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.


Book Choice: Talking the talk – pt. 2

Yesterday I wrote about my 12 year old daughter wanting to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower and how it pushed me to “talk the talk” of book choice with my own kids. Today’s post continues with a reflection on a similar event with my younger daughter.

My youngest daughter is 8-years-old and in the third grade. She recently finished listening to all the Harry Potter Books. She enjoys reading, though not as voraciously as her older sister. She knows what she likes and doesn’t like. If it is a choice between not reading, and reading something that she isn’t crazy about – she will choose not to read. However when she gets excited about a book, gets really really into it – look out. That’s what happened when she discovered HP audiobooks. She listened to all of them in less than 2 months, we talked about the characters and the stories. We also watched the movies and compared them to the books.

Last week she had a sleepover with one of her best friends who happens to be in fourth grade. Friend has read The Hunger Games and was telling Youngest how amazing it was, and that she just had to read it. I want to say first, that I love that they were talking about books. When friends recommend books to other friends (kids, teens, or adults), it can be one of the most powerful motivations to read.

So Youngest comes home SO excited because she wants to read The Hunger Games. She has asked in the past, but I think it was more to both imitate and annoy her older sister (who has read the book). This is an important part of the story – Eldest insisted on numerous previous occasions, that it was “not appropriate for Youngest to read”. After what seemed like the tenth time she told me, I sat down with Eldest and told her about my belief in readers choosing their own books. I reminded her of the time that she wanted to read Hunger Games. And I told her that ultimately, me saying “no you may not read that” is a form of censorship. That censorship and selection are something I teach my students about because of how strongly I believe that there are not book “rules” that work for everyone. That it was not her responsibility to decide what was appropriate for her sister (or anyone else) to read. Ironically two weeks later, Eldest wanted to read Perks of Being a Wallflower, written about in yesterday’s post.

Back to Youngest, who by now had asked every day for a week to read The Hunger Games. Youngest is a my sensitive one who has felt empathy for others from a very young age. She is the child who cries when other people get hurt. I had definite reservations about her reading The Hunger Games right now. But she was so excited about it, I didn’t want to squash that excitement. I was also genuinely concerned about how she would respond to the killing scenes in the arena and the fact that people were forced to watch it on tv. Part of me just wanted to say, “No, you aren’t ready, you may not read that book now.” But I realized as she and I sat at the table together I needed to talk the talk of book selection with my own child.

And what do I tell parents and my own students to do in these situations? Start by asking the child about why they want to read that particular book. She was excited about the adventure aspect, mostly she was excited to read something that her friends had read so that she could talk about it with them. Ok – where to go next? I described the general plot to her, the conversation that followed went something like this:

Me: Honey there is killing in this book. You don’t even like it when people get hurt.
Youngest: I know that mommy, Friend told me. She also said not to throw the book across the room when a character you like dies. Because it doesn’t change anything and you’ll get in trouble.
Me: Well, that is good advice. I want you to understand what kind of killing and hurting is in this book. It isn’t like Voldemort. There kids killing other kids because adults make them. And people are forced watch it all on tv.
Youngest: People watch? That’s yucky. <BIG PAUSE>  But it’s still a fiction book, it’s fantasy. I know that means it didn’t really happen.
Me: That is true, but I also know that when someone is injured, it makes your tummy hurt. I’m worried that if you read this book your tummy would hurt a lot and make it difficult to enjoy the story. How about I read a page or two to you, and you can see what you think. If you still want to read it, then we’ll do it together.

I read her the passage where Katniss realizes that she’s had her first kill. She remembers Rue being killed and realizes that the boy she killed has family that watched it happens and wants her to die.

She looked at me with her big blue eyes and said, “Mommy I really want to read it, but I think that it would make my tummy hurt.” Then I went and pulled some other fantasy, adventure books off the shelf for her to try out.

