Thursday, February 26, 2015

Learning from Picture Books: Here Comes the Easter Cat

I love the way this book sparks imagination with the unexpected! It's a good one for writers to read if they are worried their work is too predictable.

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Why should the Easter Bunny get all the love? That's what Cat would like to know. So he decides to take over: He dons his sparkly suit, jumps on his Harley, and roars off into the night. But it turns out delivering Easter eggs is hard work. And it doesn't leave much time for naps (of which Cat has taken five--no, seven). So when a pooped-out Easter Bunny shows up, and with a treat for Cat, what will Cat do? His surprise solution will be stylish, smart, and even--yes--kind.

An homage to classic comic strips from the author of The Quiet Book and The Loud Book, this Easter treat has a bit of bite, a sweet center, and a satisfying finish—sure to inspire second helpings.

Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood and Claudia Rueda was published in 2014 by Dial Books for Young Readers, New York.

This book is a finalist for a Cybils Award.

My thoughts as a writer:

It was so much fun the way the main character interacts with the narrator through the use of signs. It's really a conversation between the narrator and the book character, This is a perfect example of how illustrations and text work together to tell a story. I admired the lovely illustrations --  they are simple yet show so much emotion.

This book shows how you could write an imaginative story by taking a twist on a familiar concept, like the Easter Bunny, and taking it on a different path by asking yourself questions about what happened next (or in this case, what the main character needs to solve problems).

My thoughts as a teacher:

This is a fun story to read with preschool and kindergarten students. There are lots of opportunities to make predictions about what might happen in the story. The character expressions show so many different feelings to discuss with children! It’s also very interesting that the cat communicates by using signs, an idea that children could incorporate into their play.

Some possible activities:
- encourage children to make signs and retell the story
- talk about what other jobs the cat might do (e.g., Tooth Fairy) and what might happen
- discuss being helpful and say or write one way to help a friend (e.g., this could even be done by writing a message on a paper cutout of an egg for a "Helpful" Easter basket display)

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday - The Night Gardener

I chose to read this book because it's one of the nominees for the Silver Birch Award in the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading. But it was great to read something I might not normally pick up. [So far, I've only featured one other nominee, The Hidden Agenda of Ingrid Sugden.]

Here’s the Amazon description:

When orphaned Irish siblings Molly and Kip arrive to work as servants at a creepy, crumbling English manor house, they discover that the house and its inhabitants are not what they seem. Soon the siblings are confronted by a mysterious stranger and the secrets of the cursed house will change their lives forever.

This much-anticipated follow up to Jonathan Auxier’s exceptional debut, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, is a Victorian mystery in the tradition of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. The Night Gardener is a mesmerizing read and a classic in the making.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier, Puffin: New York, 2014

My Take:

This was a deliciously spooky story. It seemed a bit slow to get started, but the mysterious elements started to build, leading me to feel curious and also to dread what might be going to happen. I especially liked the character of Kip, with his crutch called Courage and his concern for doing what’s right.

From a writer’s perspective, I'd study how the author set the mood and tone for the story. It's interesting how real life historical events created the backdrop for this work of fiction, and the author explains more about this in the author's note.

Opening Line:

“The calendar said early March, but the smell in the air said late October.”


“The mud was black and greedy, holding on to whatever touched it—including their back wheel, which had lost three spokes only the day before.”

“Do they count as stories when the other person thinks they’re true?”

“A lie hurts people,” she finally answered. “A story helps ‘em.”

Other Info:

Jonathan Auxier grew up in Canada but now lives in Pittsburgh.

He listens to music to remind himself of the feeling he wants to create for a book. Here’s his post about his soundtrack for The Night Gardener

To learn more about how the author conquered his own fears through writing his books, check out Matthew Winner’s conversation with Jonathan Auxier on the Let’s Get Busy podcast

The Night Gardener is one of the nominees for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award

For more about Jonathan Auxier, visit his website.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade novels, Keeper of the Lost Cities and Exile (Keeper of the Lost Cities #2).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Learning from Picture Books -- KNOCK KNOCK: My Dad's Dream for Me

From the very first page, I was intrigued by the art in this book. And then I read the story and it really tugged at my heart. This is an important book – everyone should read it.

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Every morning, I play a game with my father.
He goes knock knock on my door
and I pretend to be asleep
till he gets right next to the bed.
And my papa, he tells me, "I love you."

