March 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Bibliophile’s Delight: Books that Celebrate Creative Writing, Book Lovers, and Libraries

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Chosen for their superb presentations and slam-dunk child appeal, these picture books can be shared with students to help introduce and nurture independent writing, generate enthusiasm for books and reading, discuss the role of libraries, and support language arts curriculum standards.

Storytelling and Creative Writing

violetandvictorViolet Small is determined to write the most amazing book ever. She requests the help of her twin, and though Victor would rather mess around with his pet worms, her fervor soon pulls him into the project. As the siblings collaborate on The Best-Ever Bookworm Book (Little, Brown, 2014; K-Gr 4), ideas are shared, a plot percolates, and an enchanting tale evolves. Alice Kuipers hands the narrative reins over to her protagonists, who convey their first-person accounts in color-coded text—violet for Violet of course, and peach for Victor (the children wear corresponding T-shirts). The unfolding tale is presented on loose-leaf backgrounds of violet or peach, cleverly indicating which young author contributed each segment. The book makes a beguiling read-aloud, but youngsters will also want to take a close look at Bethanie Deeney Murguia’s inventive artwork. Sketched in graphite pencil, the winsome round-faced siblings take center stage in the realistic scenes; whimsical collages assembled from embossed book covers, antique prints and maps, and well-worn library pockets and check-out cards depict fantastical in-story moments. This charming exploration of the creative process will inspire young writers.

storynookTransformed from non-reader to bibliophile during the events of Miss Brooks Loves Books! (and I don’t) (2010), Missy is now a dedicated regular at Miss Brooks’ Story Nook (where tales are told and ogres are welcome!) (Knopf, 2014; K-Gr 4). Meetings take place before school, and though she hates to be late, she usually takes the long way to avoid running into Billy Toomey, the “vexing” bully who steals her colorful hats. When a power outage leaves the group in the dark, Miss Brooks decides that instead of reading a book aloud, they will make up their own stories. “Everyone has a tale to tell,” proclaims the librarian, as she gently nudges the children toward self-expression by providing helpful tips about creating conflict, characterization, plotting, and satisfying endings. Though at first tongue-tied, Missy takes inspiration from her own life and spins a suspenseful story about an ogre named Graciela and her enormous bully-squeezing boa constrictor, a tale she later shares with Billy Toomey with resounding success.

Barbara Bottner keeps multiple narrative balls in the air with effortless grace and warmhearted humor, clearly pointing out story elements without interrupting her own story’s flow. Michael Emberley’s warm-hued cartoons expand the characters’ personalities and add to the laughs. As in the first book, references to William Steig’s Shrek! (FSG, 1990) provide opportunity for literary comparisons in the classroom.

ralphtellsastoryLike Miss Brooks, Ralph’s teacher assures her students that “Stories are everywhere!” However, the scruffy-haired boy can’t seem to find them, and ends up staring at a blank page every day during writing time. It’s disheartening, but the child’s supportive classmates help him to take the germ of an idea (a recollection about finding an inchworm at the park) and tease out the audience-pleasing story hidden within (a “wobbly, crazy baby” grabs it and places it in his diaper!). Realizing that small moments make for brilliant storytelling beginnings, Ralph is off and running. The book ends with his writing tips (“You can always write about what you had for breakfast”) and endpapers displaying his oeuvre (each with a hand-lettered and kid-illustrated cover). Abby Hanlon’s Ralph Tells a Story (Amazon, 2012; K-Gr 4) recounts a common conundrum with sweetly relatable text and effervescent cartoon artwork. Dashed with pale hues, the expressive pencil-line illustrations portray Ralph and his cohorts with individuality and personality. A good choice to diffuse the fears of reluctant authors and to buoy up writing time.

