90 Second Newbery is a film festival for kids to make very short movies telling the story of Newbery or Newbery honor winning books. The deadline for films is next week and the screenings start soon. You can find a list of them on the website. I already shared ours a few places because I was so excited by it and meant to blog about it earlier, but life interfered, so I’m sharing it here now.
We chose this as one of our big fall projects and it has been really cool to see the result. One of the most rewarding aspects was that after we sent in the link for the film, James Kennedy, who runs the festival, sent back really specific and positive feedback, which was very cool. Even if you don’t have time to participate this year, I would really encourage everyone to think about this as a project for the future. It involved so much good, positive, creative work and so many good discussions of literature.
This is the film Mushroom and BalletBoy made:
I’m still surprised at how much work went into this project. They’ve made little stop motion movies before as well as some little kid live action movies. Both the boys have a facility with iPad movie editing apps. However, they had never seriously attempted a project this ambitious. And everything, from the choice of the book, to the script, to the music and shots had to be agreed upon and it wasn’t always easy with two directors who had different visions.
The script was especially tricky. In the end, we used the script that Mushroom wrote. He had all these great phrases and moments in it, like a vision of Ivan saying, “Mack didn’t call the vet,” followed by silence to indicate how Stella died and the idea of using a news report to explain how Ivan ends up at the zoo.
Building the set for the stop motion of Ivan was even harder. We started with thin plexiglass walls for the stuffed gorilla playing Ivan, but the glare was terrible no matter how we set up the lighting and we finally had to lose it. We also tried using a green screen and even borrowed a real green screen from a friend, but again the lighting was never quite good enough to make the green screen look good and it refused to pan properly. In the end, the kids just printed out the image of the mall circus store they’d chosen to be Ivan’s dismal backdrop. The green screen was also supposed to be used for the news report, but all the takes didn’t work and we had to wrangle our friends from co-op into doing the report instead.
Filming the crayon drawings also was tricky at times. The Stop Motion app cut off the edges of drawings, which was okay for some scenes, but meant we filmed the final credits (no joke) more than half a dozen times trying to make them readable and not cut off.
Not long ago, I posted about how I think parents should help their children with their projects sometimes. This is a great example of that for us. I did almost none of the work for this movie. Probably the biggest thing I did was make a couple of the protest signs when BalletBoy was sick and they needed to be done so Mushroom could film with their friends the next day. But every other bit of work was completely the kids. Every photo, every bit of filming, every drawing, every idea for the movie.
Mostly what I did do was a huge amount of organization for them. I kept them on schedule. I typed up the handwritten script and helped them edit and revise. I encouraged them to pay attention to the details and redo things when they didn’t work or to let things go when they weren’t happy with the best result we could get. I mediated and suggested compromises between their different ideas. I highlighted the parts of the script that had been filmed to help them keep track. I set aside time for them to work. I played cheerleader and said how great the project would be in the end. And it is great.
I think kids need all kinds of projects. They need things where it’s really completely on them from start to finish. They need things where they have to follow someone else’s rules. They need things where someone shows them how much they can do with a little support. This was a project with a little support and I feel really positive about it and so do the kids.
At the end of the summer, I asked the kids what they wanted to study in the fall and “dinosaurs” and “extinct stuff” were two of the proposals. Now we’re toward the end of this project and I thought I’d do another Anatomy of a Project entry. I think a lot of people are intimidated by going DIY with a large portion of schooling or cobbling a subject together using different resources, but it can be really rewarding and positive.
I usually embark on these sorts of things by gathering stacks of resources, some of which I buy, some of which I check out from the library, some of which I just make note of in case we want to use them later on. I don’t always have a specific plan for this stuff. Usually I’m just getting stuff to get us excited as much as anything.
The biggest thing I did was talk to the kids about trying their first MOOC. MOOC’s are Massive Open Online Courses offered for free by colleges. I heard great things about Dino 101 from the University of Alberta, which is offered through Coursera. I enrolled myself (after a lot of debate about how to deal with users under 13) and planned to have us all do the course together.
I looked at various curricula. Build Your Library has a unit study on evolution that I flirted with getting but decided against, in part because we had already read the fiction book they use, The Education of Calpurnia Tate. I found a couple of other unit study type things, but they were mostly for younger kids so I decided not to get anything, at least for the moment. The one curriculum book I purchased was Life Through Time, which is a GEMS guide. We’ve used some other GEMS books in the past with success. I got this one and it looked pretty exciting.
