A few weeks ago, our local library hosted Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen as they shared their newest book, “The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse.”
It was a 3-generational fan-girl geek-out.
Hearing authors read their own stories is always a treat…
…but having an illustrator demonstrating their process, too? For my young aspiring author/illustrator, it was nothing short of magical.
As we waited in line to get our copy signed, my daughter grew a little nervous. But as soon as we got up to the front of the line, she told Mac and Jon all about her large box of books she has created, and they told her to never get rid of any of them, no matter what anyone ever says (and that they still get ideas from stories they made as kids).
What I love most about AuthorLinks is it gives kids the chance to see authors and illustrators as real people. Suddenly, the idea of making a book isn’t some abstract fantasy, but one with concrete choices and steps and possibility. For this gift for my daughter, and for the gift for my future students with whom you can bet I’ll be sharing these photos and videos, I’m grateful! Thanks so much Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, and authors everywhere who take the time to connect with kids.
Concept books — picture books centering on ideas like numbers, letters, and colors — can be tricky. So many seem to possess as much complexity and charm as this humorous example from comedian, Brian Regan:
“For some reason, we seem as a culture to think that precocious counting is more important than cultivating habits of thought like attentiveness, wonder, and eagerness to engage with ideas.”
All that said, there are plenty that evoke more thought, joy, and emotion than your run-of-the-mill concept book. If you’ve been searching for some recommendations that you’ll actually enjoy reading with your kids, this is the list for you!
Z is For Moose by Kelly Bingham and Paul O. Zelinksy
I couldn’t believe that the same artist who gave us the exquisitely illustrated Rapunzel brought this book to life. The playful and hilarious illustrations absolutely make this alphabet, and will have you rooting for Moose long before you reach Z.
Once Upon An Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers
As you would expect from Oliver Jeffers, each story is full of delightfully silly and surprising twists (I especially love the repeated appearances from certain characters…).
Doggies by Sandra Boynton
This is a counting book our whole family loves to read and listen to again and again — we all have our own way of making all the different woofs (I still think my “nnn…nnn…nnn…” is the best), and it never fails to bring smiles all around.
Press Here by Hervé Tullet and Christopher Franceschelli
A delightful and interactive composition that shares colors with a more unique approach.
Hippopposites by Janik Coat
Graphic design meets concept book here in a way that will keep kids (and you) turning pages to find out how else the author can picture a hippo!
The Turn-Around, Upside-Down Alphabet Book by Lisa Campbell Earnst
Always a fun book to handle and look at letters with new perspective.
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers
This hilarious story brings new perspective to the experiences of each color — from a crayon’s experience.
Antics! An Alphabetical Anthology by Cathi Hepworth
Though kids will almost certain know their letters long before they comprehend the word “Antics,” this is still one even older kids love visiting again and again.
One by Kathryn Otoshi
This beautiful story goes much deeper than simple numbers — it’s a fabulous read into bullying, friendship, and unity.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle
Is any list of concept books complete without Eric Carle? I don’t think my kids and I will ever tire from the bouncy rhythm of this book.
An invitation to opt-in to a home reading program arrived from my daughter’s school this week. Not only does it send home a book on my child’s reading level every day, but it states that it “has proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”
So why would any teacher/mom say no to such a program?
While there are some other concerns I’ve been mulling over, the most important reason comes down to this:
Because my daughter wants to choose her own books at home.
I sat down with her, explained the program, and asked her what she thought about it. And that was her response. She told me she had some other reasons that were hard for her to explain, but this was the one she gave, and you know what? I don’t need her to explain more.
Because she already loves reading.
Because one of her go-to ways to spend an hour is to plop down with a stack of books, or to make up her own stories.
Because library day is a kind of weekly Christmas for her as she adds our new books to our designated public library book shelves.
Because when I ask her if she’d rather go to the weekly library junior reader’s club, or spend that time playing with her friends, she chooses the reader’s club.
Because when I suggest a book that I think she’d enjoy and that might push her abilities a bit more, she’s willing to give it a try.
