April 21, 2017

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Beyond Basic Concepts: Seeking Colors, Shapes, and Patterns in Our World

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The leafy green of a luna moth caterpillar, the spiraling funnel of a tornado, the geometric design of a rattlesnake’s scales, the bright-hued blocks on a winter scarf—colors, shapes, and patterns are abundant in both nature and our day-to-day surroundings. Focusing on particular visual characteristics, these lushly illustrated books invite students to apply their knowledge of colors and shapes to the world around them and discover a wondrous array of examples. In addition to reinforcing basic concepts, these titles encourage kids to explore their familiar milieu with a fresh eye, hone observation skills and learn to note details, and begin to organize and categorize information. The stunning visual images and clever use of language exhibited in these offerings will rouse imaginations and fortify vocabularies. Many of these books can also be shared with youngsters to initiate discussion and study of how an animal or plant’s physical appearance allows it to survive and thrive.

Stripes, Dots, and Swirls
From a Madagascan ring-tailed lemur, to a North American zebra swallowtail butterfly, to a sixline wrasse swimming through an Indo-Pacific Ocean coral reef, Susan Stockdale shows readers that animals with Stripes of All Types (Peachtree, 2013; PreS-Gr 2) populate the globe. Simple, lilting rhymes and enticing action verbs spotlight critters in their natural habitats: “Prowling the prairie,/perched on a peak./Crawling on cactus,/and camped by a creek” (handsome acrylic illustrations depict an American badger bounding through tall grass, a bongo profiled against a moonlit African sky, black-and-yellow cactus bees sipping nectar from a flower, and a Malayan tapir nestled by a stream). The final double-page image brings the action close to home as two children cuddle a pair of black-and-gray tabbies.

An afterword identifies each species and provides insight about the significance of its stripes, which are used for camouflage, communication, to warn off predators, or to attract mates. An interactive game challenges readers to match close-ups of the various patterns with their animal owners, encouraging kids to look more closely at the pictures, hunt back through the book to extract information, and make comparisons between these unique and striking designs.

Blending breezy rhymes with lovely collage artwork, Betsy Franco and Steve Jenkins’s Bees, Snails, & Peacock Tails (S & S, 2008; K-Gr 3) presents a sampling of the patterns and shapes found right before our eyes. For example, a beehive is constructed from tiny hexagon “fit side/by side/by side,” a sturdy and space-saving design; a moth’s wings are adorned with perfectly symmetrical “eyes” (thought to frighten away predators); migrating birds fly in a graceful V-shape (“By forming a wedge,/the swans and the geese/slice through the air/and travel in peace”); and when threatened, a puffer fish swells up to a larger-in-size—and harder-to-eat—sphere. Whether depicting the repeating pattern of footprints left behind by a scampering mouse or the straight-line scent trail followed by foraging ants, the textured illustrations make each concept crystal clear.

In Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature (Houghton Mifflin, 2011; PreS-Gr 3) Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes focus on a particular shape that occurs repeatedly, revealing itself in many different ways. Lyrical and concise, the narrative describes the broad characteristics of this versatile form, expanded upon in the spectacular scratchboard illustrations awhirl with specific plant and animal species and examples of natural phenomena.

A spiral can be “Coiled tight,/warm and safe,” like a woodchuck hibernating underground; start small and grow larger “swirl by swirl” like a nautilus; or unwrap itself, “one/soft/curl/at a time,” like a lady fern unfurling feathery fronds. A spiral is “strong,” like a rolled-up bristles-out hedgehog or the impact-absorbing horns of a merino sheep, and “and clings tight” like the curled trunk of an Asian elephant or a spider monkey’s tail. It is “bold” (the whorl of a wave before it hits shore), “beautiful” (the precisely arranged petals of a chrysanthemum), and awe-inspiring (a spiral-shaped galaxy “stretches starry arms/through space,/spinning and sparkling,/forever expanding…”).

A brief afterword provides a bit more info about the featured examples and a quick mention of the Fibonacci sequence. Elegant, captivating, and imagination-stirring, this amazing meld of poetry, science, and artistry will inspire discussion and enthusiasm for spiral-seeking expeditions.

Color, Color, Everywhere
Melissa Stewart’s A Rainbow of Animals (Enslow, 2010; K-Gr 3) takes it color by color to introduce a menagerie of mostly monochromatic creatures. From red to purple, each section spans the globe to present an assortment of species (range maps appear at the end of each chapter).Each critter is allotted its own spread, bordered by the appropriate hue, and vibrant close-up photos are paired with an accessible introduction to the animal and the role played by its color (protection from predators, to warn enemies away, attracting mates, etc.).

Particularly interesting examples include the mandrill, monkeys that use their bright red noses to locate one another in the dense forest; the brown-throated three-toed sloth, featured in the green section because of its algae covered fur, which provides camouflage in the forest; and the blue darner dragonfly, which adjusts its color to the temperature (dark blue for warmth on cool mornings, light blue to cool down on hot afternoons). The eye-catching format and mix of familiar and exotic animals make this book fun for browsing and whets appetites for further investigations.

Also arranged by shade, Steve Jenkins’s Living Color (Houghton Mifflin, 2007; K- Gr 5) introduces several species per spread. Set against neat white backdrops, the cut-paper collages are amazingly lifelike and gracefully dynamic. Each section begin with a statement (e.g., “Red says…”), and a lively caption playfully sums up the connotation of each animal’s color—“Step carefully” for the extremely poisonous stonefish (adorned with 13 venomous spines along its back and lethal if trod upon by a swimmer), or “I stink” for a shield bug (which releases a foul-smelling chemical when threatened). Well-written paragraphs percolating with fascinating facts fill in the details.