But what happens when, one day, that "knock knock" doesn't come? This powerful and inspiring book shows the love that an absent parent can leave behind, and the strength that children find in themselves as they grow up and follow their dreams.

KNOCK KNOCK: My Dad's Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier, Little Brown and Company: New York, 2013.

My thoughts as a writer:

The spare, repetitive sentences beginning with “He never comes…” made my heart begin to ache for the boy in the story after only a few pages. There is a lovely rhythm with several sentences beginning with KNOCK KNOCK which feels like a call to action.

Although as writers we are often told not to write a book with a message, this book does have one. I think it works because of the sadness the reader feels at the beginning, and then the determination that begins to build through the story. The illustrations complement the story, with somber colors at the beginning, and the blue of hope as the story continues.

This book was a finalist for a 2014 Cybils Award.

My thoughts as a teacher:

This is a story for students of all ages, from primary grades to high school. Some students will be able to relate and connect to the main character because of his experiences, others will appreciate learning another perspective and feeling empathy. This story gave me a lot of think about. Students might speculate on what happened to the boy’s father, but could also discuss what life would be like or is like without a father. This book provides an opportunity for discussion about the choices you make and how to become the person you want to be.

Some possible activities:
- have students draw or write about a dream for their future (which they may or may not wish to share)
- discuss the line in the book “KNOCK KNOCK to open new doors to your dreams.”

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Learning from Picture Books: Any Questions?

This book has a story within a story, which is always fun! I love what the author says about using your imagination to come with story ideas. It's a good book to inspire young writers.

Here's the summary from Amazon:

Many children want to know where stories come from and how a book is made. Marie-Louise Gay’s new picture book provides them with some delightfully inspiring answers though a fictional encounter between an author and some very curious children — together they collaborate on writing and illustrating a story. Marie-Louise Gay has scribbled, sketched, scrawled, doodled, penciled, collaged, and painted the words and pictures of a story-within-a-story that show how brilliant ideas creep up on you when you least expect it and how words sometimes float out of nowhere, asking to be written.

Any Questions? presents a world inhabited by lost polar bears, soaring pterodactyls, talking trees, and spotted snails, with cameo appearances by some of the author's favorite characters — a world where kids become part of the story and let their imaginations run wild, becoming inspired to create tales of their own. At the end of the book, she provides answers to many of the questions children have asked her over the years, such as "Are you Stella?," "How did you learn to draw?," "Can your cat fly?," and "How many books do you make in one day?"

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay, Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2014.

My thoughts as a writer:

I don’t usually provide quotes when I feature picture books, but the language in this book is so lovely I can’t resist:

“Spots of color splash silently on the page and become shapes, characters and ideas.”

“I shake my ideas around and turn them upside down and look at them flying out the window like a flock of birds.”

This book is partly about how to create stories, and partly an entertaining story with a story-within-a-story structure. I thought it was really great at showing how ideas can build into a story, and how sometimes it can take time for a story to emerge. It was very nice the way it showcased some of the elements that might spark a story for an illustrator, too, e.g., the colour of the paper.

My thoughts as a teacher:

This is a wonderful story to spark imagination. This story may require several readings to give students a chance to study the pages and the many interesting parts of the illustrations. This would be a great story to use before getting student started on some collaborative creative writing.  

On Marie-Louise Gay’s blog, she gives us a glimpse behind the scenes and between the pages of Any Questions?. She says, “I wanted my story to be playful, magical and surprising. I didn't want it to be a book that tells children how to write, but rather to discover that there are many ways of writing and telling stories.I also liked the questions she answers about herself at the end of the book (questions she often gets from students during author visits). Students will find these interesting.

Some possible activities:
- after reading, encourage children to ask their own question
- make a list or sketch story ideas
- work on a story with a partner or small group the way the children do in the book
- read some of the author’s other books and talk about how the story ideas developed

If you're looking for more great picture books to read to your class or to investigate as a writer, author Susanna Leonard Hill has a wonderful list of Perfect Picture Books.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Turtle of Oman

I didn’t know what to expect with this book, but I liked the idea of a kid sharing special memories with his grandfather. I read it as an e-book from my public library. 