And when it comes down to it, what good would it do for her anyway to accelerate her progress in the guided reading levels charts if it diminishes her love of reading?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure this is a fine program that has worked very well with many families at her school, and will continue to do so. I’m so grateful for the many educators that work to provide these kinds of resources to reach all our kids, and I recognize that we are privileged to enjoy the opportunities I’ve listed above.
But at the same time, I’m going to trust my daughter’s instincts on what would be best for her personal reading journey.
One of my favorite comic strips is Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy. Clueless dog Satchel, delusional cat Bucky, and somewhat-socially-awkward bachelor Rob make up more of a hilariously dysfunctional roommate scenario rather than a pet/owner relationship.
With more advanced humor and vocabulary than I’d expect my 7 year-old to be able to catch, I was hesitant when she asked to borrow a copy for her bedside shelf. But holding true to the belief that we should never stand in the way between our kids and a good book, I agreed.
Despite my skepticism, I wasn’t too surprised when she fell in love with the book — after all, the pictures alone provide plenty of humor she can relate to. But what did surprise me was in-text learning she was reaping.
Where I thought she’d gloss over enigmas like idioms, proverbs, and cultural references, she instead started asking me to fill in the blank. I found myself explaining:
the history behind “Houston, we have a problem” (because of the day Bucky applied Nair all over his body in order to compete with a furrier cat and Satchel said, “Houston, we have a Persian.”)
the meaning of the phrase “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” (because of the day Satchel had a hungry dog friend over that wanted Rob’s nachos, and Bucky observed, “Give a dog a nacho and he just eats for a day, but if you teach that dog where to buy nachos, you’re stuck with it for the rest of its natural life.”
the iconic reference to the old comic strip, Garfield: “I hate Mondays” (since Bucky was having a tough day with stale food, sat-in tuna, and a non-tasty bug in his water).
Overall, this is was a good reminder to me that when we follow our kids’ interests, the learning follows, even in unexpected circumstances. We’re so tempted to instead start with the long checklists of content so we don’t “miss” anything. But there is rich abundance of learning to be had when our children take the lead in their learning, if only we’re willing to trust them to uncover it.
And as a bonus, big sister now spends bedtime giggling away with her little brother as she shares comics with him, too.
Every day of 4th grade, I stared at the gigantic poster stretching across the top of the whiteboard: “Common sense is not so common.”
I had not the slightest clue what it meant.
Other than a back-to-school lecture, my teacher never referred to it directly (or perhaps she did, but because of the above-mentioned non-comprehension, it probably just didn’t register).
I spent the year wondering about it to the point of distraction. I sensed that it was important to my teacher, so I spent time trying to crack its cryptic riddle. “Sense. Sense that is common. I think a sense is what you use to smell and taste and stuff. And common means a lot. So smelling and tasting that happens a lot? That doesn’t seem right. Especially since it’s also not common, somehow…”
Today, I look back at this memory and chuckle at the sheer bafflement I experienced that year. But as a teacher myself now, reflecting on this does provide a bit more than just a laugh. It makes look inward to examine what kind of experience [intended or not] my walls have given my students.
In my first classroom, the teacher before me had left behind all sorts of posters on the walls, including posters on 6 traits of writing or motivational quotes.
But as the months moved on, I realized that they may as well have been wallpaper for all the benefit my students were getting from them. I did not integrate them in any meaningful way, and eventually, we decided we’d rather make room for student work.
Since then, I’ve found other messages and resources worthy to go on my walls that are the few exceptions to my student-created-only rule. But now I filter them with a mindset that wall-space is valuable real estate; tenants had better pull their weight. I’m not currently in the classroom, but plan to be back in a few years, so meanwhile, here are questions I ask myself as I bookmark, download, & log away ideas for future wall content:
Do I find this personally and genuinely inspiring? Some of you may be thinking, wait, aren’t we trying to inspire the kids, here? True. But I’ve found that displaying personally enlightening messages to be much more valuable than any cute monkey-face “you can do it” sign. Here’s why: If it causes me to elevate my practices, and if I regularly communicate to my students how and why it does so, it ultimately inspires students because I’m modeling to them ways I’m trying to become a better teacher for them. I shared a few examples here, but Brene Brown print-outs are always my favorite:
Is there a trace of lecture involved? If looking at a quote even faintly makes me wonder, “What’s the deal with kids these days!” (ie, the “common sense is not so common” poster) most likely, a) it’s not going to help my students as much as I think it will and, b) it runs too high a risk of damaging relationships with students.