Then I dove into the books. I bought and checked out a huge number of books. I didn’t really do a lot of searching. Instead, I found the nonfiction section about evolution and fossils and took out everything in the right reading level. We’re lucky enough to have such a good library that I can do that.
We started our school year with a lot of field trips and excursions. We went to sketch and explore the fossil collection at Q?rius, the older kid discovery room at the Smithsonian National History Museum. We looked at a number of different things, but one of the coolest things we got to handle was large agatized dinosaur bone. It was polished and beautiful to see the inside of the bone. I also let the kids spend a couple dollars to buy polished fossils from the shop, which was quite a treat. We added these to other fossils we’ve collected over the years, like shark teeth and ammonites, and put them in a case together with labels.
Not purposefully, but we started with a lot of films. We had a chance to see two IMAX films – one about dinosaurs and another about mammoths. We also immediately turned to NOVA as one of our favorite shows and watched an episode about Spinosaurus, an unusual dinosaur that preyed on fish. Because we had just seen the film about mammoths, we also read the related book Mammoths and Mastodons by Cheryl Bardoe, which was an excellent read.
We began to read more books. We began with Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle. This book was at the right level for the kids to read independently. We used it as a good book for practicing written narrations and summaries. I had them read a few chapters (they’re quite short) and write a summary. We also dove into dinosaur books. I let the boys pick what they wanted to read. BalletBoy chose to read a Scientists in the Field book called Digging for Bird Dinosaurs. Mushroom read Sue: The Story of a Colossal Fossil. Each of those books were longer and more in depth. Again, we used the books as a jumping off point for practicing writing skills.
The Dino 101 MOOC turned out to be just as good as people promised. There are interactive questions in the middle of the lessons. While parts of the course have been heavy on vocabulary, for the most part it has been both in depth but accessible to the boys. Many of the topics have allowed the kids to delve into other issues such as basic animal anatomy, Latin word roots (did I mention the vocabulary?), geology, and evolution. It has been a really far reaching course and we’ve all really enjoyed it. The quizzes are pretty easy for me. I cut and paste them into a document and let the kids take them too, though they’re more challenging for the kids. Each quiz is just five multiple choice questions. The kids have mostly done pretty well on them, but I’ve helped them study.
We also took a field trip to Dinosaur Park. We’re really lucky to have a small regional park nearby where outcroppings are from the late Cretaceous period and have included dinosaur bones. Of course, we didn’t manage to find anything interesting, but it was neat to see so many impressions of bark and other plants from the time of the dinosaurs and to learn how to look.
As topics arose in Dino 101, we used it as a chance to explore other topics. When evolution was explored, we took another look at it, reading the excellent graphic novel The Sandwalk Adventures by Jay Hossler and practicing written narrations by writing about how evolution works. We watched episodes of Nature and discussed concepts like adaptation and natural selection. When geologic time came up, we explored it by looking at other time periods and trying to tie together our fossil collection and other topics we had explored, like mammoths earlier in the fall. We especially liked the series A Cartoon Prehistory of Life Before the Dinosaurs by Hannah Bonner. The book When Bugs Were Big, Plants Were Strange, and Tetrapods Stalked the Earth was our favorite. This series was more in depth than I expected. We made geologic timelines to try to tie everything together.
Mushroom spotted in a catalog that a new Cardline game was about to come out – Cardline: Dinosaurs. If you’ve never seen the game, there are lots of different versions. In this one, each card features a prehistoric creature and facts about it. Players only have access to what the creature is with a drawing. You try to place the creatures in order of a chosen attribute such as how much they weighed. It can be much more challenging than you expect. We immediately bought the game and played it. We also used the cards to practice organizing dinosaur types, distinguishing which ones were dinosaurs and which weren’t, looking at different geologic eras. This was just a great addition to our studies.
We also enhanced our study with drawing a little bit. We found a library book about how to draw different dinosaurs. We added some dinosaur poems to our poetry teas. We had some by Jack Prelutsky and another book by William Wise. They were light children’s poems, but I like the way we can find these connections across the different things we study.
Since we were also using Faltering Ownership from Brave Writer, the next writing project was supposed to be a mini-report about a natural disaster. I wanted to combine this with our current project so I asked the kids to choose a dinosaur to write about instead. It was a big undertaking to learn to write down sources, use notecards for organization, and then write their first real report, but both Mushroom and BalletBoy did a great job. Partway through, Mushroom asked if he could change his to becoming the text of a picture book about Argentinosaurus, which he did.
