Stand Up and Sing!

The older I get, the more I think picture book biographies are some of the most inspirational seeds that allow meaningful conversations in classrooms to happen. Maybe it’s because I clearly see that a life is a story and that anytime we hear a story told, we have the opportunity to learn. As we connect deeply to a person through their story, we reflect on ourselves and our communities. We have the chance to think about things in new ways. Kids get it too. A few years ago I asked some of my students why biographies needed to be shared. Their responses revealed a lot. Some highlights:

  • “I like those books that tell the story of someone who can’t but then they did.”
  • “It’s so we can know that one person can change things.”
  • “These books teach us about community and dreams. We should think about that.”
  • “They show me not to be scared.”

I have a new must read biography that I think is particularly timely for its messages about standing together for truth and justice:

Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Adam Gustavson Forward by Peter Yarrow (Bloomsbury 2017)

This detailed biography would make an incredible read aloud. It is a story to share over multiple read aloud sessions. There is much on every page for discussion and elaboration. The full page illustrations tell a beautiful story as well. Looking closely at these allows the reader to move through one life and decades of history.

I first read this book about three weeks ago. It was a humbling experience. I closed the book and felt a strange mix of fired up and sad and quiet. I began to do some of my own further reading about Pete Seeger, often realizing songs I have known all my life were songs he had written. This took me down further thinking paths.

The sadness came from a reaction to current day news and media coverage. There is so much in stories about people that is about self rather than other. Pete Seeger clearly lived a life where self and others were completely intertwined. His motivations were clear and strong. He respected the truth. He valued its importance. He valued social justice as our most important goal to attain. I think my sadness came from just acknowledging the loss of Pete Seeger who passed away in 2014. In many senses, my sadness has no place because Pete did his work through music and music has some of the most incredible lasting power of any medium. Power to wash over people. Become part of their motivation. Become part of their own story.

I picked up and reread this story a few times over the past few weeks. Over multiple readings, I have been inspired by Seeger’s commitment to use music as a vehicle to unite people over important issues. Pete Seeger was motivated early on in his life by folk music and the connection between audience and musician. He recognized that the content of songs could be transformative.

I was reminded of precious Thursday afternoons of recent years experiencing a room full of music. My class had the weekly opportunity to sing with the talented Jill Samycia from St. James Music Academy. Singing together brought a joy and a connection to our community. There is such power in singing together especially when the lyrics hold messages of hope.

Susanna Reich’s account of Seeger’s life brings particular questions to the surface numerous times:

What do we notice?

What speaks to us?

How do these things shape our work? Our actions? How do they form our truth?

Pete Seeger‘s life work was his music. Through music he conveyed his love of people, equity and justice. Reich explains that Pete “saw that music could fill a room with peace and harmony. . . ” A wish to make this happen is what motivated him to become a more accomplished musician.

Seeger‘s path was not an easy one. His end goal wasn’t fame and fortune. It was to lead people in song. He wanted to “sing for – and with – average working folks.”

His courage, his commitment to peace, the rights of everyone in a society and hope for our world live on in his music.

Such an incredible story of one man. Back matter includes an important author’s note, a list of quotes, detailed sources and a list of popular recordings.

Recommended for Grades 3 to 8.

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2017. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!

Bad Irony: Slice of Life

I am participating in the Slice of Life challenge to write and publish a post every day in March.

Slice of Life is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. I thank them for the community they provide. Read more slices here.

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Swimming with Sharks

Imagine being called the “Shark Lady” . . .

I can’t! My fear is too great to wrap my head around being calm enough, focussed enough and determined enough to dedicate my life to both studying and swimming with sharks.


With all of those teeth and those great big jaws.


Yet, reading this book allowed me to start to consider sharks from Eugenie Clark’s perspective.

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Swimming with Sharks

I learned that sharks are many things – even, as Clark saw them – remarkable.

In Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark by Heather Lang and illustrated by Jodi Solano (2016 Albert Whitman & Company) sharks are described as timid, sophisticated and clever.

Clark herself was remarkable: a persistent student – curious, dedicated and inspired by her subject. Clark was able to train sharks to press an underwater bell and then swim somewhere else to retrieve a food reward. She dove with sharks, swimming with them and noting all kinds of discoveries about their habits and behaviour. She was determined to learn about sharks so she could address people’s fears. Help us change our minds. See sharks in new ways.

“Sharks are magnificent and misunderstood!” This was Clark’s message to the world. Sharks need our respect and our protection.

In the back matter, Lang points out that Eugenie Clark was still swimming with sharks into her nineties. She published over 175 articles about fish in her lifetime and made 72 submersible dives.