Here’s the Amazon description:

Aref Al-Amri does not want to leave Oman. He does not want to leave his elementary school, his friends, or his beloved grandfather, Siddi. He does not want to live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his parents will go to graduate school. His mother is desperate for him to pack his suitcase, but he refuses. Finally, she calls Siddi for help. But rather than pack, Aref and Siddi go on a series of adventures. They visit the camp of a thousand stars deep in the desert, they sleep on Siddi's roof, they fish in the Gulf of Oman and dream about going to India, and they travel to the nature reserve to watch the sea turtles. At each stop, Siddi finds a small stone that he later slips into Aref's suitcase—mementos of home.

Naomi Shihab Nye's warmth, attention to detail, and belief in the power of empathy and connection shines from every page. Features black-and-white spot art and decorations by Betsy Peterschmidt.

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye, Greenwillow Books, 2014

My Take:

This is a lovely story about a boy who is worrying about the changes happening in his life and, especially, how he will miss his grandfather. It’s a slower paced book that gives you time to pause and think about feelings as you read. It would work well as a book for class discussions about immigration, cultural differences and anxiety about life changes. It reminded me to take notice of the small things around me in the world and appreciate them.

What I admired most about this one is the main character’s voice and the poetic language. There are many beautiful images and emotional moments in this story.

Opening Line:

“Aref Al-Amri stared at the Muscat International Airport security guards.”


“After dinner, Aref quietly turned the handle of the front door and stepped outside by himself to memorize what his house looked like under the moon.”

“He plucked a banana from the fruit bowl and peeled it slowly and deliberately, as it if were the last, most important banana in the world.”

 “Words blended together like paint on paper when you  brushed a streak of watercolor orange onto a page, blew on it and thin rivers of color spread out, touching other colors to make a new one.”

Other Info:

Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet and novelist who lives in Texas.

In addition to many poetry books, she has written two other novels for young people: Habibi and Going Going.

She talks about poetry on Naomi Shihab Nye: The Art of Teaching Poetry and says that to teach poetry you need to create “a mood, an atmosphere, where poetry becomes contagious.”

For more about Naomi Shihab Nye, visit her author page on the HarperCollins website.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: El Deafo

I heard so much about this book, I couldn’t wait to read it. I enjoy stories where people need to get past obstacles, and I could relate to Cece’s struggles to make friends. Learning more about the difficulties of being deaf in a hearing world really made me think.

Here’s the Amazon description:

Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid.

The Phonic Ear gives Cece the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates. She really just wants to fit in and find a true friend, someone who appreciates her as she is. After some trouble, she is finally able to harness the power of the Phonic Ear and become “El Deafo, Listener for All.” And more importantly, declare a place for herself in the world and find the friend she’s longed for.

El Deafo by Cece Bell, Amulet Books, New York: 2014.

My Take:

The graphic novel format worked so well for this middle grade autobiography. It was effective to have blank speech bubbles to emphasize what Cece couldn’t hear, as well as changes in the text size and content to emphasize what she did hear. But what really drew me in was the story of Cece’s struggle to find her way in the hearing world. I loved the superhero character she created for herself and her imaginings about different ways things would be if she really did have superpowers. This book is funny and emotional and makes you think.

From a writer’s perspective, it was interesting to see how the text and pictures went together to create the story. I loved how the pictures could capture the different settings in Cece’s life, and the emotional expressions.

Opening Line:

“I was a regular little kid.”


“I do the rest of my homework with my new curly pencil, even though it takes a whole lot longer.”

“I can’t believe this! I’m in the fifth grade and I’m bawling in front of everybody!”

“All those warm fuzzies make me feel really good…and the feeling gets me through the whole day.”

Other Info:

Cece Bell is severely deaf, and El Deafo is based on her own childhood (and the secret nickname she gave herself).

She also wrote and illustrated the Geisel Honor book Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover, as well as Itty Bitty, Bee-Wigged, Food Friends, and the Sock Monkey picture books and many others.

She’s married to Tom Angleberger, author of the Origami Yoda books. They live in Virginia, where Cece works in a really cool “barn” next door to their house.

To learn more about how your differences can become your superpowers, check out Matthew Winner’s conversation with Cece Bell on the Let’sGet Busy podcast. Fascinating stuff!

For more, visit Cece Bell's website.

Looking for more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday books? Visit Shannon Messenger’s blog for a list of bloggers reviewing great books today! Shannon is the founder of Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and the author of the middle grade series, Keeper of the Lost Cities.