February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Celebrating Literacy: Kids as Readers, Writers, and Imaginers

Filled with imagination-stirring moments and an intrinsic appreciation for the many joys of reading, these engaging picture books cast young protagonists in the role of creator, inspiring children to go forth and dream big.

how to read a storyPairing accessible text and cheery cartoon artwork, Kate Messner and Mark Siegel’s How to Read a Story (Chronicle, 2015; K-Gr 2) presents 10 easy-to-follow tips for success. Beginning with “Step 1: Find a Story” (“A good one”), the book focuses on a floppy-haired boy and his sky-blue dog as they chose an orange tome (The Princess, the Dragon, and the Robot) and complete the process, humorously detailing their efforts along the way. Other suggestions include choosing a reading buddy (who also likes the book, or else return to Step 1), settling into a cozy spot, looking at the cover and speculating on the content, reading with expression, sounding out words and using picture clues, and predicting what might happen next, all important parts of an effective skill-building, imagination-engaging strategy. User-friendly and jubilantly conveyed, this practical how-to for beginning and newly confident readers will not only solidify basic decoding skills, but also engender a love of reading (and sharing your passion with others).

the whisperPamela Zagarenski’s handsomely illustrated offering assures children that each and every one of them has the power to make stories. A book-loving girl hurries home with a “magical” volume borrowed from her teacher, unaware that the words are spilling from the pages (a fox follows behind, gathering the errant letters into a butterfly net). When she eagerly opens the book later on, she’s devastated to discover that there are spectacular pictures…but no text. Then she hears The Whisper (HMH, 2015; Gr 1-4)—the fox, perched outside her window, quietly encourages her to imagine the words and stories for herself. The magnificent mixed-media paintings that follow abound with captivating details, unique characters, and intriguing possibilities: an elephant and a lion embark on a shipboard journey; a wizard blows a whale-shaped bubble; an owl wings across a starlit sky clasping a golden key in its beak. The girl begins to spin a story for each scenario, tossing out one or two enthralling sentences, and readers can join in by continuing her tale, or begin anew by starting their own. On her way to school the next morning, she meets the fox, who returns the bundled words and asks her help in obtaining a cluster of just-out-of-reach grapes (the crossed-out and re-written Aesop’s fable is presented on the back endpaper, cleverly expanding the take-charge-of-the-narrative theme). Follow this title with Aaron Becker’s Journey (2013) and its sequel Quest (2014, both Candlewick), exquisitely illustrated wordless picture books that place the storytelling onus in children’s laps.

RufusLaying in the grass and gazing at a shape-shifting cloud on a summer day, an imaginative youngster decides that his skills are best suited to running not a lemonade stand, but a story stand. Rufus the Writer (Schwartz & Wade, 2015; Gr 1-4) assembles table and chair, paper and colored pencils, and professional attire (jacket and bowtie over shorts and bare feet) and opens shop in his front yard. Throughout the day, neighborhood kids stroll by and place orders, and Rufus lovingly constructs each tale to suit the interests of each client. Four of his delightful works are included, clearly set off from the main narrative and written and illustrated with a child-focused perspective. Little sister Annie, for example, receives a birthday-present story in which she stars, shrinking down to join her teapot and cups in a fun tabletop dance before returning to normal size to drink “the tea all up. Mmmmm!” At day’s end, the satisfied customers gather together to enjoy and share their stories. Elizabeth Bram’s kid-savvy text and Chuck Groenink’s warm-hued paintings not only celebrate the creative spirit, the artistic process, and the power of word and image, but also indicate the immeasurable value of a story. Payment comes not in money, but in trading other impossible-to-put-a-price on wonders—a “special” shell collected from the beach, a kitten in need of a home, or a bouquet of fresh-picked flowers. An empowering lead-in to classroom creative writing/illustrating projects.

any questionsIn Any Questions? (Groundwood, 2014; K-Gr 3), author/illustrator Marie-Louise Gay fields inquiries about writing, drawing, and more, exploring her own creative process with the help of a cast of charmingly portrayed youngsters and their dialogue-balloon commentary. A story can start with a blank piece of paper (a white sheet inspires a blizzard, a yellowish paper takes on a prehistoric theme, etc.), or with “words or ideas floating out of nowhere” (some captured and used, others discarded or tucked away for another time). Sometimes stories hit a dead end, requiring the author to try out different possibilities (often, again and again), or sketch and paint while her mind wanders (“I shake my ideas around and turn them upside down…Suddenly, I know who lives in the forest…”). So begins “The Shy Young Giant,” a story which Gay turns over at a climactic moment to her young cohorts (and readers) who put forth their own ideas about what happens next. This particular yarn comes to a conclusion, but the fun doesn’t have to—the children head out hauling giant-size paintbrushes, pencils, and idea-filled brains to craft another tale. Inviting and interactive, this picture book makes its young audience feel as though they are part of the story-creating moment—informing, emboldening, and inspiring students to generate their own storytelling magic.

billyWilliam Joyce harks back to his fourth-grade self to memorialize the moment that perhaps set him on course to become an appealingly idiosyncratic and kid-beloved book creator. Ever-inventive and eccentric Billy, who loves monster movies and reading the Sunday “funny papers,” jumps at the chance to enter a book-making contest at school. The resulting opus, Billy’s Booger (Atheneum, 2015; Gr 1-5)—included in full with hand-written, often creatively spelled and punctuated text and action-packed cartoon sketches in scribbled green marker—tells the entertaining tale of a “little green nose buddy” that acquires superpowers and genius math skills (the transformation involves a meteorite, of course). The fact that Billy’s entry garners no prizes or teacherly attention takes the wind out of his creative sails; he walks home that afternoon despondently kicking a stone, and even his sister is worried (“Billy is so normal now, it’s weird”). That is, until the school librarian reveals that the boy’s contest book is wholeheartedly appreciated by his fellow students and the entry most checked out of the library. And his walk home that day—the same scene now embellished with all sorts of crayoned-on imaginary creatures—is “just the beginning…of a long, long adventure.” Another paean to the wonders of reading and writing, this brightly told, buoyantly illustrated memoir can be used as the centerpiece for an author study, inspiration for creative projects, or a reminder to embrace and celebrate individuality.

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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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