Monday, November 28, 2016

Writer’s block at the starting gate

I’m starting today’s post with a, “When I was in school...” story.

When I was in school, I dreaded hearing the teacher tell the class that today was the day we were going to write a story. That we’d use our imaginations to write stories about fabulous places and interesting characters doing who knows what. No sooner were the words spoken and I was panicking because every thought I might have had was gone.

Blank. Zip. Nada.

But maybe if I’d been given an idea to start with, say an open ended scenario, a stimulating
picture, a pertinent or perplexing prompt then maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t have felt so lost.

Once Upon a Line by Wallace Edwards is one such book to provide story starters for struggling writers. It has a clever premise that every story begins with “Once upon a line”, line referring to the first sentence of the story as well as a physical line used in illustrating this picture book. Wallace presents the reader with the challenge of finding a very particular shaped line that is found in each illustration. (See image below.) I did find this challenging. Kids might like this component more than I did.

But I can see this book being particularly useful as a classroom tool for getting students to come up with some pretty intriguing stories. The format is a one page illustration, captioned with “Once upon a line,” and then an open ended statement that connects to the illustrations and needs to be finished by the reader.

For example, “Once upon a line, there was a knight who was allergic to horses. This was not a problem because…” is paired with an illustration of a trio of medieval knights riding into battle (maybe?) but one of them is sitting on an octopus.


Once upon a line, Captain Kurd grew eager to sight land. If he didn’t find land soon, he was going to have to…” which shows a small boat with two mice holding musical instruments and the captain who happens to be a chunk of cheese searching for land using his eyeglass.

The illustrations are nicely composed with fanciful and sometimes humorous images that will help struggling writers construct their stories.  Still, lots is left for the imagination to get a work out but the pressure for creating the original idea is eliminated.

Other picture books to check out for story starters are:

Fish on a Walk by Eva Muggenthaler (lots of surreal images and only two word prompts to get a story started)

Breakfast on a Dragon’s Tail by Martin Springett (interesting illustrations with a good chuck of a story provided and a couple of questions to help spark ideas) and finally,

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (my personal favorite, a classic picture book with a single super realistic, surreal illustration and only a single sentence to spark the reader’s curiosity.)

I’d recommend these books for upper elementary and into junior high.

Monday, November 21, 2016

If it’s broke…keep on breaking…

In last week’s post, I recommended a book I thought would be a great fit in an elementary, STEM classroom.  This week I have another book that would also work well in a STEM or STEAM classroom but would work across many grade levels.

Things Come Apart by Todd McLellan falls into the coffee table book category because the photographs are so provocative and will appeal to a wide range of ages.  The premise of the book is looking at all the parts of everyday appliances, mechanical devices and constructed objects. For example, let’s say you’re keen to know about the inner workings of a mechanical pencil or a 1928 mantel clock or a 1964 Smith-Corona typewriter or a 1912 upright piano or a 2002 iPod 2 or a 2012 two-seater light aircraft (you get the idea, a range of things over several decades) or what it’s made of, then this book is for you.

All of these devices (plus 44 others) are entirely disassembled by the author. Every single piece, from the smallest screw to the largest casings are included and arranged in very attractive layouts (my favourite is the 1960s accordion) on one page and with a corresponding page showing all the parts falling through the air.  The piano and airplane are the exceptions and have pull out spreads to show us the entirety of their discombobulated glory.

So what’s the value of this?

In the field of education, you may have become aware of the Maker Movement. It’s all about getting children back to using their hands to create things both low and higher tech. (Think origami paper cranes to clothes that are programmed to light-up.) But if you think about creating something or exploring an idea then it’s sometimes really useful to think what the opposite of this thing, idea or process is (in this case, deconstructing) as a way to develop a different understanding of the object, idea or process.

(If you’re keen to read more about the Maker Movement go to Paula Hollohan’s blog, Doucette Ed Tech to see additional resources and information.)

Included are five essays by experts in various fields who explore the idea of taking things a part or putting them together or how repairing, reusing or repurposing objects touch on sustainability issues. These essays are more for an adult level or senior high level student.

