The holidays are a complicated time for many of us. I'll admit it: When December comes around, I don't always feel so merry. But one dependable mood lifter for me has been to pay homage to my small but growing collection of Christmas oddities—my thrift store triumphs. And what better way to share them than with an Advent Calendar? So laugh with me...roll your eyes with me...go OMG and WTH with me...and know that celebrating simple amusements can be one of the many paths to joy.
I recently finished two years of service with Reading Corps, working with preschoolers at family child care sites. A key part of the curriculum was the Repeated Read Aloud, in which the tutors (or providers, depending on the day) read the same book every day for a week, focusing on different aspects at each reading. Over the two years I served, I estimate I read 39 books roughly 18 times, to five different groups of kids. Those are some high-mileage books! Here are my favorites:
Lunch is simple but brilliant. A hungry mouse slips out of his hole and devours a crisp white turnip, tasty orange carrots, sour purple grapes, and so on. Then he takes a nap…until dinner! Denise Fleming’s mouse has enough manic energy to keep readers entertained to the end. And since there’s a page turn between the color and the fruit or vegetable, kids get to test their knowledge and predictive powers. At the end, there’s a slight but oh-so-satisfying variation in the text: the mouse eats juicy pink watermelon, “crunchy black seeds and all.” Weeks after we read the book, one of my students noticed a picture of a watermelon on a rug and piped up, ”Look, a watermelon! With crunchy black seeds and all.” (THEME: food)
This energetic book crackles like bacon in a frying pan. A family is making a Korean rice dish called bee-bim bop (“mixed-up rice”). From getting groceries to gathering at the table, every step is shared in fast-paced, spot-on rhyme. In the few minutes it takes to read the book out loud, you’ll work up an appetite! There’s a recipe in the back, and a couple of my child care providers had a fun time preparing it with their kids. That’s something I’d like to do, too. Hungry, very hungry for some bee-bim bop! (THEME: food)
Kids need thoughtful, reflective books, too, and Grandfather and I is a wonderful choice. It tells the story of a child taking a slow walk in the woods with his grandfather. Scenes from the child’s busier, louder life are interspersed with scenes of nature. The refrain is calming: Grandfather and I never hurry. We walk along, and walk along, and stop…and look…just as long as we like. A recurring squirrel adds a welcome bit of playfulness. One of my students had intellectual disabilities and was very attached to this book. For kids and adults alike, Grandfather and I reminds us of how good it feels to step away from our overstimulating lives and just...be. (THEME: family)
Building a House
written and illustrated by Byron Barton
We read three books by Byron Barton: Building a House, My Car, and Airport. The kids loved the name “Byron Barton” because it gave us the chance to sing our Alliteration Song. (Often when we were reading other books, I asked kids if they remembered the name of the author, and inevitably someone would say, “Byron Barton!”) This guy is a master at turning complicated subjects into simple, relatable sequences. The illustrations have little detail but are bold and bright. Some of the content is out of date by now and will require explanation, but don't let that be a deal breaker. These basic books are so effective because they give kids a powerful message: Yes, the world makes a certain kind of sense; and yes, they are capable of understanding it.
(THEMES: Building a House: Construction; My Car and Airport: Transportation)
This one has a lot going in different areas, but it totally works. We watch as Jack builds with blocks and imagines elaborate scenes around what he is building: a robot, a hot dog stand, a ferry boat, a lookout tower, the tallest building in the world, and finally a rocket ship. With every new creation, we get to add a number of blocks to the ones already there, so kids can practice counting and addition. The pictures are detailed and silly, with lots of fun things to point out. Some favorites from my kids: tiny Jack holding a hot dog on the ferry; a giant octopus about to attack a fisherman in a boat; and a man flapping feathered wings by the lookout tower. (THEME: Construction)
My Friend is Sad
Let’s Go for a Drive
written and illustrated by Mo Willems
Oh, Mo Willems. You just can’t go wrong with Mo Willems. In My Friend is Sad, Gerald is sad because he misses Piggy. But Piggy doesn’t know why Gerald is sad and tries to cheer him up, first by dressing as a cowboy, then a clown, and finally a robot. Each time, Gerald cheers up momentarily, then goes back to being sad. Why? Because he saw all those cool things and Piggy wasn’t there! The kids love Gerald’s over-the-top drama and Piggy’s imagination and sprightly persistence.
In Let’s Go for a Drive, Elephant and Piggy methodically gather all the things they’ll need for a drive—among them a map, sunglasses, umbrella, and suitcase—and then realize they are missing the critical item: a car. Gerald has a meltdown, of course, but Piggy’s solution is to use all the things they gathered for a game of Pirate.
If you can get another adult (or older child) to read with you, these books make great readers’ theater. In fact, later in the week, when the kids were familiar with the story, I’d divide the kids into a Gerald group and a Piggy group and we’d read the story together that way. It’s all great fun—but there’s more to it than fun, I think. There is such a range of emotion in these books, with lots of opportunities to talk about how characters are feeling and why. And for me, it was eye-opening to see how even my youngest students reveled in the fairly sophisticated humor. Kids understand so much more than we realize!
