Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sinister parodies

Once upon a time (in 1992) the Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieska and Lane Smith blew me away.

What’s not to love?

Laying into the conventions of storytelling, fairy tales and book design, playing with our expectations, with twisted illustrations that are outright anti-Disney – bring it on.

So, jump ahead 20 years and there’s Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge. 

Again tales from the Grimm Brothers, Perrault, Anderson and others have been tweaked, twisted and updated to resonate with today’s high school crowd.

The Little Match Girl now sells CDs to stoners for fifty cents a pop in a bleak inner city.  (No happy endings for this one.)

Red Riding Hood tells her story to her mom in modern lingo that is a hoot.  Who wouldn't want to know what it’s like to be swallowed by a wolf?  Well, not me but RRH does…
 Anyhow we chat and he gives me his e-mail and some more insincere compliments and the next time I see him he’s in Gram’s bed and she’s, like, inside him! Wait till I tell Amber that!  I am so sick of hearing about how her grandmother goes to Cabo all the time and paraglides and scubas. Those things are like nothing compared to being swallowed whole.  And it kind of makes me want to know what that’s like.  What? No, as a matter of fact, if everybody at my school got swallowed whole I wouldn't want to.  It’s lame if everybody does it, Mom.  How old are you, anyway?
 A cursed prince in East of the Sun and West of the Moon is saved from marrying a troll princess by his MOTL (my own true love, in case you're wondering).

In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the little boy who saw the that Emperor run around naked after being conned by shady tailors eventually gives in so that he too ends up wearing invisible pants that he’s careful to keep from dragging on the ground because they are new and beautiful. It’s really hard to withstand the forces of public opinion.

Also included are Cinderella’s stepsisters in The Stepsisters, Rapunzel, Thumbelina, Diamonds and Toads, The Princess and the Pea, Little Thumb, Bluebeard, Rumplestiltskin, The Frog Prince and many more.

I didn't know every story Koertge included or caught all his references.  For example, I’m unfamiliar with the Ogre Queen but found her story interesting regardless. Unhappy in her marriage to Prince Charming who married her for money,overlooking her predilection for eating children and she ends up running a consulting firm in Washington getting work from Congress and the Pentagon.

The illustrations are black and white paper cuts with lots of sharp angles that add tremendously to the dark, creepy atmosphere of these tales .

The tales are told for the most part as narrative verse.  It’s a slim volume that is a quick read that will get under your skin in a way that Disney never could.  The Stinky Cheeseman may have been a first of its kind (and definitely appropriate for younger kids, grades 3 and up) but Koertge has taken this on for the older crowd that offers new perspectives and lingers in the mind.

Monday, June 24, 2013

This time a book – instead of an app

Guest blogger - Janet Hutchinson

Janet has recently taken on learning about instructional technologies for the classroom.  Part of her time has been learning about iPads, their usefulness as a classroom tool and related apps.  We've gotten into a few discussions about some of the questions that arise when looking at some of these 'educational tools.'  Do these apps add anything to the reading experience?  Are they educational, entertaining, distracting or altogether off-putting? Do they replace the physical book?  What is lost without the physical book if anything? and so on.   

Finding current books that direct you to worthy apps is important however fleeting their relevancy.

With my new-found interest in iPads and apps (OK, who am I kidding, I have always been a bit of a geek….), I have been discovering books that are about technology and technology integration into the classroom. One could argue that by the time a book gets through the stages of production, at least 30,000 new apps will have been introduced in the iTunes store (that’s a conservative estimate – a quick Google tells me that according to, apps available on iTunes have gone from 50,000 in June of 2009 to 775,000 in January of 2013 – other sites cite different numbers. The point is, it is a quickly growing market). However, whether these apps are useful or achieve learning goals can be difficult to measure without some reading and thinking about incorporating them into the classroom.

I have been reading several books about technology and technology in the classroom to help me with understanding this process. Tammy has asked me to review some of what I am finding.

So the first book  that I am reviewing is Apps forlearning – middle school iPad, iPod touch and iPhone by Harry Dickens and Andrew Churches.

There are several reasons why I liked this book. To start, the authors have not covered huge numbers of apps. They have selected 5 to 8 apps in each category and expanded on how a student or teacher might use this in learning and research.

 I also liked the fact that the chapters were broken down by subject area. For example, the Social Studies chapter lists 6 apps and gives examples of the types of information that a student might gather from the app, or how the teacher might use the app in their classroom.

Each chapter ends with a brief synopsis of each app listed in the chapter, along with the URL, the purchase price and the device availability. (If you are Canadian, some of the apps listed are American based, so might be of limited use in some aspects of the curriculum – but I am continually on the lookout for quality Canadian apps that mirror some of the American ones I have found – I’ll keep you posted.)

Finally, the authors have not limited themselves to curriculum subject. They have devoted several chapters to basics, literacy, apps and tools for sharing and talking and tools for creating.

This book might get dated quickly – but the authors’ principles about what to look for in an app and why it is important to integrate them into the classroom mirrors much of my thinking on the subject.

And the other reason I liked this book? Most chapters feature at least one app that I thought would be great for classroom use. Nothing like positive reinforcement in a field where I feel like as much as I have learned, I still have so far to go!!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Call to Creativity: writing, reading, and inspiring students in an age of standardization by Luke Reynolds is a call to English teachers not to abandon creativity (both in how they teach and in student work) in the pursuit of meeting standards.

Reynolds is a secondary (grades 7 to 12) English teacher who, based on a hunch, decided to challenge his grade 11 students with an assignment that would require them to "craft 50 pages of their own original, creative fiction" otherwise known as the novella assignment.

His reasoning was based on wanting to incorporate more creativity into his teaching and students' work and that this 2 month project would get his students to "learn effective writing strategies and hone their skills far better than they would in the more traditional, widely marketed test-preparation curriculums".  He provides the assignment in an appendix.  (In fact, roughly 1/3 of the book is appendices that provide support for teaching his creative assignments if you should choose to accept this mission.)

All of his students hand in the 50 pages with
 dramatic increases in their writing abilities.  Their test scores that spring showed strong gains, and their attitudes toward writing had improved dramatically. It became common for me to overhear students talking in the hallways about what would happen next in their novellas, and  it was also common to come to class on a day when their next two pages were due, only to find that many students had instead written six, seven, or eight.
Sounds pretty good, right?

He continues on with additional activities showing direct ties to standards.  

What comes across is Reynolds' passion and commitment to trying to do more than just teach-to-the-test.  He wants to enliven his classes and engage his students and feels that taking a creative approach will do this.  He lives in the real world where accountability is to meet state mandated standards.  He shows us how he strives to do both.

This is a quick read with ideas worth considering.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Guest Blogger - View from the School Library

Janet Hutchinson is a colleague and kindred spirit when it comes to children's literature.  She also works a day and half in the library in the school which her children have or are attending here in Calgary.  Her experiences there provide her (and me by extension) the opportunity to see what teachers and kids do with the books we promote.

(PS.** IMHO = in my humble opinion :  I didn't know this particular 'txting' short cut.  LOL, I'm such a Luddite.)

These are a few of my favourite…….books 

It’s clean-up time at the school and all the books that have been under students’ beds, in their desks and at the back of their locker, underneath the sweaty gym gear and the forgotten lunch from January, are starting to make their way back to the library. As they get checked in, and as I do the inventory, I am amazed anew at the books that I have not seen on the shelf since September. As fast as they come in, they have gone out again, or been renewed and requested over and over.

Two books in particular are ones that I really like and it gives me a small quiet thrill to see that, in these cases, I have selected books that resonate so strongly with students. As I inventory, I notice the number of excellent (**IMHO) books that have not been taken out much, or at all, this year, so I am slowly developing a plan to display and promote some of them more prominently, in hopes that, maybe next year, there will be new favourites.

