December 11, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Thought-Provoking Picture Books | A Selection of 2017 Titles for Older Readers

In a culture that measures reading success as a progression from pictures to words, it can seem iconoclastic to select picture books to use with older students, but a roundup of recent titles reveals just how much readers would miss if we heeded that dictum. Wise educators know the value of introducing a unit with a visual narrative—whether it’s found within a single image or a well-chosen book. The images provide a focus, a unifying, common experience of the subject for the class, along with an affective connection and aesthetic pleasure. Short on text and provocative in theme, these picture books are guaranteed to engage students in middle school and beyond.

Her Right Foot

In a companion to his title on the Golden Gate Bridge, This Bridge Will Not Be Gray (McSweeny’s, 2015), Dave Eggers explores the significance of another national icon: the Statue of Liberty. The first half of the 104-page picture book, Her Right Foot (Chronicle, Sept. 2017), illustrated by Shawn Harris, revels in historical details, some of which may seem so preposterous to students that one way to interact with this title might be to ask students to fact-check some of the details—or see what else they can discover with more research, or, invent in a lesson on alternative facts to stump their classmates. Eggers milks this material for all its worth: “Ask your friends and even your teachers if they knew that before the Statue of Liberty was assembled in New York, she was first constructed [and displayed for a year] in Paris…. They might think you are fibbing.” Also, designer Frédéric Bartoldi hosted a lunch inside his half-finished sculpture, “just below the knee.” Truth or fiction?!

In a letter to his publisher, the author explains that while he had seen countless images of the famous landmark, it was only on a recent  trip that he noticed Lady Liberty’s right foot was lifting off the pedestal, as if, he notes, she were in mid-stride. This revelation is the perfect entrée into symbolism. As Eggers writes halfway through the book: “Let’s pause here and collect ourselves and think about this.” Why is she moving? A few pages later, Harris’s construction paper and ink composition portrays a Syrian refugee camp accompanying this text: “Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest.” Clearly, this book can be a provocative catalyst for reflections on historical and current U.S. attitudes, conversations, and policies on immigration and refugees. It could also lead to discussions about the potency of art. Are there works of art in your students’ communities that might yield new meaning upon closer inspection? Surely they have heard the controversies and passion surrounding Confederate statues. How can discussing divergent visual narratives help students open their hearts and minds to the perspectives swirling around bronze and marble?

Out of Wonder

Poetry can be an elusive form for some, but the dazzling designs of Ekua Holmes are guaranteed to pull even the most reluctant readers under the spell of poets Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth as they pay tribute to favorite figures from the past in Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets (Candlewick, Mar. 2017). The three authors have penned a total of 20 poems, demonstrating that imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery. The brief entries, combined with short biographies at the book’s conclusion, provide an enticing pathway to the highlighted poets’ original works. Some readers may be attracted to Alexander’s ode to love and e.e. cummings, as he expounds on the pairing of shoes “I like my shoes when they are with/your shoes. Mostly the comes, Leastly/the goes….” Others may appreciate Colderley’s celebration of Nikki Giovanni: “people forget…poetry is not just words on a page…it is… /a snowflake on your tongue…a tattoo on the inside of your arm…a dashiki and a kaftan….” Holmes’s collages transform to suit their subject. The artist uses the bold patterns found in printed textiles behind elongated dancing silhouettes in elaborate headdresses to accompany Alexander’s tribute to the Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek, whose subject is Africa. The soft edges of rice paper add texture to the swirls of paint and cut paper interpreting Wentworth’s celebration of the earthiness of Pablo Neruda. What if students found a way into poetry by connecting to a poem in this book—and ultimately the original author? Diverse in terms of ethnicity, time period, gender, and place, it is not a stretch to imagine this collection inspiring classroom wordsmiths and artists to create their own poetic verbal and visual combinations.

Silent Days, Silent Dreams

While it’s true that our educational system has a long way to go in addressing the needs of those with physical and cognitive challenges, there was even less understanding and accommodation a century ago when James Castle (1899-1977) was born “deaf, mute, autistic, and probably dyslexic.” In Allen Say’s new picture book biography Silent Days, Silent Dreams (Scholastic, Oct. 2017), the author imagines the life of this self-taught artist after studying his output (15,000 pieces survive), reading biographical and critical material, and listening to interviews with relatives and art dealers.

