The Day Joanie Frankenhauser Became a Boy

My daughter found this book at the library and recommended it to me. I had seen it on the Young Reader’s Choice shelf (it was a Junior selection for 2008) and have had it on my radar as a book I might recommend to students moving on into Grade 4. The day Joanie Frankenhauser Became a Boy written by Francess Lantz is well suited to students in Grades 3-6.

Joanie is the youngest child in her family with two rough and tumble older brothers. At ten years old, she is hyper aware of the different expectations for boys and girls and wishes her mom wasn’t so concerned with her wearing a skirt or trying out lipgloss when she really just wants to play football. When the family moves to a new town and her name is misspelled as John instead of Joan on the class list, Joanie jumps at the chance to “try out” life as a boy. Joanie a.k.a. John soon realizes that being a boy is more challenging than just looking the part (a haircut and skater shorts help pull off the transformation). Lantz explores themes of friendship, loyalty, bravery and the social dynamics of this age group. A quick read that leaves one thinking about gender stereotypes and embracing who you really are.

Books by Peter Brown

On my last visit to the library I picked up two new titles by Peter Brown. His books have big time kid appeal and I must admit, reading them out loud is pretty delightful.

Children Make Terrible Pets is a lovely twist on the “Look what I found Mom and can I keep it?” story. In this story the “it” is a boy who Lucy the Bear names Squeaker because of the strange sounds he utters. Those children quick to infer realized that probably the boy was actually speaking but Lucy couldn’t understand his human language. Squeaker is lovely to play with, eat with and nap with but “potty training” him doesn’t go so well. When Squeaker goes missing, Lucy follows his scent and discovers that he has his own family and his own home. This leads her to do a lot of thinking and to finally conclude that yes, children DO make terrible pets!

Can I keep him PLEASE?

Brown’s Flight of the DoDo is an extremely amusing tale about a group of flightless birds (The Waddlers) who dream of being Flappers (birds that can fly). Why is it so delightful? Well, watching a penguin, an ostrich, a cassowary and a kiwi bird try to invent a flying machine is quite funny. Cassowary attempting to eat the fluffy white clouds brings a lot of smiles. But it is penguin’s determined (and then necessary) target pooping that steals the show. The DoDo is certainly one amazing flying machine. But it is really fantastic with a bunch of birds poised on its edge with bottoms aiming carefully at the ground below!

If I could go to Kindergarten . . .

I love reading to the Ks at Seymour. I get to do it at least a few times a month at our primary Social Responsibility Gatherings. The Ks sit right up in front, eyes wide, serious expressions, taking it all in. They listen intently, little hands raise in the air to tell me connections and ideas. Then when they leave, they wave, they smile, they whisper, “I’ll miss you.” One of my favourite things to do is to read to the Kindergarten class.

So I got to thinking what if I could go to Kindergarten everyday? And read? What would I read?  During my last few visits to the public library I found some wonderful possibilities.

Saber-toothed tigers. Wooly mammoths. Sleepy dinosaurs. A little boy exploring the world around him. Boy by James Mayhew explores a little guy’s yearning for independence while at the same time honouring his deep connections to home (and the happy snuggles from Mom and Dad). Where in the world do we find warmth? In the security and love from our own family.

A beautifully illustrated story inspired by the author’s love of his own son.

Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick wrote There – as a series of questions. A story about growing up and celebrating the journey as much as the destination. When will I get there? How will I know? And will I know everything, There? The little girl then wonders Can I change my mind and go Elsewhere instead? She then decides that she will go There tomorrow – after she does all the things she needs to do.

A book that begs to be explored with children. Winner of the Bistro Awards in 2010.

I think this book by Mara Bergman and illustrated by Cassia Thomas Lively Elizabeth is especially appropriate for kindergarten. Life when you come to school is all of a sudden a lot about lining up. Going here, going there, hands to yourself, “shh!” Several times a day. What happens when you have a little extra energy and it kinda spills over into a push? Well in a kindergarten line, it is full on domino effect! Bergman does a lovely job of playing out the whole scenario – from upset to apology and then forgiveness and moving on (and quickly – after all, little ones have the important business of play to get back to)! Cassia Thomas’ illustrations are absolutely delightful! A book, I predict, that will get many “Read it again!” requests.