(THEMES: My Friend is Sad: Friends; Let's Go for a Drive: Transportation)
Another vivid, energetic winner by Denise Fleming (author/illustrator of Lunch). This one is a romp through a farm, showing animals and the places they hang out and celebrating animal sounds in a big way. Throughout the book, Goose is chasing a butterfly. Even though Goose is usually easy to spot, the kids loved pointing him out and seeing how close he could get to that butterfly. A couple of my younger kids got so excited they’d run to the book and practically shout, “There’s Goose!”. There’s lots of fun rhyme, too, and the chance to introduce some less common vocabulary words (grain bin, rafters, etc.). Once the kids are familiar with the book, an easy confidence-building activity is to say an animal sound and let the kids guess which animal is making it, or name the animal and have the kids say the sound. This is a noisy one! (THEME: Animals)
In this silly book, a giant squid is very taken with himself and the fact that he’s bigger than all the other sea creatures he comes across. Then a whale sneaks up on him—and next thing he knows, he’s in the belly of the whale, along with all the creatures who’ve had to put up with his bragging. The squid thinks about it for a bit and then, undaunted, declares himself to be the biggest thing in the whale! The book offers good exposure to sea animal vocabulary (although I do wish there had been a fun fact section at the end, to give a little more content). One of my younger kids was scared of the shark, and a few kids didn’t like the picture of the whale swimming away with the squid’s tentacles streaming out of its mouth. But I think their responses just made the other kids like the book more. Even children appreciate a little dark humor at times. (THEME: Animals)
Flower Garden was published in 1994, and it makes me happy to think that over the years, so many children have experienced this book. It is pure loveliness. A girl and her father surprise the mom on her birthday by planting a garden box and hanging it in their apartment window. The text rhymes gently and the illustrations convey a variety of interesting perspectives. One of our favorite pictures showed only the girl’s feet and legs as she went up the stairs, a cat looking up at her and a fallen geranium blossom on a step. (Several kids insisted this was a strawberry.) Another favorite was a scene with the girl looking out the window and seeing her mother on the street below, just turning the corner. At the end, the family looks out the window; the newly planted flowers are framed against the city skyline; chocolate ice cream melts on a plate. I could just about taste that ice cream. This is a book that glows. (THEME: Spring)
In mid-May I was a presenter at the Young Authors, Young Artists conference in Rochester, Minnesota. My workshop was called The Question Session: Q & A Your Way to Great Writing. Over the course of three days, I worked with close to 270 kids in grades 3 to 5. I thought I’d share the highlights—and a few lowlights—of what it was like.
The gist of the class: Questions are a simple, effective tool that can help us enrich our writing. To get the ball rolling, instead of introducing myself in the usual way, I had the kids ask me questions. I told them they could ask me anything, serious or silly. They didn’t go for the silly questions the way I expected, but they did seem to appreciate the go-ahead to ask personal questions.
We talked about how questions help us access different types of information in our brains. The kids picked a writing prompt question (or made up their own) and wrote a quick first draft. Then we took a short break, which was also question-themed, of course. Everyone stood up and I asked a bunch of yes-and-no questions. For a “yes” we jumped twice; for a “no” we touched our toes. My questions ran the gamut. I learned that: almost every kid had bought something at a garage sale; only a few had broken a bone; about half of them liked pickles; about a third currently had a crush on someone; most could use chopsticks; and the vast majority had a secret. I was happy with how well this exercise went—the kids seemed to enjoy it and were sorry when the game was over. And yet it was so simple. (Witness the power of questions!)
At the end the kids could share their work if they wanted to. Many of them read work based on the question If you had a bazillion dollars, what would you spend it on? Every single child who had chosen that prompt talked about using the money to help people. Every single one. But you could tell that the older kids, the 5th graders, were already worried about college. Several of them said that after giving money to charity and buying some cool stuff for themselves and their families, they would put money aside for their college educations. So yes, even with a bazillion dollars and no need to have a job at all, the kids believed they should go to college—and they knew it would cost a lot of money.
Another popular prompt was If you could have any animal in the whole world as a pet, what would it be? One girl approached me as the kids were starting their first drafts.
“Can I create my own animal?” she whispered. “Sure!” I said.
When it was time to write second drafts, she came up to me again. “I made up an animal. Can I write from the animal’s perspective?”
“Of course you can!” I told her. “What a great idea!” Her face brightened. I’m sure mine did too. This is the power of creative writing: You get to say YES.
But sometimes saying YES comes with a price. An older girl chose the prompt What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?. She talked about how hard it was that she hadn’t seen her dad in three years.
I really hope that girl keeps writing.
Dog Walk Discoveries (September to November, 2017)
Calming down now with some September flowers...
Saint Francis of Assisi and some funny bunnies.
I'm guessing the horn-blowing dude is Pan, Greek god of shepherds and flocks
and all things wild. Note the nervous sidelong glance of the smaller bunny.
This statue must have been quite beautiful at one time. As was the tree.
Ha! That's all I'll say about this one.
A red hydrant casting a blue shadow.
More interesting colors here. I walk by this door frequently
and I always feel as though I've passed through a painting.
Really? I mean, really?
I think I've discovered all the sidewalk poems in my neighborhood, but I found this one while walking with a friend in her neighborhood. I so love St. Paul's sidewalk poems project!
A picture that says: November.
The old greenhouse in Mountain Lake.
Early morning silhouette of Milk Specialties, Mountain Lake.
is a children's book author, mom of two young adult kids, devoted walker, and collector of weird things.
My Reading Corps Service
Letters for Kids
A Blue Ribbon Day
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree