Monday, April 27, 2015

Keen observations and kind impulses

Sidewalk Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith perfectly captures the intense level of observation that can occupy a child once something has caught their attention.

This wordless, paneled picture book shows us the walk home for a little girl and her preoccupied father, after picking up groceries at the store.  The little girl wears a red coat which ‘pops’ her out of the black-and-white landscape of her urban neighborhood.  A bright dash of yellow dandelions catches her eye and starts her bouquet of wildflowers that she collects as she goes along.

Walking through a park she notices a dead bird in the middle of the walk.  She leaves a few of her flowers with the bird.  She leaves a spray of lilacs or lupines by a homeless man sleeping on a park bench.  As she shares her floral gifts with those she meets, the city landscape starts to take on more colour, too. After leaving flowers with the bird, the grass in the park changes from grey to green. As she gets closer to home, people and houses also take on more colour.  She leaves flowers in her mother’s hair as she hugs her, and in that of her younger siblings.  Everything touched is transformed.

The close observation she does and the empathy she has for everything around her is effortlessly embodied in the illustrations.  The winsome bouquet that she gathers and again disperses, reflects the girl’s kindness and the overall gentle nature of this slice-of-life story. The end pages are beautifully illustrated with a scattering of these wild, city flowers.

It reminds me a little of Bob Graham’s How to Heal a Broken Wing in which a little boy is the only one in a very busy, bustling city to notice a small injured bird in the middle of the sidewalk.  He follows his impulse to rescue the bird and nurse it back to health.

Both books work well for the primary grades. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

The creative process for writing a story

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay is a treat.  It’s an exploration of the creative process for an omnipresent author as she writes a story.

It starts as the author visits a school where children ask all sorts of questions:

 How did you learn to draw?
How many books have you written?
Which is your favorite book?
Can your cat fly?
Where do your ideas come from?
Where does a story start?

…and many, many more.  You get the idea.Though I did notice she didn't include the one I remember always coming up: How much money do you make?

It’s the last couple of questions that I listed above that really drive this book.  It’s about how Marie-Louise Gay comes up with idea.  Maybe the colour of the paper she’s working with will inspire her and she’ll end up writing a story about a snowstorm or a jungle or the sea.

Or maybe random words and ideas will give her an idea to play with.  Sometimes these fragments might sit around for a long time before they get used.  You just never know what might work.

 And if she comes up with a blank? Well, she’ll doodle, paint, sketch, play around and ‘shake up’ her ideas, letting her mind wander. Things might get a bit messy and be a bit hard but eventually, something always comes.

Using a story-within-a-story to illustrate this process works really well.  Besides showing this as being a ‘process’ there’s always a great sense of play, curiosity and exploration that is emphasized.  The children in the book become part of the process of working out ideas, creating a portion of the story being developed and just enjoying the ride to the end.

I've always loved Marie-Louise Gay’s illustrations.  If you know her Stella series then you’ll know what to expect. (Stella and Sam even have a cameo early on.)

I highly recommend this for early elementary grades when discussing story development and creative process.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Through the eyes of a poet -- Gentle rain

It must be spring.  Compared to last year, I’m early in posting about a poetry book rhapsodizing about the poetic qualities of rain.  But spring seems to have arrived in Calgary rather early this year and it’s been really difficult not to tuck away the snow shovels and winter boots.  Calgary is renowned for getting large, wet dumps of snow even into May, so the shovels remain out and the winter boots remain accessible, shoved into the coat closet.

Nevertheless, I’m really hoping that precipitation in the near future will be of the non-white, fluffy kind.

“Rain plops. It drops./It patters./It spatters.”

Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre is a beautifully produced book of photographs and words.  With lots of macro shots of insects, leaves, flowers, grasses and webs we can see how the rain falls, lands, pools, soaks in, clings, magnifies, reflects and eventually, dries. I love zoomed-in shots that show such detail.

“It thuds./Makes mud./It fills./It spills.”

The close-ups are of creatures and objects found in a backyard garden which makes is seem like anyone can observe the natural beauty of a gentle rainstorm and its aftermath.  The rhyming is simple but dynamic and lets us see and feel what falling and fallen rain is like.

“Yet raindrops remain./They gather./ They glob together.”

At the end, there are a couple of pages that explains a little more about the science of water,  from the physics involved in making a drop of water, how water magnifies and reflect things about them, and how rain connects to the water cycle.

“Raindrops reflect./They reveal./Raindrops highlight what is real.

A terrific classroom book for the elementary grades connecting science and language arts.

“They linger in lines./And when the sun shines…/raindrops slowly dry.”

Monday, April 6, 2015

April is poetry month – Novels in free verse

I’m thinking they should rename this Poetry Awareness Month as I find that I do become more mindful about reading more poetry – at least, in the short term.

For someone who doesn't consider herself a strong reader of poetry, I don’t do badly when I revisit blogs I've written or check back on Goodreads.  Some of my favorites this past year included Poisoned Apples, God Got a Dog, and Forest Has a Song.  

Novels written in verse are plentiful and I do read a fair number of these.  My most recent reads included the Newbery winner, brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Crossover by Kwame Alexander.  Loved both of them. My all-time favorite is still Love that Dog by Sharon Creech.

But I did notice that there were a few titles that I hadn't blogged about that I think are worth bringing to your attention.

For the middle grades, I’m recommending The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.  Situated in Darfur, we meet Amira and her family where life is fraught with uncertainties; farming in areas plagued by drought, few nearby water sources and the potential threat of Janjaweed militants are all factors that make life difficult. Amira is an interesting girl who looks to be an obedient daughter living up to her mother’s views on traditional values but still desires to go to school. An attack on the village that kills Amira’s father forces the family to flee their village and they end up living in a refugee camp. The violence and heartbreak Amira has experienced causes her to withdraw, shutting herself off until an aid worker gives her a red pencil and pad of paper. Once again Amira is determined to fulfill her dream of going to school.  The tone of the narration is a little lyrical but terse, too.  It captures the nature of life in Sudan without being too overwhelming for this age group. The reader yearns for the same things as Amira hoping that her struggle won’t be in vain. Though there is no happy-ending, the novel does end on a hopeful note.

For a slightly younger grade level (grades 3-6), Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes will offer reassurance to daydreamers and kids who struggle in school.  Gaby is daydreamer-extraordinaire, a coping mechanism that helps her deal with the discord and divorce of her parents. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem at school when the teacher notices Gaby ‘zoning out’ too much.  The story, then, is one of learning how to channel Gaby’s attention and powers of imagination in a way that helps her realize her strengths and resiliency.  In a word – poetic.

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman will appeal to those in grade 7 and up.  As Veda studies traditional Indian dance she dreams of becoming a dancer defying her parent’s ambition for her to become an engineer. After losing part of a leg in an accident, she remains determine to continue dancing but studies with a new teacher who takes her in a new direction. Challenges abound beyond the obvious one of learning to adapt to a prosthetic limb as she learns the ‘art’ of dancing, continues to defy her parents, navigates her feelings about a young man, and copes with the loss of her beloved grandmother. This novel is very atmospheric, capturing family dynamics and Veda’s growth.

Another book about Sudan and a family seeking a more secure life is The Good Braider by Terry Ferrish.  For older readers (grade 9 and up), there is more intensity in the tone of this narrative compared to The Red Pencil mentioned above.  Viola and her family live in constant fear of the militants who occupy their town. Viola has caught the eye of a soldier who inevitably rapes her.  The family leaves behind a beloved grandmother when they make a perilous journey that eventually lands them in Cairo. After an interminable wait, they are able to settle into a large Sudanese community in Portland, Maine. Life maybe more secure but is far from uncomplicated.  When Viola begins school and meeting Americans, she runs up against her mother’s extremely narrow views on proper behavior and appropriate roles.

Each of these novels has beautiful language, taking us into the stories and connecting us with the characters. The succinctness of each ‘chapter’ captures the essence of significant moments and thoughts. I often promote free-verse novels to student-teachers, as useful with reluctant readers and that if done well they can be brilliant. These have all brilliantly told their tales.

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