Okay who doesn’t love surprises? And guessing what will happen next? Little ones do especially. What a treasure is The Surprise by Sylvia van Ommen! Wordless so there is a lot of space for interactions. Predictions. Inferring. Questions.  Sheep zips here and there on her moped on a mission. She dyes her wool, when it seems long enough, a brilliant red. Then she brings it to poodle who spins it into yarn. She then knits something special and wraps it up and delivers it to . . .  Well, not going to spoil the surprise here but how fun would this be to do with a class of Ks?

Mattland coauthored by Hazel Hutchins and Gail Herbert and illustrated by Dusan Petricic is a wonderful book to explore with children stressed by moving. The scary sadness of someplace new followed by the gentle, spontaneous introduction of new playmates and new activities. But this book is also ideal to celebrate imaginative, outdoor play. Building a place – roads, rivers, houses, prickly trees and getting some quiet help from someone with their own treasure trove of discoveries – a flattened penny, some popsicle sticks, four pine cones . . . To be fair, you can only read this book with intended outside play planned next. Lots of it. And it should probably involve some mud!

Now I just need a plan to sneak in and share some of these with the Ks!

Why are we reading about dead things?

There aren’t a lot of picture books that deal with death, loss, grieving and healing really naturally and really well. There are definitely some (I Remember Miss Perry by Pat Brisson, Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola and The Old Woman who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant are favourites of mine on this theme).  As teachers, we like to collect these titles because it is always good to have a book to help explore the feelings that come with having to face losing someone we love. When death somehow touches our classroom or our home, we look for a book that helps us talk about this very difficult subject that we tend to never talk about otherwise. Nobody believes in the power of a book to touch us and heal us more than me but I started thinking about this. What if we read books with this theme just because?

Death is a part of life and maybe if we discussed it a little more easily and often, we would be better equipped to talk about it when it does happen to us? It was with this mindset that I decided to read two recently discovered books with my reading group and see where the responses and discussion took us. I found both at the public library when perusing the picture book collection. They came home with me and sat there in my book pile just asking to be read. I’m very glad I got to share them this week.

I started with All the dear little animals written by Swedish author Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by award winning Eva Eriksson. Translated by Julia Marshall.

This book is about three children: Esther, the boy who is our narrator and Esther’s little brother Puttie. One day the children have nothing to do and were looking for some fun. Esther finds a dead bee and decides to dig it a little grave. Our narrator confesses that he is afraid of everything, especially of dying but after a few disparaging comments from Esther, decides that he can write things, like about how horrible death is. Off they go, shovel, poem and little coffin in hand to bury the bee. “Poor little bee”, says Esther, “but life must go on.” Then a plan hatches. There must be dead things everywhere – shouldn’t they find these things and bury them all?  Esther decides that this is the unselfish thing to do. Some students thought this was a terrible idea but Alyson’s comment got them thinking: “If you’re dead, do you want someone to bury you and pray for you? Or just be left there?” We all thought about that for a minute and continued on with the story.

The children’s idea grows into an idea for a business. They would call it Funerals Ltd. They would help all the poor dead animals on earth by giving them a funeral. Everyone had a role. Esther would dig the graves. The narrator would write the poems and Puttie, too little for anything else, would cry. They phone all of the neighbours and find a girl with a dead hamster. Esther’s father’s rooster needed to be buried. They found three dead fish in the freezer. (We suspected these were supposed to be dinner) Grandma gave them the mice from her mouse traps. They discovered a squashed hedgehog on the road. Esther was delighted. Then a huge hare. Many, many little graves, many poems. Esther admits the poems are actually quite good.

At this point, Ricky found the words to articulate that nagging feeling he had. “Actually, there’s something wrong here. When they find something dead, they’re happy. They’re supposed to be sad.”

When the children saw a blackbird hit a window and die, things seemed to change. The students noticed that the characters, especially Esther seemed really sad now. “Finally.” The blackbird funeral was their last that day.

The story ends with these words: The next day, we found something else to do. Something completely different. Making this experience seem very normal. Children exploring death and grief. A natural curiousity that brings on a range of emotions. Still a sad, sweet book, but normal.  Not too sentimental. Really, an amazing book.

My students had quiet reactions. “It’s a touching book.” “Emotional.” “Maybe they felt sadder when they actually saw it die?”

I let kids write about this book by choosing specific parts to respond to using a Fact/React sheet. On one side they recorded a story event and on the other, their connections, questions, thoughts.

Kevin shared:  Fact: They found a dead hare. React: But they were happy. But maybe they were sad inside.

Lisa wrote: Fact: Esther found a box. She put the bee inside the box. React: It’s a good idea to put it in a box.

Hajhare’s thoughts: Fact: In the story a rabbit died and I would be sad if something died, but these people are not sad. React: It reminds me of when a fly died and I wasn’t sad too because I hate flies and bees.

Annie shares: Fact: Esther saw a blackbird hit a window and it was dead. React: I was really sad when the bird was dead. Esther was sad too.

Catriona writes: Fact: They said they would take care of the animals forever when they found a dead one. React: I connect to that because once I took care of a sparrow that was hurt.

Eddy’s ideas: Fact: They found a dead rabbit on the road. React: Why did a rabbit die on a road?

When he shared this question, Catriona gently helped him to see how this could have happened. “A road. Cars go on the road. It was squished . . . .” “Oh.”

Jena‘s opinion: Fact: Puttie, Esther and a friend made graves, coffins and read poems. React: I think they were overdoing it a little too much.

I decided to read the next book because it explored all of the emotions around death and grief. This was something the students really discussed – noticing at times what they thought was the absence of emotions from the characters in All the dear little animals.

Remembering Crystal by Sebastian Loth is a beautiful little book that through simple text (only a sentence or two on each page) and powerful pictures addresses the range of emotions felt when a friend is gone. It celebrates friendship and explores all of the emotions felt in grief – denial, anger, helplessness, sadness and finally coming to a place of peace.

This book had everyone’s full attention from page one. Each time I read a page there was either a comment or some sort of audible response – “Whoa!” “Ahh!”  “Oh!” or an obvious silence as feelings sank in.

Zelda is a young goose and her best friend is an old turtle named Crystal. They do all sorts of things together. Read. Swim. Travel. Talk about everything from their fears to their dreams.  “They are really connected, ” comments Lisa. “Yes,” exclaims Catriona. “Literally on each other’s back!”

Then one day Crystal is not in the garden. The other geese explain to Zelda that Crystal had a long and happy life and it was time for her to die. Zelda won’t belive this. She thinks the geese are hiding Crystal and goes off in search of her. She looks everywhere and can’t find her friend. Then she starts to remember all of the things Crystal taught her – about music, art, the world. She returns home and goes to Crystal’s garden feeling very lonely and very sad. Finally, she accepts that Crystal is gone. She knows that she will always remember Crystal and wherever she goes, Crystal will be with her in her heart.

Students had things to say immediately.

“If one friend passes away, you can still have them in your heart,” Jena commented.

Catriona had a strong reaction, “Why would they put that in a kid’s book?”

Little conversations broke out all over the carpet. I just sat and listened.

Alyson, “But it’s actually kind of good.”

Catriona “Why are we reading about dead things?”

Sergio “We’ll all die.”

Catriona “You’re not old.”

Here I asked the question, “Why do you think this is in a children’s book? Let’s see if we can come up with the answer.”

Jena: “Because if someone in their family passes away, you can learn they are still with you.”

“It helps us think about it.”

Hajhare: “But it’s sad. I was actually going to cry Ms. Gelson.”

Ricky: “It’s like Toy Story 3. Andy gets older and won’t play with the toys anymore. Crystal gets older and leaves. Well, dies.”

“Yeah. It’s like that with life.”

We continued a conversation for a little while realizing that these books do help us think about how it feels when someone dies and also help us by showing us how people might grieve. Although it might have at first seemed strange to discuss this topic, we all kind of felt calm at the end. Calm and okay.

