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Friday, April 30, 2010

Nat'l Picture Book Writing Week

National Picture Book Writing Week (aka NaPiBoWriWee) 2010 is upon us! Read more about it at event creator Paula Yoo's web site.

During the first week of May, writers will create one picture book per day for seven days. This event is meant to spur those reluctant writers who've always wanted to write for children but have never taken the plunge.

Paula Yoo (author of Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story, and the YA novel Good Enough) warns prospective writers:
This is NOT to say writing a picture book is easy. On the contrary, it's EXTREMELY difficult and challenging to write a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, an original plotline, and a unique character with a compelling voice for the picture book genre. Every word has to count. Every image and every action has to speak volumes in terms of theme and deeper meaning... while still being kid friendly, fun, and appropriate for the tone of the book (be it a quiet literary picture book or a hilarious, laugh out of loud funny picture book).
When I first heard about this project a year ago, I had strong reservations. But author Daniel Kirk (Library Mouse, Dogs Rule, and Elf Realm: The Low Road) argued convincingly for its merit, and I've since come to realize the value behind NaPiBoWriWe.

So swing over to Paula Yoo's site and see if you're up for the challenge. (She's written posts providing tips for writers all through the month of April).

Who knows? Perhaps in a year I'll be discussing a picture book that you created on this very week!

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Second Story Press's recently released Violet, written by Tania Duprey Stehlik and illustrated by Vanja Vuleta Jovanovic, looks like a real winner! Check out the book trailer below.

I can see this book being a real asset for discussions and themes on differences and diversity.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Big Changes

Raina Telgemeier's Smile is about big changes in a young girl's life. No, not those kinds of changes (although as a father to two girls I'll have my share of those awkward moments). We're talking instead about subtler changes, hinted at from the start by the book's cover, which features a brace-clad smiley face. From Scholastic's Booktalk:
Aah, hanging out with your friends. You laugh. You go shopping. You have sleepovers and you always have fun. Well, imagine this: you and your friends are chasing each other one day and you trip. When you fall, you hit the cement. You hit the cement so hard that you knock out your two front teeth! This is exactly what happens to the character of Raina in the graphic novel Smile by Raina Telgemeier.
After an emergency trip to Dr. Golden's office, the dentist glues Raina's teeth back into her mouth. He covers them in gauze that soon becomes soggy and gross. When Raina takes off the gauze, she discovers that the teeth have been inserted too far. Now she looks like a vampire! Going to school looking like a vampire will definitely make boys notice her, but not in a good way.
While the book on its simplest level is the story of Raina's teeth trials, on a much larger level it's the story of a girl who struggles to maintain her own identity while still fitting in. One part I particularly love is when Raina comes to the realization that she has to move on from her former friends, who are acting less and less supportive, to a new circle of friends in high school. These transitions happen in real life, of course, but less often in middle school lit. Too often we're offered a much simpler, pat solution.

I love Smile for a number of reasons:
  • It fits in with my year-long theme of Survival. While it's not survival in the life-and-death sense of The Devils' Arithmetic, it's as authentic (but not as gritty as) The Outsiders. Personally I'd rather face a multitude of other dangers before ever agreeing to be a middle school girl! Other themes for this book include Identity, Acceptance, Affiliation, Change, Coming of Age, Conflict, Choices, Relationships, Loyalty, Conformity, Belonging, and Differences.
  • Its autobiographical format makes it more authentic. Truth is absolutely stranger than fiction, and we feel for our protagonist here because she is so true-to-life. (Learn more about Raina at her site).
  • The narrative flows without gaps. Many graphic novels assume that readers will be able to plug bill holes between frames. At no time, however, does Telgemeier leave us wondering what we missed.
  • The overall design and illustration are flawless. My six year-old was so taken with the illustrations that she squirreled away with the book for two hours, and "read" it from cover to cover, reading, of course, just those words she could. (She then asked to have it read aloud to her before bed each night). To get a good feel for the book's flow, check out this video trailer from Scholastic.
  • Scholastic has printed it in standard paperback, rather than oversize, format. This not only allows the book to handled more easily, but avoids the look of a graphic novel. Some students would rather their friends see them with a chapter book than a "comic book." See how cruel middle school can be?
  • It uses comic conventions. Thus readers who are successful with this book may move on to other graphic novels, which in turn will keep them reading. (Need some suggestions? Check out this previous post on Graphic Novels and New Literacies from this site).
  • Scholastic has provided a very cool Make Your Own Smile Graphix site (see the screen shot here) where students can manipulate scenes, characters, objects, and speech bubbles to create their own stories.
A conference attendee once asked if I'd use a graphic novel (like Smile) for a classroom study, but I know full well that students would race to the end of their own. But I guess that's a good thing, right? And that's also why my classroom shelves boast a nice supply of these books.

