Thursday, October 1, 2015

Learning from Picture Books – Ninja Bunny

A humorous story about accepting help from friends told in very few words and wonderful illustrations.

Summary from Amazon:

· Rule #1. You must always work alone.
· Rule #2. You must be super sneaky, especially in the most dangerous of situations.
· Rule #3. A super awesome ninja must: possess incredible strength, achieve invisibility, master the skill of climbing, gain the ability to fly. . . .

Our little bunny is ready to embark on his path to becoming a ninja. But is he cut out for the ninja life? Especially if it means leaving his friends behind?

Ninja Bunny was written and illustrated by Jennifer Gray Olson, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

Study this one if you want to see how to write a compelling story with few words. I liked the structure of telling a story through a list of rules. This is a really good example of how illustrations and text work together. The illustrations add so much!

Find out more about the idea for Ninja Bunny in an interview with Jennifer Gray Olson by Matthew Weiner at Let's Get Busy. 

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

The idea of ninjas always makes a lesson more exciting for students. With this book you can discuss how sometimes it’s a good idea to ask for help from friends.

This would be a nice companion to Sesame Street’s Biscotti Kid video where Cookie Monster uses karate principles to teach students how to listen with their whole body. 

Themes: friendship, independence

Ages: 3 – 7

Grades: preschool – grade 2

Follow-Up Activities:

Discuss why or what is means to co-operate.

Create a poster or list of rules for how to be a good (ninja) friend.

Have students illustrate one "ninja rule" for the classroom.

Read another Ninja-themed book, such as Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz (You can read my feature on that one here.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - GEORGE

I’ve heard a lot about this book, so I was glad to finally have the chance to read it. It’s a thin book with lots of white space so I was able to read my library copy in one afternoon. And I had to read it in one afternoon, because I couldn’t put it down!

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she's not a boy. She knows she's a girl.

George thinks she'll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte's Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can't even try out for the part . . . because she's a boy. 

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte -- but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

George by Alex Gino was published by Scholastic Press in 2015.

My Take:

This is the first time I’ve read a middle grade book with a main character who is transgender. I really felt as though I was seeing the world through Melissa’s eyes. This book had funny moments, sad ones, heartbreaking ones and hopeful ones. It made me think about the importance of respecting and accepting others for who they are. I think everyone should read this book. Even though it never comes across as trying to teach a lesson or send a message, it definitely makes you feel compassion and the need to stand up for anyone who is bullied for being different. I also really enjoyed the scenario of the Charlotte’s Web play, since I’m a big fan of that story too.

It was so effective to write this story from Melissa’s perspective as a girl even though outwardly she appears to be a boy. The idea that she hasn’t been ready or able to share this part of herself with anyone else comes across clearly in the novel. I’d love to read this book again to study the language and dialogue, which seemed so appropriate for the age group.

Opening Line:

“George pulled a silver house key out of the smallest pocket of a large red backpack.”


“My point is, it takes a special person to cry over a book. It shows compassion as well as imagination.”

“The days passed George by in a haze of unhappiness.”

“But the world isn’t always good to people who are different. I just don’t want you to make your road any harder than it has to be.”

Other Info:

Alex Gino began writing George in 2003, and it was a long process with many revisions to create the finished novel.

I really liked what Alex Gino said about Melissa on their blog: “Melissa is who she is. The trouble is in how she is seen (and unseen) by the people around her.”

Alex Gino is currently at work on another middle grade novel, which incorporates issues of deafness, racism and police violence.

To find more great books to read, visit author Shannon Messenger's blog for a list of other bloggers who are featuring middle grade books today.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Podcast Picks for Writers - September 2015 (including podcasts with Laura Backes, Katherine Applegate, and some great info on pacing)

Since I missed posting my podcast picks for August, I’m including a couple of extra ones today.

How Do I Control the Reader’s Sense of Progress? – Writing Excuses Episode 10.24


The Writings Excuses crew divided the concept of pacing into two parts, “sense of progress” and passage of time. “We discuss the tools we use, some of which are very mechanical (scene breaks, chapter breaks) and some of which are quite intricate, and require finesse to get right.”

My thoughts:
Such useful discussions on a hard-to-get right aspect of fiction writing. I will be listening to these more than once.

What’s So Great About the 500 Word Picture Book? An Interview with Laura Backes – Brain Burps About Books Episode #241

Katie and Laura discuss The Picture Book Summit, how Laura became an editor, what it’s like to write a rejection letter, why age is an advantage in your writing, and how picture book readers are more sophisticated today than in the past, among other things.

My thoughts:
I’ve heard a lot about Laura Backes and I was happy to learn more about her and her career. I was especially interested in her insights as to why editors prefer shorter picture books at present and what children experience when reading shorter picture books.

Laura Backes: “…shorter texts lend themselves to more sophisticated stories.”

John Corey Whaley– This Creative Life Episode 45


Charlie Kaufman and Sufjan Stevens, inspiration vs. discipline, being “Corey” vs. being “author John Corey Whaley”, the upside of being a process-hacker, the difference between normal jobs and writing, imposter syndrome, movies, identity crises, and why we write and the fear of losing it. Yes, John Corey Whaley and I covered it all in this episode of This Creative Life! I hope you enjoy it as much as we did – I think you will.

My thoughts:

I found this conversation really interesting, especially the discussion about how his “follow up book” didn’t turn out to be the right one for publication.

John Corey Whaley: “Sometimes a writer needs to write something for him or herself.”

Katherine Applegate – Let’s Get Busy Episode 190


Katherine Applegate (@kaaauthor), author most recently of Crenshaw, published by Feiwell and Friends (@FeiwelFriends), and recipient of the Newbery Award in 2013 for The One and Only Ivan, stops by to talk about considering sound more than plot, a sophisticated and charming way to deal with things, and finding just the right word.

My thoughts:
I'm a big fan of Katherine Applegate's books, so I enjoyed hearing her talk about writing and especially her recent middle grade novel, Crenshaw. I haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to doing that soon.

Katherine Applegate: “I loved…just finding the right word.”

Monday, September 21, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Apple and Rain

My choice last week was for younger middle grade readers, so this week I’m featuring a book for older ones. This is an emotional story that includes some scenes with alcohol and also truancy, but the issues of family and friendship will pull readers into the story.

When Apple's mother returns after eleven years of absence, Apple feels almost whole again. In order to heal completely, her mother will have to answer one burning question: Why did she abandon her? 

But just like the stormy Christmas Eve when she left, her mother's homecoming is bittersweet. It's only when Apple meets her younger sister, Rain-someone more lost than she is- that she begins to see things for how they really are, allowing Apple to discover something that might help her to feel truly whole again.

Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan, Bloomsbury, 2014.

My Take:

Apple is starting to feel a need for more independence and feeling constrained by her grandmother’s rules when her mother returns and offers another way of life. Except it doesn’t turn out to be as easy as Apple hopes, especially when she discovers she has a younger half-sister. I got quite caught up in the story and wanted a happy ending for Apple. It was hard to go through some of the experiences with her, such as being disappointed by her crush, and realizing what her mother was really like. I loved the way she turned to writing poetry to express her feelings.

As a writer, I admired the author’s poetic writing style. There are no unnecessary words but I can picture the story so clearly in my mind. This is a novel where the white space is as important as the text.

Opening Line:

“I don’t know if what I remember is what happened or just how I imagine it happened now I’m old enough to tell stories.”


“Derry cowers in his basket. He can tell something horrible is happening. I want to snuggle with him, so we’ll both feel better.”

“I like the big dashes the poet uses and the random capital letters; it makes me think that if someone famous can beat up punctuation and get away with it, there’s hope for me.”

“It’s isn’t easy, but telling something as it is, telling the truth, always seems more beautiful and poetic than anything else.”

Other Info:

Sarah Crossan used to be an English teacher, but she now writes full time. She lives near London, England.

Other books she has published include the YA novels Breathe, Resist, The Weight of Water and most recently, One.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Learning from Picture Books – How to Wash A Woolly Mammoth

I always enjoy stories that try to show me how to do the impossible! (Kind of like washing your dog after it runs into a skunk, which I had to do earlier this summer.) Anyway, this book is a lot of fun and a good one to use with students to explain how to write step by step instructions in a fun way.

Summary from Amazon:

Things can get a bit messy when you try to wash a woolly mammoth. Follow this step-by-step guide to successfully clean up your hairy friend. Be forewarned! A mammoth's tummy is terribly tickly. 

Young readers and parents alike will appreciate this hilarious bath time adventure.

How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth was written by Michelle Robinson and illustrated by Kate Hindley, published by Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This story has a fun concept that captured my attention. It’s written as a series of steps, an interesting story structure to try if you’re wanting a new approach to story writing. The illustrations add so much humor and life to the text, especially the expressions on the mammoth’s face.

The author, Michelle Robinson, has an interesting and useful Ten Minute Story Making Masterclass

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

The step by step instruction format is a great model for young writers who are learning to write procedures. I’d love to discuss the character’s creativity and ingenuity in problem-solving in a group discussion, talking about going beyond the obvious, and how sometimes you need to try more than one idea or be persistent to get something to work.

I also enjoyed the different washing products illustrated inside the front cover. They could be used as a model for an art or media activity. And I liked the way the illustrations were labeled Fig. and shown on graph paper, demonstrating scientific illustration.  

