Thinking about didactic (and not) books in classrooms

Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli

I love the book Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli for many reasons. The rich colors, full bleed illustrations, and double page spreads invite readers to join in on the adventure of the main character. The repetitive text as she swings (“higher, higher”) provides an opportunity for pre-emergent readers to read along, but also doesn’t limit opportunities for readers of all ages to fill in gaps and add to the story on their own. It presents the possibilities of imagination when doing something as seemingly simple as playing on a swing set.

This weekend I discovered a newer book by the same author, No No Yes Yes.  Even though it is written and illustrated by the same person, it is a very different kind of book.

No No Yes Yes by Leslie Patricelli

In this picture book, a diaper-clad baby is told “no no” to things s/he shouldn’t do and “yes yes” to things s/he should do instead. For example, drawing on the walls is “no no”,  but drawing on paper is “yes yes”. My 18-month-old niece loved the book, as do her parents. It has given them language to help her not hit the dog or dump food on the floor.

While both of these books could be read with an 18-month old or a preschooler, No No Yes Yes is a great example of a didactic book. It is a book that I would use in my children’s literature class to help students to understand that a didactic book has a clear and distinct lesson. This is does not mean that No No Yes Yes is a “bad book” and that Higher Higher is a “good book”. But understanding how didacticism can function in books (for children or adults) is important for teachers to consider when selecting books. This means that if you are looking for a book that is going to foster interesting, open-ended, and authentic discussion focused the book, you wouldn’t want to use a text that is strongly didactic. The discussion will usually fall flat, or move into other responses about the “lesson”.

Students who are more advanced thinkers often prefer more open-ended books because they allow for a wider range of interpretations and thinking. Ultimately, didactic books fill a need, but it’s important to have (and use) a variety of types of books in our classrooms.

Connections: Extra Yarn and Philosophy of Childhood

My youngest daughter (8 1/2 years old) just asked if she could read me a picture book. She gave me four to select from and I chose this one:

Here is what she had to say about it after she read to me:

I think that there wasn’t any yarn in the box for the Duke because it only worked for people who needed it. The Duke was rude and only wanted it (the yarn) to make him famous and popular. Annabelle was a young girl who wanted to make a change in the world that she lived in. It didn’t say that exactly in the story but that’s what I think because she was the only one who could get the colorful yarn. Annabelle chose to share the yarn to help make the world a better place. The Duke was just being greedy.

I love asking people what they think about books they are reading or have read. I specifically use the term “people” because age doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a preschool child who isn’t yet decoding words, or a Nerdy Book Club friend who reads voraciously, everyone can say something about a story. It makes me think about the phrase I often hear from adults in regards to children reading certain books:

Children won’t understand that. It’s too __________ (insert descriptor like complex, scary, or deep).

This comment makes me crazy. While comments like this may be true for some readers (again regardless of age), it is not true of all readers. When adults make decisions about what a child can or can not engage with before even talking to the child, it worries me. I was reading today about The Philosophy of Childhood. I’m still reading and processing – and will be for a while because it is a big part of my dissertation. But as I was listening to Annie tell me what she thought about Extra Yarn, it made me think back to this quote by Gareth Matthews:

“The models of development that theories of childhood offer to stimulate our research and challenge our attempts at understanding children may have many useful functions. But we must guard against letting those models caricature our children and limit the possibilities we are willing to recognize in our dealings with them as fellow human beings” (Matthews, 1994, p. 29).

If we, as adults and teachers, are too cautious about what we think children are capable or in terms of responding to literature, we are shortchanging them from a world of possible experiences.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading (Nov. 5 edition)

I’m back! Be sure to visit teachmentortexts to see what others have been reading!

Over the past few weeks I’ve read:

Bear Has a Story to Tell – written by Philip C. Stead & illustrated by Erin Stead
Another lovely story by the team that brought us Amos McGee. 

Boot and Shoe – written & illustrated by Marla Frazee
Frazee’s writing and artistic style make her storytelling an absolute delight. I especially love the ways that she blends colors to show depth and movement.  

