As growing writers, we are all students. Learning only stops when we adopt fixed mindsets. Reviewing a piece of literature helps us look through critical, explorative eyes, learning from the strengths and weaknesses of each piece. Imagine the ownership that takes place when elementary writers try their hands at reviews. Like getting a drivers' license for the first time, students appreciate this freedom to express their opinions and excitement.
Lori Degman's newest book, Like a Girl, releases today and with it comes a grand feeling of empowerment. What better way to celebrate this amazing picture book than to allow students' to speak on its behalf. Happy Book Birthday to Lori Degman!
We can learn a lot from our readers. Have you considered putting the process of inquiry to work by adopting a test-group of students for your work-in-progress? Or allowing them to review your newly published material? Their insight might surprise you, as witnessed from the second, third, and fourth grade girls below. Read and review on, girls!
At one point or another, I’m sure we’ve all heard someone say, “There isn’t a creative bone in my body!” Thinking in a growth mindset, this statement isn’t possible. So what’s missing for these individuals? I’d like to think that it’s three main ingredients:
In a nutshell, it’s the process of inquiry. The good news is, it’s never too late to mix a creative recipe.
The Crayon Man, by Natascha Biebow and Steven Salerno, serves as a springboard to this process. This nonfiction picture book biography brings the story of Edwin Binney’s inquisitive mind to life. The result? Crayola Crayons! After reading this text to my students right at the end of the school year, kids were bursting with crayon ideas to brighten their summers. Young inventive minds appreciated the way Binney took risks to create something new and even the photographic how-to in the back matter.
We can learn a lot from kids. They are filled with wonder and more apt to own the process of inquiry. And although I have always been extremely inquisitive, I don’t take enough time to enjoy the process as an adult. Being a teacher allows me to enjoy inquiry, while constantly learning from my students. Being on summer break, and missing their influence, I put myself to the summer inquiry challenge. I hope you’ll join me. This student idea inspired me:
Playing the role of the student, I listened to my teacher's instructions above, allowing inquiry to lead me to new steps, too. Join me in exploring!
(Directions appear when you hover over each picture.)
As a dedicated primary educator, picture book writer, children’s literature enthusiast, so much of my passion and energy has been devoted to picture books as mentor text for 25+ years. Branching off into my studies as a library media specialist, I dive deeper into children’s and teen’s literature. Many of you have read my picture book author studies and have hopefully learned a great deal. Today, I explore young adult literature and the author John Green. You may be wondering: Why John?
We all hear rumblings about great books, and occasionally, we pick one up at the store intending to read what the hubbub’s all about. It’s a common occurrence with me, and just like you, my life gets busy and the book goes unread. The Fault in our Stars was first in the back of my mind, and then marked on my To-Read list. A few years later, I made the purchase. It’s been calling my name from my bookshelf for at least three or four years now. (And no, I’ve refused to watch the movie until I the book was read. More on that later…) So why John? I’ve neglected this book long enough and hear so many others that have read his books. I just wanted to see for myself.
While it’s true that glimpses of an author’s life, personality, and beliefs can be present in their fiction stories and sometimes characters, personal details and connections aren’t revealed until we read interviews, author’s notes, and listen to podcasts. Undoubtedly, when we read their books, we meet authors as artists. We’re sucked into their characters’ lives and share laughs and cries at the intersection of their word choices. But we still don’t know the person behind the book’s mask.
I received a flavor of who John Green is when I read The Fault in Our Stars Author’s Note:
“Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.” (Green, Author’s Note, The Fault in Our Stars)
Through these words, I was able to share a moment with him, mask off. Young Adult fiction matters. Sharing moments with fictional characters matters. Would his books swallow me into the characters’ worlds?
I can now say that I read my first John Green novel. I tested the waters with The Fault in Our Stars, and by waters, I mean the tears I cried. The waves of emotion I rode. The ice that solidified me with his characters and required me to thaw out long after walking away from the book.
The following brief synopsis can be found on the Penguin Random House website:
"Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist names Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be rewritten."
Personally, I loved the intelligence behind each very real teen character. They are not dumbed down in any way. I loved the depth of their conversations and the way Hazel reflected on her feelings about Gus vs. the compassion behind her illness. I loved the the interesting language choices and syntax.
But, I honestly did not find the power of this story or its themes in the book trailer, which is really more of a teaser. The characters do not appear to be afflicted by anything, which is not an accurate portrayal of their battles. But I'll let you be the judge.