Reach for these books that deal with death when the need is pressing but don’t be afraid to read them at other times so that children have a chance to explore and discuss these feelings and emotions when they aren’t overwhelmed by their own sadness.

It’s all about the Book

Recently we read Emily’s Art written and illustrated by Peter Catalanotto and he invited the students to send him some art. Well . . . Emily’s Art was such a special book that we wanted to “gift” Peter with something special in return. His paintings are truly majestic and we wanted to make something that might make him have a bit of that “glowy” feeling that he inspires in us as we look at his illustrations.

At the library, I found a copy of Book written by George Ella Lyon and illustrated by Peter Catalanotto. Sadly, this gorgeous book is out of print so we were lucky the VPL had a copy! Book is an ode to the magic and power of books. Lyon’s words and Catalanotto’s pictures invite us to escape to the magical place books transport us to simply by opening up the cover and stepping in . . .


We read this book a few times, marvelling at the images and savouring the words. We were delighted by the whirling words interacting with the images.  Students then wrote about what reading means to them.

P1020560The next day, inspired by this image (left) in particular, we started creating images.

While the students worked, I called each child up and we looked at their personal writing – selecting a line or a few lines that really captured their relationship to reading.

I typed up the text and then students added their text to their art in a variety of ways – inviting our viewers to celebrate reading, language and learning with us! Framed pieces are on display in the main office and in the library. Enjoy!

Lisa shared her feelings about books: I like books because each book has a different story in it.

Lisa's work

Many students wrote about the way reading makes them feel. Gary wrote: Reading is fun and calm. When I read, I visualize the pictures.

Kevin shared: “If you get really into the book, you might even dream about it. When my Mom and my teachers read to me, I feel relaxed and happy.”

Alyson is passionate on the subject! “Books change the world and books change us.”

Catriona writes: “I like reading because if you read a book, it feels like you travel into the book and you become your favourite character and you feel like you’re doing something you would love to do but it’s impossible.”

Catriona's piece

Sigh 🙂 Is that not beautiful? And if you look closely at Catriona’s picture, you might notice that she has a book heart.

Josiah shared: “I like reading because I learn new words. I get all emotional when it’s exciting.”

Eddy‘s picture is beautiful and bright and features a tree house up in a tree. He writes: “I’m happy when I read because I feel good and like I’m learning.”

Eddy's words

Learning while we read was a big theme! Jenifer says, “Books are telling things that we can learn.”

Jeremiah shares:” I like reading because it makes you learn stuff you need to learn. When I read, it feels like I’m in it.”

Sergio lays it out like only he can! “You know why I like reading? Because I will be smarter. And you know why I like being read to? Because the people that read to me, they will be smart like me.”

Ricky states: “When I read it’s like I’m watching a movie but I have to flip pages. When someone reads a good book, I can look at the pictures and visualize.”

Ricky's work

Many children wrote about how they love being read to. Always, read aloud times throughout the day are a time to connect, learn and discuss themes and concepts from the books we read.

Hajhare shares: “I like getting read to because the teacher always uses expressions and they talk kinda funny.”

Scott agrees. “I like when someone is reading to me because I could learn more stuff. It feels exciting.”

Truman drew himself happily celebrating reading.

“When someone reads to me, I feel like in the book.”

Truman's piece

This was a common theme.

Annie writes: “Books make you feel like you’re actually inside the book. I like books because they teach you things that you want to learn.”

Jenny’s thoughts are lovely. “Books are my friends and books are like alive to me. Looking at the illustrations gets me ideas.”

This was such an enjoyable way for our reading group to celebrate our relationship to books and reading.

Inspired by Book!

Copies of these gorgeous pieces are on their way to Peter Catalanotto as thanks for the inspiration!

Jena’s words are very special and capture the feeling of the cover image of Book.

“I like reading because I get to think of mystical things. When I finish the book and I like it so much I hold on to it and if it’s really emotional my eyes start to water.”


Last night I read a really wonderful picture book to my children: Albert, written by Donna Jo Napoli (her first picture book after many award winning novels including one of my favourites The Prince of the Pond and illustrated by Jim La Marche.