So, go grab those old toasters, computer printers and TVs that are sitting idly in your basement or garage. Let a new journey begin with loosening a screw or two. What are you waiting for?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Live and learn - wool sweaters can shrink in the wash.

Though Funny Machines for George the Sheep by Geraldine Elschner and Remi Saillard is a book to introduce elementary students to the genius and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, it is one with potential for more than just that.

First, meet George.  He’s a sheep.  He’s a sheep with a problem. His problem is shrinking to the size of a mouse every time he gets wet when it rains. When the sun comes out – phfff! – he’s big again.  Leo, the shepherd, resolves to find a solution to help George with his problem.

After stocking up on the various implements he needs to begin designing his new invention, we see Leo’s struggle to come up with a device that will help George. Eventually he settles on an umbrella shaped like a tall pyramid. Great design but there’s a flaw.

The first big gust of wind to come along whisks poor, old George off into the wild blue yonder. Seemingly unperturbed, George enjoys his aeriel view of the countryside and better still, the image of a pretty female sheep composed of fluffy clouds.

And, Leo?  He’s back at the drawing board looking for a way to find his lost, high-flying sheep.

The devices or machines that Leo devises are all based on Leonardo da Vinci’s designs which we can learn more about from the back of the book. Included are the self-propelled car, the army tank, the ornithopter, the paddleboat and the pyramidal parachute. Additional information is included about da Vinci, his genius and his inventions.

The book itself is OK. It’s been translated from French which I think accounts for some of the clunkiness. The ending is pretty abrupt with no resolution other than Leo happily dreaming up some invention to help him find George with oddly, no sense of urgency. I guess George will be found all in good time. I like the cartoony illustrations which have a European flavor and depict a landscape that remind me of paintings of northern Europe – Holland or northern France, maybe. 

What I really like about this book is it's potential in a STEM classroom as a way to introduce the concept of design thinking, innovation, problem solving, and perseverance.

In design thinking there are five stages of development starting with fully understanding the problem (empathy). Leo is in a position to learn all about George’s problem and why it needs to be fixed.  The second stage is defining the problem more fully leading to step three where the designer begins coming up with ideas, all sorts of ideas with no limitations (the crazier the better) that might begin to address the problem.  These two stages are represented in the book as Leo begins working out and drawing up plans for different machines. The last stages are more concrete, as a prototype is constructed and then further refined as the designer gets feedback on the suitability of the final product.

Does Leo construct a device for George that works at keeping him dry? We never do find out as George remains missing in action and the book ends. But this provides an opportunity to have your students take up the challenge and come up with their own solutions to prevent George from shrinking every time it rains.

If you’re interested in learning more about design thinking visit the Doucette Library’s library subject guide. Also, visit the blog Doucette Ed Tech written by my colleague, Paula Hollohan. I’ve linked to the tag for design thinking.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Odd Octopus Out …and Bob

Today’s post is all about acceptance and finding one’s true self.

And me wondering, “What’s with octopuses?”

Not that I’m against octopuses. In fact, my fascination with giant squids has extended to octopuses after reading a very interesting book last summer called, The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery. (She’s also the author of many of books in the series, Scientists in the Field, a fantastic series worth checking out.) 

Cephalopods rock!


Let’s start with Hello, My Name is Octicorn by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe. In this book, we meet Octi. Octi is half unicorn and half octopus. A rare breed, indeed. And he has a difficult time fitting in but really, really wants a friend. He has so much to offer, too: tons-o- fun at parties, excellent at juggling and various sports especially swimming, light on his tentacles when he hits the dance floor and an exceptional hugger. Things to know about octicorns include: how much they love s’mores, recess, and the colour blue as well as cupcakes (because who doesn’t like cupcakes?).

The humour comes across in the illustrations particularly well with simple blackline drawings on white pages. Some of my favourites include Octi break dancing and spinning on his horn; Octi toasting a s’more over a campfire also speared onto his horn; and Octi’s tentacles entangled around the bars of a merry-go-round. The book is a gentle exploration of how differences, whether in looks or interests, shouldn’t be impediments to making friends. The book ends with Octi inviting the reader to be his friend and he eagerly awaits our reply.

