror). She realized that her impulsive act had made her someone she never imagined she could be- a THIEF! As she seeks to understand her own actions and also define herself as good or bad by questioning loved ones about their own thieving pasts, she is in for a surprise. 
Not only are the stories she hears unexpected, but they also offer various approaches to integrating obvious mistakes and even intentional poor choices into a full identity. Possible consequences and resolutions are modeled within their stories. A funny and not-so-subtle visual subplot involves her thieving cat, which tempers the satisfying conclusion and avoids an overly sweet resolution. Involving insights into dad and teacher in the ending lends some perspective, too, without extending a free pass to take whatever you want in life. 
Graphix (Scholastic) 2019

As I mentioned above, this kind of self-betrayal and hidden struggle is not limited to the very young. Picture books are not the only explorations of hiding the truth and subsequently stewing internally. Young people often view that approach as a sign of independence, but that isolation only increases anxiety and pain. I AM A THIEF depicts a young elementary girl, but a parallel issue involves a middle grade girl working through hidden fears and suffering in a new semi-autobiographical graphic novel, GUTS. Raina Telgemeier presents aa lightly fictionalized version of her middle grade life that shares many of the same stages and steps toward growth. It also opens the character's eyes to fuller truths about her friends, her nemesis, parents, and teacher. 
And, ultimately, about herself.
Books, particularly books with visual depictions of emotions, settings, and relationships, are uniquely positioned to develop awareness of a reader's internal explorations. More importantly, they can develop empathy for others, as is discussed in a wonderful post by author Bobbi Martin recently on one of my favorite blogs, Teaching Authors.
I AM A THIEF confronts the very common experience of impulsively helping ourselves to something that is not rightly ours. GUTS explores unexpected and escalating feelings of anxiety and desperation, arriving at a highly realistic but encouraging non-resolution. 
In both cases the books remind us, at any age, that we are not alone in our struggles. 
Not alone in such experiences.
Not alone in seeking understanding and resolution.
Let's use books like these to actively help young people develop patterns of turning to others to strengthen themselves, in empathy and independence.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.