I am one that prefers to read the book before watching any consequential movie that might be birthed from its loins. So yes, the book was first for me. But there is also a movie for this title.
I have yet to find a movie that is better than its book partner, but teens may want to compare the movie to the book and offer their own perspectives. Afterward, the following HuffPost article may encourage additional discussion on movie vs. book differences.
How is it that John Green was able to touch upon this fiction subject from an inside perspective? Who is this man behind the mask?
According to an interview with Business Insider, John read a lot about cancer and interviewed cancer patients, families, and doctors. He believes that cancer or illness should not define an individual. (Amen, John!)
You can find a lot of information about John on his very own website. This guy is creative and active on many fronts! Just to give you a flavor of who John is, let’s shoot for a few of the fun
Facts. (Because really, doesn’t life need more fun?)
All around, John seems to be one interesting guy! (Or in the language of Mental Floss: “PASS!”)
One stellar engaging book always makes me beg for more. John Green has a lot for me to look forward to:
To read an excerpt, synopsis, or varied reviews, click the cover images below.
His most recent release, Turtles All the Way Down, touches on themes of fear, and has been called John’s “most personal book yet.” As discussed in this New York Times post, John himself struggles with emotional pain and anxiety. Knowing that so many teens struggled with emotions and anxiety, this will be my next to read.
After reading The Fault in Our Stars, you'll find that characters Hazel and Augustus have unanswered questions for the author of their favorite book. While their questions may go unanswered, it's comforting to know there's a place we can turn with our own questions: John’s FAQ page!
As if that’s not enough, educators have something to look forward to as well:
INSTRUCTIONAL GUIDES to all of John’s books! Plus, this Prestwick House blog post focuses exclusively on The Fault in our Stars' teaching points.
The question remains…
Which book will you start with? Or if you've already started, which is your favorite and why?
Business Insider. (2014). [Web Resource]. Why ‘The fault in our stars’ author wrote a book
about cancer. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/why-john-green-wrote-
GIPFY. [Web Resource]. Disney crying alice in wonderland. Retrieved from https://giphy.com/gifs/disney-crying-alice-in-wonderland-
Green, J. (2012). The fault in our stars. New York, NY: Penguin.
Huff Post. (2014). [Web Resource]. All the differences between ‘the fault in our stars’ book &
movie. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/06/the-fault-in-our-
John Green. [Web Resource]. Retrieved from http://www.johngreenbooks.com
My Dream Came True! (2014). [Web Resource]. I met john green! Retrieved from
New York Times. (2017). John green tells a story of emotional pain and crippling axiety. His
Penguin Random House. [n.d.] [Web Resource]. An educator’s guide to the works of John Green.
Retrieved from http://www.penguin.com/static/images/yr/pdf/JohnGreen_Guide_june
Penguin Random House. [Image Resource]. An abundance of katherines. Retrieved from
Penguin Random House. [Image Resource]. Looking for alaska. Retrieved from
Penguin Random House. [Image Resource]. Paper towns. Retrieved from
Penguin Random House. [Image Resource]. Turtles all the way down. Retrieved from
Penguin Random House. [Image Resource]. Will grayson, Will grayson. Retrieved from
Penguin Random House. [Image Resource]. The fault in our stars. Retrieved from
Prestwick House. [n.d.] [Web Resource]. How to teach the fault in our stars.
Retrieved from https://www.prestwickhouse.com/blog/post/2014/06/ how-to-teach-the-
YouTube. (2018). [Video Resource]. Coffee facts and life hacks! Mental floss: Scatterbrained.
Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXyOkWpturM&t=360s
YouTube. (2012). [Video Resource]. The fault in our stars, john green. Retrieved from
YouTube. (2014). [Video Resource]. The fault in our stars extended official hd trailer. Retrieved
You may have observed an overabundance of observances these days. There is a day for everything: National Onion Ring Day, National Farm Animal Day and for goodness sakes, Tuesday is National Microwave Oven Day! Doughnuts have not one, but two Nationally proclaimed days in their honor. With so many things to honor day after day, it’s nice to get back to something that’s been around for a while.
The first Groundhog Day dates back to February 2, 1887, and honors a rodent meteorologist named Punxsutawney Phil. We all brace ourselves, hoping that Phil will not see his shadow and run back into his burrow. Especially for our friends in the North! Shadow = winter, or so Phil forecasts. It’s a fun tradition and come Tuesday, we will have another fun literary source to help us celebrate.