Monday, April 19, 2010

So What's Your Point? Persuasive Writing Using Picture Books

While some of our students may go on to become best-selling authors, all of them as adults will speak and write to convince others: to buy, to act, to vote, to choose, to agree. That's why it is so important that we as teachers help our students to develop effective persuasive writing skills.

A fantastic new picture book will help students see that persuasion need not be a totally serious matter. In Lincoln Tells a Joke, authors Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer and illustrator Stacy Innerst help students discover the funny side of Abraham Lincoln. (You can read some rave reviews for yourself at the Houghton Mifflin site).

Although we now hold him in the highest regard, Lincoln for his time was a surprisingly unpopular president. Yet he used humor to make points, to win people over, to lighten the mood, to gently turn away requests he could not grant, and to relieve the stresses of a difficult office (made all the more difficult by the Civil War). This unique biography is full of Lincoln's more clever sayings, which hold up surprisingly well after more than one hundred years.

My students appreciated that his quotes were printed in a stylized, flowery font which made them easier to spot. What's more awesome about this book is Stacy Innerst's caricatures. When I asked students why the publisher hadn't chosen an artist with "a more serious, realistic style," they patiently explained to me that the exaggerated pictures added additional humor to the book. And they do!

I prefaced my reading aloud of the book with a short oral quiz on facts about Lincoln:

  • What number president was Lincoln? (Almost everyone knew that he was the sixteenth).
  • Who was Number 15? (No one knew). Why don't any of us know this? How can we find this out?
  • What war began shortly after Lincoln took office? (We discussed the Civil War a bit; students were surprised to discover that there were, and are, other civil wars in the world).
  • What might have made Lincoln unpopular? (Students were surprised that even some Northerners didn't care for him; as a part of that discussion, I mentioned that the Civil War required a draft, and wealthier citizens could buy their way out of it, while poorer citizens could not).
  • If Lincoln was still president at the end of the war, what did this mean? (It meant that, regardless of his lack of popularity, he was still popular enough to be reelected. Not coincidentally, the Civil War was the first time that soldiers in the field were able to cast ballots).
  • What happened to Lincoln shortly after the war?
Once the book was over, students had plenty they wanted to discuss; I didn't need any post-reading questions. But one topic I did pursue was, "Why might a speaker use humor in a persuasive speech?" This prompted many excellent reasons, from both the book and students' own experiences.

So what's the connection to persuasive writing?

Online you can find dozens of templates for organizing persuasive essays, but I prefer this one-page organizer from Scholastic which I've used in the past with The True Story of the Three Little Pigs).

A best bet, however, is the Persuasion Map from ReadWriteThink (you can also click on the Persuasion Map homepage, which provides several related lessons). This interactive tool walks students through the process of organizing thoughts, and presents them with a mapped outline of the thesis, reasons, and details which can, in turn, be used to generate a formal essay. Students could use those same ideas, however, to create a commercial, advertisement, article, or letter.

After demonstrating the Persuasion Map Tool to my sixth graders, I provided the following prompt for extra credit (and it created quite a stir!):
In an effort to reduce bullying and violence at school, one school has offered “Citizenship Credits” to students who provide information about classmates who break rules, display inappropriate behavior, or use inappropriate language. These Citizenship Credits can be collected and redeemed for grade point increases; in other words, if a student collects enough credits, she can have a grade raised by one or two points on her report card. What is your opinion on this policy? Write a letter to the principal stating your position and offering reasons why our school should, or should not, adopt this policy.
If you're looking for a more substantial resource for the upper grades, The Language of Advertising Claims breaks down ten techniques which advertisers employ to persuade potential customers. Author Jeffrey Schrank introduces these techniques, saying
Students, and many teachers, are notorious believers in their immunity to advertising. These naive inhabitants of consumerland believe that advertising is childish, dumb, a bunch of lies, and influences only the vast hordes of the less sophisticated. Their own purchases are made purely on the basis of value and desire, with advertising playing only a minor supporting role...
Advertisers know better. Although few people admit to being greatly influenced by ads, surveys and sales figures show that a well-designed advertising campaign has dramatic effects. A logical conclusion is that advertising works below the level of conscious awareness and it works even on those who claim immunity to its message. Ads are designed to have an effect while being laughed at, belittled, and all but ignored.