The book’s layout encourages readers to search out similarities and differences, discovering, for example, that the male blue bird of paradise uses his rich-hued plumage to attract a mate, the color of the cobalt blue tarantula allows it to better hide in the dusky shadows of the forest floor, and the mostly brown blue-tailed skink twitches its bright appendage to fake out predators (when grabbed, the tail breaks off, and the lizard can make its escape; it eventually grows a new tail). Back matter provides more information about animal color and its uses and the creatures featured in the book (size, habitat, diet, etc.).

Explore Your World
In Ashley Wolff’s endearing tale, Baby Bear Sees Blue (S & S/Beach Lane, 2012; PreS-Gr 2)—and a rainbow of other colors—after he awakens in his den and steps out with his mother to investigate his environment. The gentle question-and-answer narrative shimmers with concrete details, sensual imagery, and a buoyant mood of wonder: sniffing the meadow air, the cub asks, “What smells so good, Mama?” She replies, “Those are the strawberries”….and “Baby Bear sees red.” After a busy day, mother and child curl up together in their cave, and Baby Bear “closes his eyes and sees nothing but deep, soft black.”

Balancing realism with soft-edged sweetness, Wolff’s linoleum-print-and-watercolor illustrations are filled with dazzlimg shades and pleasing textures. Their large size and the text’s repetitive structure make this charmer a perfect choice for sharing aloud in a classroom.

Presented with a similar sense of invigorating discovery, these books remind students that a multitude of shapes, colors, and patterns can be found in their own day-to-day worlds. On an “Apple crisp October day,” a father and two children take a trip to a pumpkin farm to Pick a Circle, Gather Squares (Albert Whitman, 2013; PreS-Gr 2). Felicia Sanzari Chernesky’s rhyming text and Susan Swan’s harvest-hued collages depict a delightful excursion as the youngsters point out circles (“Here’s the sun./Apples, pumpkins—/such round fun!”), square-shaped bales of hay, ovals (squash, corn, and speckled eggs), hexagons (honeycombs and pen-protecting chicken wire), and more. Filled with splashes of bright color and appealing textures, the artwork depicts lively action, engaging details, and additional shapes to find.

Jane Brocket’s Ruby, Violet, Lime: Looking for Color (Millbrook, 2012; PreS-Gr 2) presents a gorgeous gallery of vibrantly hued photos of flowers, foods, clothing, buildings, and other commonplace objects. Spreads focused on a particular color are aglow with varying shades, and the accompanying text utilizes descriptive adjectives and sense-based imagery to add resonance and a touch of imagination: “Green is crisp and lively. Lime frosting, mint-green striped socks, emerald lettuces, and jade gardens are fresh and zingy.” A visual and verbal feast, this book encourages kids to take a closer look at their surroundings.

Get Creative
Emily Gravett expands upon basic concepts of color and shape—and the science of animal coloration—in a playful tale filled with surprises, humor, and a message about remaining true to one’s self. With head held in hands, body slumped, and eyes despondently downcast, Blue Chameleon (S & S, 2011; K-Gr 3) is looking…well, blue, a mood expressed in his scratchy azure and cobalt body shading.

In the spreads following, the lonely lizard searches for companionship, mimicking in both color and form each of the objects or animals he comes across—yellow and crescent shaped as he approaches a banana, swirly tailed with two toes extended over head like tentacles as he creeps up to a snail, round and purple-dotted as he rolls toward a beach ball. Alas, no one will respond, and he finally gives up, sitting still as stone on a “Gray rock.” A page turn reveals what seems like a plain white backdrop, but a closer look—or perhaps even touch—reveals the chameleon outlined in a glossy same-colored ink. Readers will also notice a foot, similarly camouflaged, and accompanied by a tentative, “Hello?”

At last, the protagonist has made a friend, and two “Colorful chameleons” cavort together on the final spread, brightly arrayed in a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and patterns. Filled with gentle humor, the spare text and outstanding artwork invite readers to make visual comparisons between objects, recognize instances of symmetry, recount and contemplate the book’s changing moods, and think anew about the wonders of colors and animals. Use this book to initiate color-related creative writing and art projects.

After sharing some of these titles, take students on a nature walk in a nearby park or a ramble through the neighborhood. Have them focus on looking for, pointing out, and identifying the colors, shapes, and patterns that they come across, whether natural or manmade. Encourage them to look closely at familiar sights and utilize their observation skills. Youngsters can record their findings by drawing or writing in a field journal.

Kids can also scour their classrooms to search out colors, shapes, and patterns. Have them browse through books, magazines, or other resources about wildlife and nature to identify interesting visual designs. Check out National Geographic’s website, which includes a “Patterns in Nature” photo gallery filled with spectacular images organized by topic (animals, butterflies, sea creatures, trees, rocks and lava, snow and ice, etc.). These crisp, beautifully composed photos show the astounding spectrum and variety of nature’s designs. Using their own artwork and/or photos, clip-art images, or photos clipped from magazines, students can create their own concept books and perhaps share them with younger children just learning color and shape basics.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those references in the above books and classroom activities:

RL. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RL. 1.4. Identify words or phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.
RI. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
W. 1.2. Write information/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and prove some sense of closure.
W. 2.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects.
SL. 1.2. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text read aloud….
K.G. Identify and describe shapes.

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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