Aug 26, 2012

Back-To-School- Alphabetically

Let's start out easy- as easy as A-B-C.

I'll say "Chicka Chicka" you say...

"Boom Boom" of course! Everybody knows that!

I have no doubt there are some kids (and teachers/caregivers) who can start with
"A told B and B told C, 'I'll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.'"
then recite every word of the remaining text as readily as they could sing the traditional ABC song.

That's because alphabet books, like so many quality picture books, have power. Many alphabet books are  varied, appealing, rich, informative, entertaining, stimulating, and downright beautiful. And the best not only survive repeated readings, they invite it. What better time than back to school to tout the use of some of the best, aiming for every age.
BeachLane Books, 2000

CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Lois Ehlert, is a must for any pre-readers or emerging readers. The driving rhythm, natural rhymes, colorful pages, humor, and readily available musical renditions will give anyone an earworm, which is precisely the point with young learners.

The many related "chicka-books" will be devoured by established fans, too.

Puffin, reprint 1999

ALPHABET CITY by Stephen T. Johnson has stood the test of time with readers of all ages. A Caldecott honor book, the illustrated images so closely resemble scenes from natural and urban settings that anyone would have to look repeatedly to be convinced that these are illustrations rather than photographs. The concept is addictive, too. Readers will be on the lookout for letters of the alphabet everywhere in the environment. A good thing, yes?

Alfred A Knopf, Random House

Traveling all the way back to 1968 is worth the trip to read and share THE ALPHABET TREE by Leo Lionni. On the simplest level it makes a fun caparison to Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, with the letters living in a tree. It also bears comparison to Lionni's Swimmy, reflecting one wise little leader suggesting the strength of banding together to resist attacks (from feeder fish, or in this case, strong winds.)
This is a wonderful "next step" of letter understanding, that letters combine to make words, and words combine to make sentences. In its unexpected conclusion (especially when considering the intensity of the cold war in 1968)  the words combine in a sentence of REAL importance: Peace on Earth and good will toward all men.

Scholastic, 2002

ALPHABET UNDER CONSTRUCTION by Denise Fleming incorporates Fleming's characteristically intense colorful and creative illustrations. It also manages to focus on verbs rather than the more typical nouns or adjectives selected to illustrate each letter.
I can't help but think of how well this creative and busy little mouse would fit in with the kids in Liz Garton Scanlon's recent book on making art, THINK BIG.

Scholastic, 2011

For older audiences alphabet books are an accessible format for informational text, the non-fiction reading that comprises so much of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Just a few of the many available examples that fit well in literary and content area instruction include:
BUGS A TO Z by Caroline Lawton,  GONE WILD: AN ENDANGERED ANIMAL ALPHABET by David McLimans, and V IS FOR VANISHING: An Alphabet of Endangered Animals by Patricia Mullins

Walker Publishing, 2006

In each case these books provide a combination of intriguing and informative illustrations or photographs, accurate terminology, multi-leveled text demands, scientific terminology, back matter, and text elements such as an index or glossary.

Margaret Hamilton Books, 1993

These examples barely scratch the surface of non-fiction informational text presented in the format of an alphabet book. When attempting to introduce topics, gather reference resources, develop vocabulary, share accurate images and scientific drawings, why not examine quality  alphabet books before racing to a google search?

Harper Collins Publishers, 1963

Since this year is  the 50th anniversary of Harold and the Purple Crayon, let's not forget HAROLD'S ABC by Crockett Johnson, which was published the next year, 1963. Timelessness is a quality nearly impossible to define, but easily recognized. Toddlers to teens find Harold's creativity fascinating and funny, but never forgettable.

Timeless is a well-deserved description for this 2012 release,  Z IS FOR MOOSE by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. I posted a review of this book and an interview with it's creators when it released earlier this year. This is a perfect back to school book on so many levels: organizing, taking turns, cooperation, frustration, personality patterns, and friendships.  Oh, and alphabet and humor, too.

If you're planning which books to feature in the first weeks of school, alphabet books and otherwise, check out Colby Sharp's Nerdy Book Club blog post. You have until August 31 to submit a picture of yourself with a favorite "back-to-school" feature book.  Then check their site on Labor Day to view a video of "first book" photos. I'll be watching to see if any of these titles turn up!

Aug 19, 2012

Anyone Lonely Out There?

