Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Behind the Books: Pretty Colors, Lovely Language

I’ve written about language before on this blog, but it’s a topic that just doesn’t get old.

Before I write a piece, I ask myself what kind of voice I want. Humorous? Lyrical?  When the writing is going well, my rough draft comes out sounding just right. But more often than not, it’s something I fine-tune during repeated passes.

There many, many language devices that can act as the sugar and spice of a manuscript. Here are a few of my favorites:
         Alliteration and assonance

And here’s a representation of how I incorporated it into the first few pages of When Rain Falls:

Inside clouds, water droplets budge and bump, crash and clump. The drops grow larger and larger, heavier and heavier until they fall to the earth.

When rain
falls in a forest . . .
. .
. scurrying squirrels suddenly stop. They pull their long, bushy tails over their heads like umbrellas.

A hawk puffs out its feathers to keep water out and warmth in. Chickadees stay warm and dry inside their tree hole homes.

We’ll look at some more examples next week.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: Nonfiction Narratives and Reading Buddies

If you’ve been reading this blog strand since September, you should now be getting a sense of how pairing Reading Buddies with nonfiction books that feature layered text can strengthen reading skills, introduce and reinforce age-appropriate science concepts, and promote cooperation and camaraderie. And by discussing the text as they go, students get plenty of practice meeting the objectives of CCSS for ELA: Reading Informational Text #1 and #2.

So far, all the books I’ve discussed have had a large, simple main text with general information and smaller, longer text features that provide additional details. There is a second, though probably less common, way of employing layered text.

In books like Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin (illus. by Mary Azarian; Houghton Mifflin) and The Bumblebee Queen by April Pulley Sayre (illus by Patricia Wynne; Charlesbridge), the main text offers a compelling narrative. Blocks of text set in a smaller typeface and/or tucked in out-of-the-way places provide details that are interesting but might interrupt the story’s flow if they were integrated into the main text.

While the reading level of the two kinds of text is generally similar in these titles, the tone is distinctive. Buddies may enjoy alternating between reading the main storyline and the fact blocks, and may even want to use different voices as they read the two styles of text. This will help them see that the two kinds of text serve different functions in the storytelling process.

Snowflake Bentley, winner of the Caldecott Medal, is a wonderful biography of Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farm boy whose fascination with snowflakes led to a lifelong pursuit to photograph and study their crystal structures. The lovely woodcut illustrations, simple, graceful main text, and scattering of fact-filled sidebars work together beautifully to create a truly special book.

If you live in a place where it snows, have the buddies read and discuss the book on a snowy day. Then take the students out while snow is still falling. Have each team of buddies work together to catch snowflakes on black construction paper and look at them with a magnifying glass. Ask the students to make detailed drawings and/or descriptions the snowflakes in a notebook. When the class goes back inside, have buddy teams share their drawings and/or descriptions with one another. Ask the students how the snowflakes are similar? How are they different? Make a list on chart paper.

Gentle, informative, and appealing, The Bumblebee Queen features lyrical main text that describes the somewhat surprising life cycle “story” of a bumblebee queen, from her awakening from winter hibernation to her death in late autumn. More straightforward text cleverly set off by a bee’s dashed flight path offer related facts in greater detail. Precise ink drawings with watercolor washes illustrate the text with clarity, simplicity, and skill.

After reading and discussing the book, encourage the buddies to carefully look for signs of bees and wasps on the school playground, at home, or at a local park. This activity can be done at any time of year if you show students photos or samples of bee and wasp nests. Can the children identify some of the bee and wasp species that live in your area?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. Believe it or not, you’ll walk about 115,000 miles (185,075 kilometers) in your life. If all that trekking and trudging were in a straight line, you could circle the equator four and a half times!

2. You usually breathe about twelve times a minute. And each breath delivers about 2 cups (0.5 l) of air to your lungs. That works out to 96 gallons (363 l) per hour and 2,300 gallons (8,706 l) per day. That’s a lot of air!

3. Like the water slowly dripping out of a leaky faucet, your body is constantly cranking out a fresh supply of tears. They’re made inside tear glands, small sacs located above your eyes. Most days about 1/3 of a teaspoon (1.7 milliliters) of new tears trickle into each eye.
4. Go just ten seconds without oxygen, and you’ll faint. After five minutes with no air, your brain could be permanently damaged. And if you stopped breathing for ten minutes, you’d probably die.