I particularly appreciate biographies that feature passionate scientists asking questions and doing work that transforms and enhances our current understanding of a subject. Eugenie Clark was such a scientist. Her life’s work is absolutely inspiring.

A fascinating biography ideal for young naturalists. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2017. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!


Thank you to Tracie Schneider for providing a copy of this beautiful book for review

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Cloth Lullaby

Sometimes a book is just too beautiful to be believed. Such is the case with this biography of Louise Bourgeois.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault (Abrams Books for Young Readers March 2016)

Cloth Lullaby Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Cloth Lullaby There's a Book for That

Everything about this book is beauty. The navy fabric feeling spine detail. The colours and patterns throughout the book. Red has never seemed so delicate. The blues. The lines. The depiction of Bourgeois’ art. Arsenault is brilliant.

And then there is the story. I think this might well be my favourite picture book biography of the year. Novesky writes in such a lyrical way that reading the text truly feels like being lulled by a lullaby. The reader is pulled into the story of a young girl on the meandering road by a river that leads her to life as an artist. We learn about her strong connection and devotion to her mother (Maman). Her growing skill as an expert weaver in the family business. Her aptitude for mathematics.

Louise’s greatest pieces – huge sculptures made of steel, bronze and marble were of spiders and were woven into being from the grief she felt at losing her beloved mother.

The connection between weaving and repairing, weaving and creating, weaving and healing are literally woven through the story.

So often we hear how artists create art in response to strong emotions. This book reveals how sadness and grief are transformed into powerful and stunning pieces.

A detailed author’s note is included in the back of the book

Highly recommended.

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2016. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!


20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015

I so often agonize over this list, my favourite nonfiction titles of the year. Which titles should go on my favourites list? I have a very special spot for nonfiction picture books and LOVE being part of this Wednesday community hosted by Alyson Beecher.

I literally ran out to the library to pick up holds in the middle of writing this post to squeeze in a few more nonfiction reads. Then, I tried reading and blogging at the same time. I have mastered reading and folding laundry (although the sock matching often goes south) but reading while typing is a tad too challenging. So I took some breaks, read a few more books and made a few changes. Finally, 20 favourites emerged.

2015 Nonfiction Picture Books 20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

I always have a love of picture book biographies I might share in my classroom. So these featured big on this list.

In Mary’s Garden by Tina and Carson Kugler

In Mary's Garden  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

The Sky Painter written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Aliona Bereghici

The Sky Painter  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for ThatWhich Trombone Shorty written by Troy Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier

Trombone Shorty  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear written by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Finding Winnie  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls

Emmanuel's Dream- The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music written by Margarita Engle and illustrated by Rafael López

Drum Dream Girl  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli

Tricky Vic- The Impossilby True Story of the Man who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova written by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad

swan the life and dance of anna pavlova  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

After experiencing water shortages this year on the rainy south coast, water is also on my mind. I found relevant and wonderful 2015 titles.

Raindrops Roll by April Pulley Sayre

Raindrops Roll  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Water Is Water: A Book About the Water Cycle written by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Jason Chin

Water is Water 20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

And then there are always certain nonfiction topics I am obsessed with: nests and eggs, whales, plants and seeds, endangered animals, Australian animals and rocks. I found titles that covered most of these things from 2015’s offerings.

The Blue Whale by Jenni Desmond

The Blue Whale  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Wendell Minor

Trapped! A Whale's Rescue  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

A Nest Is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

Nest  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Big Red Kangaroo written by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Graham Byrne

big red kangaroo  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Emu written by Claire Saxby and illustrated by Graham Byrne


Counting Lions: Portraits from the Wild is written by Katie Cotton and illustrated by Stephen Walton. Virginia McKenna (from the Born Free Foundation)

Counting Lions:  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

A Rock Can Be . . . by Laura Purdie Salas with illustrations by Violeta Dabija

A Rock Can Be  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Others that stood out are of course by favourite nonfiction writers Nicola Davies and Steve Jenkins

I (Don’t) Like Snakes written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Luciano Lozano

I Don't Like SnakesHow to Swallow a Pig by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

How to Swallow a Pig  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

Books published by Flying Eye books are often hugely beautiful and extremely interesting. This one about monkeys completely charmed me.

Mad About Monkeys by Owen Davey

Mad about Monkeys  20 favourite nonfiction titles of 2015 There's a Book for That

What are your favourites of 2015?

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2015. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!


Reading and responding: A Boy and a Jaguar

When I first read A Boy and A Jaguar written by Alan Rabinowitz and illustrated by Cátia Chien, I closed it, took a deep breath, opened it up and read it again. And then I began to think about sharing it with my students. Soon, I thought about it so much, I bought a copy for my classroom and finally, as part of a study about endangered animals, I am reading it aloud.