After the reports, both the boys said they were feeling basically done with dinosaurs and evolution. We still have to finish up the MOOC and we have an upcoming workshop to look at fossils to understand climate during the time of the dinosaurs, but other than wrapping up loose ends, we agreed that the project had wound to a natural end.
One of the hardest things about wrapping up a project is all the roads not taken. We read The Sandwalk Adventures but we didn’t get around to Hossler’s equally good Evolution, another graphic novel explaining the concepts of evolution. I had hoped we would go back to Dinosaur Park more often, but weekend commitments made it hard. I had hoped we would do more fossil sketching, but we only did a little bit because the kids weren’t that into it. There are a pile of books on the shelf that we never got to, such as books about pterosaurs and books about the links between dinosaurs and birds. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at Feathered Dinosaurs by Christopher Sloan and thinking, huh, maybe we can squeeze in one ore? I’m especially sad we weren’t able to adapt the activities in the GEMS Guide Life Through Time, but many of the activities didn’t end up making sense in a homeschool context and others were edged out by other things we decided to do.
While I could easily think of a whole other semester of stuff we could do about dinosaurs, evolution, extinction and other related topics, the kids are ready to move on to the next thing and pushing it too far would likely just make them dislike the good work we already did. We’re going to start a unit on philosophy and I’ve asked them for ideas about what they’d like to do next, so I guess we’ll see where we end up after the holidays.
This is our periodic round up of mini-reviews of just a few of the things we’ve been reading lately.
Read Aloud The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Is it possible that this sequel is even better than the original? I think I like it even more than the first book. The writing is so beautiful and detailed and the characters and world are so well drawn. Calpurnia is the only girl in a large, prosperous Texas family in 1900. Her grandfather, a Civil War veteran, encourages her interest in nature and science while the rest of her family want her to be more feminine. In this book, the Galveston Hurricane, the greatest natural disaster in American history, is explored. Calpurnia becomes closer to her younger, animal loving, soft-hearted brother Travis, considers becoming a veterinarian when she grows up, and learns about the weather. Like the previous book, each chapter begins with a quote from Charles Darwin, though these are drawn from The Voyage of the Beagle. Build Your Library sells a unit study about evolution that uses the first book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate as a core part of the study. This book lends itself even more clearly to being used as the literary backbone of a science study. Calpurnia builds her own barometer, astrolabe, and other instruments, as well as dissects several creatures, such as a grasshopper and a worm.
Audiobook Penny from Heaven by Jennifer Holm
We’ve really enjoyed all of Holm’s books inspired by her family history. This book takes place in 1950’s New Jersey, where Penny is caught between her mother and her late father’s large Italian family. Most of the book is light and funny, filled with vivid characters. Penny’s cousin Frankie is constantly in and out of trouble, her grandmother cooks only inedible food, her uncle sleeps in his car, her other grandmother wears only black in mourning for her father, even many years after his death. Meanwhile, Penny spends her time trying to sneak away and have fun despite all her mother’s rules. However, I have to issue a warning and a spoiler. More than midway through the book, Penny has an accident with a clothing wringer that is so gruesome I nearly had to pull the car over because we were all freaking out so much. It works out in the end, but it was really a pretty horrible accident.
School Reading Billions of Years, Amazing Changes: The Story of Evolution by Laurence Pringle
This book is a great introduction to evolution. We are studying paleontology this year and I wanted to begin with a look at evolution. This book has such a clear text with such great illustrations by Steve Jenkins as well as illustrative photos. It was at exactly the right level for the kids to read independently and the chapters were very well organized. Evolution can be hard to understand, but this book explains it well, including the history of our understanding of evolution and how natural selection and adaptation works.
School Reading Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age by Cheryl Bardoe
Because we had the opportunity to see an IMAX film that covered the same material during a homeschool science center day, we skipped ahead a little bit in our paleontology study to look at the Pleistocene animals. This book was very well written with great photos. It’s not long and was also at just the right nonfiction reading level for the kids. The opening part focuses on the find of a baby mammoth in Siberia. The mammoth was perfectly preserved and can now be seen in museums. The mystery of the extinction of the mammoths and their kin is also covered.