Then there’s The Octopuppy by Martin McKenna. 

“Edgar wanted a dog. But Edgar didn’t get a dog. He got Jarvis.”

And Jarvis is an octopus which was major disappointment, to say the least.

But Jarvis can do so much more than a dog. He’s multi-talented and exceptional in a multitude of ways and so, so eager to please Edgar.

But what he can’t do is ‘be a dog’ and after disappointing Edgar once too often Jarvis decides to run away from home or should I say ‘flush-away’ from home.

And this is exactly the moment when Edgar realizes how much more Jarvis has to offer than a dog. Why, he’ll rescue a kitten stranded high in a tree instead of chasing it; he prefers smelling roses to smelling poop; and he’s more likely to create a delicious meal rather than make-off with your food.

“He’s the best OCTOPUPPY in the world!”

Edgar then searches high and low and is finally able to get the word out about how sorry he is and desperately wants Jarvis to please come home.

Jarvis is not an octopuppy to hold a grudge and home he comes to be reunited with Edgar and live happily-ever-after.

I loved it for its premise and the colourful, zany illustrations. This one is just so much fun.

And then there’s Bob.

Bob, the Artist by Marion Denchars is about a bird who is teased about his super, skinny legs. He tries to fit in by trying to make them bigger but it’s just not possible. Rather despondent,he goes for a long walk and passes by an art gallery. He goes in and is---


 After viewing many beautiful, colourful and patterned pieces of art he realizes that this will be the answer to his problems. He will paint his beak in beautiful patterns like Matisse or Jackson Pollock. And those who had mocked him for his skinny legs? Well, they are so impressed with Bob’s talent that they change their tune to one of praise and admiration. Bob no longer worries about his legs and comes to feel more comfortable in his own skin confident enough to be who he really is.

The illustrations work well with the narrative with a crow-like Bob strikingly displayed on mostly white backgrounds. The font is loose and splashy (maybe done by hand?) that adds to the overall appeal of the books.

I recommend all three books for Kindergarten to grade 3.

 And look forward to seeing more octopuses in picture books.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Zero Shades of Grey

The recent arrival of Black Cat, White Cat by Silvia Borando got me thinking about other picture books that have a black and white theme and how most of them can be tied into the bigger concept of perspective.

Take Black Cat, White Cat. Black cat only goes out during the day and wonders what he’s missing at night. White cat (as you might expect) only goes out at night and also wonders what might be going on during the day. The two meet and show the other the best part of their own awake-time. The two become close companions.  Very close companions. Any guesses as to the colour of their kittens?

This one speaks very nicely to the concept of perspective – seeing how the other half lives, that’s perfect for primary grades.

What Color is Caesar? by Maxine Kumin is a romp as a dog tries to figure out whether he’s a black dog with white spots or a white dog with black spots. Asking other various black and white creatures their opinions isn’t all that helpful. Regardless of the fact that they, too, are black and white, they seem to perceive themselves as a different colour altogether. The black and white woodpecker sees himself as mostly red because he has a brilliant red crest. The black and white pony sees herself as green based on the important things in her life such as grass and trees.  And so on. It’s not until a make-believe circus guru helps Caesar find his own true colours that he finds some understanding about who he is.

Though the story addresses the idea of identity, it also presents perspective in an interesting way; Caesar seeks to understand himself better by asking others about their perceptions of themselves and of him. This one is good for grades 1-4.

Then there’s the classic, Black and White by David Macaulay. This one is a terrific picture book for older readers (middle school) as four seemingly separate stories unfold at the same time. Each double page spread presents a single frame of each of the four stories: a boy traveling on a train, two children wondering why their parents are acting so oddly, commuters delayed in getting home, and finally a masked robber caught up in a herd of black and white cows as they escape their paddock. Working through the storylines, the reader can take up the different perspectives offered and create their own narrative. Eventually, certain elements begin to overlap between the frames and thus, the stories. What the reader comes to learn is that this is a single story but told from different perspectives. Each storyline has been illustrated in a distinctive style and colour palette that helps the reader distinguish each story.