5. When police find human bones, scientists can calculate the person’s height and weight. They can also tell whether the bones came from a male or a female and how old the person was. Sometimes they can even figure out where the person lived and what kind of job he or she had.

Looking for more amazing facts about the human body? Check out the books in my series Gross & Goofy Body. They’re full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body—and the bodies of other animals, too.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Behind the Books: The Power of Thank You

Lately, I’ve been reading One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers by Gail Sher (Penguin, 1999). It came to me because my friend Sam Kane’s roof sprung a leak that flooded her office. (Please, please don’t ever let that happen to me.)

I don’t think I would have noticed the book while perusing the stacks at a used bookstore or a library book sale, but I trust Sam--and her taste in books. So I took it, hoping it might be a gem. And it was.

The author sees the world from a Buddhist perspective, and I was intrigued to read about the role her writing plays in her life and how she looks at the writing process.  What struck me most was her take on the idea that when writing is going well, the writer experiences a state of mind that athletes call “in the zone.”

She says that this state is really what Buddhists are seeking when they meditate. And therefore, she says immersive writing can be a form of meditation if . . . wait for it (this is important) . . . the writer expresses gratitude when the session is over.

According to her, saying “Thank you.” is a way of pausing and acknowledging that something good or special has happened to you, something that improved the quality of your life.

She also says, and I think she’s onto something, that the act of expressing gratitude can make you feel more joyful because you are drawing attention to, focusing your thoughts and energy on the good things around you.

I really like that idea. And I can see all kinds of beneficial ways to incorporate it into my life.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: Fun Formats for Reading Buddies

Today, we’ll look at some of the many wonderful books created by Steve Jenkins, often with his wife Robin Page. Many of Jenkins’s books feature a spare main text that is masterfully illustrated with paper collage art and enhanced by an extensive backmatter full of fascinating facts. Because Jenkins writes the text, creates the art, and conceptualizes the design himself from the beginning of the project, the result is books with fun, creative, distinctive formats.

As Reading Buddies work their way through Jenkins’ books, the younger child can read the main text. Then the buddies can flip to the back of the book, and the older child can read the relevant section of backmatter.

Here are some possible pairings for your consideration (All are published by Houghton Mifflin.):

 What Would You Do with a Tail Like This? and How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?
The Caldecott Honor recipient What Would You Do with a Tail Like This? has a wonderful guessing game format in which one double-page spread asks a question and shows intriguing bits of animal bodies and the next double-page spread answers the question and reveals the entire bodies of the animals. Over the course of the book, readers learn how a variety of animals use their noses, ears, tails, eyes, mouth, and feet.
How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? has a similar format, but it focuses on the different ways in which a diverse assortment of creatures performs a particular activity. Jenkins and Page use this structure to examine techniques for catching a fish, hatching eggs, digging holes, and more.

These books are wonderful for provoking discussion of animal adaptations. After students read What Would You Do with a Tail Like This? and feel comfortable with the format, you can ask them to make predictions about how particular animals will accomplish the various tasks presented as they read How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?.

 Actual Size and Prehistoric Actual Size
This clever pair of books invites young readers to see how they measure up against a variety of different animals—some living, some extinct. Depending on the scale of the creatures being described, some of the colorful collages display the entire animal at actual scale while others can only feature what fits on the page—an elephant foot, a giant squid eye, a gorilla hand, the head of an ancient flying reptile, and even the complete body of a small dinosaur on a series of foldout pages. The presentation style introduces children to the glorious diversity of our natural world and illustrates the importance of comparison, measurement, observation, and record keeping in a truly engaging way.

After reading the books, buddies can measure and compare their own body parts and record their findings in a table. Before the students return to their separate classrooms, there can be time for whole-group sharing. There’s no doubt about it, these books inspire fun ways of satisfying, CCSS for ELA: Reading Informational Text #1 and #2.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: What falls but never gets hurt?
A: The rain.

Q: What happens when it rains cats and dogs?
A:  You have to be careful not to step in a poodle.

Q: What goes up when rain comes down?
A: Umbrellas.

Q: Why do raindrops like lightning at night?
A: It helps them see where they’re going.

Q: What kind of music does thunder like best?
A: Rock and roll.

Looking for more super silly jokes about the weather? Check out Wacky Weather and Silly Season.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Behind the Books: Reaching Out to Angola

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. State Department, I recently had the opportunity to speak via videoconference with students in Angola. Wow!