The ten techniques in The Language of Advertising Claims can be used to either dissect ads which students collect from magazines and the internet, or to create ads for fictitious products.

From LEARN NC, a nicely done learning module on Arts of Persuasion for middle school students features "Strategies for teaching middle school students to think critically, analyze persuasive arguments, and use speaking and writing to persuade others." Many ideas there can be adapted for younger students.

Teachers of middle grades and high school will also appreciate the very cool interactive writing models found at the Holt, Rinehart and Winston Model Bank.

In the center of each model is a formal essay; left hand margin notes detail each part of the essay and, when clicked upon, highlight the exact sentences in that section. Right hand margin notes tell the student what to include in each section, and why. A terrific resource for use on the interactive whiteboard, or as a handy reference when students are working individually.

If your students are having trouble differentiating between arguments, persuasion, and propaganda, the single page resource titled Argument, Persuasion, or Propaganda? from ReadWriteThink would be a great asset.

And finally, another way to study persuasive writing is to look at the copy writing of classic ads. One of my favorites is the Charles Atlas ad which appeared in the comic books of my youth. I discussed that ad at my Teaching that Sticks site, and provided some insight (and references) into why it was so popular and effective. What other ads are now considered classics? What made them so effective? How did their creators use persuasive language to sell ideas and products?

Have a favorite site, tool, or prompt for persuasive writing? Leave a comment below or drop me line!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Picture Books on Teacher Talk Radio

This past Thursday I had the opportunity to be a guest on Teacher Jen's Teacher Talk Radio.

Check out our discussion on using picture books in the classroom, and be sure to check out Jen's upcoming episodes and archive of previous broadcasts. In addition to listening live, you can also download episodes for free from itunes. If you're on Twitter, follow Jen so you don't miss out on any upcoming guests.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Otto Grows Down

Today my sixth graders shared their original "What If" stories, based upon Otto Grows Down, written by Michael Sussman and illustrated by Scott Magoon.

These stories were, without a doubt, some of the best we've heard all year. I think some of the credit is due to the organizer I provided for students, but most of it is due to the source book itself. In introducing Otto Grows Down, I told students, "We're using this as a mentor text." We then discussed what that term meant, and this discussion led to students listening to the read-aloud with a very different, very focused goal in mind.

In short, our lesson proceeded in this manner:
  1. We read and discussed the book. We also took some time to compare and contrast it with other time travel books and movies we know. We also discussed what the creators chose to include or leave out, and their possible reasons for that.
  2. We projected the What If... writing form on our interactive whiteboard, and parsed out the story in simpler terms. This "deconstructing" helped students understand the story structure more clearly, in preparation for creating their own.
  3. Students looked over a brief list of What If... prompts, and then chose either one from that list or one of their own.
  4. Students completed the prewriting sheet, and then shared with two partners. Partners helped clarify plot points, and also offered other ideas for inclusion.
  5. Drafting began, and students again paired up and shared and critiqued after about fifteen minutes.
  6. Following another writing session, volunteers read aloud to the class and heard some comments from their peers.
What's great about writing like this is that students who are extremely creative can really take off! Those who struggle not only have periodic check-ins with peers (and with me, whenever needed), but they can also consult the picture book itself. Many students, in fact, reread the book as they were working in order to get a feel for the voice, sentence length, paragraphing, and so on.

So again, I recommend you grab this title for yourself! Joni from South Dakota, however, won't need to: she's our Otto Grows Down giveaway winner! Congrats to Joni! Hope the hand-out helps your students to create some phenomenal stories!

Have other What If... favorites? We'd love to hear about them! Leave a comment below, or email me directly.

UPDATE: Author Michael Sussman checked in to say thanks for the mention. Be sure to check out his Otto Grows Down site; one particularly cool page is Thoughts on Time, which contains a nice poem on time, written by the author.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Writing About "What If" Using Picture Books as Models

What if we traveled back in time? Not an original thought, by any measure. Time travel tales populate our culture in just about every possible permutation. From the very recent and ridiculous Hot Tub Time Machine to more serious works such as Jane Yolen's Devil's Arithmetic, this device continues to find new narratives and new audiences.