This is Not My Hat – written & illustrated by Jon Klassen
Another fantastic story by Jon Klassen. My 8-year-old and I read this together standing in our local independent bookstore. She kept flipping back and forth between pages and pointing out how much the eye on the “big fish” was telling her. 

One Crazy Summer – written by Rita Williams Garcia
This was a reread for me in preparation for a discussion in my children’s literature courses. I was again blown away by Williams’ writing, particularly her character development. This book is a must read example of historical fiction. 

Blackout -written & illustrated by John Rocco
I read this aloud to my students last week as we talked about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the role that children’s literature could play. 

This week I’ll be reading…

Graceling – written by Kristin Cashore
Another reread for me, I’ve been listening to the audio and reading depending on my location (car or home). This will be the first time I’ve used this book in my children’s literature courses and I’m anxious to hear what my students think when we discuss it next week. I love it as an example of fantasy – creating a consistant and believable world, and also as a book to talk about female characters. 

The Invention of Hugo Cabret – written & illustrated by Brian Selznick
My 8-year-old is reading this to me. While I’ve read it before (and even used it in class), having her read it to me is making it an entirely new experience as she shares her thinking and questions while she reads. 

Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom – written by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm & Bruce Novak
I’m working on my dissertation right now, and this book is both inspiration and a source of knowledge for me. 

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

I made a huge discovery about myself. I can walk on the treadmill and read at the same time! I love reading and I am very undisciplined about exercise so it is a perfect combination. As a result, I’ve finally finished a book I’ve been trying to finish for more than a week, started on another, and completed one that has been on top of my tbr pile for far too long.

I finished The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater. A lovely example of a fantasy novel that draws on folklore (something we just talked about in my children’s literature class last week!) I also like the way that we hear the story told from boy Puck and Sean’s points of view – but I tend to love multi-vocal stories. The way that Steifvater writes about the connections that both characters have with horses and the land felt so very authentic to me. I immediately recommended it to my cousin, who could BE Puck (you know, if it weren’t a fantasy fictional story).

I finally read A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban. This has been on my tbr pile for a while. My friend, Colby Sharp, is a big fan of Linda’s and I’ve been wanting to read it. I read it in an evening, immediately gave it 5 stars on goodreads, and handed it to my 12-year-old daughter as a “must read”. For more, see yesterday’s blog post. (It needed it’s own post, it was that amazing.)

I reread The Arrival, The Red Tree, Eric, and Sketches from a Nameless Land by Shaun Tan. My children’s literature students read, wrote about, and discussed The Arrival last week. Every time I read Tan’s books, I’m blown away by the way he creates multiple levels of story, and therefore, response. I picked up Sketches from A Nameless Land when I was in Australia this summer, it is amazing to be able to read about Tan’s process and get a glimpse at his creative process. Hoping that this will be available in the US soon.

I started reading A Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz. I absolutely loved A Tale Dark and Grimm because of the way that Gidwitz turns upside down (and inside out) what we think we know about fairy tales. This follow up is not disappointing. I also love that the narrator talks to the reader – nothing like breaking the fourth wall in an artful way.

The First Book Discussion

This week in my children’s literature courses, the students had their first in-depth book discussion. For each book discussion (there are 5 over the course of the semester) they read and write a response prior to coming to class. This week we discussed Grandpa Green by Lane Smith.

I love the first book discussion because the students almost always surprise themselves with how much they have to say and share with each other. They start by talking in groups of 4-5 people, each person having written their response paper from a different perspective. I explain that they will not all see and notice the same things and that is GREAT, it is what is “supposed” to happen. It is a bit nerve-wracking for some who are concerned with finding “the answer” or even “the right answer”.

But then, they begin. They each have their own copy of the book (a course requirement) and I see them turning pages and sharing their thoughts. Sometimes they get immediately into deeper questions, and sometimes they need to spend time looking through and sharing what they notice.

This semester’s classes did not disappoint. The small groups discussed the book for 30-40 minutes before we came together for whole group discussion. They were amazed – one student said, “Wow, that only felt like 15 minutes!”. Some things that they noticed and questions that they asked were:

  • looking at the first and last page to get another perspective of the narrative sequence
  • The way the intensity of the color green was used throughout the book helped differentiate memories and aspects of the garden
  • Who was narrating the story? Was it Grandpa or the little boy?
  • Was the Grandpa still alive or had he died?
  • the use of the color red on the page that Grandpa goes to war
  • was the garden real or imagined?