Mushroom’s Reading Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale
Mushroom has been loving these nonfiction graphic novels and has already read several of them. Each book covers a different American history topic, generally with a slightly dark or violent topic, including several wars and the infamous Donner Party. Mushroom says he likes the first one, about Revolutionary War spies, the best. A lot of the nonfiction graphic novels that are coming out now are dry or formulaic, but this series has creative storytelling and good details as well as a friendly art style. I think it would appeal to a lot of the fans of the Horrible Histories series.
BalletBoy’s Reading The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
BalletBoy wanted something light to read and he picked this book off the shelf. It’s not one of Sachar’s better works, honestly. It’s part of a series of books about middle school kids. This one is about a boy who joins the popular crowd, but it comes with a price. Soon, not only is he not part of the popular crowd anymore, but he’s pretty sure he’s cursed. This is one of those books that explores all the awkward, sometimes terrible things that middle school kids can do to each other. The end message is positive and funny, but BalletBoy didn’t end up loving the book, in part because he felt uncomfortable with how the kids treated each other. My kids have definitely seen some doses of meanness, but maybe not in this same way.
Farrar’s (regrettable) YA Reading Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
Why do I always get sucked into these? But good reviews, a little buzz, and an interesting concept and I was suckered into trying this book. In the end, I gave up on it toward the end, not quite finishing it. Mare is a poor “red” girl. She has no abilities and is subject to the powerful “silvers” and their never ending war. That is, until it’s discovered she does have mysterious powers and is swept into an arranged marriage in order for the royals to hide that fact. There’s a rebellion (of course), a love quadrangle (double of course), and a lot of hand wringing. There’s a twist that was a reasonable good idea, but on the whole the book fell very flat for me. It was yet another formulaic dystopian style YA novel with mediocre writing. Bah.
I’ve gotten out of the habit of doing our periodic book roundups. However, as always, we’ve been reading. Here’s a few things from our shelves from the last few months and I’ll try to get back to doing more book blogging again.
School Read Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd
We took this book out of the library and let it inspire our final project for fifth grade: graphic design. This was such a readable book for my design loving kids that they both read it for pleasure reading first before I could assign it, which is a rare occurrence around here indeed. It’s a well designed book (as one would hope) and filled with great visual examples. The text also breaks down important elements of design in a way that’s simple for the reader. At the end there are ten projects for readers to try so they can do their own graphic design. As always, the kids has their own takes on how to do the projects, but it was a really good introduction. I highly recommend it.
Nonfiction Practice Reading TIME: Modern Explorers We have struggled a lot to hit the right length and difficulty level for nonfiction reading in our house. I may write more about this in a future post, but in the meantime, I found a good solution for now, which was to seek out adult magazines geared toward more casual readers by simply running through the offerings at the bookstore. This one has been the biggest hit. It’s a special issue of Time about explorers in all different fields: medicine, oceanography, outer space, climbing, and more. There’s a nice variance of lengths and both the boys have been excited by what they read. The opening article, about twin astronauts, was especially interesting to them. The writing is at a high enough level to be challenging, but not as challenging as many other publications geared toward adults and the length of the articles is just right, which has been a key element for my not so fast readers.
Required Reading Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
We do very little required reading, but I did choose a couple of shorter books to be read by all three of us at the same time then discussed at a poetry tea and this is the one that finished up our school year. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a boy named Jess, a middle child in a poor, rural family who dreams of being an artist. Leslie moves in next door and they quickly become friends. Leslie’s family is affluent, there because they’re fleeing the city for a country oasis. She’s different, smart, and well-read. She introduces Jess to a fantasy world and they play games in the woods across the creek. However, on a fateful, stormy day when Jess isn’t there, she is swept into the creek and drowns. I know this book is divisive for many. Some people feel utterly betrayed by the story and Leslie’s very unexpected death (there is some foreshadowing, but it’s limited). However, I felt like the book is one that has a strong impact on readers and generally elicits a strong response. I talked to the kids about how the book is sad and that there’s a surprise shocking thing that happens. Even with the warnings, BalletBoy cried when he read about Leslie’s death and it led to a lot of good conversations, which was exactly the goal of having a required reading book like this one.