But back to the book titles:

The first book is Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. I love the combination graphic(ish) novel and prose. The book tells the story of two youngsters – Ben, whose story is told in words – and Rose, whose story is told in pictures. Both children are involved in quest to find that which is missing in their lives. For Ben, it’s his father, his only surviving parent since his mother was killed in a car accident. For Rose, it’s her mother – she has left her daughter and remarried.  Selznick takes these two plot lines and beautifully weaves them together, alternating between the past and the present and between words and pictures culminating in a very satisfying and lovely conclusion.

If the reader has weak reading skills, this is still a story they can consume easily (although the thickness of the book might be daunting. But the last student to take it out shyly admitted that she had had it out several times so far this year, but that she had to take it out “one more time” before school ended.

The second book that has not stayed in the library is the book Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg. Intended as a picture book (or at least presented in that format) the book is a life lesson contained in about 15 pages. Each page presents a spill or a blob or a tear that the author then turns into a great piece of art.  The message can be read in several ways: From mistakes come things of beauty; Creativity can come from messes; mistakes are just opportunities reshaped. A torn page? Becomes an alligator’s smile. A blob of paint? Becomes a goofy looking animal. What I loved about this book is that it removes the need for perfection and can be inspirational to anyone who reads it. And although lots of the “little kids” took it out – lots of the “big” kids did too.  Proving (at least to me) that good picture book crosses ages, stages and grades.

I hope that with active promotion and more involvement with each grade that this list is longer next year. But it’s still a pretty good list. I think.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Risky Business – “Have you heard the one—“

Imagine starting a class with the question “Why do Monarch butterflies fly south for the winter?”

Imagine the kinds of answers you’d get: seasonal migration, breeding, warmer weather, etc.

But what if those weren't the answers you were looking for?  “Good answer”, you’d say “but not what I'm looking for.  What else?”

You repeat the question a few times trying to emphasis certain words to give a clue as to what you’re looking for “Why do Monarch butterflies fly south for the winter?”

No one is picking up on it. 

The answer when I finally give it (I learned to make them wait for it) elicits the expected groans and a few chuckles.

“Because it’s too far to walk.”

Now you have to know that these weren't elementary or junior high students.  This was a group of university student teachers (most with science backgrounds) at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning.

What was I doing?

Besides being very nervous, I was jump-starting a workshop to introduce students to the Doucette Library’s fantastic collection of science kits, children’s literature and professional resources that would support their classroom teaching.

I was also taking what I felt to be, a risk.

I was tremendously nervous doing this as I felt I was opening myself up to ridicule.  But I knew I wanted something that would change the expectations of the students in these workshops.  It was not going to be an hour of me blah, blah, blah-ing about all the wonderful things they could find in the Doucette.  I wanted them to sense that this workshop was going to be different.

I had already set the ‘stage’ (the teaching space) with six tables piled with subject related science resources and covered up with white table cloths.  Students sat at these tables without knowing what was under the cloths or what was going to be expected of them.

I made them wait to find out about that, too.

All this was my attempt to emulate an idea I had seen in action at a library workshop the previous fall, in which Randy Burke Hensley was the presenter.  After the workshop facilitator introduced him Randy stepped forward and without saying a word began to sing.  That’s it.  I can’t remember what the song was but it was an oldie and he did it without music accompaniment.  It was terrific.  He was good. And it set our expectations about what this workshop was going to be about and how it was going to unfold.  The workshop was about information literacy (how to teach library/research skills to students) but with the focus on how to do it with some creative flair, stepping away from typical library orientations of watching or trying follow along canned searches of databases and online catalogues.  Ho hum, indeed.

I liked his opener but the only way I can carry a tune is in a bucket.  So, I needed to find another course of action.  The riddle was my attempt.

Did it work?

Some students did come to look at Hooked on Riddles so I took that to mean they thought it was worthwhile knowing about.

The workshops were certainly very vibrant, dynamic and loud.  There was lots of playing with the kits, discussion, and students browsing through picture books and professional resources.  Feedback from the instructors was positive.  The covered tables generated a sense of curiosity and anticipation.

