On the blog:
- A curation of my favorite online reading from last week
- A post about why writers must be brave
- A list of nonfiction picture book mentor texts to use to teach craft, style, voice
- A Top Ten list of YA characters who didn’t click with me
A new book from Kate DiCamillo is always cause for celebration in my house. My 7th-grader actually cheered when I pulled Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon from an Amazon box last week. Over the weekend, he insisted that we set aside our current read-aloud to squeeze in this new tale from Deckawoo Drive. I’m not sure how much I would like DiCamillo’s books if I were reading them silently to myself. I don’t think the beauty of her prose can be appreciated through silent reading. This is writing that demands a read-aloud. There is something stately and rhythmic about the pacing of DiCamillo’s sentences. She is so deadpan and so hilarious. She always finds the absurd in her characters, yet there is real warmth and generosity toward their foibles. I was so happy when Baby Lincoln appeared: she’s perhaps my favorite voice to do in the series. (Yes, I do different voices for all the characters.) (Baby’s is very breathy and Southern.) And yes, for those who are concerned, there is plenty of soothing hot buttered toast in the end.
I was never in doubt about the first read in my new Graphic Novels course—Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel, The Arrival. The Graphic Novels course focuses on diversity, difference, and global issues, and The Arrival is an obvious fit for those themes. But I had a bigger purpose in sharing it first: many of my English majors have never read a graphic novel before, and the lack of words can be profoundly disorienting to readers who are so dependent on text to make sense of the world. I think reading experiences that profoundly disorient are probably the ones that change us the most as readers and people, so I love being able to foreground an experience like that at the very beginning of the semester. It’s also hard to think of a graphic novel with more beautiful art than The Arrival. It’s a gorgeously designed book from end paper to end paper. And it’s such a rich text for discussion. Our research in interviews and articles by and about Tan introduced us to some interesting ideas about how images work to convey emotional content without necessarily being easy to pin down and explain definitively. We were able to test those theories out in our reading.
For the most part, I’m reading different picture books in my courses, but I made an exception with Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, which I had to read in two different classes last week—and I might have to share it in a third class next week. Brilliant art by Adam Rex and a hilarious story of a boy whose parents decide to teach him responsibility by getting him a blue whale. Of course, the very best thing about Billy Twitters is probably Mac Barnett’s brilliant TED Talk where he shares the results of his experiment to break down the fourth wall by including an address on the book cover so readers can send off for their own blue whales.
I really wanted to love this book, but the more I think about it, the flatter it feels. There’s a strong concept and design here: a mother binds blank books for her children to fill with their stories, and the book consists of three books within the main book, each smaller than the last. A brother, his little sister, and his little brother each write their stories in these blank books, and that’s what you find when you open the hard cover: three little booklets stitched into the binding. Unfortunately, the children’s stories are unusually uninspired and boring. If this is supposed to be a story about imagination and creativity, nothing could be less imaginative and creative than the children’s stories. Certainly no reader is going to read this book and be inspired to write their own. Really a missed opportunity to make something awesome here.
A middle-grade nonfiction title that’s perfect for budding archaeologists, If Stones Could Speak profiles an archaeologist who developed a new theory for Stonehenge after he challenged himself and his colleagues to look at the site with fresh eyes. He invites a colleague from Madagascar to visit the monoliths and share his theory, which is quite different from the accepted interpretation. Although this research team makes some incredible discoveries, this book focuses less on “the real story” of Stonehenge and more on how archaeologists work and think. Lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps, and diagrams and written in a personal, conversational style by Marc Aronson.
I recently realized that my classroom/lending library is lacking in picture books illustrated by photographs, so I’ve tried to add a few more books to my collection. The Best Part of Me was a great choice: it’s part of a literacy project led by photographer Wendy Ewald. She asked children to write about the best parts of their bodies and then photographed them. The images are striking black and white photographs accompanied by handwritten texts that are always charming, sometimes funny, and often quite poignant as children explain why they’ve chosen a particular body part. I really appreciated the diverse faces and bodies represented in this book. It’s an obvious choice for a mentor text.