In two weeks we’re going to discuss The Arrival by Shaun Tan – I can’t wait!

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading…

Be sure to check out the fabulous teachmentortexts to see what others are reading!

This week I read:

Homer written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper

The calm and steady character of Homer the dog are integrated into every aspect of this book; from a simple yet meaningful text to gorgeous water color illustrations. Framed, single-page spreads show Homer’s vantage point from the porch throughout the day. Occasional double-page spreads with full bleeds “speak” for Homer without needing text. This is a dog who is completely satisfied with his life.

House Held Up By Trees written by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen

I reread this book in preparation for a discussion about realistic fiction in my children’s literature course this week. Kooser’s prose is beautifully written and the accompanying illustrations showcase a variety of points of view. The color palate is subtle and is a great example of green representing life, even when it seems it may not go on.

Grandpa Green written and illustrated by Lane Smith

I’ve read this book many times and was not disappointed on this reread. The students in my children’s literature course are also reading (and rereading) it in preparation for our first class discussion and their first papers. I’m always struck by the intricacies of the illustrations and the different ways that I think about the grandson and his grandfather.

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

This story has not disappointed. Schlitz’s ability to weave together magic, history, social class, and mystery create a tale that engaged me from the first page. She gives enough information to bring me in without making things predictable. I’m looking forward to finishing off the last few chapters tonight!

This coming week:

I’m still working on No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, it’s next on my tbr stack. I also picked up The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater at the library yesterday. I’ve not read any of her books, but she is going to be at our local independent bookstore this coming friday and I’m planning on taking my daughter. I was hoping to get her newest, The Raven Boys, but it was checked out.

It’s Monday, What Are YOU Reading?!

Thanks to my amazing colleagues over at Teach Mentor Texts for hosting this meme each week. Please check out their blog if you haven’t already!!!

This past week I read:

Same Sun Here by Silas House & Neela Vaswani 

I’m still processing this book. What I love best about it is the way that it can push against adult assumptions about the ways that children and young people think. So often I hear statements like, “kids don’t notice that” but THEY DO. This is a lovely story told through an exchange of letters between pen pals. Though at times a bit didactic, the overall premise and story are lovely and thought-provoking.

The Great Unexpected by Sharon Creech

This book did NOT disappoint. I love stories that push you to figure out connections when it seems as if there isn’t one. As an Irish girl myself, I’m particularly fond of the ways that Creech’s writing is similar to some oral storytelling traditions. Both Naomi and Lizzy are multi-dimensional, rich, intriguing characters who are accompanied by an intriguiging supporting cast.

I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This by Jacqueline Woodson

I read this in preparation for an upcoming meeting. An instructor of one of our sections of multicultural and diverse children’s literature course selected this as a required text for students. All three instructors for the course invited the rest of us from the MSU Children’s Literature Team to read the book and discuss it at our next meeting. I’m looking forward to the discussion. This book hung over me for a good while after I finished it. It is a multi-dimensional story that invites the reader to consider classicism, racism, family, friendship, and incest.

Voice in the Park by Anthony Browne

This is a book that I have read more times than I can remember. It used to be the first book that students in my children’s literature course discussed and wrote about. We still use it in the course as a model. The richness of the illustrations and multi-vocal text never cease to provide new insights and responses. I reread it every semester 2-3 times in preparation for our “elements of illustrations” discussion.

This coming week I’ll be reading:

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the LIfe and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson with artwork by R. Gregory Christie

I’m super excited to read this book. I had requested in from my local library before I left for Australia but didn’t have time to give it a good read. I love historical pieces that stretch me as a reader and this one has that potential.

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Another book that I’ve heard some buzz about that I can’t wait to read. I met Laura at a conference last year and she was absolutely lovely and so generous with her time. I loved Good Masters Sweet Ladies and can’t wait to read this one!