As we do in our room, we are taking our time with this title. There is much to share and discuss. We are now two thirds of the way through and our word list (recorded on a sticky note on the inside cover) is getting long: voice, stuttering, broken, fluently, promise, protected area, hunters, capture and release, Belize, endangered, wild . . . 

 Reading and responding:  A Boy and a Jaguar  There's a Book for That

So far, we have talked a lot. What is it like to stutter? What makes a difference for Alan? Why does being around animals have such impact? What is his promise all about? Why does he feel so broken?

Students were honestly appalled that Alan was excluded from his classroom community. Many of them talked a lot about this. Lots of questions. Lots of upset.

 Reading and responding:  A Boy and a Jaguar  There's a Book for That

The children also felt sad that Alan continued to feel “broken” despite learning to speak without stuttering.

 Reading and responding:  A Boy and a Jaguar  There's a Book for That

On this page, one child shared: “I think he has been told this so many times about himself, he doesn’t know how to feel differently.”

When the talk is powerful, the writing is powerful. Full of both passion and compassion.

Some student responses from this part in the story:

“I think he feels sad and lonely. His parents help him buy help from doctors. I wouldn’t want to be judged. I think the boy feels comfortable around the jaguars and hopeful and happy. He feels right talking to animals.”

“Alan was a little boy. He was stuttering. My class, we talked with each other about how he stuttered. It is sad having no friends. He is probably very lonely. Maybe he just sits on a chair and reads a book and minds his business. I think he goes to the zoo to see the jaguar and maybe this makes him stop stuttering.”

“If I was the boy, I think I know the cure because if he doesn’t talk when he talks to animals, so when he’s talking to people, he should imagine an animal. I think he should try practicing by talking to his parents. Of if he is shy, he could face his fears. I think he can always feel sad at school because he keeps stuttering and he has no friends.

“This book is about how Alan stuttered and his teacher would put him in time out or away because she thought he was broken. So he thought he was broken. But the good thing is that he could talk to animals without stuttering and he could sing. I wonder if he still stutters now? I think he can talk to animals because they don’t make fun of him and he really liked talking to jaguars. His Dad took him to the big cat’s cage probably so he can be happy because he likes talking to jaguars.”

“Alan’s life was hard when he was young. He stuttered. There was no cure and he was told he would be a stutterer for life. He figured out that he didn’t stutter when he talked to animals. Maybe if he told the teachers that he didn’t stutter when he talked to animals, he would get through a special course with animals involved.”

“We’re reading a new book and I really like it so far. It’s called A Boy and a Jaguar. It’s about a boy who is a stutterer and he has a hard time talking to people but he can speak smoothly when he’s singing (but he says it’s not very good) and he can speak fluently when he speaks to his pets. Yes, that’s right, pets with a “s”. He’s got more than one pet. He’s got a turtle, a snake and . . . I forget the rest. It must have been hard for him thinking that he doesn’t fit in and that the teachers say he’s broken. When they say that to him, he questions himself “Am I broken?” But deep down Alan has to remember that he is not broken. He’s different in his own way. Everybody is different and the same and that’s why you don’t judge someone because if you put yourself in a stranger’s footsteps, you would actually know what their life is like. Alan makes a promise to his many pets that when he finds his voice, he would help his animals and animals in general. It’s toughing to read about a boy and that animals change his life. That’s why we shouldn’t treat animals horribly.”

We continued to read about how Alan went to Belize and studied jaguars. He was given 15 minutes to present to the government of Belize that they should make a protected area for jaguars. We stopped here and wrote again.

 Reading and responding:  A Boy and a Jaguar  There's a Book for That

Some more writing:

“I wonder if he is worrying because he won’t be able to convince them? Is he going to stutter when he is talking? I wonder if he is saying to himself, ” I have to do this.””

“I wonder if he still studies animals. I feel bad for the animals because they’re being hunted still today. I hope that Alan did not stutter to the government. I’m worried in 15 minutes he will stutter. I think he gots butterflies in his stomach and I think he’s nervous.”

“Alan goes to the Smoky Mountains to study black bears. Then he does his promise because he found his voice to go study and learn more about jaguars because he was the first person to study jaguars in Belize. That country is really poor so it will take lots of convincing power to build a jaguar sanctuary. I think he will think what he is going to say through and not stutter but maybe a minor stutter. I think he is nervicited (new word).”