Albert is an interesting man. Everyday, he eats his breakfast, reads the comics, gets dressed and thinks about going outside. Everyday, something convinces him it is not the day to venture out. It might be the damp weather. It might be the noises – the not good noises like arguing or rumbling garbage trucks. If we really want to call it, I think Albert experiences some quite serious anxiety about the outside world. Not an easy place to be.

The lovely thing about this book is that Napoli arranges the outside world to come to Albert.  In the form of a twig, that becomes a nest, that hosts little eggs and a perching cardinal all on his outstretched hand. For Albert, who finds the outside world too overwhelming, he is gently (but insistently) forced to get one foot firmly planted on the ground – in the form of a hand carefully suspended in the air. Albert keeps his hand with a bird’s nest on it stretched outside his window because . . .  how can he not? For days and days. Really! Of course my adult brain wonders how does he go to the bathroom? How does he not drop the nest when sleeping? How does he survive without food or drink? (This is addressed actually when father bird starts dropping berries in his mouth) My children though just got caught up in the magic of it. “He’s so kind!” my son exclaims. My daughter is a little worried. “Mama, Albert doesn’t have a job. How can he get money?”

In the end, the birds fly away and Albert who has been interacting (through the birds) with the outside world realizes that the world is a wonderful place – full of all kinds of noises and experiences. He puts on his hat and goes for a walk.

I asked: “What do you think the birds taught him?”

My daughter had lots to say: “Helping others helps youYou should go outside and fly your heart away!”

Yes, indeed.

What a beautiful world!

Spring! Finally! In Vancouver, spring sunshine is often chased away by rain showers so all the more reason to delve into books which help transport us into nature and wonder with just a flip of a page, a beautiful illustration or a perfect written image. We found three perfect books which do just this on our library visit Saturday.


I adore this book. All the World is a Caldecott Honour Book illustrated by Marla Frazee and written by Liz Garton Scanton. Simple rhyming text pays tribute to the small simple things our world has to offer like a tomato blossom or a fire to take away a chill. But it also celebrates through Frazee’s absolutely gorgeous illustrations, the majestic purply sky at the edge of the ocean or a thunderous downpour that comes out of nowhere. The images are comforting, saturated with details and evoke our own memories attached to the experiences suggested by each picture. These pictures are so easy to connect to, I felt like I had taken a journey through some of my own most happiest of memories. Climbing a tree in childhood. Visiting a farmer’s market and eating plump berries with my children. Racing through a rainstorm on a summer’s day in search of shelter.

Janeen Brian and Stephen Michael King, the author and illustrator of Where does Thursday go? have created a lovely little tale of wonder and whimsy. An important question is posed, if Friday is coming, where does Thursday go? What happens to it during the night?

Where Thursday

Bruno doesn’t want his wonderful birthday day to end. He wants to say goodbye to it. He finds his friend Bert and they traipse through a blue star filled night looking for Thursday to say goodbye. When the moon rises up big, round and bright like Bruno’s birthday balloons, the two friends feel like they have found Thursday. They creep back into bed until the sun brings Friday. Sweet, illustrations on blue filled pages. Lovely. I especially like the image of the two friends on the beach at the edge of the sea where ocean and sky meet in swirly blues and whites.

the_curious_gardenThis book appeals to the urgency I feel when spring flowers begin poking through the earth. Tend. Nurture. Clip back. Transplant. Compost. Appreciate. Wow, can I connect to the main character in this story who nurtures a struggling garden into a majestic green world.  Liam, the little boy in Peter Brown‘s The Curious Garden resides in a dreary city where everyone stays inside. Not Liam. On one of his rainy day walks he finds a few wildflowers and tiny plants on some abandoned railroad tracks. He cares for this garden over several seasons – appreciating its natural tendencies to spread and travel and helping it along a bit too (hooray for guerilla gardening). Years later he can appreciate an entire green city, tended by a multitude of gardeners.

Peter Brown includes an author’s note at the end of the story which explains his inspiration for the book.

Escape into Spring with a poking about walk to the library and discover all the places you can find signs of Spring.