littleredwritingTwo appealing titles combine folktale elements with composition basics. Joan Holub and Melissa Sweet’s Little Red Writing (Chronicle, 2013; K-Gr 4) stars a perky red pencil hard at work on a creative writing assignment given by her teacher, Ms. 2. Deciding to match her tale to her own brilliant shade (“red is the color of courage”), she sets off down the story path in search of adventure, carrying a basket of 15 red nouns to use in case of trouble. After becoming “bogged down, hindered, lost!” in a “deep, dark, descriptive forest,” messing around with conjunctions, and more, Little Red hears a growly noise and spies the end of a mysterious tail. She bravely investigates and ends up in Principal Granny’s office, where she is greeted by an frightening individual with a growly voice, electric-cord tail, and big sharp teeth (just right for grinding little pencils). Using her words to great effect (she flings her final red noun—dynamite—at the Wolf 3000 pencil sharpener), Little Red saves the day and ends up with a thrilling story to share with her class. Both text and detail-packed collage illustrations abound with humor, and the book’s nimble puns elicit laughs (or groans) while emphasizing points about plotting, description, word choice, and story arc. A discussion guide aligned to Common Core standards is available at the publisher’s website (

Instead of making bread, Dianne de Las Casas’s Little littlereadhen“READ” Hen (Pelican, 2013; Gr 1-4) is ready to cook up a story. True to the familiar tale, the cheerful chicken asks for help from her friends—Dog, Cat, and Pig—and is repeatedly denied. She brainstorms ideas (while sipping a “double-mocha-cocoa flappuccino” at Starbawks), researches (on her “eggPad”), creates an outline, writes a draft, edits, and proofs, all on her own. Of course, when her opus is complete, she ultimately decides that it is better to share, and her grateful friends declare her story “egg-cellent.” Holly Stone-Barker’s handsome cut-paper collages feature bright colors and appealing textures. Amusing versions of well-known picture books (“Chicken Chicken Boom Boom” or “Henny and the Red Crayon,” for example) embellish the final scenes set at the Barnyard Bookstore. This book serves up “egg-cellent” step-by-step story-writing advice with lots of fun.

Have students compare and contrast these fractured folktales with more traditional versions of the stories. How do the authors stick to or deviate from the familiar plots? Choose two or three titles from this section and make a list of the characters, and how each individual approaches the challenge of creative writing. Are they enthusiastic or hesitant about their assignments? Why do some of the characters have a difficult time beginning to write? What different methods do they utilize to get going? Students can revisit the texts to extract basic story elements (characters, setting, events, etc.); make a list on the board and discuss how these elements apply to the titles featured here. Have children take a closer look at the artwork in each book. How does each offering use illustrations and visual details to convey plot and information?

Book Buffs

tigerinmysoupEager to dive into an enticing volume with a tiger on its cover, a youngster will go to great lengths—and leaps of imagination—to get his big sister to read to him. However, the girl, who has been left in charge for the day, stoically ignores him, earbuds in and nose in her own book. After heating up a can of alphabet soup for him at lunchtime, she remains oblivious as a gigantic tiger emerges from the bowl and an epic battle ensues. Donning silver colander for helmet and serving tray for shield, the boy bravely staves off the beast with kitchen gadgets and a chair. The tiger is subdued when, at long last, his sister agrees to read to him (but her realistic roar once again stirs the imaginary pot as her face transforms into that of the snarling critter). Told in straightforward language and short sentences, Kashmira Sheth’s Tiger in My Soup (Peachtree, 2013; K-Gr 3) can be shared aloud or consumed independently by emerging readers. Jeffrey Ebbeler’s dynamic acrylic paintings depict a unique setting (an angled modernist house perched on a craggy seaside rock), realistic-looking characters, and humorously interpreted fantastical events. Shifting perspectives keep the action fresh and add cinematic excitement. This offering conveys the idea of losing oneself in a book with originality and élan.