Mushroom’s Serious Read Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Mushroom has a book type these days, one that can best be described as “issue books.” He likes books where difficult things happen to kids or where kids have to overcome various issues. That’s why I was sure this book would be right up his alley. Willow, the main character, is profoundly gifted, but also misunderstood by everyone but her parents. Unfortunately, they die in a terrible accident, leaving Willow on her own without anyone. A bizarre cast of characters step in to help her out, but slowly, as Willow resurfaces from her grief, she’s the one who helps them out. I read this one alongside Mushroom and we both really liked it.
Mushroom’s Graphic Novel Read El Deafo by Cece Bell
You know how I just said that Mushroom likes “issue books”? Well, here was one that brought together his two great literary loves in one volume: a book that was both an issue book and a graphic novel. What could be better? El Deafo won a much deserved Newbery Honor last year, hopefully making it the first graphic novel to be honored among many. The characters are all rabbits, but the story is based on the author’s own childhood. Cece loses her hearing and must adjust to having an awkward hearing aid, but one that soon helps her hear in places that no one else can. It’s a story that’s both serious and funny.
BalletBoy’s Serious Read The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne
BalletBoy generally refuses to listen to any books I suggest for him so he always runs through the shelves and finds his own interesting titles, often of books I’ve never heard of. That was the case with this book, which is a sort of fanciful tale about a boy who is born floating. In a twist a bit like the classic Rudolph Christmas special, Barnaby’s parents are ashamed of his unusual state and do everything they can to hide it, that is until Barnaby floats away to have a series of adventures. BalletBoy really loved this book and immediately dove into another book by Boyne (who is probably best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas). I only skimmed a bit of it, but I can’t say I was as enchanted as he was, still, I think the fairy tale and moral qualities of the story appealed to him as a reader.
Farrar’s YA Read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
This Printz award winner from last year begins like a typical teenage boy book. Narrator Austin is a bit of a stoner, a bit funny, a bit confused about his sexuality, and a bit disgusting in the way that teen boys can be. However, after introducing the characters, the book slowly veers into science fiction as a virus that ends the world by turning people into giant bugs is unleashed thanks to a series of accidents. This was one of those darkly fascinating books for me. It really stayed with me for weeks afterward and I liked how the book swung from being one sort of book to being another entirely. Austin’s voice reminded me a little of the main character from Youth in Revolt – a teenage boy who is both disgusted with himself and yet unable to stop himself when it comes to poor decisions. But by the end of the book, it felt like I was in a comedic Starship Troopers. This book is definitely not for everyone, but I liked what Smith had to say in his thank yous about how he wrote it just for himself, just because. Obviously, that led to a unique, interesting book.
Farrar’s YA Graphic Novel Read Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
I read this all in one sitting because I was so compelled once it got started (I know, not so hard for a graphic novel, but still). The setting is a sort of alternate universe where medieval values and trappings live alongside modern technology. At the start, the title character Nimona, a young teen with a medieval punk look, offers her services to the most famous super villain, a man who washed out of being a knight after his arm was destroyed in a jousting explosion. It quickly becomes clear that Nimona, who happens to be a shapeshifter, is dangerously unstable and bloodthirsty. The story makes you feel for her despite the high body count she racks up. But as the story continues, it becomes less clear who the good guys and bad guys even are and what Nimona is as well. I highly recommend this one to anyone who likes a good graphic novel. I liked the balance it struck between humor and seriousness.
Anyone who knows me knows I love to recommend books to people. I’m a children’s book nut and I like helping people find good books for their book devourers and picky readers alike. But often I feel like people who want book recommendations want to start in the wrong place, which is gender.
It’s important for all kids to be able to see themselves in the characters they read about (not to get onto a tangent, but that’s exactly why #weneeddiversebooks). Books are a mirror for our lives and help us understand our own experiences by identifying with others’ stories. However, I think it’s just as important that kids have the opportunity to read about different perspectives and that includes reading about what it’s like to grow up as a girl.
When people talk about the need for there to be books with strong female characters, the focus is usually to help girls become strong women. However, as the mother of boys, I think it’s just as important that boys read these books to learn how to respect, admire, and be understand strong women when they grow up. We do just as huge a disservice to boys when we don’t give them “girl” books as we do when we box girls into a reading corner.
So here are just a few of the many “girl” books my boys have read and enjoyed over the years. Many of them are books that are consistently on the “for girls!” lists.
Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Conner
Last Christmas, my sister-in-law gifted BalletBoy a very amusing picture book: Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century, signed by the author. He had a great blush. Why is she giving me this? But I knew immediately. As a preschooler, BalletBoy had loved Fancy Nancy so very much that he had announced that he planned to marry her when he grew up. We may have grown out of Nancy a long time ago, but her girly, vocabulary rich, pink-loving charms were once really enjoyed here.
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
Mushroom and I recently reread this one curled up in bed late at night. It’s probably no surprise that this would have been a much loved girl picture book for my anxious kid. Henkes’s world has many boy characters as well – we especially liked Owen too – but Wemberly has a special place for us.
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch
This classic tale of princess empowerment is funny for boys too. My boys always thought the picture of the annoying prince who needed rescue was very amusing. I especially thought it was good for boys to see that princesses can rescue them.
Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows
Not long ago, BalletBoy noticed a newer Ivy and Bean book he’d never read and picked it up sort of wistfully before putting it back and declaring he was too old for it. However, these books about two neighbor girls with very different personalities and a close friendship was one of the first chapter book series he read independently.
Ramona series by Beverly Cleary
Not that we didn’t also enjoy Henry Huggins or Ralph S. Mouse, but Ramona’s struggles from pest to older kid have been Cleary’s most loved books here. She is one of the most real characters in children’s literature, with some of the most real family relationships and struggles.
The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall
We loved meeting the Penderwicks again in the most recent book.
The books are so sweet and touching positive with such great sister relationships. We have read every one and loved them all.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This classic was a read aloud ages ago and both boys enjoyed Mary’s transformation from contrary to happy. They may have also really liked my poorly done accents. I highly recommend the beautiful Inga Moore version, which was the one we had.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
This fairy tale with a girl power twist was a much enjoyed story for both my boys, who both liked Ella’s unlucky tale. I like the determination that Ella has to show and the way the romance evolves through the story. The boys thought the movie wasn’t all that great, but I’m pretty sure everyone agreed on
11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass
Mushroom read this book not too long ago for pleasure reading. Wendy Mass has several more boy-centric titles, but most of her books are solidly female-centric. This light and funny one with a magical twist, with worries about middle school cliques and birthday party attendees, feels especially girl-centric. But he enjoyed it a lot and I like that the final message is so positive toward girls and boys continuing to be friends, even in middle school and
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
This coming of age graphic novel was based on the author’s real life and deals a lot with learning to figure out who your real friends are and how to be yourself, lessons that both girls and boys have to learn. It has a cult following among girls, but I have noticed a lot of boys reading it as well. I’m embarrassed to say that I initially didn’t give this to either of my kids, thinking that it might be to middle school girly. However, Mushroom specifically asked to read it. Clearly, he knows that “girl” books aren’t just for girls.
If you have a kid who just loves to read everything you throw at them, then you’re lucky. Mushroom and BalletBoy like to read, but they’re not quick readers or book devourers most of the time. Frankly, they’re picky readers.
I think a lot of parents throw their hands up when it comes to picky readers. Sometimes I feel the same way, but I try to reframe my mind to see it as a challenge, not a problem. Starting a book is hard business, even at age ten. Really, even at age not quite forty, it can be a pain to get over that hump.
There are several ways to help kids overcome that hump a little easier. One way is to be willing to read the first chapter aloud to kids. Another is that if it’s a new book, it may have a book trailer. However, I wanted to talk about a more old-fashioned, personal method, which is the book talk. Many teachers, reading specialists, and librarians know the book talk, which is an old method that used to be used in schools a lot to try and hook kids’ onto a book.
Book talks are super simple. They’re exactly what they sound like. You talk about the book’s plot, characters, and themes to the child. You might read a blurb about the book or the opening page or just a short excerpt from an exciting moment early in the story. Mention what other books it’s like and what genre it falls into. Since you’re likely book talking to just one or two kids, you can be extra specific. Think of it as an ad for the book. Be lively and positive about the book. You’re trying to be the hook.
Remember that for kids who are reluctant or picky readers, previewing the book may be an important first step for reading. These kids don’t like to commit to a book only to discover it’s all wrong for them. If it takes you a couple of weeks to read a book, then in the life of a kid, that’s like a marriage. You want to know what you’re getting into first. So while you’re not giving the climax away, some kids will want to know the gist of the plot. And some kids will want to get warnings. Does anyone die in the book? Is anyone bullied? Is there anything else sensitive souls will want to know?