My point in sharing today’s story (as well as the one I posted yesterday), is to illustrate the ways that I had conversations with my daughters about these books. Did both situations work out the way I had hoped? Yes, because we had conversations, they had voice, and ultimately made their own decisions. As I write this, I’m imagining someone reading and thinking, “What if Youngest had decided she still wanted to read The Hunger Games?” That is a fair question.

We would have read it together. Not parallel like I did with Eldest and Perks of Being Wallflower (we read it at the same time but on our own). With Youngest, I would have insisted that we read it out loud together, so that I could have discussions with her about things as she experienced them. And it might have been fine, she might have loved the book. But, what would have been important is sharing it together and her knowing that I trust her to know herself as a reader.

Because of Winn Dixie & trusting children

I just finished watching the movie adaptation of Because of Winn Dixie with my 8-year-old daughter. I don’t always love adaptions of books, but in terms of carrying out the overall theme and feel of a story – this one is pretty good.

I was stuck when I was watching (and went back to reread parts) is how author Kate DiCamillo respects for children. She didn’t write Opal as a helpless character. Come to think of it, none of her characters are helpless. They may seem that way when we first meet them, but ultimately this is a story about what happens when people come together. Their age doesn’t matter, what matters is that they are humans who care about other humans.

Opal says that everything happened that summer Because of Winn Dixie, because of a dog – but I would argue that it happened because of Opal. Because she didn’t give up on the smiling dog, the lonely librarian, or the neighbor-witch. She also doesn’t give up on her father. Along the way, she has help and reinforcement to realize those things, but ultimately she is the one who brings everyone together at the party.


What I love so much about this story, is the way that DiCamillo respects the intuition, voice, and power of a child.

It made me consider how I’d like to use this book in future sections of children’s literature courses that I teach as a way to think about how we as adults, particularly teachers, construct what children can and can not do. Next week starts a new semester, and as I always do, we will begin with brainstorm and discussion about what children “are or should be” as well as what children’s literature “is or should be” (Nodelman & Reimer, 2003). This is a crucial discussion to set the stage for asking my undergraduate students to think of themselves as readers. Not as the children they used to be, or the imagined children in an imagined classrooms, but as readers. Many have forgotten what that feels like. I will strive to help them find a book that speaks to them, that they can connect with or engage with – and that like Opal they will begin to learn to trust their intuition and their voice, but as readers.

Nodelman, P. & Reimer, M. (2003) The Pleasures of Children’s Literature. Allyn & Bacon, Boston, MA.

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.

Opening Day Read Aloud (or trying to hook undergrads)

I am almost finished with my syllabus for the children’s literature course I will be teaching this semester at Michigan State University in the College of Education. This will be the 15th time I have taught TE348. I still love it.

I’ve never taught the course the same way twice, even when teaching 2 or 3 sections at the same time. Part of this is because each class has it’s own personality and I try to incorporate that into the readings and discussions that I plan.I also change the literature – both that I bring into read and that the students read. Right now I’m thinking about what to read aloud on the first day of class. I always begin and end our first class meeting with a read aloud. Though I will continue to read aloud throughout the semester, I do it more than usual on this first day. I want to try and hook my students, to have them either remember the enjoyment of being read to or perhaps experience it for the first time. They are 19, 20, 21 years old – mostly education majors. They have forgotten about what Perry Nodelman so perfectly calls “The Pleasures of Literature” (also the title of his 2003 textbook co-authored with Mavis Reimer).

I have started many a semester by reading the opening chapter of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I love it not only because it is beautifully written but because every time I wonder if the toddler is going to escape The Man Jack. Mostly I love it because my undergraduate students are completely silent. They don’t move. They don’t text or facebook or tweet. The listen and hold their breath right along with me. And then as they are leaving I hear 2 or 3 of them say, “I didn’t know children’s literature could be like THAT!”

I’m not sure yet if I’ll start with the Graveyard Book again or try something different. Keeping in mind I’m limited to 2-3 books (or chapters of books), what would you select?