Saturday, March 31, 2012

Notable Non-fiction

Last week I posted about fiction and since I don’t want to be unfair to all those fabulous non-fiction writers and enthusiasts, I thought I’d mention non-fiction this week. Some of my students would choose non-fiction over fiction any day. My son was like that. In his preschool years, during our weekly library trips, he’d head straight to the nonfiction section while I browsed through shelves of fictional picture books. We’d leave the library with a brown-paper grocery-bag filled to the brim. At least half of those books were non-fiction. His love for information started earlier, at home. In a dimly lit hallway, tucked away on the bottom row of a bookshelf, I stored all my college textbooks. One day I noticed a book from that shelf lying open on the floor. I put it back only to find it out again the next day and the day after that. It was always the same book - my speech science textbook - and always opened to a page of diagrams. It wasn’t long before my three-year old son began asking me to read it aloud for his bedtime story. He’d look at all the pictures of the inside workings of the mouth, brain and ears and ask me to read the captions. I thought it was rather boring but he loved it.

Like my son, many of my students love to read non-fiction. And with poetry month starting next week, what better non-fiction book to introduce than a biography of a poet. Jennifer Bryant’s, A River of Words, is a perfect fit for me. I love it and think my students will too. It describes the life and poetry of William Carlos Williams. The illustrations by Melissa Sweet are an inspired match - words become art and splash into the river, cover the walls and line scraps of paper. Bryant’s lyrical writing mirrors the tone and texture of Williams’ life and poetry. When she describes Williams’ childhood love of nature, and specifically of the Passaic River, she made me want to dip into that river and absorb its rhythms. “The water went slipping and sliding over the smooth rocks, then poured in a torrent over the falls, then quieted again below” – beautiful prose depicting a beautiful life. From his childhood love of the outdoors to his adult years as a busy doctor and poet, he lived in a way that inspires. I can hardly wait to introduce this book to my students.

I’m sure my son would enjoy it too. He is grown now and loves fiction, nonfiction and poetry in equal measure but I’ll never forget those early years when he was captivated by non-fiction. Eventually he moved on from my speech science book to wanting ones about trucks and farm animals but the information stuck with him for awhile. I was surprised one day when we went into a bakery with friends. We rarely gave our children sweets so he wasn’t familiar with the rows of pastries in the glass case. He scanned the options then looked up at the young woman behind the counter and said, “I want the one shaped like a cochlea.” You should have seen the look on her face! (He was right, by the way; the pastry is shaped like a cochlea.) He had never seen a cinnamon roll before but he had seen illustrations of the inner ear and he learned this vocabulary from a non-fiction book.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Fabulous Fiction

Last week I attended a 4-day Speech & Hearing convention in San Jose, California and was bombarded with information and inspiration. What a valuable four days! When I returned, I read a blog post and that led to a New York Times article by Annie Murphy Paul called, “Your Brain on Fiction”. (Thank you, Molly O’Neill from Ten Block Walk for leading me there.) This article was a great topper for what I found most appealing at the convention workshops – ideas for using literature with my students and creating “social stories” to encourage new behaviors in kids on the autism spectrum. The article stated, “Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” No wonder stories are helping our kids!
Now that we’ve established stories are beneficial, I’d like to mention one I absolutely love! Calvin Can’t Fly by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Keith Bendis. Calvin is a starling with a unique, bookish voice, “Oh, how the wounding words of scorn do sting!” And Keith Bendis’ blocky birds with dangling, toothpick legs are adorable. Besides being charming, this book is funny. One of Calvin’s sixty-seven thousand four hundred and thirty-two cousins (“Starlings have BIG families”) called him “nerdy birdie,” another called him “geeky beaky,” and still another called him “bookworm.” “And when you’re a bird, being called a “worm” is a very bad thing.”
What fun I had introducing this story to my students! I had no trouble tying it to the content standards. It has a plot that can be analyzed; it has a beginning, middle and end; it has enriching vocabulary, and it has entertainment value. OK, that last one wasn’t a content standard but maybe it should be – it helps keep the minds engaged.
Berne’s alliterations are almost like doing tongue gymnastics when you read this book aloud. (And as a speech therapist, I think that is a good thing.)  “So the flock made a loop-de-lop left, a dipsy-doodle right, and dove into the cave.” Calvin saves the day in this tale and he saves the reputation of bookworms everywhere, and all who dare to be different from others in their flock.
Yesterday I discovered another blog had mentioned the NY Times article, “Your Brain on Fiction”. In that Scholastic post, author Tyler mentioned that the Common Core standards now call for a 50-50 mix of fiction and non-fiction. Tyler posed a question, “Is this the right balance?”  I wonder along with him, and plan to follow the answers that come his way. If you have any thoughts on using fiction for educational purposes, I’d love to hear from you too.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

An Interview with Anna McQuinn

I had the pleasure of interviewing, Anna McQuinn about her book series, Lola at the Library, Lola Loves Stories, and the newest addition, Lola Reads to Leo. After hearing these delightful tales published by Charlesbridge, my students were excited to have the opportunity to participate in the interview.  We loved reading Anna’s answers and hope you will too.

