Picturebooks on the Potty: The Next Generation

A few months back I said I wasn’t going to write about picturebooks anymore. I planned to post about the chapter books Cora and I have been reading together but then life got in the way and I haven’t taken the time to write about Harry Potter, My Side of the Mountain, or Bone. In the meantime, my friend Amy and I submit a proposal about picturebooks for the 2018 National Art Education Association convention, our local children’s bookstore – Cover to Cover (Columbus, OH) – announced they are changing owners and moving out of the neighborhood, and Cora started reading on her own. All this brings me back, happily, to share my thoughts on the stack of Mo Willems books currently perched on our potty.

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When I first read Willems Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus I couldn’t understand what so many people, including those who award the Caldecott Medal, saw in it. It seemed to me, frankly, a stupid story with lackluster illustrations.

Then came Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books, first introduced to me during a read aloud in Cora’s preschool classroom. Her teacher had purchased a copy of the then newly released Thank You Book which was to be the final of 25 books about Gerald and Piggie. I couldn’t understand the appeal. Again the story seemed weak and the illustrations overly simplistic and uninspiring.

Then came kindergarten. Cora’s teacher used Elephant and Piggie throughout the year: They listened to the stories during read aloud. The kids drew copies of the book covers and arranged them in a timeline based on when they were published. And they read from them in a readers’ theater at the end of school celebration, demonstrating work they’d done on their reading, intonation, and collaborative storytelling skills.

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My heart melted as Cora and her classmate read the book they’d chosen to a group of kids and parents. She was reading! Out loud in front of a crowd!

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All of a sudden Piggie and Gerald didn’t seem so bad. The next time we went to the library we sought them out. We brought a few home and Cora asked me to read them with her, taking turns reading different parts. It was fun and it was her choice. She wanted to read unlike so many other times I had tried to coax her to practice with me in the past.

Parents of young readers know it’s hard to find books on the level that your child is reading. Each publisher seems to have a different labeling system and none seem quite accurate. But Piggie and Gerald really are great first readers. They have simple sentences made up of words that are easy to sound out. They have repetition. They are silly in all the ways kids recognize as silly.

But I’m still not enthralled with Piggie and Gerald as art objects. They seem to be some other thing, something overly instrumental in comparison with the books I’ve written about before in this space. While some of those had instrumental value, they also took aesthetics into primary consideration. I don’t see that in Elephant and Piggie.

But then Willems is addressing another set of demands. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, Willems reported:

The challenge for me is that my goal is to be funny, but within the constraint of using only about forty to fifty words…That’s why I say that early readers are hard writers—writing them isn’t easy….I sometimes joke that I write for functional illiterates…Because these stories aren’t meant to be read once—they’re meant to be read a thousand times. In that way, they’re more like a song than like the score for a film. You don’t listen to ‘A Boy Named Sue’ for the ending.

I’m still want to know more about Willems relation to Piggie and Gerald. Were they just money makers in the end or did he dream of lives for these characters outside the pages of their books? What has he said about his illustrational style in these books? Whom and what did he look to for inspiration for these books? I’m interested to learn more and welcome links in the comments to interviews with or discussions of Elephant and Piggie you may have read.

In the meantime, Thank you Mr. Willems. Thank you Miss Maureen. Together you got Cora reading to herself (on and off the potty). I’m so proud!

 

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Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 3, No. 6

It’s been a long while since I wrote one of these columns. It isn’t that we aren’t reading! We read like crazy this winter, but I was TOTALLY insane at work and didn’t have time to blog about any of it. That said, I dedicate this post to my department chair, Craig Roland, who recommended Home, by Carson Willis during one of the million and one meetings we had with students last month.


One of the greatest parts of my job is the opportunity to learn alongside my students. Sometimes they teach me things, sometimes I learn from my colleagues as they are teaching. Craig draws on a wide range of resources when speaking with students which I  appreciate. Home is a perfect example.

I don’t remember the exact context of Craig’s suggestion and it doesn’t much matter. The book is a good illustration of a work of art that explores a big idea. Big, or enduring ideas “comprise concepts that have drawn the attention of humans through the ages” (Stewart and Walker, 2005, p. 17).  We encourage students to build art education curriculum around big ideas throughout the Art Education program at the University of Florida and I plan to use this book in the future to help students better grasp the concept and consider ways to utilize it with students. Parents of young children and other educators might also find it inspiring.

Big ideas are often approached through the discussion of questions like:
What is a home?
How would it feel to live in that home?
What makes your home different from other homes?

The cover of Home alone could launch many questions, leading teachers and students in various directions as they connect the theme with their own experiences, books they’ve read, and cultures they are studying.

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This is one of those picturebooks that could be given to an adult to read and reflect on just as easily as a child. The illustrations are engaging – visually and conceptually. Cora and I spent a long time looking at each one, talking about the content and the style. The one about The Little Old Lady who lived in a shoe was one of her favorites. This is just an excerpt….