“It’s sad to hear in this book that jaguars are in danger. I hope they don’t get extinct. Why do people do this? They kill animals for a shiny trophy? That’s not fair. Animals are just like humans. They care for their babies like humans do. Animals drink water, they eat like humans do. Humans are killing more animals than animals attack humans. Did you know that humans kill hundreds and hundreds of sharks year after year for their skin, their fins and even for medicine.”

“If I was him, I would write a script before I go to speak to the government because then I can speak properly and it has a better chance of no stuttering. I wonder if Alan will stutter? I wonder how Alan feels because I think he’s very nervous and worried.”

“When Alan knew that the hunters were on the loose, he wanted to find somewhere for them to be safe so he went to the Prime Minister. He only had 15 minutes. He seemed pretty nervous. He kept his promise that he made to animals. Hunters were trying to kill the jaguars so they are endangered. I hope that the Prime Minister says yes. It says he feels broken. At first I didn’t understand but then I thought and I got it. I think he feels pretty sad that animals like jaguars are dying.

 Reading and responding:  A Boy and a Jaguar  There's a Book for That

I look forward to the continued conversations and thinking from my students as we finish this book this week.

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2015. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!


Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: The Iridescence of Birds

I am so excited to once again be participating in a weekly sharing of amazing nonfiction books that we can use to enhance the learning in our classrooms and our own reading and learning lives. Hurray for #nfpb2015!

This year, at least once a month, I want to try to share how I am using particular texts with my students or what we are reading in the world of nonfiction.

Today, we read the beautiful picture book biography: The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse written by Patricia MacLachlan with illustrations by Hadley Hooper

This book, by the way, is on the Mock Caledcott list I am doing with my class. I think I love the illustrations more with each read.

This title is like one long answer to the book’s first page:

“If you were a boy named Henri Matisse who lived in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray”

It goes on to highlight beautiful images and memories of his childhood home and experiences. Simple. Calm. Subtle. Slowly, we are drawn into the colours, the sensations, the possible perspectives of a young Matisse. This isn’t a story of adult artist. It is about a boy absorbing the beauty of his world.

This title is truly a treasure. Read it over and over and find yourself lulled by the lyrical words and the beautiful hues of Hooper’s illustrations.

I loved this interview with Hadley Hooper on the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. 

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: The Iridescence of Birds There's a Book for That

Before I shared this title with my class, I “read” them the gorgeous wordless title Draw! (another title on our Mock Caledcott list) The author’s note at the back talks about Colón‘s journey to adult artist. The children were intrigued by his long history of drawing and who he counted as influences.


Before sharing The Iridescence of Birds, I posed this question to my students: 

“I wonder where an artist gets his/her inspiration?”

This question mirrors the beginning of MacLachlan‘s author’s note at the back of the book:

“Why do painters paint what they do? Do they paint what they see or what they remember? “

We looked at some images of Matisse’s work and talked about what we noticed.

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: The Iridescence of Birds There's a Book for That

Students began to answer the question about where an artist’s inspiration might come from. Their ideas were fairly general:

  • from their childhood
  • from the places and people around them
  • from the time that they lived (we helped with this idea)

After reading the book, I asked the students to think about two questions:

  1. What were specific things that might have influenced Matisse in his later work?
  2. What was the author’s purpose in sharing this story?

We needed to picture walk the book a number of times again and read the text from particular pages so that the students could share specific and not vague answers. I pointed out that yes, his childhood had been an influence, but what specifically had the author and illustrator highlighted? I think this digging deeper past a quick answer is so important. This book in its beautiful simplicity of text, allows us to reread multiple times and focus on the specific details.

Finally, the students came up with this list:

  • the red rooms (floors and walls)
  • the fruit he got to put in bowls
  • the putting flowers into vases
  • there was always a cat
  • the painted plates his Mom made
  • the scenery he thought about or saw when he looked out the window
  • the pigeons – how they moved and what they looked like
  • his experience of mixing paints

They had some interesting comments about the author’s purpose. I love that when we read picture book biographies, they make connections between a particular individual’s story and their own experiences (past, present or future).

“It started off all grey and it gets more colourful. They showed how he changed his “place” himself to be more beautiful.”

“Kids like art. It’s fun. You can be inspired by reading about an artist and his life.”

“They wanted us to learn more about a famous artist.”

“The book was about what inspired Matisse. Maybe we have inspiration all around us too.”

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2015. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!



Nonfiction conversations: Talking nonfiction picture book biographies with kids

When I read aloud nonfiction titles to my class, it takes a long time. Often, we stretch a read aloud over weeks. Lots of reading aloud is happening in our room – a novel, various picture books, selections from titles we are book talking and always, always, one or more nonfiction titles.