You’ve done it again. You’ve given children another adorable Lola book to love. Were you anything like Lola as a child?

You know, I didn’t think I was until Yolanda at Charlesbridge wrote some cover copy about me and she made the link – I did LOVE books and reading just like Lola. We didn’t have many books, certainly not picture books (I think I can remember about 3 or 4 and some little Ladybird books), but once I was able to read, I don’t think I ever stopped! I drove my mom crazy as I’d read the back of the cereal package while eating my breakfast etc etc.

I also loved playing at being characters out of stories I read – I guess that’s what gave me the idea for Lola Loves Stories. My fun always involved long discussions about who would be what, what their name would be etc etc

Will Lola have any new adventures in the future?

Lola is busy researching gardens in the library because her mommy has given her a corner of their patch of the local community garden. She’s reading about gardens, and writing lists, and creating little wild areas. It’s going to be great!
I’m sure my students will love that one! We have a garden at our school and the children get to tend it while learning about gardening, counting, measuring and generally taking care of our environment. 

What were some of your favorite books when you were young?
I was really stuck on Enid Blyton. I loved all the boarding school stories and when I stayed in my granny’s house, I used to choose clothes which were only one colour and pretend it was my uniform and that I was in a boarding school also. My other favourites were her Adventure stories and the Famous Five books. My world changed when I read Flight of the Doves which was the first book I ever read set in Ireland and suddenly I saw ‘me’ in the book. 
I almost forgot you are from the UK until I read your answer above. I’m from the US and it’s fun to see the different spellings we use for some words. 

What is the most interesting thing about you that you’ve never been asked?

 Most people assume that ‘booky’ people are cerebral and that that’s the opposite of sporty. So I’m rarely asked about sports. In fact I was very sporty – mostly informally – but I started athletics competitively when I was about 14 and ran on the Irish Cross Country team in the European FISEC Games when I was 15. I also played basketball (though not very well because I’m only 5’3”) but I watch a lot on TV and go to games to support my local professional team, Guildford Heat. No one has ever asked me who my favourite NBA player is!
I’ll save that question for our next interview so we can get to my students. They were excited when they heard I’d be interviewing you so I invited them to ask questions of their own.
From my older students:
How long have you been writing for children?

I’ve been editing children’s books for over 20 years. The writing grew gradually out of that – rather than something I sat down and did one day. I’ve been writing as my main thing for about 10 years now.
When did you first decide to become a writer?

 It kind of crept up on me, actually! In my editorial job I would come up with an idea for a book or a series and end up writing some text to show my colleagues how the series would work. Then sometimes, we kept those texts. So in the beginning, the writing was very much doing a job. In more recent years I’ve got to a stage where I start with the writing and the story. It’s funny, but because it happened so gradually, I’m still a bit embarrassed to call myself a writer!
What kind of education do you recommend if you want to become a writer?

I was really lucky to have a broad education – in Ireland you don’t really specialize until you go to University, so I studied English (which IS essential) French, Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Irish and Art right through High School. This is an especially good grounding for Children’s publishing since you have a broad range of knowledge and interests.

I think anything which helps make you a good researcher (I think studying history in university helped me a LOT) will support writing.
I also think you need to be interested in the world around you and what makes people tick, so I read lots of (light) psychology books and related fiction (I LOVE E.R Frank) and general politics and interesting social studies. I think finding a good general magazine which has interesting articles which make you think are wonderful for prompting new ideas. Interesting bloggers do the same (here’s one of my favourites, Laurie Penny:

Kindergarten students giving their version of a "Thumbs up"!

From the kindergarten crew:
Zayd wanted you to know he makes books – he cuts and folds and staples. He asked, “How do you make your books?”

I also cut and fold – but I glue instead of staple. This is how I make a test book to make sure everything fits together. When I’m happy, I send it off to the printers and they do all the cutting and folding for me. This happens when I make the Lola books (which have to be perfect because they’re for sale) but I still make stuck together books for myself and my friends and to test out new ideas.
Marie asked, “How did you make up the stories?
Usually I see something or someone and they give me the starting idea. Then I add more bits and pieces later. Once I wrote a whole story in my head on a bus just because I heard someone say something funny. All the authors I see in interviews seem to have lovely pencils and notebooks with them all the time. But even though I like to buy nice notebooks, I kind of spare them… and I can NEVER find one when I have an idea so I sometimes write ideas on the back of my bus ticket or a receipt from my purse, or I have to rush home and write the idea down before I forget it!
Ashland thought Lola would make a good president but she wondered, “How did you figure out Lola’s name?”