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We did take exception to this page:

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The so-called clean home didn’t look clean to us so much as it looked boring or unoccupied. Everything seems to have a purpose and a place in the messy house, even the jump rope in the front yard, the bathtub in the garden, and the cinderblock holding up the front porch. But overall, the artist captured a wide range of homes (including her own studio filled with references to the book itself) and had us looking and imagining who lived in them and what it would like to join them.

After we finished reading, I interviewed Cora about our home and wrote her responses in a notebook we’ve been keeping this year to document her thinking and learning. Here’s excerpts from the interview:

Me: Cora, where is your home?
Cora: (thinking)
Me: Is it on the moon?
Cora: No. On Earth, you sil’. [Sil’ is her shorthand for saying silly.]
Me: Is your house in the city or the country?
Cora: The city. I think. Do you think that’s the truth?
Me: Yes. But what makes you think so?
Cora: Because it’s noisy. And there are lots of cars on High Street.
Me: What kind of house do we live in?
Cora: We live in a regular house. A house.
Me: What’s a regular house?
Cora: Just a regular house.
Me: So not a castle or something like that?
Cora: Yeah.
Me: What’s different about your house and Maya’s house?
Cora: We have a dog and she has cats. My house is darker because it has more curtains.
Me: What else makes our house darker? Look outside? What do you see? What would you see if you were at Maya’s?
Cora: Other houses closer together… Street lights.
Me: What else do you want to tell me about our house? What makes it special?
Cora: My house is very old because it used to be grandma’s. That what I like about it. She lives next door now and I like that too.

Next step, mapping our house and making some drawings of it.

Stewart, M. G. & Walker, S.R. (2005). Rethinking curriculum in art. Worcester, MA: Davis.

 

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 3, No. 5

In honor of National Library Workers Day (April 14, 2015), I’m sharing a book I love not only for it’s story and illustrations, but for it’s introduction to historical fiction. That Book Woman (Henson/Small, 2008) tells the story of a poor rural family during the Great Depression.

Cal resents his sister Lark’s love of books until one long cold winter when he learns to read at her side. The inspiration for his change of heart is a courageous and dedicated “Pack Horse Librarian” who will stop at nothing to bring books to the family’s far off home. That book woman never accepts anything in return for the books she brings and challenges Cal’s gender stereotypes as she rides off alone into a strong winter storm. In the end, Cal repays her with the best gift any teacher could hope for.

photo(1)At the end of the book is an author’s note explaining the history of the Pack Horse Librarians of Appalachian Kentucky who served in F.D.R.’s Works Progress Administration. I never knew about this program before reading this book. I tear up every time we read it recognizing that these librarians were some of the most dedicated educators our nation has ever known.

While I don’t usually link to video readings of the books I review, I am today (here you go!), so you can all hear the story and take a moment to celebrate the librarians in your lives!

Creative Connections: The Kitschy Kat Alphabet Book

Last summer I met Nancy McKibben when she was assigned to write a story about my urban farming project – Over the Fence Urban Farm. During our time together for interviews, Nancy and I shared our mutual interest in picturebooks and she shared her plans to put together an ABC book made of postcards, for children to create with the help of loved ones far away.

In the fall Nancy sent me an invitation to support Kitschy Cat Alphabet Book on Kickstarter. (It’s now available on Etsy.) With a four-year-old at home in Ohio and family all over the country, there was no reason to refuse. For my donation towards the project’s start-up costs, I received the full set of postcards.

I love perpetuating the idea of snail mail, and am trying to give Cora ample exposure to the joys of writing and receiving handwritten notes. I think it’s catching on. And why shouldn’t it. There’s little more magical than sealing an envelop, sticking it in a box, and then receiving a letter from the recipient in response. One of the projects on my to do list this spring is to create a mail station for Cora per recommendations from Playful Learning. Kitschy Cat will have a special place in the setup.

IMG_9031I sent the postcards to my mom along with 52 stamps and the introductory note Nancy included for participants and then we waited. Mom let me know when the package arrived, told me I didn’t have to send the stamps, and proceeded to laugh as she apologized in advance if somewhere along the line she forgets about the whole thing. But then the postcards started coming. And her notes are thoughtful and clever!

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photo 4I love that she is referencing where she lives, asking about where we are, telling stories from the past, and making suggestions for the future. Previously, when I asked my mom to write to Cora it didn’t always happen. No shame, no blame. She’s just not that kind of grandma. The point is that the parameters and creative starts offered by the alphabet themed cards gave her the encouragement and support she needed. Suddenly I was seeing this as a creative invitation for my mom, perhaps even more than for Cora.

Of course we’re trying to find ways to extend the activity on our end. Using the letter of the day as a prompt for writing practice. . .

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R is for Rabbit

In addition to my mom, I’ve been trying for what seems like forever to get my niece, who is in first grade and has the sweetest penmanship, to write to me with little effect. But my mother brought some Kitschy Cat cards along last week while she was visiting my brother and his family last week and guess who signed the last two letters we received?

photo 2I’m grateful to Nancy for sharing this project with us. For me, it’s turning out to be so much more than the sum of it’s parts. I’m not sure what we’ll do when it’s over.