Is it an intentional, interactive display designed to help students see themselves as authentic readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, etc? This one is a little more abstract, but luckily, I found the perfect example last week on Nerdy Book Club. It’s bookmarked, tweeted, and had better stay in my memory for when I return to the classroom.
This particular display is meant to share progress on Donalyn Miller’s fabulous #BookADay (also see #ClassroomBookADay) challenge. To me, this isn’t just a bragging-rights kind of display–it’s also a beautiful and handy way to recall individual reads throughout the year that have been meaningful and instructive.
Does it bring some rapport-building humor to the mix? In the middle of a grammar unit? This kind of light-hearted and memorable fun would be a must-share.
Whatever you display, remember that there’s a reason that the physical classroom environment is called the “third teacher” — decide now what kind of teacher you want it to be!
What about you? What are your requirements for what goes on your classroom walls? Please share!
This week’s provocation that, at face value, may seem a little more abstract, but that has a wide range of applications. You might be beginning a unit about inventors, or perhaps one on algebra, or maybe even some creative writing. Whatever the case, there is power in beginning a unit in a way that is a little less obvious, and a little more mysterious. The intrigue not only helps to hook our students’ interest, but it provokes deeper questions. This in turn leads them to broader concepts that tend to carry more relevance, meaning, and universality (at least, more than the compartmentalized memorize-and-forget content they might otherwise prioritize).
So with this introduction, I share two resources on thinking outside the box!
I admit it: when it comes to reading to squirrelly toddlers, I’ve cut corners. I’ve condensed paragraphs. I’ve skipped pages. I’ve proclaimed happily-ever-after’s within 17 seconds flat.
For the sake of packing in as much story as possible before a cardboard box won over audience attention, I even used to omit reading the author’s name. Fortunately, as my oldest’s patience for storytime grew, noting the author’s name was my first step in making literary reparations.
I would never have guessed the ramifications of such a small course-correction.
First, I noticed that my daughter started “reading” the authors’ names, too.
Next, she started memorizing said authors’ names and would make requests at the library accordingly (“I want a Kevin Henkes book! Can we read Mo Willems? How about Steven Kellogg?”). She started trotting right over to their shelves, recalling the location of those authors’ books even though she was a long way yet from reading.
When she eventually started writing her own stories, she was always sure to list herself as the author, too. And the illustrator. And she made sure everyone in her world knew that she wanted to be an author/illustrator when she grew up.
These days, the author is often as much a part of the conversations about books as the stories they’ve written. I tell her that I think she’ll love Clementine because I read Pax and loved Sara Pennypacker’s style. I show her other Shannon Hale fairy tales when she kicks off Princess in Black. We even got excited when we saw that Brendan Wenzel was the illustrator and author for the first time with “They All Saw a Cat,” (having already enjoyed his illustrations in “Beastly Babies” and “One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree”).
In short, the authors and illustrators have become people. We admire not just the work, but the people themselves — people with unique voices, styles, and humor. We get excited when they write a new book, not just because it’s a new book we enjoy, but because it’s something new from that beloved writer.
This practice of spotlighting the author carried over into my classroom, too, with discussions like, “Did you see what Charlotte Zolotow did in that poem?” or “How did Gail Carson Levine’s use of a super comma work there?” We started to notice the deliberate strategies and craft behind what made the writing magical. As a result, we started to see ourselves as capable of developing those strategies, too, recognizing the fact that every author once started where we are now.
When authors come to life, so does our own self-identity as writers. Because if they are real people instead of an abstract idea, then we can see the possibilities for ourselves, too.