And, no one told me that I sucked.

So all-in-all not too bad.  I wouldn't do this in every workshop but it was a good exercise  to put myself out there, a reminder that this is what good teachers do everyday.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Out of Line: Growing up Soviet by Tina Grimberg is a short memoir of her childhood growing up in Kiev, Ukraine under Soviet rule in the 1960s and 70s.

It reads pretty much as you’d expect: things are grim, life is not easy, there are long lines for everything with no guarantees of actually acquiring anything, consumer products are usually expensive and cheaply made, making head way requires knowing people in the right places or having enough money to bribe anyone with a modicum of power, information about the west is limited and correspondence with those from outside the Soviet Union is censored.   Many of her stories seem to take place in the winter, giving us the feeling of being cold on top of everything else.

But from Tina’s perspective as a child, this is just everyday life and doesn't seem so horrible.  She comes from a loving family and many of her stories revolve around her parents and grandparents.  She’s fascinated with family history and loves to be regaled with stories that tell of other times, especially those that are about World War II.  We get glimpses into everyday activities, of going to school and visiting friends and relatives with insightful observations, elements of humour and sometimes sadness.

It’s interesting to read about how her family deals with being Jewish and trying to minimize recognition of their heritage.  Practising or following any religion was strongly discouraged by the state.  Being Jewish during the war was particularly difficult since Jews were targeted by both the Nazis and the Soviets.  Many of Tina’s family members changed their Jewish-sounding names (Sarah or Ginda) to more Russian-sounding ones (Svetlana or Inna).  Being identified as a ‘kike’ is insulting if not risky.

Despite of the hardships, inconveniences and repression, Tina loves her family, school and country.  She is proud that the Soviets stood up the Nazis.  It is a very difficult decision for everyone in her family to emigrate, but one that will give Tina and her sister more opportunities for a better life.  Being branded a ‘traitor’ by schoolmates and neighbours is difficult to bear.

I would recommend this book for middle school readers.  Its unfortunate the reading level is a bit high for those in grade 3 as this would be a nice fit with the social studies curriculum that looks at life in the Ukraine, but I would recommend grade 3 teachers reading it themselves for context or reading aloud the occasional passage.

Rabbi Tina Grimberg acknowledges the friends who encouraged her to record her memories and I'm hoping she may be prevailed upon to continue writing about her life as a new immigrant.

Today's event is hosted by Practically Paradise by Diane R. Kelly.  Check out this week's list of recommended nonfiction children's literature.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Down the rabbit hole - Finding your creative bliss

Here are some things I really like about Rabbityness by Jo Empson.

*The title: Rabbityness.  I know it’s not a word but it captures perfectly what this book is about – the qualities and activities that contribute to the identity of this particular rabbit.  Whether he’s jumping, burrowing or washing his ears (typical rabbit business) or making music or painting (non-traditional rabbit business) this is a rabbit who knows what it takes to make him happy.

*The art work: I'm guessing that the art work is done as watercolours, ink, pencil, and maybe acrylics.  (The author doesn't have a description included, unfortunately.)  But the medium isn't as important as the effect.  The black (inky?) rabbit is an inviting creature that creates bright splash-happy, psychedelic paintings that explode across the pages.  While making music, the resulting sounds are multi-coloured notes that pack the page.  The excitement and feeling of compelling joy spreads to the other rabbits.

*The message:  I guess this might be considered the story of the picture book but I got too caught up with the idea about how one rabbit has a lasting impact on his fellow rabbits.  Inexplicably, the black rabbit disappears one day.  Though the other rabbits search for him he remains missing.  This is never explained.  But that’s not what the book is about.  It’s about what the black rabbit leaves behind. 