Lovingly titled, Ground(hug) Day mashes up four long-time holidays, one of them being Valentine’s Day. Nestled in beautiful scenery by New York Times bestselling illustrator, Christopher Denise, our animal friends show tons of heart. Anne Marie Pace pins the ‘tale’ on Moose’s Valentine party, where everyone important must come to join him. But when you have a friend who retreats at the sight of his shadow right before Valentine’s Day, perfect attendance becomes impossible.
As the animals work their way through possible solutions, Groundhog emerges to see his shadow. This is where the story launches into an inquiry-based learning sequence that models many activities for preschool-2nd grade students. Alongside Moose, children can explore how to make shadows dance. They’ll enjoy exploring Bunny’s silhouette drawing segment, Squirrel’s cloud study, and Porcupine’s shadow puppets. With the four-holiday mash-up, students might also internalize a unique sense of time by creating a holiday timeline for each season.
The story addresses the whole child by highlighting social disagreements between friends, the value of listening to all ideas, and communicating to solve problems. Speaking to so many different areas of child development, this story ranks high on the useful meter.
After just making cut-out cookies with my grown daughter, this was the perfect way to end our day. I imagine that this story will elicit lots of baking and decorating desires after reading, as well! It's fun to think about a big, bad, bossy T-Rex wanting sprinkles and sparkles and struggling to stay in control as the decorator creates. Although we never really find out the gender of the decorator, I generalize to "him" because the illustrator is a male. A.G. Ford's illustrations are so much fun and I wondered how much hands-on cookie research he completed to create such realistic cookies. They really do look delicious and as if a he had studied a master-cookie-decorator! The all-dialogue text and use of speech bubbles will prompt some super fun writing at the early primary levels. It will be helpful for young students to dig deep into their schema and access past experiences that deal with the underlying themes of jealousy, dashed preconceived expectations, and greed. The story is written almost exclusively in the voice of T-Rex, with little character interaction. He reacts to what the hidden decorator is doing throughout the story and the other characters are bystanders. The illustrations show alternate cookie-character reactions (facial expressions) to T-Rex and it would be fun to discuss what the characters are thinking. Near the end of the story, T-Rex notices that the other cookies are looking at him. Two alternate cookies have one speech bubble each, which are colored the same as T-Rex's speech bubbles throughout the story. For young readers, a distinction in color would have been helpful, even as a read-aloud. But, the play on words cannot be denied and is an amusing way to end the story.
This light tale greets the deeper theme of jealousy with humor and will be a fun read aloud.
Mentor text alerts:
I received a review copy of this book from Disney-Hyperion in exchange for an honest review.
The bear is back, but he's moving out. You remember Bruce, right? He's hard to forget. He's large, hairy, and against his initial instincts, motherly, too. When we first met him, he revealed himself as a grump....NOT liking much of anything. But as in most picture books, Bruce transforms. From a crabby, selfish bear who loved to cook for himself to a busy, messy mom who adopts four goslings. After a nice vacation in Miami and a chaotic return home to a trio of mice that won't leave, Bruce is back for a third book.
Or should I say that he's not really back because he is leaving? You may have been there and done that. Sometimes guests just won't leave or they show up uninvited. What's a bear to do? After living in a messy, noisy, crowded household with three mice that don't understand that it's time to skedattle, Bruce packs up his goslings and decides to move. But you remember what happened in the first book, right? That little transformation Bruce goes through? I'm just sayin'... Well actually, I'm not saying anything. You'll just have to see what happens for yourself.
But I will say this, the third book in this series has just as much charm, heart, and feeling as the last two. It's adventurous and animated, with deep hues of color that transcend Bruce's mood and demeanor, while revealing lots of action and scenery. The characters are so much fun that I feel like I could watch them in a TV series. As a mom, I relate to Bruce. Even though my kids are teens now, the messes never stop. Instead of toys, it's clothes and shoes and papers all over the place. As soon as I wipe chunky fingerprints off the refrigerator handle, they are back as soon as I turn around. To have a parent relate to the conflict is a plus, but will the kids relate? With mischievous little mice who love to play and make us laugh, that's a resounding yes. They create newspaper/cardboard castles and whoops...draw pictures on the wall! They even get the geese to snorkel and have upbeat, positive spirits that see the best in every situation.
In a few words, this is a super fun read. Writers will find a traditional story arc modeled, with a clear problem and three failed attempts to get rid of it. A fourth escalating attempt to resolve the crisis works, but has an unexpected layered problem and a surprise thrown in at the end. Additional mentor text shout-outs go to... (drum roll, please)
...Great page turns! Especially after Bruce meets his neighbors. When you think everything will work out and it starts to go in another direction, great page turns are the result.
