Thursday, February 16, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – MONSTERS LOVE COLORS by Mike Austin

There are so many books on mixing colors, it’s hard to imagine finding anything new on the topic. But when I read this to my kindergarten students, they loved it so much, I had to study it more closely!  

Summary from the publisher:

Did you know that monsters love to
Because monsters love to make new colors!

Celebrate along with the hilarious monsters in this wild and energetic picture book from author-illustrator Mike Austin. Mixing and discovering color has never been so much fun!

Monsters Love Colors was written by and illustrated by Mike Austin. It was published in 2013 by HarperCollins Children’s Books.


“Monsters love to scribble, scribble, mix, dance and wiggle!”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

This book showed me the value of fun word play for connecting with young children. I loved the rhyming associations with the colors: “Red is the color of ROAR! And SNORE! And more! more! MORE!”  There are funny asides with bits of monster dialogue and a wonderful over-the-top moment at the end. I found the scribble art style worked well to bring out the wild, creative spirit of the cartoony, kid-friendly monsters.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

There is a lot more to this book than I realized at first. Different discussion points could be highlighted, depending on your lesson focus. As well as teaching about colours and colour mixing, it also shows individual differences (each monster has their own favourite color and that’s okay) and how art is about playing and being creative (scribbles can be art too). 

After reading this book and seeing how my students reacted to it, I want to look for Mike Austin’s second book, MONSTERS LOVE SCHOOL.

Ages: 3 - 6

Grades: PreK - 1

Themes: color, color mixing, creativity, individual differences


Choose an interesting word from the book (e.g., growl, roar) and create a piece of art to go with it.

Draw a scribbly monster for your favourite colour and think of some words to describe it. For example,   Purple is the colour of….

Experiment with paints and crayons to make your own new colours. Invent a rainbow with your own creative colors.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – HOWARD WALLACE, P.I. by Casey Lyall

If you're looking for a good, middle grade mystery, this is a must read. I'm sometimes cautious about mysteries, because they can be too far-fetched or too easy to solve, but this one hit it just right.

Description from the publisher:

“What’s with the get-up? Is that the company uniform or something?”
“This? All P.I.s wear a trench coat.”
“Dude, that’s a brown bathrobe.”
I shrugged and straightened out my sleeves. “First rule of private investigation, Ivy: work with what you’ve got.”

Twelve-year-old Howard Wallace lives by his list of rules of private investigation. He knows more than anyone how to work with what he’s got: a bathrobe for a trench coat, a makeshift office behind the school equipment shed, and not much else—least of all, friends. So when a hot case of blackmail lands on his desk, he’s ready to take it on himself . . . until the new kid, Ivy Mason, convinces him to take her on as a junior partner. As they banter through stakeouts and narrow down their list of suspects, Howard starts to wonder if having Ivy as a sidekick—and a friend—is such a bad thing after all.

Howard Wallace, P.I.  was written by Casey Lyall and published by Sterling Children’s Books in 2016.

Why you want to read this book… 

The clues for the mystery and the mystery itself were believable, with lots of neighbourhood adventure as Howard and his sidekick scoped out crime scenes and interviewed suspects. I liked the creative details, like Howard’s playground office. Social issues of middle school, such as dealing with friends and bullies, were nicely woven into the plot and I loved the growing friendship between Howard and Ivy.  

“One of the greatest investigative advantages is the opportunity to observe your subjects when they’re unaware of being watched. People behave more like themselves when immersed in their natural environment.”

If you’re a writer… 

Something to study here is how the author created the quirky, first person narrator. The novel has a strong, consistent voice.  Howard’s obsession with being a detective came through loud and clear through all his actions and dialogue, but we also got to see his sensitivity.

 “Telling her to buzz off was the most sensible thing to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words.”

If you’re a teacher…

It can be hard to find contemporary mystery novels for kids in the 9-12 age group that have an age-appropriate mystery. It was nice to see that Howard was solving mysteries for other kids his age.  

Casey Lyall's website is very teacher-friendly and has lots of resources, a scavenger hunt for students based on Howard's rules for detectives  including:

Opening line:

“She didn’t knock, just barged through the door like she owned the place.”

Other info:

Word on the street has it that Casey is writing a sequel – I hope so!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

7 Inspiring Quotes from #Storystorm 2017

Thanks to StoryStorm and @TaraLazar, January was a great month for writers and other creatives to get inspired by coming up with an idea each day for the entire month. If you tried it, I hope you have a big list of ideas now! I ended up with over 30 ideas and 5 or 6 of them look promising to explore further, so I’m quite pleased. (For more on the process of weeding out ideas see Kate Messner’s excellent post on Picture Book Math (And Why You Should Write Something New.)