Themes: persistence, planning, following steps, problem-solving

Ages: 3 – 7

Grades: preschool – grade 2

Follow-Up Activities:

Create a plan for how to do something using pictures and labels.

Brainstorm a list of different ideas for how to get a mammoth down from a tree and write a different ending for the story. 

Watch the video with Michelle Robinson to learn how an author uses a "web" to brainstorm story ideas, and give it a try.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - Agatha, Girl of Mystery: The Kenyan Expedition

I enjoy reading mysteries, and it was fun to find one that is suitable for younger readers. After a summer of vacations and erratic schedules, this is a good one for easing back into reading.

A rare species of white giraffe, worshipped by the Masai tribe, has disappeared from the savannah. So Agatha and her cousin Dash head to Africa on their next adventure to help solve the mystery. There, they join forces with a third cousin--a safari expert--to track down the poacher who has stolen the priceless animal.
Agatha, Girl of Mystery: The Kenyan Expedition by Sir Steve Stevenson, illustrated by Stefano Turconi, Grosset & Dunlop, 2015.

My Take:

This is a fun, straightforward mystery for kids who are just starting to become interested in reading mysteries and finding clues. I’ve never read any of this series before, but I liked the detective team of Agatha and her cousin Dash, and their sidekicks Agatha’s butler Chandler and the cat, Watson. Readers who are new to this series might be a bit surprised when the first chapter is about Dash, since Agatha is in the title. This one has the threat of danger and a time pressure to find the giraffe, which keeps the story moving.

As a writer, what I admired about this book was the liveliness and energy. I can see why it would be popular with young readers.

Opening Line:

“In a central-London penthouse packed full of high-tech devices lived Dashiell Mistery, an aspiring detective with a passion for technology.”


“…the shelves of her bedroom were stuffed with notebooks she’d filled up with curious details, plot outlines, and character descriptions.”

“His joke made them laugh so hard that all the birds perched in a nearby acacia took flight.”

“A small but ferocious feline launched itself into the middle of the thundering dust cloud, and the herd of large animals veered off and thundered away.”

Other Info:

Sir Steve Stevenson is the pseudonym for an Italian the pseudonym used by Mario Pasqualotto, an Italian writer who spent many years writing for Italian gaming magazines. His motto is “Every person is a beautiful story.”

The illustrator, Stefano Turconi, lives in Italy.

If you like this one, there are many other books in the Agatha, Girl of Mystery series.

For more middle grade book recommendations, visit Marvelous Middle Grade Monday on Shannon Messenger's blog!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Learning from Picture Books: I Don't Want to Be a Frog

I actually like frogs and even wrote a novel about a toad (close cousin to a frog). But I can see why someone might want a different life sometimes! This cute story is short and a fun read for preschoolers.

Summary from Random House:
books about self-acceptance

Fans of Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back will love meeting this willful young frog with a serious identity crisis. Frog wants to be anything but a slimy, wet frog. A cat, perhaps. Or a rabbit. An owl? But when a hungry wolf arrives—a wolf who HATES eating frogs—our hero decides that maybe being himself isn’t so bad after all. In this very silly story with a sly message, told in hilarious dialogue between a feisty young frog and his heard-it-all-before father, young readers will identify with little Frog’s desire to be something different, while laughing along at his stubborn yet endearing schemes to prove himself right.

I Don’t Want to Be a Frog was written by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday, an Imprint of Random House Children’s Books, 2015.

This book has a fun book trailer

My thoughts as a writer:

This book is interesting because it departs from the usual structure with several attempts to solve a problem. The conflict comes from the child frog’s internal wish to be something else, and is solved when a new character suddenly comes into the story. Breaking traditional rules of structure works here since the whole book creates a very believable conversation between child and parent.

Dynamic illustrations and facial expressions bring out the humor in the story. A great partnership between writer and illustrator.

My thoughts as a teacher:

I’d use this story to promote discussion about feelings. It’s a great one for encouraging students to think about another person’s perspective. It puts the reader right in the shoes (or feet) of the child frog to look at the world from his point of view. This story might also be used to teach about how to write dialogue or use speech bubbles, since most of the story is presented through speech bubbles.

Themes: self-acceptance, being positive

Ages: 3 – 7

Grades: preschool – grade 2

Follow-Up Activities:

Choose an animal at random and write a list of reasons why or why not you might not like to be the animal. Or, take one of the animals from the story that the frog wanted to be and discuss the reasons why he might want to be that animal.

Make frog puppets (and a wolf) and retell or act out the story.

Do some research and create a mini book of interesting facts about frogs that other people might not know.