It’s easier to book talk a book you’ve read, but I’ve talked up many books I haven’t read. Just read the blurbs, glance at the opening page or two, and read a few reviews, such as on Amazon or Goodreads. You’ll get enough to talk about the book for two or three minutes, which is really about how long a book talk should last.
We use this method a lot. The other night, Mushroom had finished all his current reads, as well as two new to him graphic novels and he came to me and said, “Do me a book talk.” I pulled out five books and talked each of them for a couple of minutes. He took one… Then asked me a few minutes later if I would download a kindle short story that goes along with the book Wonder. The book talk doesn’t always work. But I know that the plots and idea of all those books are now swimming around in his head. So that’s something.
I wrote a little while ago about how after we finally finished up all the projects in Brave Writer’s Partnership Writing I decided to keep coming up with more for us. While sometimes it’s nice to have a writing project that dovetails with another subject, a co-op topic, a contest, or a real world need like writing a letter, it’s also nice to have writing projects that are focused on writing and language as their own interesting things. The projects in Partnership Writing were great like that. We played around with secret codes, wrote little reports using the five question words, made up our own island chains and wrote about them, made catalogs to sell weird products, and more.
I posted already about the thumbprint biographies we made. They were fun and short. Before that, we did a poetry collection project for our writing project and it was also fun, so I thought I’d post about that as well.
Step One: Poetry Teas and a pile of books
As one might expect, we started this project with a poetry tea and actually held a couple more than usual during the course of the month. We don’t do poetry tea every week, but this forced us almost to do so, which was nice. In case you don’t know what poetry tea is, it’s when you pull out your pretty china, clean off the mess from the table, make or buy something tasty and sweet, and sit around for an hour reading poetry with the kids. In our house, we take turns reading poems and sometimes discuss the poetry as well.
In preparation for this project, I checked out a slightly larger pile of poetry books, thinking especially about exploring different forms. These included:
The Creature Carnival by Marilyn Singer
This book, in addition to just being fun, has poems with great varied and interesting rhyme schemes. Many of Singer’s others books are similar in how they use different forms. Her Mirror, Mirror is a book of reverso poems that we would have checked out as well if we hadn’t already read it a million times.
Dogku by Andrew Clements
This picture book tells the story of a stray dog taken in by a family with a series of haiku.
The Oxford Book of Story Poems
A nice collection with appealing poems of a variety of lengths and from a variety of time periods.
A Kick in the Head by Paul Janeczko
I don’t love this collection that much, but it’s perfect for this project because it has examples of more than two dozen different poetry forms.
African Acrostics by Avis Harley
Exactly what it sounds like. Acrostic poems about African animals, but very well done.
Neighborhood Odes by Gary Soto
A collection of odes to childhood all set in a Latino neighborhood.
There are plenty of other options out there, of course. I never try to overthink book selections too much. I generally rely on the library and try new things often. While I learn about new books from blogs and recommendations, I find even more by just running my fingers over the stacks.
Step Two: Write lots of poems
Armed with various poetry books filled with a wide variety of example poems, we began to write our own poems. We tried a couple of different poetry forms for our writing time a week. We didn’t do everything we could have done and if you poke around online you can find dozens more potential poetry writing exercises, these are just the ones we chose.
I’ll add that for whatever reason, despite the fact that I have read tons of totally free form modern poetry to my kids, they are very stuck in the poems should rhyme mindset and this didn’t really break them of it. BalletBoy even wanted his haikus to rhyme, despite me only reading unrhymed haikus as examples (because when have you ever read a rhyming haiku anyway?) and entreating him that it was really not intended to rhyme, he still wrote two that had internal rhymes. In the end, I think that’s okay. I once attended a how to teach poetry to kids conference where the speaker bemoaned the kids who wrote cutesy rhymed poems as having gotten bad instruction and several times slammed the famed children’s poet Jack Prelutsky. But kids like mine love Jack Prelutsky. If that’s the kind of poetry that really speaks to them, then of course that’s what they’re going to want to write. And they should.
A haiku is 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables. We read several traditional haiku, as well as the book Dogku. I emphasized how a haiku is really a quick thought, a simple reflection. Haikus are often about how something looks or feels. They’re often about nature or everyday life. We practiced chin wags to measure syllables, just a reminder. Then we each, me included, wrote about half a dozen or so and shared them as we finished. They’re so quick and easy to try, even if not every effort is a stunning success.