You see, after the other rabbits realized black rabbit isn't coming back and they sink into a dreary, grey funk, they decide to go down into black rabbit’s burrow, down through a deep, dark hole to see what he’s left behind.  And, this turns out to be the gift of creativity, the things to make their own music and art. Unrabbity endeavours are abound as all the rabbits explore their creative sides as they fondly remember the black rabbit.  For me, this was more message than story.

*The metaphor: Overall, the idea of individual creativity having the power to affect others is offered here in a beautifully illustrated picture book.  Also offered is that there can be a lasting impact, a legacy to be appreciated from those that came before. Also, that life goes on and we can continue creating our own happiness.  And, that jumping into the unknown can lead to unexpected places and pleasures.

Hop on into Rabbityness.  This one will have applications across the grade levels.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Creative whirlwind

Imagination Illustrated: the Jim Henson journal by Karen Falk provides a fascinating look at the very busy and creative life of Jim Henson, Muppet-creator.

Jim Henson wasn't a diarist as such, but he did keep a ‘little red book’ in which he chronologically recorded significant events in his life that included family milestones and business highlights.  His daughter, Lisa Henson writes in the forward that:

 He kept all those dates in a simple chronology, mixing family and projects indiscriminately.  It shows how blurry the boundaries were in his mind between his creative and family life, and these juxtapositions are interesting on a very personal level. – p.8

And that’s exactly what this book does: presenting bits of Henson’s life as a montage of sketches, photos, posters, playbills, storyboards, TV stills, and other various visual detritus. The book is broken into segments roughly covering 10 year chunks (give or take a year or two) starting in 1954 until just prior to his death in 1990.  Each segment is given a brief introduction to provide some context and continuity for Henson’s work.  Each double spread of pages focuses on a short period of time within a year with a brief description of what’s going on and what the pictures on these pages are about.

I can’t say I was ever a real Henson groupie.  I liked the Muppets well-enough but just missed the Sesame Street hype.  My sister was more into it and that’s how I got side-swiped by Ernie and Bert, Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster.  Cute, fun, but little kids’ stuff.  I was ‘way too old’ (8 or 9 years old -ha).  

As an adult I knew about his big film productions, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and was aware of his other TV efforts Fraggle Rock and Dinosaurs.  Again, it was cursory awareness with a dash of appreciation for the art work that was more than apparent.  Just not high on my list of priorities though.

Nevertheless, this was an interesting book.

Going through this album-like book made me feel that I had missed out on something ‘big’.  His creative genius is very evident and I'm amazed at how busy this guy was.  Reading about his work in this way, based on the journal that Henson himself created as a chronological record, gives the impression that he goes from one project to the next without pause, that he’s always engaged with creating something, usually with other people, that life was go, go, go.  We don’t hear of doubts, struggles or failures.  Maybe he didn't have any.  Maybe he never ran out of ideas or energy.  Maybe he never had a conflict between family life and work. Maybe these are the events that were not recorded because that’s not what he wanted to focus on or remember, or maybe it was the author’s decision to omit these moments. Lots of maybes.

This book may give us some insider information about the creative process for many of Henson’s well known works, but doesn't really give us much insight into who he was.  There are bits and pieces related to his family life, like pictures of his family and children, but the focus really is on his work.  He seems like a nice man, very likeable and a great collaborator.  Maybe he was too busy to have angst-filled moments that often plague creative genius.  I think this really has more to do with how this information was derived from ‘the little red book’ and less about who Jim Henson was.

Though an enjoyable meander through Henson’s creative life, this isn't a definitive book about either his life or work.  It’s a sampling that emphasises Henson’s amazing ability to create puppets that people of all ages could connect with because he made them seem real.  (Kermit the Frog to replace Johnny Carson, anyone?)

I’d recommend this book for older readers who are super keen on Jim Henson, his Muppets, his movies, those interested in the creative process, or if you want to revisit some youthful moments meandering down Sesame Street.

For younger readers try Jim Henson : the guy who played with puppets by Kathleen Krull.

Today's Nonfiction Monday event is being hosted at Jean Little Library.  Take a look at various blogs that focus on nonfiction children's literature .

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