[Postscript: Art educators might get inspiration from Nancy’s project for exchanges within their districts – I can imagine elementary and high school students exchanging cards, for instance. They can also draw inspiration from mail artists like Ray Johnson and On Kawara or contemporary correspondence projects like Post Secret. And then there are sites that offer mail art challenges you can join with or without your students. (Honestly I didn’t even know how active the postal art community was until just now.)]

 

 

 

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 3, No. 3

 

DSC_0069Cora was too young to sit through this fabulous fairy tale by James Thurber (1943) when it was gifted to her by her grandmother a few years ago. Joyce selected it because Thurber  hailed from Columbus, OH where we live and she wanted Cora to have an appreciation for her hometown cultural heritage. The princess in the story also share’s Cora’s great-grandmother’s name, Lenore. Cora’s middle name, Lena, is a derivation.

Over time, Cora’s grown into the book and learned to love the story of Princess Lenore and her father’s quest to capture the moon for her. I love it because it honors child-logic, and the “fool” who is wise enough to listen to it. Readers will catch glimpses of the humor Thurber was best known for peppered throughout.

I’m not going to say anymore about the story here. You should read it for yourself. What I want to focus on in this post is the letter, written by Thurber’s daughter Rosemary, which appears at the front of our version of the story; the one on the right above, illustrated by Marc Simont in 1990. In the letter, Rosemary explains how skeptical she was when Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers approached her with the idea of reinterpreting Many Moons. The original version, illustrated by Louise Slobodkin (1943), won a Caldecott Medal and seemed just about perfect. What was there to improve upon, she wondered.

Ultimately, she asked her children and grandchildren how they would feel about a new version of the story. She reported, “They are not so old and not yet so attached to things past as it turns out I am. They are wise. They all expressed their appreciation for the original version of Many Moons but the family consensus was that a new artist’s point of view could be exciting.”

We’ve seen different versions of fairy tales before. You can read about a few in this post to compare and contrast with your young readers. But this is different. So many of our most familiar fairy tales are attributed to Hans Christian Anderson and now in the public domain. That means their copyright protections have expired and anyone, including the Disney Corporation, can reproduce and profit from them. In 1970, Rosemary Thurber renewed the copyright on Many Moons, thereby retaining control of her father’s intellectual property and serving as a gatekeeper to those wishing to appropriate it.

Last week, I had a moment to read Rosemary’s letter for the first time. I summarized it for Cora, then proceeded to reserve a copy of the original from the library. Given her recent self-initiated comparing and contrasting of books in a series, it was no surprise that she was excited to see the books side-by-side.

Today, when so many young people are posting and reposting content across social media, photo-chopping found images, and mashing music from disparate genres it’s important that they learn about copyright and intellectual property. Many Moons offers a great example for readers of all ages.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 3, No. 1

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As I dropped yet another unread novel into the return bin at the library this morning, it occurred to me that this column is three years old. I started it after writing for what seemed like the billionth time on some social media profile that the last book I read was a picturebook not some New York Times bestseller for grown-ups or Oprah reading club suggestion.

Time flies when you’re raising a little one. But some things don’t change that quickly. I’m still sharing the bulk of my leisure reading time with Cora. However, what we’re reading is starting to change.

For her 4th birthday, my aunt sent Cora a bunch of books including two chapter books,  both by E.B. White. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was a kid. The Trumpet of the Swan was new to me. Both are great stories that demonstrate White’s love and respect for animals of all kinds. Cora listened to them intently, back-to-back. A few months later, after a journey into The Secret Garden, we’re rereading them again, simultaneously. Per Cora’s request, we read a chapter in one, then a chapter from the other. She’s picking up on similarities in the story lines and reminding me of things that will happen a few chapters down the road. It’s amazing to see how she’s soaking it all up.

Amazing and a little sad. While one of the things I advocate for in this column is that readers of all ages ought to be picturebook readers, part of me knows that as Cora gets older we’ll read fewer of these stories and spend more time with long books with few pictures. (Side note: Having the books in the house for Cora and watching how the older kids gravitate towards them is a reminder that people will read what you make available and it’s up to me to be sure all our diets continue to include a healthy serving of Caldecott contenders.)

For now, Cora still looks forward to the pages in the chapter books with illustrations.

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I can remember than feeling. And not just from when I was practicing reading and a page with a picture meant fewer words I had to struggle through. The pictures helped me see the rest of the description more vividly. Some would say they were a crutch, that White’s writing doesn’t need images. I guess I think of them more like training wheels, bolstering young readers as they embark on new reading challenges, in this case, reading stories of more than 200 pages.

But they really are more than that. Garth Williams’ illustrations are well worth our attention; imaginative pen and ink drawings, my personal medium of choice for years. Click here to see some of the original drawings complete with page markings and proof numbers. (I love to see those traces of process.)

As we embark on the third volume of this column, be prepared to see a shift in some of the content. I still plan to write primarily about picturebooks, but there’s likely to be some graphic novels and illustrated chapter books in the mix as well. Regardless, I hope to keep thinking about the role books with pictures play in creative and intellectual development.