Castle’s situation is compelling on multiple levels. Unable to communicate through words, he was treated unkindly by his father and other children in the farming community of Garden Valley, Idaho. Locked in the attic, taunted by classmates, punished by teachers, art was his only refuge—and his only language. Castle used whatever scrap paper or implements available—often only burnt matchsticks or soot and his own saliva with which to draw. Say combines these methods and types of materials with watercolor and other media, sometimes using his left hand to approximate the look of outsider art. The images are presented in rectangular panels of varying sizes, here depicting the frustration or artistic intensity on the face of the boy or man, there showing us the world through the artist’s eyes. Readers naturally prone to creating their own caricatures and drawings will be fascinated by these compositions, by turn perplexing (some figures have boxes for heads), fanciful (cutouts of people and animals), and poignant (his extreme solitude is evident).

Later in life Castle was “discovered,” and his work was exhibited to critical acclaim. His story presents an opportunity to consider Howard Gardner’s ideas on multiple intelligences, helping students gain insight into their own struggles and appreciation for their own talents. So often, we label “differences.” What if we framed the conversation instead with W. Nikola-Lisa’s How We Are Smart (Lee & Low, 2009)? It appears that Castle thought entirely in pictures, since he could not express himself in words; how does Say use images to build our understanding of the artist’s life? If students didn’t read the words, what conclusions would they draw? In addition to building empathy and understanding, comparing and contrasting Castle’s life with those who faced some of the same obstacles, but had a more supportive environment (Helen Keller, Temple Grandin), would be illuminating.

The Secret Project

While Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter’s The Secret Project (S. & S./Beach Lane, Feb. 2017) could be used to address questions about nuclear weapons from traditional picture book audiences, it would just as effectively introduce a study of World War II or a conversation about nuclear war with older students. It’s a short, matter-of-fact overview of the undercover effort to build and detonate the first atomic bomb in a New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. Jeanette Winter’s digital scenes depict the natural beauty of the setting and some of its inhabitants, the daily routines of the scientists, and finally, the explosion—in several dramatic wordless spreads, including a concluding spread of blackness. The silence provides an opportunity to instigate classroom conversations—to mine prior knowledge about this event and the ultimate uses of the bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Further research could develop in a number of directions for individual students or small groups. Some students might investigate the reasons for and reactions to using the bomb in World War II. An author’s note and bibliography provide some background and suggested books, articles and websites. Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Roaring Brook, 2012) combines history, science, and biography in the style of a thriller. Others may want to study the long-term effects of radiation on residents in New Mexico and Japan, or probe the ethics of deploying this power. Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda, 2016) by Caren Stelson would inform both areas of study, as would Junko Morimoto’s My Hiroshima (Viking, 1990). Linear thinkers could develop a time line of key nuclear age developments, including the latest tests by North Korea. Perhaps the unit could conclude with recommendations for U.S. policy on this matter.

Mighty Moby

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick might be the American novel most likely to cause teeth gnashing when it’s assigned. A picture book version, Mighty Moby (Little Brown, Aug. 2017), does not suffer the same stigma. The book’s visual narrative by Ed Young—collages composed of cut paper, photographs, string, and pastels—was created first, followed by the text. The orientation of the dynamic compositions changes frequently, so readers must turn the book for a proper view throughout—a motion that mimics the push and pull of the tides and offers viewers an active role. Barbara DaCosta’s text is also a sort of collage, pulling from sea shanties, ballads, and dialogue from the novel to create the frame and the essence of the traditional plot. While Moby can be used as a prelude to Melville’s novel, educators may want to ponder other ways that this title could engage older elementary and middle school students. The climax in DaCosta’s version depicts a parental hand pulling a bathtub plug—a humorous deus ex machina. There is a gentle denouement for the young sailor with a maritime lullaby and setting as he drifts off.

An exploration of literary terms, as well as an analysis of the plot arc, or look at how the visual components of the story contribute to mood and theme would all be enlivened by this dramatic example. Students may wish to compare the motivations and outcome of Captain Ahab with another famous character seeking revenge at sea: Captain Hook in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Curricular support about whales, whaling, Melville, and the making of this extraordinary book may be found online.

Letters to a Prisoner

What difference can one person make? How can one participate in society in a meaningful way, regardless of age? These are some of the questions raised in Letters to a Prisoner (Owlkids, Sept. 2017), a nearly wordless picture book by author/illustrator Jacques Goldstyn. The scene: a father and daughter are participating in a march. Their group’s cause is represented by signs depicting a red circle, an image echoed by the child’s red balloon. Uniformed marchers with weapons are dressed in blue; their shields and the government buildings display blue squares. As the two groups clash, the girl’s balloon is popped by a uniformed marcher, and her father is hauled away to prison.