The last one in my retrospective in also titled Black and White written by Dahlov Ipcar. Originally published in 1963 this was reproduced in 2015 with the illustrations restored and remastered to the quality of the original work.  In this book, a black dog and a white dog are the best of friends, irrespective of their differences. (Think 1963 and civil rights.) The little black dog lives in a black house and dreams in black of dark jungles whereas the little white dog lives in a white house and dreams in white of starkly coloured Arctic landscapes. They share their dreams as best buddies do and get ready to frolic their way through the day, yet again. This one also would work well with the early grades.

So, it's just a matter of perspective whether you see the world in black and white or more like me, in a multitude of grey's. But it's something to talk about and kids, no doubt, will have one they may want to share.

Monday, October 24, 2016


[Cue sinister music]. 

Beware creepy carrot breath!!!

With Halloween creeping up on us like the cat spider lurking out by my compost bin, I thought I’d recommend a couple of creepy titles to go along with the holiday.

First up is Canadian author Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest. 

If you liked Coraline by Neil Gaimen, then this 
one’s for you.  It has the same claustrophobic atmosphere with an intensely, evil character that tries to manipulate the protagonist. The premise behind this story is that Steve and his family’s worry over his baby brother who has a life-threatening medical problem. Steve is particularly anxious since he suffers from an anxiety disorder. Imagine his relief when a mysterious presence promises to help fix the broken baby. Yet there is something about this presence that worries Steve and prevents him from jumping at this offer. The presence (What is it? An angel, maybe? It appears to have a connection to the wasp’s nest that is being built in the eaves of the house. Could it be…?) seems comforting at first but becomes more and more demanding and menacing as time goes on. Once Steve realizes her sinister intentions, a terrifying struggles ensues. Terrific buildup of tension with a very satisfying resolution.

Highly recommended for middle grades.

My next recommendation is Through the Woods by Emily Carroll. This is a series of short stories told in graphic novel format.

At first, I thought this was going to be retellings of fairy tales. Well boy, was I wrong!

This does contain some fairy tale motifs (girls in red cloaks, wolves, hauntings) but the stories take some very dark twists and turns. The stories tap into disturbing dark corners of the human psyche and conjure up distressing emotions when parents disappear, jealousy motivates murder, guilt-ridden consciences end in madness, with no reassuring happily-ever-after endings. The illustrations are bold, graphic and bloody.

I especially love the conclusion of the book as it set us up with a bedroom reminiscent of the that found in the children’s classic bedtime story of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Little Red Riding Hood is just snuggling into bed relieved to have made it through the woods without having met the Big Bad Wolf. But as it turns out, the BBW is looming just outside her bedroom window, ominously hissing at her that though she made it this time
 “you must travel through those woods again & again…and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…But the WOLF…the WOLF only needs enough luck to find you ONCE.”
Oooo, how spine-chillling is that? Sleep well, Little Red Riding Hood – NOT!

I’m recommending this for grades 9 and up.

My last suggestion, a favorite of mine, is Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds.  This one is for the primary grades and constitutes the perfect revenge story. Jasper Rabbit loves carrots especially those he purloins from Crankenhopper Field. They are the best and they are free. Jasper Rabbit doesn’t know that there’s no such thing as a free-lunch in this life and a price Must. Be. Paid. His all-consuming passion for these carrots results in dire consequences.

 [Cue sinister, foreboding music.] 

The carrots strike back! They begin to stalk Jasper, the only one who can see these unnatural, vexatious vegetables. They lurk in the shed, and in the closet and what’s that shadow on his bedroom wall? They are everywhere and Jasper must do something! Well, let’s just say that Jasper comes up with a solution that the carrots and he can live with and it’s party time in Crankehopper Field for the terrifying, Trumpian-hued, taproots.  Fabulous, over-the-top, humorous horror. The black, grey and orange coloured-illustrations by Peter Brown are perfect, depicting a self-absorbed Jasper being stalked by three, well, creepy carrots
Happy Creeping Reading, Everyone.

Template Design | Elque 2007