No, my students don’t forget what was happening between read aloud sessions. Connections are made in the days between. We pick the title up and we loop back into our previous wonders, observations and learning. We bring more to the next time we read because there has been space for more thinking, more questions. And always, our nonfiction read alouds are titles we use to talk and share our thinking.

Turn and Talk. Share out. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Lots and lots and lots of talk.

We retell. We predict. We infer. We look for evidence. We list questions. We share observations.

The talking is rich so the learning is rich.

It sounds like:

“I noticed that . . . ”

“But we are still wondering why. . . ”

“Last time we learned _______ so .  . . ”

“My partner and I have a question still.”

“Oh! Now I get how . . . ”

“This is connected to what _____ just said: . . .”

So when I finish a nonfiction title, the book has become part of our classroom community. Our shared knowledge. Our shared thinking. Our layers of learning. Often, when I read the last page, the students clap. They jiggle about. We have come out the other side a little more enriched with knowing more about our world. We are celebrating.

Am I reading a variety of nonfiction titles aloud? I think so. I am so very conscious of this thanks to the conversations I have had via twitter and blogs with authors and educators who read, write and share nonfiction titles. I am particularly indebted to author Melissa Stewart and educator Alyson Beecher for stretching my thinking. When I think back to titles we have read deeply and meaningfully, I find narrative non fiction like biographies and nature themed books feature big. But I also read a lot of expository titles. And I often share snippets from what Melissa Stewart calls Fast Facts titles. See her Pinterest pages for specific examples.

So if I am exposing my students to a variety of styles, what do they think? Are they enjoying the genres we are reading? Starting with picture book biographies, I asked 🙂

 The Tree Lady  Nonfiction conversations: Talking nonfiction picture book biographies with kids

Yesterday, we finished The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. When I closed the book, there was the reaction I love. The big smiles. The big breath in. The sitting up straighter. The perfect time to grab their thinking while the reactions were fresh. I asked questions and wrote down all of these thoughtful responses. Sharing here:

Me: “So what words describe how we are feeling right now?”

Class: “Hopeful.” “Energized.” “Joy” “Like standing up and connecting to the Earth.” “Smarter.” “I like Kate so much. It happened a long time ago but her soul probably still speaks for trees.” “She was one person who did so much.”

Me: “This is one of many picture book biographies we have shared together. Last year we read Me . . . Jane (by Patrick McDonnell), Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell (written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman), The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos (written by Deborah Heiligman and illustrated by LeUyen Pham), and many others. Why biographies? Why do you think I share these with you? Why do you like these titles? What are you thinking?”

Class: “I like to know about what other people did.” “I like those books that tell the story of someone who can’t but then they did.” “Kids can learn a lot.” “It inspires us.” “I respect people who helped us in the past.” “I feel grateful.”

Me: “Why do you think authors keep writing biographies?”

Class: “We are really interested. They know we will be.” “People can know about the past.” “It’s so we can know that one person can change things.” “So we will know history.” “Kids should know how things have transformed.”

Me: “How do these books make you feel?”

Class: “They show me not to be scared.” “They make me feel happy and inspired.” “Yeah, lots of inspired.” “People can do big things.” “I am learning history. About people who changed a city, or a country or the world!” “I like learning so much.” “This book also teaches us about community and dreams. We should think about that.” “Yeah. Cuz we will grow up and be adults. So we need to learn lots now.”

Me: “Okay. But here’s the thing, I usually read these titles to you. Then, a lot of you read them again. Or take them out from the library. But . . . would you choose to read these books on your own?”

Class: “Yes! Because I get to know facts and share them with other people.” “I don’t know where to find them in all libraries.” “Yes, because now I know there is lots of science in them.” “The librarians should make a big sign and an arrow – learn about interesting people in these books!” “It’s books that inspire you. We like that.” “It’s all new stuff. It’s nonfiction. I love nonfiction!”

Me: “But what if I had never read any picture book biographies to you? Would you choose to read them on your own?”

Class: A pause happened.

Then everyone started talking at once and I couldn’t write down specific comments. But I can summarize. Most students said that teachers need to show their students about these books. My language/their sentiment: Lots of exposure to this genre as classroom read alouds (where you get to talk and write and think together) will hook kids on this genre. Many expressed that they like that these books are written like a story that they can just settle in and at the same time, learn facts and be inspired. Some said they wouldn’t like to read a biography organized like other nonfiction titles with fact boxes, etc. because it would distract them from the person’s story. Some pointed out that some of the language would be too hard for some kids to read on their own. So these titles could first be read alouds and then be books they could read on their own when they were older. “Because we won’t forget about them,” one student added.

Me: “Should we read more picture book biographies this year?”

Class: “Yes!” “Six thumbs up!” “Like next week?”

