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. . .

IMG_9045And drawing invitations. . .

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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. 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.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 14

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This subject of this issue of Picturebooks on the Potty – Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine – is one part book, one part educational toy, and one part girl power battle cry. The book tells the story of a girl named Goldie who builds a machine to spin her toys modeled after the ballerina in her music box. The goal: Get more girls to see science, technology, engineering, and math as arenas for creative play, exploration, and potential careers.

To be honest, The Spinning Machine wouldn’t have made this column as a stand alone picturebook. The story just isn’t that captivating. (You can find some of my recommendations for picturebooks about kids who build stuff here and here.) What Goldie Blox does that these other books don’t, however, is provide materials for readers to build alongside Goldie. This is good news for parents as well as kids. No pressure to gather supplies and mine Pinterest for DIY project ideas. Our kids, boys included, can start tinkering immediately.

But girls are the primary audience for Goldie Blox. Combining their love of storytelling with all kids’ tendency to come up with new ways to play with their toys, the makers hope to reach millions of girls who are would-be engineers but, “just might not know it yet.” After only one reading, Crafty Cora has spent hours playing independently with the peg board, washers, axels, spools, blox, and snap-on figurines that came with the book. She has set the parts up in various configurations and made up scenarios for each scene.

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Cora wasn’t the only girl around here excited about Goldie Blox. Her older sister, grandmother, aunt, and I have all spent time messing around with the kit. In this way it’s been a cross-generational activity, one which each participant approaches a bit differently, thus demonstrating that there’s more than one way to spin a sloth.

As far as I’m concerned, Goldie Blox has already earned her keep. Still, I’m eager to see what else she might inspire.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 10

 

DSC_1190So many of my students are doing exciting work these days that could be categorized as STEAM-based; education inspired by intersections of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. They are interested in maker culture, functional folks art traditions, and D.I.Y. aesthetics. I’m naturally drawn to their ideas as so many fall outside the traditional bounds of our field. In the very the near future I hope to share more thoughts and resources on this topic. Today I have a few new picturebooks to share that capture the spirit of the maker movement and STEAM-based education.

The Most Magnificent Thing (Spires, 2014) is a story about tinkering, a popular concept amongst the Maker/STEAM set. It refers to acts of thinking with your hands in order to come up with new (to you) ideas, understandings, and, sometimes, magnificent things. In this book a girl and her dog set out to make just such a thing but they hit some bumps along the way. While unhappy with her initial attempts, the girl keeps trying until she finally comes up with a good enough version of her vision. It is, as we say in our house about imperfect projects, full of charm. It shows the mark of her hands and evidence of efforts she went through to create it. This is a great book to inspire imaginative play with found materials and to encourage perseverance in the face of “mistakes.”

Art educators who work with students around 9 years old and older often struggle to get them to try work through challenges they face in the studio. By this age kids have started to develop a sense of who is “good and art” and who isn’t. Two books by author/illustrator Peter Reynolds have been widely used over the past decade to encourage all students to see themselves as capable artists – Ish (2004) and The Dot (2003). Both books present definitions of what counts as art that defy traditional, representational definitions. They speak to the intention of invention and experimentation of artists; to a love of observation and media exploration.

Reynold’s latest title Going Places (2014) takes this concept one step further and challenges readers to consider new ways of approaching projects that seem to have finite conclusions. It is an invitation to question the rules and think differently. In the end, the main characters work together to come up with an idea better than either could have come up with on their own. The book reads like a PSA for The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an organization which promotes creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration as key skills for living and working in society today. (While I thought this was merely a coincidence, it turns out there is a real connection between the two.) All too often picturebooks written with a particular message in mind are dull and boring but Reynolds has proven, once again, that it is possible to capture our hearts and minds all at once.

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 9 [Homeschool Preschool Edition]

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Depending on your educational worldview, it may seem contradictory to hear a professional educator say she’s not sure she wants to send her kid to school. But I’m not.

I don’t want Cora to waste her time in a classroom being prepped for tests. I don’t want her sitting through classroom management nightmares. And I definitely don’t want her eating in a school cafeteria.

I’m sure I’d feel differently if she were going to attend some fabulous private school where teachers still have intellectual freedom, where parents are paying so much tuition kids wouldn’t dare make a nuisance of themselves, and where all the food is organic and locally-sourced. But that’s not the reality we are living in. We live within the bounds of a large urban school district with its attendant challenges, and a few assets like a nice range of specialized schools.