But what happens when a young boy begins to experience time reversal in real time? That very funny premise is at the center of Otto Grows Down, written by Michael Sussman and illustrated by Scott Magoon.

When Otto blows out the candles at his sixth birthday party, he wishes baby sister Anna was never born. Then strange things begin to happen. His candles relight, his watch hand spins in the wrong direction, and he rewraps and returns his gifts to their givers.

Over the next few days, Otto's experiences are equally weird: going up the slide at recess, delivering bags of food to the supermarket, bringing in the garbage, and getting his hair longer at the barber's. In this course of events, Otto's sister is returned to the hospital (we're spared further details of that procedure), and Otto experiences his fifth birthday.

The gross details of time reversal are made crystal clear when Sussman writes, "Otto took baths when he was clean - and they made him dirty. And going to the bathroom was downright disgusting." Think about it. My sixth graders did, and they died laughing. The author and illustrator of this book have their audience pegged!

I won't spoil the ending for you, but in my opinion, this book is a winner. Yes, it tells a funny, heartfelt story, but for my purposes, it's a fantastic writing model for students using the "What If..." premise.

The fact is, thousands of stories are based upon various "what if" scenarios. One of the most common literary motifs is for children to be separated from adults and left to their own devices. It's a device that simply asks, "What if children were removed from the rules, guidance, and nurture of adults? How would they fend for themselves?" We see that motif take center stage in Harry Potter; Lord of the Flies; and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In discussing this motif with my sixth grade classes, we discovered that it likewise occurs in a number of our classroom novels: Holes, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and The Outsiders.

So playing "What If..." not only helps you to identify common themes in reading, it can also help your students generate ideas for their own writing. For example, What if
  • there were only night?
  • the world had no numbers?
  • everyone had a twin?
  • America had lost the War of Independence?
  • Earth began to lose its gravity?
  • our school were divided into four houses like Hogwarts?
Whether these prompts are used for simple poems, reflections on current reading selections, or free creative writing, you'll find that the "What If..." model really opens the doors to some divergent thought. Using a simple picture book model such as Otto Grows Down is a fun way to kick off the writing. This book proves that a short story can contain humor, vivid details, and a plot line that works on multiple levels.

Have you read this far? Terrific! Sterling Publishing has kindly offered a giveaway copy of Otto Grows Down, and it's all set to go! Email me to enter the drawing (just type Otto in the subject line). Deadline is 10:00 PM EST on Tuesday, April 6, 2010. Good luck!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

What Makes a Good Picture Book?

Marilyn Singer, who's authored over eighty books for children and young adults, asked a group of authors, editors, and other book people this question: What Makes a Good Young Picture Book?

Their responses appear at her web site, and we can take away several things from the conversation.

Many responders mentioned that picture books must deal with universal themes, which are shared across cultures, genders, and age levels. For example, Harriet Ziefert, author of You Can't See Your Bones With Binoculars, says
I believe there are issues that surface in childhood that continue throughout our lives, and that when we're eighty, we're still negotiating these basic issues: separation, loss, and reunion; dependence vs. independence; insecurity (which includes feelings of jealousy, envy, and rivalry) vs. security; delayed vs. instant gratification.

The stories that have the most powerful effects on both child and adult are ones that deal with at least one of these lifelong struggles. Though a child's experiences are different from a 20-year-old's, and a 30-year-old's are different from a 40-year-old's, the same feelings are at the core.
Many others spoke of the need to take out as carefully as you put in; picture books are meant, after all, to be brief, and not a word can be wasted. Jane Yolen, author of over 600 books including How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? proves this by her very concise response:
Lyrical lines, a recognizable sentiment, compression of story, and a character to love.

And finally, several responders spoke of a picture book's ability to make its own world, no matter how new or foreign to a child, one in which he or she will feel welcome. Luann Toth, Senior Book Review Editor of School Library Journal, states it perfectly when she says
I think that the best books for this audience are the ones that tap directly into a young child's experience, allowing him or her to enter the world the author and illustrator have created, no matter how unusual or fantastical, and to feel at home there. The storytelling should be straightforward and spare and the art needs to be uncluttered and clearly delineated. Repetition and rhymes sharpen the ears and often invite verbal responses. And who can resist opening a closed flap?

Be sure to visit Marilyn's site to read all the responses, and if you're a "book person" of any type, share your thoughts with her as well. Thanks, Marilyn, for this terrific insight into the literary form which we love so dearly!

How about, Book People? In your opinion, what makes a good picture book?