In case you missed out on the #StoryStorm fun, I’ve created a collection of inspiring quotes from the StoryStorm posts to turn to when you need a creative pick-me-up.

1. Dan Moynihan, Day 5: “Don’t be afraid to explore a possibility just because you don’t know where it will lead.”

2. Jennifer Arena, Day 7: “…the everyday can become fantastic, if you just change your perspective.”

3. Nancy Churnin Day 10: “…don’t forget that life and ideas are waiting like treasures in plain sight to be discovered and savored…” 

4. Marcie Colleen, Day 14“…having a stellar idea doesn’t always lead to immediately being able to draft up the story. Some things take time.” 

5. Laurie Ann Thompson, Day 17“ writers, we have a super power: the ability to make our readers feel, and it is through the experience of these feelings that hearts and minds—particularly those of young readers—are forever changed.” 

6. Ross MacDonald, Day 19: “Working hard at one thing doesn’t take away from other things, it adds to them.” 

7. Adam Grant, Day 23: “Being original isn’t about being first— it's about being different and better.” 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – HANNAH AND SUGAR BY KATE BERUBE

I can't pass up a good dog story! I really liked this quieter story and I think it's one many kids will want to experience again and again, because of the way the character Hannah copes with her fear. 

Summary from Amazon:

Every day after school, Hannah’s school bus is greeted by her classmate’s dog, Sugar. All of the other kids love Sugar, but Hannah just can’t conquer her fear of dogs. Then, one day, Sugar goes missing, so Hannah joins the search with her classmates. Will Hannah find a way to be brave, and make a new friend in the process?

Hannah and Sugar was written by and illustrated by Kate Berube. It was published in 2016 by Abrams Books for Young Readers.


“Every day after school, Hannah’s papa picked her up at the bus stop.”

My thoughts as a writer:

The design of the book and the illustrations help to add emotion. It was interesting to me to study the page turns for this story. Key moments are emphasized when they are shown by illustration only. I especially loved how the design of the book draws out the moment when Hannah comes face to face with Sugar. 

My thoughts as a teacher:

This is more than a book about a child overcoming her fear of dogs, though that topic will definitely hook students on the story. Through this book, you can discuss fears in general and strategies for coping with them, an important aspect of mental health. I really liked the page where Hannah thinks about what it would be like to be Sugar – it’s a great starting point for talking about empathy.

Ages: 3 - 6

Grades: PreK - 1

Themes: fears, empathy, taking risks, coping with fear


Think of something you are afraid of. What small step could you take to feel less afraid? Draw a picture of yourself taking that small step.

What is your favorite page in the story? Explain why.

Draw a poster that they could put up to help find Sugar. Think about how to make it easy to see from a distance. What information would need to be on the poster?

Check out Emily Arrow’s song about this book!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – FALLING OVER SIDEWAYS

If you like funny, emotional novels that explore what happens after a family medical tragedy, you'll enjoy this. I loved it! My blog has been a bit quiet while I was putting all my energies into writing about my students for their report cards, but I'm back and looking forward to sharing more great middle grade reads with you on Middle Grade Mondays. Stay tuned! 

Description from the publisher:

A new hilarious, honest, and hopeful novel from the author of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie!

Claire’s life is a joke . . . but she’s not laughing. While her friends seem to be leaping forward, she’s dancing in the same place. The mean girls at school are living up to their mean name, and there’s a boy, Ryder, who’s just as bad, if not worse. And at home, nobody’s really listening to her—if anything, they seem to be more in on the joke than she is.

Then into all of this (not-very-funny-to-Claire) comedy comes something intense and tragic—while her dad is talking to her at the kitchen table, he falls over with a medical emergency. Suddenly the joke has become very serious—and the only way Claire, her family, and her friends are going to get through it is if they can find a way to make it funny again.

Falling Over Sideways was written by Jordan Sonnenblick and published by Scholastic Press in 2016.

Why you want to read this book… 

It’s funny, heart-breaking and captures what it’s really like for a family to cope with a serious medical issue. I found the story a bit slow at first, but sticking with it was totally worth it! Some parts made me tear up. The author has managed to include Claire’s struggles with her friends, as well as her feelings about her changing body, her dancing ability, and her place in her family. I liked the father-daughter relationship and I especially loved Claire’s voice. She’s funny and engaging. I felt like I really got to know her. 

“If I had known I was dressing for the worst day of my life, I would probably have chosen black socks or something.”

If you’re a writer…

This is a great example of a first person point-of-view. Claire is looking back and telling us what happened. I’d study this to see how to smoothly transition between events that happened in different time periods in Claire’s life.  

“The first night of class which fell on a Friday, was the most humiliating thing ever.”