...Emotion! The grumpiness, the sarcastic expressions, and unexpected loneliness are driving forces that give this story heart.
...Art surprises! You MUST look under the jacket! Expression that will make you laugh out loud and a license plate that could very easily be mine.
...End papers! I love that we get to have the directions for frying-pan ball (By Nibbs) and a recipe for Grammie Tootie's Applesauce.
A home can be chaotic. A home can be messy. A home can be noisy. But a home is home.
What are some wanna-forget-em-but-gotta-have-em features about your home? Or how about other mentor texts that feature chaotic settings?
As writers, we know that every story starts out as a manuscript. I was lucky enough to read It's NOT Jack and the Beanstalk in draft form. It had "publish me" written all over it! After receiving the hard-cover finished product, I love it even more. In fact, I have a new humorous favorite.
Jack is a boy who is not afraid to speak what's on his mind. When the narrator's directions begin to lead him in directions he does not want to go, he stands strong and offers his honest advice (and ear for rhyme) to a giant in need. As it turns out, Jack is not the only one who doesn't like to be pushed in undesirable directions. And as all fairy tales seem to go, happy endings make the best of all.
In a traditional story, a narrator usually doesn't interact with other characters. But author Josh Funk adds a unique metafiction spin when he plays with the story's structure. Jack and the narrator don't just communicate, they even disagree. It gets downright bossy at times and Jack is fully aware that he is in a story. I must disagree with Jack when he says, "This story keeps getting worse and worse." For readers, it just keeps getting better and better. Reader code for worse and worse is of course, tension, drama, and conflict. Yes! We crave it! We must have it! Without it, the story would be boring. There will be none of that in this story which begs to be read a loud. Step into character and be ready to perform. It's your chance to use two distinct main character voices... (Personally, I use an British announcer-ish voice (think Robin Leach) for the narrator and a pronounced nasal-ish tone for Jack. Oh, and a low moo voice for Bessy the Cow, a dreamy voice for Cinderella, and a booming voice for the Giant.)
Paired with Edwardian Taylor's animated illustration style and lots of dialogue between characters, It's NOT Jack and the Beanstalk appeals to the reader just as a humorous video or television program would. And in this age of electronics and technology, it ought to earn high points with kids. Reaching the child reader's interest level is the key to transforming them into lifelong readers. Author Josh Funk has the formula and It's NOT Hansel and Gretal is coming in 2019!
Check out some of Josh's other books, too! They are great mentor texts for rhyme, voice, and unique concept!
By Carrie Charley Brown
Hopefully, the teachers among us have been able to enjoy their summers a little bit. I've spent many summers immersed in professional development and classroom preparation, but this summer is beyond my normal prep. Despite my elementary education degree, Texas teaching certifications, and years of experience, I must earn renewal rights for my Kentucky teaching certificate by receiving a Masters degree.
I'm not gonna lie...This was not part of my original plan. With three teenagers in the house, the next college student that I expected to support was my soon to be senior. But life has a way of dealing us things that we did not expect to find in the cards. Given my passion for books and writing, I decided to parlay this into my teaching requirement. Yes, I will be a librarian when I grow up. ('Cuz we never really grow up, right?) I've completed one course already and start the next one today.
Since you follow me, you know that I research mentor texts. One of the ways that I stay connected to the research behind children's books is to review them. I love a good tale that allows my imagination to take its fictional ride.
You'll find that here for sure. Who doesn't love a problem that grows beyond control?
The Teacher's Pet appears to be like all the other students' tadpoles in the class. But if you look closely at Zachariah OHora's illustrations, you'll see that Mr. Stricter's pet is slightly different than the rest. Then, hold onto your hat because... Mr. Stricter's pet is not a tadpole at all. In fact, it's rather large and gray and he eats a lot, too. (Sometimes he eats unexpected things.) Don't get too close. Consider yourself warned. When a teacher is in love with something, you know it's not easy to give up. And this teacher loves this book. It's fiction at its best; meant to entertain. Kids live for this stuff.