My learning? It is still settling in. But a few things stand out.

  • It is imperative that we expose children to a variety of nonfiction genres
  • We need to name the genre. Talk about its purpose. Discuss how we feel and what we have learned.
  • Stories hook us. Stories that are full of learning and one particular personal story touch us deeply.
  • Conversation with children about what we are reading and talking about is so very rich

I wrote a series of blog posts in the summer about teaching with nonfiction titles. This post: Part 3: Interacting with nonfiction: getting students reading, thinking and talking together highlights some of what I am trying to emphasize here.

I plan to engage in conversations with my students about other nonfiction genres and share their thinking. Please let me know if this is helpful or interesting to you as you think about read aloud choices, nonfiction purchases, instruction around reading and sharing nonfiction titles.

*Note, my class is a Grade 3/4 class that I looped from a Grade 2/3/4 last year.

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Four “finally found” titles

It’s Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday! 

NFPB 2014This week I want to share four titles that have nothing in common beyond their nonfiction status except that all four of them are books I have been dying to read and have, finally, FOUND!

If you haven’t discovered these titles yet, I pass on high recommendations! These are must reads.

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth (published in 2013) Winner of the 2014 Sibert Medal

My local bookstore seemed to always be out of copies of this beautiful title but I finally found it at my local public library. Now I see not only why this was an award winning title, but also why so many raved about how amazing it is! Susan L. Roth‘s collage images are stunning and I love the alternate orientation of the book – it is shared vertically rather than horizontally. But, it is, of course, the story that is so important. So often when we hear about animals on the brink of extinction, there is no happy ending story to share. Here, we have a story of hope and promise. Through much hard work the endangered parrots of Puerto Rico are once again flying through the treetops. Both captive bred parrots and wild flocks are being supported by the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program.

This book has many extras in the final pages to support further learning:

  • an extensive Afterward with full colour photographs of the different birds discussed in this book and more information about the recovery program.
  • a timeline of important dates
  • a list of the author’s sources

 Parrots over Puerto Rico  NonFiction Picture Book Wednesday: Four "finally found" titles

Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson (published in 2013)

This cover has been staring at me from various book lists and blogs and finally, just recently, my requested copy arrived from the library! I immediately included it on this list of Swoon Worthy Nonfiction titles because the illustrations beautifully narrate a story all their own. Brief and lyrical text tells the story of Mandela’s life and his determination to see his people live in a free South Africa where apartheid was abolished. Kadir Nelson‘s back pages flush out details of the story he shared. A book guaranteed to get students talking about Mandela, his inspiration and his leadership.

Nelson Mandela NonFiction Picture Book Wednesday: Four "finally found" titles

Dream Something Big: The Story of the Watts Towers by Dianna Hutts Aston with collages by Susan L. Roth (published in 2011)

This book recently came onto my radar. This was a title by Dianna Aston that I didn’t know and art by Susan L. Roth? I had to find it. Luckily our public library had a copy for me to request! I knew nothing of this story of Simon Rodia (called Uncle Sam) and his big dream that resulted in the spectacular Watts Towers (up to 100 feet high in parts) in Los Angeles. Absolutely stunning folk art that you can’t imagine until you see it. More information can be found on this website. It’s worth taking a peek to see what the towers actually look like.

The end pages include close up photographs of tower sections. There is also an author’s note that gives more details about Simon Rodia and his work. Building these towers took thirty-four years and was done completely alone without even a ladder or any drawings/plans. There is also a step by step guide to creating your own Watts Towers for children to try.

Dream Something Big NonFiction Picture Book Wednesday: Four "finally found" titles

Can We Save the Tiger? written by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Vicky White (published in 2011)

Ape by this author/illustrator team is one of my all time favourite nonfiction read alouds. Next year, I am looping my Grade 2/3/4 class into a Grade 3/4 class and will have many of the same students. Students expressed a lot of curiosity and interest about endangered animals and threats to animal populations which is related to the habitat and communities strand of the Grade 4 Science curriculum.

This book by Jenkins and White introduces students to a huge variety of endangered and extinct animals. With some creatures, like the tiger, more details are provided about the animal including reasons for its vulnerable status. Definite themes come through about why certain populations are threatened: lack of space, destruction of habitat, invasive non-native predators, climate change and exposure to medicine administered to another species. Again, there is hope. Stories are shared of animals that were close to extinction and now have healthy populations – like the American bison. There is an index in the back and a list of online resources to find out more about what animals are endangered and what organizations exist that are trying to protect them.

This is a title I will be purchasing for our class collection.