A couplet is two lines with the same number of syllables and an end rhyme. We looked for pairs of rhymed lines in Marilyn Singer’s poetry books. We made up couplets aloud for awhile then turned to writing them. I had not intended for this to be the case, but both boys immediately wanted to write longer poems comprised of couplets so I let them do so.
A found poem can be made a couple of ways. One way is to photocopy a page from a book and mark out words in black marker, creating a poem out of the words that you leave unmarked out. We used the second way, which is to make a poem from words found and torn out of magazines. We all did this assignment. I had a lot of fun making a poem about hide and seek after I saw that phrase repeated in an old ad campaign in a magazine. BalletBoy found words about food and Mushroom clipped words about animals and put them together to make a poem. This was a relatively long activity, but once the poem was finished, there was no revision needed, and it certainly looked cool made of all those cut out words.
An ode is written to praise someone or something. To get kids writing odes, I think it’s fun to encourage them to write an ode to something they really love but is unexpected, like their favorite shoes or a chocolate bar or a computer game (imagine how many “Ode to Minecraft”s we could get). Mushroom immediately started in on an ode to the inventors of the computer. The only real rule I gave them was to write lines of praise, but Mushroom set his into couplets.
Acrostics are those poems where the first letter of each line spells another word, typically the theme of the poem. We started this one by reading acrostic poems. It’s typical for kids to write acrostics about themselves, but I let them choose anything they wanted. Both the boys wrote a few, all of them with short 4 and 5-letter words.
I introduced this by trying to get the boys to choose a color to write about. Other suggestions I’ve seen for starting a poem from scratch include writing about the seasons, or about a specific memory, or about a meal. They tried, however, in the end, this exercise was mostly a flop for us. They were so attached to rhymes and forms that this one didn’t fly.
People associate limericks with bad rhymes, but since my kids were so excited by really specific forms, I thought they would enjoy this one since it was still short enough and light enough for them to try out, unlike something like a sonnet. In fact, they enjoyed writing them very much, even though the results were very silly.
We also read some story poems and talked about epic poetry and tried our hands at writing a story poem. BalletBoy loved it and included his in his collection. However, partway into the exercise it felt like it was probably too big a thing for me to have asked and it was just a fluke that it took off so well with one kid. So maybe only a good one to try with real poetry lovers. That’s all we did, but there are plenty of other poetry exercises and forms out there. For younger kids, a diamante is a really good form to play with (we have previously written those a few times). Cinquains are similar to diamantes and also have a very set form where kids can fill in words, so they can also be a good choice. Concrete poems, the ones that form a shape, can also be excellent and there are lots of good books of concrete poetry to share with kids. And, of course, there are many other forms of poetry and starting points. For us, the whole idea was just to try different things and play around with poetry forms.
Step Three: Choose and Revise
After doing two or three days of poetry writing exercises a week for about three weeks, we were left with a nice pile of rough draft poems. I told the kids to choose three or four poems they wanted to revise and polish for their collections. Some of the poems, we decided were fine with very little change. BalletBoy chose a haiku that was lovely just the way it was. Mushroom chose his limerick and we agreed that changing it beyond fixing the spelling and capitalization would ruin the rhyme scheme and the form.
For other choices, we agreed that revision was important. BalletBoy’s acrostic about birds was good, but we agreed to look through the thesaurus for stronger word choices. Mushroom’s set of couplets about a carnival were cool, but we agreed they needed a couple more in order to feel like a full poem and make it clear that it was about the whole carnival. He added a couplet about another ride and one about the carnival food: “Have a hot dog and funnel cake / Or try a burger and cheap steak.” We spent a couple of days working on revising all of the poems, then fixing spelling as the kids and I typed them up.
Step Four: Publish and Share
Once they were typed up, I let them put each poem on a separate page and choose its font and formatting and add images. BalletBoy made his whole collection this way, except for his found poem, which was already made up of clipped magazine words and phrases. Mushroom left room to draw illustrations on one of his pages. They each made a cover and we stapled the poems together. Of course, you could make a little book or put them in a nice folder. We’ve done things like that for many other writing projects, but this time, after all the work on the writing, we kept it pretty simple.
Finally, the boys both proudly read their poems to the Husband, who thought they were pretty cool. Overall, this project came out much better than I could have wished. I don’t think either of my boys are “natural” poets, whatever that means. However, this was a fun way to play with words and think about language and strong words and phrases, as well as creative rhymes.