As summer is winding down any number of forces might generate loneliness in children (and in many of us adults, as well). Older siblings return to campus,  good-byes to camp friends are inevitable,  visiting grandparents pack for home. You know the kind of things that happen.
And, of course, school will be starting soon.
Even the boldest and most confident child harbors a small fearful spot in the pit of the stomach when thinking about the possibilities that lie ahead. For some, that spot looms large, a black hole of anxiety about making friends, being the last chosen, sitting alone at lunch, feeling lost in a new building, or forgetting names.
Unless I'm way off, adults heading off to a new job often feel the same.

Schwartz and Wade Books, 2012
The Lonely Book, by  Kate Bernheimer, illustrated by Chris Sheban,  is a terrific back-to-school choice, or for whenever those lonely feelings appear. This is a story of a lovely library book, admired and sought after from its place of honor on the "new book" display. When even newer books appear, as they always will, the book moves to the "regular" shelves, but is still fresh and pristine enough to appeal to browsers. In time, though, its cover is dulled, a back page torn out, and it languishes on the shelves with no one to discover it and love it.
Until the day Alice takes the Lonely Book home, creates her own last page ending, sleeps with it, and gives the lonely book a home on her bedroom bookshelf.
Library books must be returned, and Alice forgets to renew it. Thus begins a very lonely time for both Alice and the book. It languishes in the "to be sold" stack in the library basement, is passed over on sale day, and is nearly ruined when a sudden storm arrives- at the same time Alice does. Of course it's a happy ending. Alice never forgot the book, and the book always hoped to once again be loved.
Bernheimer's touching story is rendered heartfelt and sincere through Sheban's muted and subtle illustrations. Anyone who has ever felt a special bond with a specific book, made friends with a character, or recognized themselves in a particular story will have no trouble believing the truth of The Lonely Book.
Read more about THE LONELY BOOK in Kirkus review in January, 2012. and in a post from  Gulliver's Quality Books and Toys, among others.

There are many potential touchpoints for this story beyond the surface. In a culture that often glorifies the bling-iest, shiniest things, looking beyond the newest and latest to discover lasting treasures (in people and in books) is a valuable lesson. The same is true for not judging a book (or person) by its cover, and valuing age. My favorite take-away from this story is the idea that books, new or old, rely on readers to come alive. The Lonely Book was not in need of a friend, it needed a partner, someone with whom to share its story, to even recreate what must have been the missing ending- happily ever after, of course.

Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2011
For another take on loneliness resolved take a look at Newbery Award winner Patricia Maclachlan's recent picture book illustrated  by Caldecott-honored Bryan Collier: YOUR MOON, MY MOON: A Grandmother's Words To A Faraway Child. Dedicated by the author to a grandchild born halfway across the world, and by the artist to every child or adult who misses a loved one, the moon serves as a universal visual link.
Eloquent text and setting-rich images infused with emotion and everyday experiences in distant cultures make this another book that works on many levels and for many purposes. It is an especially good example of normalizing daily life in widely distant cultures, suggesting visually that we are more alike than different.
A Kirkus review does justice to the visual tale enhancing this loving text. A video interview with Bryan Collier can be found at Reading

Bottom line? Books can comfort, reassure, befriend and strengthen us, even on lonely days. If you know someone heading off to school with a pocketful of loneliness in tow, you just might tuck a familiar book in the backpack to offer the comfort of a friend.

Aug 12, 2012

Bea At Ballet... and Beyond!

Recent posts have focused on just a few of the incredible picture book portraits of performers from the past. (Read that sentence aloud, fast, but not after snacking on crackers, please.) When the Olympics opened just two weeks ago, the elaborate productions featured an homage to children and children's literature. The closing ceremony is another extravaganza of music, song and dance for all ages. After turning to thoughts and books about the place of arts in young lives in my last post, I'm eager to share a remarkable recent release. 

BEA AT BALLET, by Rachel Isadora,  is much more than a ballet primer for the preschool set. True, it includes clearly labeled items, from clothing to equipment to positions,  simply but appealingly portrayed on wide white spaces with accurate terminology. Etiquette and expectations during lessons are conveyed as are a genuine fascination and love of ballet. But it is much more. This is a lovingly told story of how Bea and her friends view ballet.