I’m not sure I’m ready to be a full-time homeschooler either. I have long argued that all parents must think of themselves as homeschoolers to some extent. Children just aren’t in school enough hours of their lives to leave their education completely up to school teachers. But I’m not sure I’m up to the task of teaching Cora everything she’ll need to learn. I could join a homeschooling co-op, but I haven’t been having the greatest luck lately with volunteer-led organizations. And, truth be told, part of me would welcome 5-6 hours of time to myself everyday.

As a kind of experiment, we’re trying out a homeschool preschool curriculum designed for the summer months by the mother-daughter team behind the blog Wee Folk Art. My friend Melissa (who plans to homeschool her daughter Maya, Cora’s best gal pal) recommended the program and upon initial investigation, I find it pretty well-thought out. They authors draw on their backgrounds in education (mother), the arts (daughter) and parenting (both). So far, the summer unit “Puddles and Ponds” seems age-appropriate, open-ended, and engaging.

Regular readers of this blog, and “Picturebooks on the Potty” specifically, will not be surprised to learn that one of the things I like best about the curriculum is the use of picturebooks as a foundation for each lesson. Cora and I are having a bit of trouble sticking to just two books a week, but after just a few days she’s already applying information from them to her observations in the real world.

The first two books we read were about clouds – The Cloud Book (de Paola, 1975) and Little Cloud (Carle, 1996). I don’t remember learning about clouds. I’m sure I did 30+ years ago but I’ve enjoyed this chance to reengage the terms and the science behind them. This afternoon, on a VERY long drive to pick George up from camp and drop him at a friend’s house (my least favorite type drive, the kind that makes me feel most like a taxi driver), Cora looked out the window and commented on the clouds. For the rest of the ride we talked about what we saw – wispy cirrus and fluffy cumulus clouds to the north, altocumulus in the distance to the east, and finally nimbostratus as a storm blew in from the south on our way back home. It almost made the drive seem worthwhile.

Shot at a red light. Earth to sky: Cumulus, Cirrus, and Cirroculumus

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 8

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Since Cora discovered the fairy tale section of our library it’s been hard not to come home with a least one princess story. We’ve read about Cinderellas from all over the world and seen various artists’ depictions of Rapunzel. But last week’s selections genuinely had us thinking differently about familiar stories. They had us thinking postmodernly as we followed non-linear and self-referntial narratives that highlighted multiple perspectives of shared experiences.

Nobody Asked the Pea (Stewig/Van Wright, 2013), is an alternative version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea.” Each page highlights a different character’s voice (in a unique font) including Queen Mildred, Prince Harold, a couple of princesses, Mother Mouse, the Head Housekeeper, The Pea, and others. The story unfolds through their experiences related to the grand narrative, rather than focusing on that storyline itself. The illustrations support the first person narration with some characters breaking the third wall and looking directly at the reader.

The introduction to The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Scieszka/Smith, 1989) at the top of this post sums up the plot of the book. This story is told from the wolf’s perspective. It is a memoir of sorts, dictated from a prison cell where the wolf is serving time for the murder of two out of three of the pigs. His voice is simultaneously sincere and sarcastic. The illustrations are richly textured and reward dedicated viewers. 

When I was in graduate school postmodernism was all the rage, until some philosophers declared it’s untimely death. Regardless of what you might think on that subject, it’s hard to argue that children can be authentically challenged cognitively by picturebooks that might be categorized as postmodern. Books that don’t merely tell a story starting at point A and ending at point B. Books that confront beliefs about beauty, power, and representation.

 

 

Picturebooks on the Potty: Vol. 2, No. 6

I’m not going to write about my own picturebook experiences tonight. Instead, I’m going to let a soon-to-be alumna of the University of Florida’s Masters in Art Education program do the work for me.

Kaitlin Gallagher Pozzo is lives in the Minneapolis, Minnesota metropolitan area where she teaches art and Italian to homeschooled toddlers and preschoolers and is a Curiosity Center volunteer at the Minnesota Children’s Museum.  For her capstone project, she examined various picturebooks about art, created and tested related lesson plans with her  3-year old daughter and a few of her homeschool tutees. The boys moved away before the study was over so some of their interactions took place on Skype which added another space for research and experimentation.

Kaitlin developed a website to house her research findings and to serve as a resource for homeschoolers and early childhood educators. The site is full of great photos of her daughter at work/play, book recommendations and related lesson plans for projects that go beyond crayons and coloring pages. The books are specifically about art, though Kaitlin also shares my understanding and passion for picturebooks that are art objects and recognition that, all too often, the two don’t overlap. In other words, picturebooks about art and artists are surprisingly not always artful.

Please check out Kaitlin’s work and recommend it to your friends, fellow educators, and parents of young children. She plans to expand it after graduation and would love to hear from readers with feedback and recommendations for new books to explore.