Loose, inked lines and watercolors form caricatures. The artist cleverly connects the man’s experiences in his cell with his memories of the outside world, bridging the two with a mouse and bird with whom he shares food scraps. Letters from supporters are delivered by the bird and burned by the guard, but smoke signals are interpreted from concerned people of all types from around the world, and their letters lift the prisoner up…and out in a joyful flight of freedom.

An author’s note details Goldstyn’s participation in Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights letter-writing marathon” and invites readers to become involved citizens. There is a time for studying wars and conflict, but what about time to examine the paths to conflict resolution: nonviolent protest, the march, boycotts, and letters to those in power and support for those without it. How have these methods been used in the past and present? Are they still effective today? Heather Schwartz’s Locked Up for Freedom: Civil Rights Protesters at the Leesburg Stockade (Millbrook, Aug. 2017) provides a riveting look at the summer of 1963 when African American teen girls in Georgia were imprisoned in deplorable conditions for protesting. Studying past and current ways to pursue social justice is one possible response to Goldstyn’s title. Another is to highlight the many famous political prisoners who themselves wrote letters or other documents while in jail or upon release: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, and Liu Xiaobo. Find short pieces by these figures and have older students work in groups to decipher the meaning of the text, explain the impact of word choices on the tone, analyze the organizational structure and trace the development of ideas. As a class compare the similarities or differences in content or style between two or more authors. Is there a cause that compels your students to respond?

Baby Monkey, Private Eye

Looking ahead…Brian Selznick and David Serlin welcome readers with different levels of proficiency and experience in Baby Monkey, Private Eye (Scholastic, 2018, Feb. 2018). Beginning readers, struggling readers, and those for whom English is not a first language will appreciate the large font, repetition, short sentences, and abundance of visual clues (literally!) in this nearly 200-page easy reader. The little gumshoe solves five mysteries in as many chapters, but not until—for each one—he reads up on the specific type of crime, meets the victim, looks for clues, writes notes (scribbles), eats a snack, and puts on his pants. As with any toddler, this last act takes some time, stretching over a number of smile-inducing pages. Clients include Brunhilde, who’s lost her jewels; a clown without a nose; a chef missing a pizza; an astronaut minus his spaceship; and a mother looking for her baby. In each case—except the last, Baby Monkey follows the tracks and identifies the perpetrators, animals ranging from a lion to a mouse.

The object of each search is rendered in red, a surprise that will delight readers, whether or not they are familiar with Selznick’s signature pencil compositions. The protagonist inhabits an office worthy of Sam Spade, complete with wainscoting, blinds, manual typewriter, rotary telephone, and a trench coat and fedora on the coat rack. Older readers (including adults) will enjoy decoding the décor that changes with each case and predicting who will come next, i.e., before the chef arrives, viewers see a map of Italy, a movie poster from The Italian Job, a scene from a typical Italian restaurant, renderings of the Colosseum and Mona Lisa, and a bust of Michelangelo’s David. (A key to these scenes and a tongue-in-cheek bibliography and index are appended.) The book’s length combined with its inherent readability will allow new readers to feel a great sense of accomplishment; the visual complexity, humor, and immensely satisfying conclusion will draw them back for a second look. As in the past, and now with Serlin, Selznick’s books celebrate seeing and radiate love.

Wendy Lukehart is the Youth Collections Coordinator at the District of Columbia Public Library.

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Comments

  1. I fell in love with Her Right Foot, both the text and the illustrations, and I look forward to reading the others on this list. Thank you.

  2. Baby Monkey, Private Eye seems very different than the other books on this list. Can you say more about what makes it ‘thought provoking?’

    • Wendy Lukehart says:

      Hi Vinny. I would say the visual material. Each time Baby Monkey is shown in is office, there are many things to look at (and potentially discuss) that relate to the occupation of the as-yet-undisclosed person who will be walking in needing a private detective. This book would be fun for kids of different ages or backgrounds to look at together, because there will some things that are easy for younger kids to identify, while others require more life experience. There is the element of predicting who will walk through the door each time, and in the final chapter–which is a contrast to the established pattern–the challenge is how soon kids will figure out who the mystery guest is. Even the final page has clues to comprehend that relate to the whole. Older kids will have to look closely at the bibliography too to see what mischief lives there. So while it is more light-hearted than the other titles, I believe the book is intellectually stimulating. I hope this helps!

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