Can we Save the Tiger? NonFiction Picture Book Wednesday: Four "finally found" titles

Thanks to Alyson from Kid Lit Frenzy for the inspiration to read and share more nonfiction picture books in 2014. Follow the link to Alyson’s blog to read about more nonfiction books you need to read!

My goal is to read 65 nonfiction picture books for 2014. Progress: 87/65 complete! If I were counting (and I am), I would announce that that is 22 books over my goal and it’s still July!

This week, I have had some wonderful conversations via twitter with Alyson Beecher who blogs at Kid Lit Frenzy and author Melissa Stewart about sharing nonfiction with our students. This inspired me to write a series of posts sharing my passion for nonfiction books. The first two of three posts are complete and linked here if you haven’t had a chance to check them out. I would love any feedback from this #nfpb2014 community who shares such #NFbooklove!

Teaching with a passion for nonfiction picture books:

Part 1: Everywhere you look . . . let there be nonfiction!

Part 2: The importance of the nonfiction read aloud

Coming soon: Part 3: Interacting with nonfiction: getting students reading, thinking and talking together


Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014

Recently I shared a picture book wish list – ten titles that I would love to own (some out now and some to be released later this year). This got me thinking about nonfiction titles I might like.

And . . . surprise, surprise; another list was born!

Ten nonfiction picture books I would love to possess:

Helen’s Big World The Life of Helen Keller written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Matt Tavares (October 2012) 

I featured this title on a list of picture book biographies about inspiring women. When I had to return it to the library, I vowed to find a copy for my own collection. Such an inspiring and beautifully illustrated title.

 Helen's Big World Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014

Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears written by Jill Robinson and Marc Bekoff; illustrated by  Gijisbert van Frankenhuyzen (March 2013)

I just read this book last week and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It is a story that I really want to share with my students and think it would be reread often as part of our classroom collection. Jasper is a bear that was rescued by Jill Robinson (the author) and her Animals Asia team and brought to a sanctuary in China. Jill describes Jasper as courageous and loving; a symbol of forgiveness and hope.

Jasper's Story Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014 There's a Book for That

Weeds Find a Way written by Cindy Jenson-Elliott and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher (February 2014)

I do not love weeds in any way. The thought of learning to love weeds is kind of like trying not to itch a bug bit – borderline excruciating. But . . . I have heard that this book is lovely. The trailer looks incredible. I think I should own this book. Then I can love the weeds in this book and still battle with those in my garden. Those weeds that seem to always be winning. They seem to find many a way . . .

 Weeds Find a Way Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014 There's a Book for That

Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey written by Loree Griffin Burns with photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz (March 2014)

Everyone who has written about this book has raved. I have book friends with very good taste.  Just the cover image has me curious about so much. Apparently this image was captured while the photographer watched this pupa for over six hours. Intrigued? Me too.

Handle with care Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014 There's a Book for That

The Story of Buildings: From the Pyramids to the Sydney Opera House and Beyond written by Patrick Dillon and illustrated by Stephen Biesty (March 2014) 

My students this year loved building structures (in play) and designing structures (in art). I know that this book would be adored. Images and cross sections of sixteen impressive buildings around the world.

 The Story of Buildings Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014 There's a Book for That

Eye to Eye: How Animals See The World by Steve Jenkins (April 2014)

Steve Jenkins keeps making books that I simply must have. I have a large collection of Jenkins titles and use all of them frequently. And this cover . . . wow. Can’t wait to get this book and share it with my students.

 Eye to Eye Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014 There's a Book for That

Dare the Wind written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (May 2014)

I read this book months ago and continue to think about the inspiring story of adventure and bravery. A female navigator setting world records for sailing from New York City to San Francisco around the tip of Cape Horn and its treacherous waters. What a story! I have been collecting picture book biographies and share many of them as read alouds. I am sure this one belongs in our collection.

 Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014 There's a Book for That

The Slug by Elise Gravel (August 2014)

I own The Fly, one of the first titles published in The Disgusting Critters series. I know these will be some of the most popular nonfiction titles in the room. I need to place them in our nonfcition bins and know they will never return to their spots until year’s end as they creep from book box to book box, child to child (or slime in the case of this guy below).

the slug Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014 There's a Book for That

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (September 2014)

I have seen peeks of the inside of this book on a few blogs. Swoon.  Bryant and Sweet make beautiful books together. Enough said.

The Right Word Nonfiction picture book wish list July 2014 There's a Book for That

Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page (October 2014)

Yes, another Jenkins. ANOTHER JENKINS!! Hurrah! One for me please.

Creature Features Nonfiction Picture Book Wish list: July 2014 There's a Book for That


As always, I love to hear suggestions of other titles that must be on my list. List making, after all, is free. Until you put it in your pocket . .