Boy, were they interested in science. They asked me question after question about how diamonds form and how to find fossils. They really challenged me when I mentioned that some creatures can live in completely dark ecosystems. And they were simultaneously fascinated, delighted, and horrified to hear that they have tiny mites living in their eyelashes.
In other words, they were no different than the kids I talk with here in the U.S.

No matter where children live, no matter how they lead their lives, they are all curious about the world around them. And they are all eager to live.

I’m not sure who was more disappointed when our hour and a half visit was over—them or me. It’s the kind of day that reminds me how lucky I am to have this job.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: More Reading Buddies Follow-up Activities

Today, we’ll look at a group of books that I’ve written: A Place for Butterflies, A Place for Bats, A Place for Birds, A Place for Frogs, and A Place for Fish. In these books, published by Peachtree Publishers, two sections of text appear on each double-page spread. The larger, simpler text that runs across the tops of the pages provides general information and can stand on its own.

On each left-hand page, the text describes something people are doing (often accidentally or without forethought) to harm birds or butterflies, etc. The large text on each right-hand page explains a simple way that people can stop or reduce the effect of their negative behavior. The repetitive endings add lyricism to the text and help reinforce the idea that we can work together to save our world’s wild life and wild places.

The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details about the history of the problem and solutions that are occurring right now. By reading an entire spread, the students gain a clear understanding of the effect their actions can have on the natural world.

Overall, the books are honest and also optimistic. Their structure invites younger buddies to read the larger, simpler type, while older children can focus on the more detailed sidebars. The buddies can then look for the animals in the stunning artwork created by Higgins Bond  and discuss what they’ve just learned before moving on to the next double-page spread.

Here are two great activities the buddies can do together after reading these books. They will deepen student understanding of the goals described in CCSS for ELA: Reading Informational Text #1 and #2. The first one also addresses standard #5 and both support Writing standards #2 and #8, but I’ll discuss that more later.

Create a See-Saw Book
Have each book-buddy team create a see-saw book that compares two of the butterflies discussed in A Place for Butterflies If the students decide to focus on monarchs and Karner blues:

  • On the first left-hand page, they might write: “Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves.”
  • On the facing right-hand page, they could write: “Karner blue caterpillars eat wild lupine.”
  • The next page would read: “Both kinds of caterpillars eat plants.”
Subsequent pages should continue to compare the two species—size, habitat, range, etc. The students can use webs to help them organize their thoughts.

If You Were a Bird
After the buddies read A Place for Birds, ask them to pretend they are a bird.

  • Have younger buddies write a paragraph describing what it feels like to learn how to fly.
  • Have older buddies describe how it feels to soar through the sky and include details of what they see as they fly over their town or city.
When the buddies are done, they can share what they’ve written.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Fun: Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts

1. A female tachinid fly’s ears are near the tops of her legs. She uses them to locate other insects so she can spray them with larvae. The young flies burrow into unsuspecting insects and devour them from the inside out. Yuck!

2. A male platypus stabs its enemies with sharp, poisonous spurs on the backs of its legs.

3. As a honeybee collects pollen from flowers, it stores the nutritious food in tiny baskets on its back legs.

4. Dragonfly larvae bend their legs to create a net that’s perfect for catching mosquitoes, gnats, and other tasty treats.

5. As a daddy longlegs races across the ground, it waves its two longest legs in the air. They help the daddy longlegs hear, smell, and taste.

Looking for more Gross and Goofy Body facts? Check out my book Give Me a Hand: The Secrets of Hands, Feet, Arms, and Legs. It’s full of weird, wacky, strange, and surprising information about your body and the bodies of other animals.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Behind the Books: Animal Grossapedia

Last week a book I’m really excited about became available to the public.

Just imagine a 112-page compilation of all the ways animals use pee, poop, vomit, spit, blood, and slimy mucus to catch prey and escape from predators. You won’t believe how versatile these “gross” materials can be.

Dying for a few examples? I don’t blame you a bit.

Baby elephants dine on doo-doo to get bacteria they need digest tough plant materials. When a horned lizard feels threatened, it squirts blood out of its eyes. Yikes!

Komodo dragons use their saliva to poison their prey, but mice use spit to heal their wounds. Sea cucumber use vomit to startle their enemies, and bees use it to make honey. Yum!