And they also like gum. Lots and lots of gum. So when the Gumazing Gum Girl shows up with a villain on her heels...dun, dun, dun! You'd better watch out! Especially if you only have one piece of gum left in your pocket. Gabby Gomez is in a bit of a predicament. With her secret identity as Gum Girl, people are depending on her to keep them safe. But gum has a way of leaving it's mark on a certain evil villain's dashed dreams and also on Gabby's teeth. When your dad's a dentist that might not go so well. Gabby pays attention to her inner voice when it tells her to be honest about her gum-chewing ways. She wants to do the right thing, but will they understand and will it cost her the chance to save her town? As Gabby struggles between her duty and everyday life, she hopes her bubble won't burst. My first graders flipped for this one, and heartily joined in at every "dun, dun, dun!" They couldn't wait to get their hands on a gum-scented version and read it for themselves. Now that it's out in the world, you can get your hands on it, too. Just watch out for the sticky gum.
I think you'll enjoy checking these two out for yourself.
The opinions in this post reflect my honest opinion as both an educator and a writer. Thanks to Disney-Hyperion for providing advanced reader copies of these books!
Something peculiar happened to me this past May. My writing spark flickered and nearly fizzled out. An emptiness took over the place in my heart that used to sing every time my hands hit the computer keyboard.
I didn't know it at the time, but it was a warning for me. Not just to slow down... no. I had passed that yellow flag long before. Now it was time to stop. And I did. Cold turkey. No writing. No submissions.
I picked up my family and rejoined the elementary teaching ranks clear across the country. Moving to a new state with three children was all encompassing; no time to think about writing at all. And a funny thing happened as twenty-four little first graders surrounded my suppression. My passion for teaching and children just kind of took over. I reinvested myself in these 6-year old sponges, who soak up everything they encounter.
And then after about 3 months, ideas began to flicker. Not fast and furious like they once had. But at least they were still there. And that's all that mattered. I wrote a crappy picture book draft and broke through the rust on my brain. It's not completely gone yet, but I'm okay with not killing myself over too many writing activities. That's a big thing for a work-a-holic.
As one who has always preached, "Immerse yourself in the writing world," I hope you still will. But, please do it with lots and lots of breaks.
Reading for Research Month (ReFoReMo) is just around the corner, and yes, I am still alive and kicking. I'm quite excited about this research movement I founded three years ago. We moved into our new blog home last April and have since expanded the family. Together with Kirsti Call, Janie Reinart, and Keila Dawson, we will usher in ReFoReMo 2017 when we announce our author-educator team in January. Registration will open February 15, as usual, and the challenge will begin on February 27 this year. And that's no cold turkey.
If you haven’t joined us in our new blog home yet, you will find the challenge at http://www.reforemo.com. It’s good to be back!
Achieving balance is never easy and I think to some degree it is “normal” to be off-balance. We just have to watch how far our scales tip to one side. That’s where the danger lies. In last month’s post I admitted that I was “Breaking the Code” in order to tip my scale back in the other direction. When your muscles are used to something for a very long time, they resist new routines. For example, I have poor posture, and therefore, my muscles are exhausted when I attempt to hold my shoulders in a “normal” way. The muscles must be retrained to accept the new way.
Retraining a brain to think in alternate ways is similar. My inner doubter has been challenging me in ways I’d love to shake off immediately. But it takes time. Even though I know perfection is impossible, my drive keeps convincing me that I need to give more. Do more. Be more. Strive for perfection, or a better version of who I am. But, as noted in last month’s post, I am setting my foot down. I’m starting to tell myself no. Even though I could push myself to give another ounce or pint or gallon, I am asking myself, “What is this costing you?” The answer may be “sleep” or “family connections” or “a personal break,” all crucial things to staying healthy and happy. And human.
Yes, our own happiness matters in big ways. So, how about we set our schedules? I am guilty of feeling like I need to respond to people right away when they need help. Whether by email or social media or a phone call, I feel the need to be there. As I start to set boundaries, I implemented a business policy a few months back that is helping a little, but I’d also like to curb my need to respond to others right away. I am also working to prioritize family, limit screen time, stick to business & volunteer hours and schedule my own writing time.
Of course, sometimes a schedule has to be rearranged to respect others involved. And then there is the upheaval of a schedule when school is out for summer. Yikes! Almost time! I will do my best to respect my wishes.
How will you respect your wishes?
If we check in with one another at least once a month, then maybe we’ll take the time to try to grow toward our goals before next month, right?
Carrie Charley Brown
As a children’s writer, and a teacher, my goal is to help you carry on. Sometimes learning is challenging, so why go it alone? Your journey will be more meaningful and comfortable with friends to share it with. Together, we'll get up close and personal with authors, illustrators, and the best of picture books. If we work together, great things will follow!