I think Ashland is very wise and if Lola were president, the world would be a better place. You know, I think Lola’s name came with the idea for the story. I know I sat down at my computer one day and just wrote “Lola Loves Tuesdays.” I am very interested in names (I like my name very much but it’s a bummer that it’s the same backwards – that’s quite boring). Do you know that in Holland, the word for library is Bieb, so in Holland Lola is called Bibi!
What a great name! Bodie didn’t have any questions but after hearing, Lola Loves Stories he said, “I wish my dad could take me to the library every day so I could check out lots and lots of books.” 

I hope Bodie can get to the library with his dad. He could check out lots of books, enough for a whole week, and then he wouldn’t need to go every day.
Joden said he loved, Lola Loves Stories, but he had one question, “Why didn’t you put a cat in the story?” 

That’s an excellent question. I think because I put a tiger, I thought that was a sort of big cat – but I’ll certainly consider putting a cat in the next story.
Thank you, Anna McQuinn for taking the time to answer our questions and for telling your stories. We look forward to reading more in the future.
They were great questions, thanks for sending them. They made me think – which is always a good sign.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

World Read Aloud Day

I stopped by a kindergarten classroom this week and Cathy, the teacher, told me about a conversation she had with a couple of her students. One child, Hope, had done a fabulous job on a project and Cathy said, “You’re my first and last hope.”  Jesse, another kindergartener interjected, “She’s your only hope!”

Of course he didn’t understand the double meaning but it was a sweet and funny comment to hear from this serious little guy. And it got me to thinking about hope.

Recently, I’ve been scanning the website of LitWorld, a non-profit organization, which celebrates the power of words. They communicate such hope! One of their stated core values is; “We believe that all children have the right to read, to write, and to share their words to change the world.” LitWorld declared March 7th as “World Read Aloud Day” and I passed on that message to my students and coworkers. (You can find out more about their organization here: )

Take a look at some of the activities around our school that day. With 24 classrooms on our campus, I couldn’t get to every room but, I assure you, all the teachers at our school make reading a top priority.

One of our second grade students, Abigail, reading to a kindergarten group.

Cathy Wallace reading to her class.

Juan, reading to younger students.

Beth Kirkley, our resource specialist
carrying a heathy snack to young readers.

   Mary Heister, one of our school
secretaries reading with students.

  Ashley reading to younger kids.

Jim Blanton, a kindergarten teacher
who supplies his own class clown.

Philip, another second grade student,
reading to a group of younger kids.

Marcia Douglas reading to her
kindergarten students.

Tonya Miller, our health aide, with a
group of kindergarten children.

Linda Stephens, school secretary
reading with students at her desk.

At the end of the day, Jesse’s words came back to me, “She is your only hope”. I couldn’t help but think, yes, she and all the other children in my care, and all the children across the world; they are our hope for the future. Those of us who are educators, parents, writers and illustrators of children’s literature can build on that hope by the transforming power of words and education.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Figurative Fun

Last week I had lunch with a friend and her teenage son, Mason. He had a great story about communication. When he was picking up his cousin from school, she came out of her first-grade classroom wearing a large sticker on the front of her shirt. He asked, “What does your sticker say?”  She gave him a “look” that seemed to mean, ‘Do you really think I am that gullible?’ then tore off the sticker and said, “It doesn’t say anything, Mason - it’s a sticker.” He wasn’t about to fool her!

I loved that story. So many kids in the early years of elementary school are very literal-minded. Image the confusion when they hear things like: Are your ears burning? Could you lend me a hand? I’m in a pickle.

Is it any wonder there are Common Core Standards to address that issue? If you aren’t familiar with these standards, they were developed to specify what students are expected to learn and teachers expected to teach at each grade level. (I’ve added a link on the sidebar in case you’re interested.) In kindergarten, teachers use grade-level stories to teach their students to “identify new meanings for familiar words . . .” For example, the word “duck” can mean a feathery kind of animal or the action you take when something comes flying too close to your head. This standard is upgraded slightly as students get older, and they are taught more sophisticated multi-meaning words and idioms as they progress through their school years.

In speech, I often get to work on this standard with students who have language delays. I’m always on the lookout for books that will make it fun, so I was thrilled to find Ted Arnold’s three books, Parts, More Parts, and Even More Parts. They are full of idioms and hilarious illustrations to match the phrases. In the last book, my students cracked up over the pictures accompanying the phrase, “It cost an arm and a leg.” A child is pictured in a store with his detached arm and leg on the counter, ready to make his purchase. The cash register is open and full of appendages. At the bottom of the page there is an illustration of a child saying, “I had to pay through the nose.” I won’t go into the details of that one but I’m sure you can picture it on your own. Then there is the boy who said, “I lost my head.” He’s wandering around headless with arms outstretched in search of his missing body part. There are clever depictions throughout the book that kept my students in stitches.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. Don’t you think Mason went the extra mile by giving his cousin a ride home from school? I have a gut feelingthe sky’s the limit for this guy.