If You Give a Kid a Story | Wordplay and Writing Prompts

Get your students' creative juices flowing with these picture book prompts.
Getting students to write can be a challenge, but the highlighted titles below should get their creative juices flowing, turning a task into a game. Life is not without its ups and downs, and the following books embrace them with vigor and imagination. Remy Charlip’s classic, Fortunately (Scholastic, 1964), taught a generation of young readers the meaning of the useful transition word and its antonym while spinning a concise tale filled with adventure—a virtual roller coaster of good and bad fortune. “Fortunately a friend lent…[Ned]… an airplane./Unfortunately the motor exploded./Fortunately there was a parachute in the airplane./Unfortunately there was a hole in the parachute…” You get the idea. Almost 50 years later, Michael Foreman wrote Fortunately, Unfortunately (Lerner, 2011—now available on Kindle) in which a young monkey named Milo sets off to return his granny’s umbrella. Along the way, he parachutes into a whale’s mouth, is nabbed by pirates, encounters some hungry dinosaurs, and is captured by aliens. Fortunately, he manages to survive it all and deliver the umbrella…filled with pirate booty! Unfortunately, the pirates want it back…. Similarly, Margery Cuyler and David Catrow’s That’s Good! That’s Bad! (Henry Holt, 1991) chronicles the wild adventures of a little boy, who gets a red balloon at the zoo. “It lifted him high up into the sky, WOW! Oh, that’s good. No, that’s bad! The balloon drifted for miles and miles until it came to a hot, steamy jungle…” The tyke falls into a muddy river, hitches a ride on a roly-poly hippo, is chased up a tree by 10 noisy baboons, swings on a vine that turns out to be a scary snake…and so on. Things are never what they seem, so that every time something seemingly good happens, it’s actually bad, and vice versa. Jeff Mack, hilarious master of the almost wordless picture book, offers Good News, Bad News (Chronicle, 2012). It’s good news when Rabbit finds a picnic basket filled with food, but bad news when Mouse feels the first drops of rain. An umbrella, an apple tree, a flyswatter, pink icing, a cave, and a flag pole are all good—trust me, but a blustery wind, a worm, a swarm of bees, an angry bear, lightning are most definitely bad. Not only are these books great fun to read, but they also inspire children to create their own imaginative stories. Younger students can create spoken or written fortunately/unfortunately tales either as a class or in groups. Students can sit in a circle and spin their tale round robin. A teacher or a student volunteer can begin with a “fortunately” statement to which the next person responds with an “unfortunately” one, and so on. Giggles will abound as a classroom game inspires critical thinking, sequencing, and creativity. Older students can write their sentences down and illustrate them to create their own books. Have you heard about Alexander’s “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?” Judith Viorst’s classic title (Atheneum, 1972) is a favorite mentor text for both realistic fiction and personal narrative units. Poor Alexander delivers a litany of misfortunes that prompt him to threaten to move to Australia. While more of a one-sided list than the balance of the previous offerings, youngsters will empathize with the common trials and tribulations reported by Viorst as well as by the following two offerings. In Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Rebecca Doughty’s One of Those Days (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006), readers are told that “Some days are one of those days. And the thing is, there isn’t just one kind of one of those days—there are tons.…” Some of these include “Running Late Day,” “No Fair Day,” “Keep Spilling Stuff Day,” “Feeling Left Out Day,” and “Sad For No Reason Day.” The clever illustrations are worth a thousand words. Children will enjoy coming up with their own unfortunate days and illustrating them. Mary Ellen Friday and Glin Dibley’s It’s A Bad Day (Rising Moon Books, 2006—Kindle) offers example after example of “It’s a bad day…when…” illustrated with humorous illustrations reminiscent of David Shannon’s “David” books. “It’s a bad day…when you have to eat brussels sprouts before you can have dessert.” And “It’s a bad day…when your favorite t-shirt doesn’t fit anymore.” Little injustice collectors will have a grand time inventing their own bad day scenarios and illustrating them. Counter the negativity with an “It’s a good day…” assignment or substitute other adjectives like exciting, embarrassing, or proud. We all know what happens if you give a mouse a cookie, but do you know What To Do If An Elephant Stands On Your Foot (Dial, 2012)? If not, Michelle Robinson and Peter H. Reynolds have some advice…if you startle it and run away, you may attract tigers. “SHHH! Once a tiger has spotted you, you MUST stay silent! The slightest sound, such as a sneeze…AAHCHOO! Oh dear. As I was saying, make the slightest sound and rhinoceroses will hear you.” If you climb a tree, don’t make any sudden movements—or the snakes will get you, and, if you manage to escape, there are sure to be crocodiles. “Honestly, you’re hopeless! If you’ve been noticed by a crocodile, don’t expect me to help you.”  Young readers will enjoy coming up with their own “if…” scenarios involving other animals. In Michael Foreman’s Oh! If Only… (Andersen Press, 2013), a little boy reflects, “Oh! If only…I had stayed home that day…If only…hadn’t met that dog…If only…he didn’t have that ball…” They go on to frighten a woman's cats, spook some horses in a parade for the Queen, wreck the Palace, and ruin her birthday cake…all on worldwide television! “Oh! If only I had stayed home that day…I wouldn’t be the most embarrassed person in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD! BUT…If I had stayed at home that day…I would never have met this great dog!” Children will enjoy sharing their own stories of mischievous pets and the trouble they’ve gotten into, beginning with “If only…” (“If only I hadn’t left the back door open…” or “If only I hadn’t left the cake on the table…”) The final offerings introduce youngsters to two other prompts. In Jules Feiffer’s Meanwhile (HarperCollins, 1997), Raymond is far too engrossed in his comic book to heed his mother’s escalating calls. “Suddenly…Raymond’s eye caught a word in the middle of the page. It was a word comics always use to change the scene. MEANWHILE.” When he writes the powerful game-changing word on the wall behind his bed, he is immediately transported to a pirate ship, where he duels with the captain. Just as he is about to walk the plank, he scribbles the magical word on a scroll and finds himself in the wild West where a posse and ferocious mountain lion leave him in a hopeless position…until… “He made a mad dash over to the nearest rock, and with the pointy end of the rusty bullet he scratched out: MEANWHILE…” Finally, he lands back home where he is only too happy to answer his mom—and take out the garbage. Again, round robin storytelling or a group illustrated book should spark imaginations—anything goes—dinosaurs, Vikings, dragons, or fairy tales should provide a rollicking good time. Lastly, Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingram’s Previously (Candlewick, 2007) takes readers back in time with some favorite characters. Beginning with Goldilocks’s frantic return home from you know where, we learn that “Previously she had been sleeping in somebody else’s bed, eating somebody else’s porridge, and breaking somebody else’s chair.” Previously, she had run into Jack running through the woods with a certain stolen hen. Earlier still, he and his sister, Jill (who knew?!) had spied a sorrowful frog with a crown out their window. Previously, the frog had been…a prince who had fallen in love with a girl named Cinderella. The Gingerbread Man, who had previously been a bag of flour, also makes an appearance, and “all the bears were cubs. And all the frogs were tadpoles. And all the buckets and chairs and ballroom floors were planks of wood. And all the wood was trees.…”  Challenge students to retell favorite stories in reverse order or teach them the word “Subsequently.” and have them write and illustrate them highlighting three or four key events in chronological order. While all the above titles are attention getters—sure to inspire giggles and interest—they should also motivate young writers to create their own whimsical tales.

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