Isadora blends her Caldecott Honor-winning black lines from BEN'S TRUMPET and pastel palette from ON YOUR TOES: A Ballet ABC in this story of a ballet class with young Bea. Mocha the well-mannered dog observes Mr. Paul and Ms. Nancy teaching a diverse troupe of toddlers who engage, body and spirit, in a life of ballet. The gently curved lines, expressive features, subtle gestures and shading, delicate patterns and soft edges all create impressively competent round-bellied dancers floating in an almost magical white space. Their earnest efforts include pointed toes, graceful hand extensions, and utterly believable spins and stumbles. From cover to cover it is evident: Bea and her friends LOVE to dance.

Add this to your collection of alphabet books!

Bea's class includes young boys whose enthusiastic efforts show great promise. Here's hoping the current popularity of dance in mass media will provide cultural acceptance of that interest, rather than resulting in the teasing depicted in OLIVER BUTTON IS A SISSY, by Tomie dePaulo, a reaction more typical in the past.
A review of OLIVER BUTTON can be found , along with an annotated list of children's literature, at Social Justice Literature for the Elementary Classroom.

So, should we be fostering decathletes or dancers, ball players or ballerinas? Bet you've already guessed my take on the question. Let's just say that each child's life holds possibilities as expansive as an Olympic stadium or a concert stage and beyond. Today's plugged-in preferences tend to tether the natural impulses of childhood, and educational imperatives further restrict exposure and opportunities for arts and athletics in their daily lives. More than ever we need to foster interests and activities that allow kids to see themselves in those arenas, to discover and explore their passions. Picture books like these are fine first steps.

(While I await your comments, I'll be seeking treatment for my recently acquired  alliteration addiction.)

Aug 5, 2012

Sports and Arts: Passion and Performance

Recent posts shared stories of past Olympians and their dreams, including Dr. Sammy Lee, Wilma Rudolph, and Alice Coachman. As exciting as the current London Olympics are, looking back to stories from the 1948 London Games also inspires.

Even if you missed the opening ceremonies on Friday night, by now you're aware of the emphasis that was placed on youth and humor, including a welcome salute to children's literature. If previous posts here and on other kid-lit blogs leave you wanting more, check out this Kirkus Reviews blog post of Olympic-themed books.

Art and the Olympics have been paired throughout history, including this year's  2012 Art in the Park exhibits. Until 1936, when the entire Olympics were politicized beyond recognition, the modern Olympics even had art competitions, for amateurs only, of course.

I, for one, am pleased that arts are not viewed in a competitive way in this Olympics. I'm a firm believer that  we should celebrate the many expressions and creators of art not just in Olympics, on cable programs, and in competitions for fame and fortune,  but in our daily lives.

The very recent release of THINK BIG, by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, reassures me that I'm not alone in this belief.

In less than seventy words, Scanlon's exuberant rhymed text combines with Newton's vibrant, energetic images to celebrate painting, music, scriptwriting, set design, acting, dancing, sewing, singing, sculpture, needlework, craft design, fiction writing, reporting, and photography/videography, not to mention cooking, baking and crafts. The imaginative kids portrayed create individual projects that together produce a result greater than the sum of its parts.

Whether or not one of the creative tots  grows up to be another Danny Boyle and orchestrates a future Olympic opening ceremony, each and every child has the capacity to contribute BIG things to the world. On small stages and large, in family kitchens and in corporate design studios, tomorrow's creators rely on us to encourage them today.

The Olympics are all about measurements, in millimeters, thousandths of seconds, and tenths of points. This passion for perfection has spilled over into our schools, ascribing such high stakes to narrowly-scoped tests that we are crowding creativity and personal expression from young lives.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this appealing and inspiring picture book had the power to remind parents, administrators, and politicians that education is NOT an Olympic event. Education's aim should be to maximize potential, to seek personal bests from all, not a award a single gold prize. Each child needs opportunity and support to develop his or her own skills and talents, to become "faster, stronger, higher" in a variety of realms of interest, day by day. And, as THINK BIG concludes, to MAKE ART!

In the words of the Olympic Creed:
"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Shouldn't that apply to every life goal, to every expression of personal talent and interest? Quite a lot to ask of a little picture book, isn't it? But picture books are powerful, and I like to 

What do you have to say about the role of arts and individual expression in a child's educational experience?

Cynthia Leitich Smith recently hosted Liz Garton Scanlon for a guest post on her blog, Cynsations, to reflect on the creation of THINK BIG.

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.