thereaderThe Reader (Amazon, 2012; K-Gr 4) pulls on cold-weather gear, calls his small brown dog, and heads out into a snow-swirling day. Loading a sturdy brown suitcase onto a sled, boy and pup plod through the deep snow and trek up a hill. Once they reach the top, they celebrate with snow angels and a snack. When everything is calm, the boy settles onto the sled with his dog, slowly opens his suitcase, and reverently pulls out a book entitled Two Good Friends. “And the only sound in the world is the sound of the reader reading to the very last page…the very last word.” Content, the two pack up and return home. Rendered in thick ink lines and soft-hued watercolors, Lauren Castillo’s images express the shivery coldness of a winter’s day and the warmth of a special friendship. Amy Hest’s quiet text resounds with the message that reading is a cherished activity that can take place anytime anywhere and be shared with those we love.

excusemeInterrupted by the antics of animals that live on the African grasslands, a young girl repeatedly declares, Excuse Me, I’m Trying to Read! (Mackinac Island/Charlesbridge, 2012; K-Gr 4). The colorful double-page spreads brim with silliness and smiles as an elephant douses her with water from its trunk, a joke-telling zebra distracts her with its laughter, a stinky dung beetle gets a bit too close, and more. Finally, she falls asleep cuddled up next to a loud-purring lion, and a giraffe makes off with her tome. Awakening, she calls out, “Excuse me…” to the animals who have gathered around her book, but they shush her and declare, “We’re trying to read!” Mary Jo Amani’s buoyant text invites listeners to chime in with the repeated refrain. Lehla Eldridge’s savanna-hued illustrations are filled with lighthearted humor. Cleverly, the ever-changing pages of the child’s open volume are small-size versions of spreads featured in the book itself, presenting a fun seek-and-find challenge for readers who want to take a closer look.

redknitcapgirlIn Red Knit Cap Girl and the Reading Tree (Megan Tingley/Little, Brown, 2014; K-Gr 3), Naoko Stoop’s endearing protagonist and her animal friends find the perfect spot to pursue their preferred pastime. It’s Squirrel who discovers the location, a big oak with a hole in its trunk, and brings the others to take a look. Inspired by this cozy nook, the girl and her pals each decide to keep their books there, so they can be shared by everyone. The volumes come pouring in, Beaver constructs bookshelves, the Sheep provide warm blankets for cold-weather snuggling, Owl and Moon work together to make a sign, and a library is born. Painted on plywood, the lovely mixed-media illustrations shimmer with autumn hues, amusing details, and sweet affection. The final spread show all of the animals enjoying books, as Red Knit Cap Girl reads aloud to the appreciative little ones. Her final heartfelt statement echoes throughout the story: “It’s good to share books.”

Have your students compare and contrast these characters. How does each child express his or her enthusiasm for reading? Students can write a short poem or paragraph examining how they feel about reading. They can also identify and discuss their favorite books or book characters and make illustrations of book covers to decorate the classroom.

Love your Library

themidnightlibraryKazuno Kohara’s striking linocut illustrations and serene text invite readers to visit The Midnight Library (Roaring Brook, 2014; K-Gr 2), open only at night and lovingly tended by a little pigtailed librarian and her three assistant owls. Visited by animal patrons seeking the perfect book, the facility is always busy but mostly remains a “peaceful and quiet place.” That is until one crazy night when a squirrel band loudly practices their music in the main area, a wolf sheds a storm of tears about a sad event in a story, and an extremely slow-reading tortoise refuses to go home until he has finished his book. Never fear, the capable little librarian handles each dilemma with competence and kindness before closing the doors, cleaning up, and sharing a story with her sleepy owl friends. Bold black lines and color blocks are set against burnt orange backdrops, while books and other objects are highlighted in muted blue. This satisfying tale celebrates the wonders to be found at the library with earnest enthusiasm and a touch of late-night mystique.