Celebration: Following the questions

celebrate link up

I love ending each week thinking about all that I have to celebrate. Join Ruth Ayres who shares a Celebration Link up on her blog each week. Thank you to Ruth for the inspiration.

This week I am celebrating the power of books to cause a stir. To inspire questions. To promote thinking and lots of discussion.

Last weekend I read a title that I just knew I had to share with my class: Ruby’s Wish written by Shirin Yim Bridges and illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

I brought it in early in the week to read aloud. Students were surprised by so much in this book about a little girl in a prosperous Chinese family wants an education like her brothers and male cousins. She doesn’t want to settle with only marriage and motherhood. This story was especially powerful because it is based on the life of the author’s grandmother. A beautiful example of a little girl who speaks up and the grandfather who hears her. The children were shocked that at one time in China’s history, a man could have multiple wives. They were most surprised that boys could go to University when girls could not. When Ruby received an admission letter for University from her Grandfather, there was lots of nodding. And then the questions. The biggest one: “But why could the boys go to school and the girls couldn’t?” I asked the children if they would like to read more books that explored this question. The room erupted, “YES!”

 Celebration: Following the Questions There's a Book for That

And so, the next day I brought in Every Day is Malala Day by Rose McCarney with Plan International and read it to the students. This book is a photographic thank you letter to Malala Yousafzai for her courage and her determination to speak up for the rights of girls to have an education. Both text and photos (of girls all over the world) are powerful.

“People everywhere wondered why it was so hard for girls to have an education. But you and I know the answer. In many countries bullets are not the only way to silence girls.”

This book inspired outrage. Confusion. Upset and indignation. And rich, important discussion. I overheard two little girls talking about this book as they looked at it again together.

“It’s the ladies who should be having the most education because they are mostly watching the kids and kids have lots of questions. The Moms need to know stuff.”

Every Day is Malala Day  Celebration: Following the Questions There's a Book for That

On Friday Morning, with the intention of sharing Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, I put this statement on the board in the morning:

 Celebration: Following the Questions There's a Book for That

As students noticed it, it became very interesting in the room. There was whispering. Some children raced over to me immediately.

“Ms. Gelson, why did you write that on the board? Womens can be whatever they want!”

More children started to express their upset and confusion.

“I can be a Doctor. I’m a girl. I can be.”

“Really, I can’t be a Doctor?”

“Oh no. The girls are going to be mad about this. I don’t think it’s true.”

“No. It is true. My Mom was told she couldn’t be a Doctor in her country.”

“Are the girls only allowed to be nurses? That’s stupid.”

I had to reassure everyone that I didn’t believe this statement but had put it up as a writing prompt. I asked them to go write for 10 minutes about their thinking. Many leaped up to share their thoughts with each other as they wrote.

 Celebration: Following the Questions There's a Book for That

Excerpts from some student writing are shared below. Note that I am sharing the writing from both boys and girls here:

“Why can’t women be doctors? It is silly. It can be possible for women to be doctors. Women can be whatever they want.”

“Silly! Sad! Because the girls don’t get to be doctors and the boys do. The girls just have to be the stinky old nurses. Why can’t the boys be the nurses and the girls be the doctors?”

“Women can be whatever they want if they put their heart to it! That makes me mad. That’s so silly. That’s not fair. Why would they think that? Wwwwwwhy!!!??”

“Some womens can be doctors if they’re more smarter than the boys. All that matters is about knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you are female or male.”

“Why? It makes me mad because they can. Girls are smart. They should have an education.”

“It seems really unfair if this is true. Because if boys are doctors, girls can be doctors too.”

This little thinker worked out her questions and thinking as she went.

“Why only boys can be doctors, not girls? Can girls and boys be doctors? Can it be girls too? Girls can be doctors too”

This girl who wants to be a doctor, wrote this very powerful statement”

“That is silly. I am a doctor. Why can boys be everything? I am happy because I live in Vancouver. And in Vancouver, I can be everything! And in Vancouver in 2014, I can do everything!”

We came back to the carpet and I pulled out the book to read. But one little girl insisted she had to ask something before we started:

“What is it with all of these books talking about girls who can’t do things and can’t have education and stuff? Girls here can go to school just like boys.”

Then the beauty of classroom conversation took over. I sat back. Some children shared about their mothers in other countries not having the same possibilities. Some children reminded everyone that it is different in history and different in other countries. There was lots of talk and lots of buzz and finally we were able to begin this book.

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell written by Tanya Lee Stone and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

 Celebration: Following the Questions There's a Book for That

We only read the first five or six pages and I had to promise that we will finish it next week. The best request?

“Can we talk more like this next week too?