Because the book is published by Scholastic, it will be immediately available in bookstores and through book clubs and book fairs. So if you have a curious kid in your life, here’s the perfect gift for the upcoming holiday season.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday Fun: Super Silly Science Jokes

Q: What kind of insect always goes to church?
A: A praying mantis.

Q: What kind of bug keeps the peace?
A: A cop-roach.

Q: What’s a grasshopper’s favorite day?
A: February 29. Because it only happens during leap year.

Q: What does a Mexican frog eat for lunch?
A: A mosquito burrito.

Q: What’s the different between a puppy and a flea?
A: A dog can have fleas, but fleas can’t have puppies.

Looking for more super silly jokes about the weather? Check out Creepy, Crawly Jokes About Spiders and Other Bugs.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Behind the Books: Then and Now

Last spring, I wrote a post about Sarah Brannen, the illustrator of my upcoming book FEATHERS (Charlesbridge, 2014) for the I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids) blog. But I didn’t say too much about the book itself.

Over the summer, I realized it might be interesting to compare it to my book BIRDS (Children’s Press, 2001). Nonfiction for kids has changed a lot during the last decade and these two books are perfect examples of what worked then versus what works now.

Here’s a passage from BIRDS that discusses feathers:

      A bird’s most special feature is its feathers. Feathers are made of the same material as your hair and fingernails. They grow out of little tubes in a bird’s skin. Feathers help a bird fly, stay warm and dry, hide from enemies, and attract mates.
     There are two kinds of feathers—down feathers and contour feathers. Down feathers are like thermal underwear under a coat of contour feathers. Short, fluffy down feathers trap warm air close to a bird’s skin. Contour feathers cover a bird’s body, wings, and tail. They give a bird its shape and color.

And here’s a bit of text from FEATHERS:

Feathers can warm like a blanket . . .

On cold, damp days a blue jay stays warm by fluffing up its feathers and trapping a layer of warm air next to its skin.

. . . or cushion like a pillow.
A female wood duck lines her nest with feathers she has plucked from her own body. These feathers cushion the duck’s eggs and keep them warm.

These two pieces of writing are worlds apart. The first one is a straightforward compilation of facts. And back in 1999 when this book was contracted, that’s what teachers, librarians, and kids wanted and expected.

But then the Internet entered our lives in full force. All the information in the book is now available at our fingertips and free of charge. If authors and publishers wanted to keep on selling books, they had to create something new and different. And they did.

Today’s nonfiction for kids must offer something that the Internet doesn’t. FEATHERS focuses on all the amazing ways birds use their feathers. Feathers are for more than just flight.

But the topic isn’t the only innovative thing about this new book. It has two layers of text. The main text explains how birds use feathers through a series of comparisons. By comparing feathers to familiar objects, kids gain a more solid understanding of the unfamiliar. The secondary text provides more detailed information.

And that’s still not the end of the novelty of this book. As I mentioned in last spring’s blog post, Sarah’s art brings the book to a whole new level.

Here are a couple of sketches to whet your appetite: 

I started working on FEATHERS in 2005, so I’m really looking forward to holding the final product in my hand. Right now 2014 seems soooooooo far away.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Having Fun with Common Core: After They Read

Today, we’ll look at three very popular books: An Egg is Quiet, A Seed is Sleepy, and A Butterfly is Patient all by Dianna Hutts Aston (illus. by Sylvia Long) and published by Chronicle Books.

The repetition in the main text of these books results in a pleasing poetic quality. And while the language is simple, the statements are sometimes surprising and can provoke a thoughtful discussion.

For example, in An Egg is Quiet, the main text (which the younger child reads)  on one spread says, “An egg is clever.” Most children (and adults) have never thought of an egg in this way before. It is only after the older child reads the smaller, supporting text scattered across the page that the full meaning of the main text becomes clear.

After the Reading Buddies finish the book, ask them to make a list of these unexpected words and discuss why they think the author chose them. Then open a full-class discussion of this topic. Do these “unexpected” descriptive words make students think about eggs in new and different ways? This kind of conversation is sure to address CCSS for ELA: Reading Informational Text #1 and #2.

Have the students repeat the process for A Butterfly is Patient and A Seed is Sleepy. Depending on the time of year and your location, take your students on an egg, butterfly, and seed hunt in your school yard.

If they are careful observers, they will undoubtedly spot some insect or spider eggs in spring. They should be able to find some seeds in either spring or autumn. And if they are lucky, they might spot a butterfly. If time permits, try to identify what the children find.