lottiebestplaceLottie awakens in a room filled with glowing stars and hanging planets, puts on a bubble-gum-pink outfit, grabs her beloved toy rocket, and heads out with Papa Pete to her favorite destination. Meanwhile, red-headed Carl wakes up surrounded by dinosaur paraphernalia, picks up a green T. Rex, and piles into the car with his big sister to travel to his favorite location. Both children are pleased as punch to be at the library and follow “the rules, mostly…” (Lottie fesses up to a crayoned volume and Carl has an incident involving yogurt). As they search parallel aisles for books that suits their interests, they wind up at the end of the stack and face to face. Each instantly recognizing a kindred spirit in the other, and they sit together in the reading area, paging through books, daydreaming, and enjoying quiet companionship. Both youngsters know they “will come back to the library together because now it is their best place in the world.” Angela Johnson’s Lottie Paris and the Best Place (S & S, 2013; K-Gr 2) is told with an ear-pleasing cadence and illustrated with Scott M. Fischer’s ebullient mixed-media artwork.

librarybookforbearPossessing seven volumes of his very own, Bear is quite sure that he couldn’t possibly require another one. When he accompanies his friend Mouse to the library as promised, he deems the large collection “Most excessive.” Always-chipper Mouse, however, finds it exciting and vows to ferret out A Library Book for Bear (Candlewick, 2014; K-Gr 4). It’s to be about pickles, insists Bear, and his voice grows ever louder as he repeatedly rejects Mouse’s selections. When he is hushed by a mother squirrel attending story time, the curmudgeonly creature is ready to head home in a huff…that is until a phrase about a brave bear opening a treasure chest catches his attention. Suddenly all ears, Bear bellows out “QUIET VOICES IN THE LIBRARY!” and sits down to listen to the librarian finish the tale (the chest holds a horde of diamond-and-gold pickle slices). Bonny Becker shows Bear’s transformation from library doubter to devotee with gentle humor and perfect pacing. Done in muted springtime colors and packed with action, Kady MacDonald Denton’s paintings deftly convey Bear’s emotions, and make the most of the comical contrast between the ursine grump and his petite and upbeat friend.

missdorothyTwo stories commemorate real-life librarians whose passion for sharing books takes them beyond library walls and into the hearts of their communities. In Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile (Harper, 2011; K-Gr 4), Gloria Houston honors a childhood hero, a devoted woman who, with the support of her book-loving neighbors, initiates services in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Loading up each day with volumes stored in her basement, the intrepid librarian drives her bookmobile to businesses and farms, perseveres through deep snow and “oceans of mud,” and inspires young and old with her stacks of books and boundless enthusiasm. Susan Condie Lamb’s delicately detailed watercolors depict the mid-20th-century setting and showcase the area’s rolling terrain and verdant landscapes.

waitingforthebiblioburroInspired by Luis Soriano Bohórquez, a librarian and teacher who delivers books to children in remote villages in Colombia, Monica Brown and John Parra’s Waiting for the Biblioburro (Tricycle, 2011; K-Gr 4) is told from the viewpoint of a little girl. Ana has poured through her one and only libro “…so many times that she knows it by heart.” With no new stories to read, she concocts her own richly imagined cuentos about make-believe creatures to share with her little brother. When a bibliotecario arrives in town with two burros bearing books, she is thrilled; the kind man leaves Ana with an armful of offerings and encouragement to create her own story.  Weeks later the librarian returns, and Ana presents him with her finished book, a tale about the Biblioburro (this very book, in fact), which will now be shared with other children. Folk-style artwork painted on board combine realistic scenes with fanciful renderings of Ana’s soaring imaginings. A glossary of Spanish terms is appended.

Select several of these titles and have students make comparisons. Why do the characters featured in the books go to the library? What kinds of services to libraries provide and what role do they play in their schools and communities? Do libraries have to have walls? Have children cite examples from the texts to support their responses. Students can collaborate together in a shared project to research and write about the topic. And don’t forget to plan a visit to your school or public library.

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

RL. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RL 3.2. Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.
RL 3.7. Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story.
RI. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
RI 1.9. Identify basic similarities and differences between two texts on the same topic (e.g., in illustrations, descriptions, or procedures).
RI. 2.9. Compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic.
RI. 3.7 Use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the 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….

Interested in writing guides for secondary students? In “Read Like a Professor, Write Like a Superhero,” Vicki Reutter recommends 6 books take unusual—and playful—approaches to skill building for young writers.

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.