If you’re a teacher…

This is Jordan Sonnenblick’s first published novel with a girl narrator, but boys will enjoy it too (head ups – there’s some detail about periods in Chapter 2, which may be enlightening). It’s worth discussing how Claire’s perspective on life changes through the story.

Opening line:

“I’m waiting in the wings, watching all of the fathers dancing onstage.”

Other info:

Two of Jordan Sonnenblick’s other middle grades are definitely on my list of all-time favourites: Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie and After Ever After.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday – THE BICYCLE SPY

I really enjoy reading historical fiction and I spent a few hours with this one over the holidays -- an absorbing and exciting read with lots of nail-biting moments.

Marcel loves riding his bicycle, whether he's racing through the streets of his small town in France or making bread deliveries for his parents' bakery. He dreams of someday competing in the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race. But ever since Germany's occupation of France began two years ago, in 1940, the race has been canceled. Now there are soldiers everywhere, interrupting Marcel's rides with checkpoints and questioning.

Then Marcel learns two big secrets, and he realizes there are worse things about the war than a canceled race. When he later discovers that his friend's entire family is in imminent danger, Marcel knows he can help — but it will involve taking a risky bicycle ride to pass along covert information. And when nothing ends up going according to plan, it's up to him to keep pedaling and think quickly... because his friend, her family, and his own future hang in the balance..

The Bicycle Spy was written by Yona Zeldis McDonough and published by Scholastic Press in 2016.

My thoughts as a reader and teacher:

I couldn’t put this book down! It’s a compelling story that brings to life the fear and reality of what it was like to live in France during 1942. Marcel was brave and courageous, and I loved how his passion for riding bicycles and the Tour de France was an integral part of the story.  

“He was exhausted, and very, very cold. But then he thought of the riders in the Tour de France. Surely they got tired, hungry, and cold too. They had to ride in all kinds of weather—extreme heat and freezing cold.”

From the moment Marcel discovers a secret about his family, he is afraid about what he must do, but he takes on the challenge, even when at times he has to do it on his own and without the security and guidance of his parents.

This would be a great book to start or deepen discussions about prejudice, persecution and basic human rights. The back matter contains a brief history of World War II as well as of the Tour de France.

My thoughts as a writer: 

Historical fiction can sometimes be more interesting than compelling, but this story was both. I loved how the author created suspense and drama through the use of specific details. 

“Escape? Where?” The hair on the back of Marcel’s neck began to prickle and he knew it wasn’t just from the crisp, cold air.”

Opening Line:

“A gust of wind cut across Marcel’s face as he cycled furiously down the street.”

Other Info:

Yona Zeldis McDonough has written 27 books for children. They include The Doll With the Yellow Star, The Dollhouse Magic, Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Who Was Rosa Parks? 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Learning from Picture Books – BEAUTIFUL

I'm excited to start off 2017 with this wonderful picture book that promotes diversity and positive self-image. As a teacher and as a mother, I'm always looking for books that show children, and especially girls, of different shapes, sizes and abilities, as confident and multi-talented. I recommended this book to my local library to purchase for their collection.
Summary from the Publisher:

Every girl is unique, talented, and lovable. . . .Every girl is BEAUTIFUL.
Much more than how one looks on the outside, true beauty is found in conquering challenges, showing kindness, and spreading contagious laughter. Beautiful girls are empowered and smart and strong!

BEAUTIFUL breaks barriers by showing girls free to be themselves: splashing in mud, conducting science experiments, and reading books under a flashlight with friends. This book will encourage all girls to embrace who they are and realize their endless potential.

Beautiful was written by Stacy McAnulty and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. It was published in 2016 by Running Press Kids.


“Beautiful girls…have the perfect look.”

My Thoughts as a Writer:

The text is simple, celebrating different aspects of beauty for girls. The illustrations are the key to developing the underlying message that beauty is found in many different ways – showing girls as adventurers, scientists, and creators. This is a good text for studying how the text and illustrations work together.

My Thoughts as a Teacher:

I love the message that all girls are beautiful no matter how they dress or act, and that girls can do anything. I’d love to read this to my class to see how they react to it. The illustrations include confident girls with different skin colors and body types. It’s a good book for promoting self-acceptance. Every child’s library should include this book.

Ages: 3 - 7

Grades: PreK - 2

Themes: self-acceptance, diversity, beauty, empowerment


What does beautiful mean? Make a list of all the different ways of showing beauty.

Make a “beautiful” class book by having each student draw a picture of a friend (male or female) and write about what makes them beautiful.

Create a mirror template. Have each child draw a self-portrait inside the mirror that shows something awesome about themselves. Write an explanation or sentence about what makes them beautiful.