I am a minimalist. I fancy myself a careful consumer looking for utility in each item. I have learned to survive using a few select items. These select items fit into my book bag. Each item is a tool with multiple uses, tools to keep life simple. A Swiss army knife is a prototype. My knife has been used in ways never imagined by its manufacturers or me. I am in the habit of pulling the contents of my book bag out and examining each item from multiple perspectives. My investigations allow me to adapt a tool’s use, using it in a variety of situations. I apply the same habit when viewing books that will scaffold young children’s literacy development.
In these days of spending cuts, I have applied my minimalist tendencies to previewing books prior to purchasing or checking it out from the library. In my kindergarten classroom I have a special stack of books. I refer to it as my Swiss army knife stack. My students have made this stack mobile. Each morning during buddy reading it is placed front and center, easily accessible for rereading. During writing time these books are scattered about writing tables, serving as mentor texts for teaching my children about writing. This stack of books has a maximum of utility.
Sharing, reading, rereading, and studying books from this stack is the sunlight of my teaching day. These books scream “Read me again.” These texts are special to me. Putting together this small, special stack takes time — to consider, reconsider and envision instructional implications. Time to leaf through pages, time to see if a book meets essential criteria and time to see if a book is crafted and composed on three levels:
1. The artwork is inviting.
2. The text is well-written.
3. The language is imbedded (word bubbles or sounds).
A book that I recently added to my stack, Noisy Bug Sing-Along, beckons to be examined, explored, and shared. It connects us to the world, it prompts us to be loud, and draws us in for close examination. It reminds me of summer and pleasurable moments, and is a springboard for others to tell buggy stories. All this is accomplished in a minimal manner.
From the front cover to the last page author’s biographical note, readers are drawn into a multiple layered text.
The front cover depicts an oversized Katydid nibbling on a leaf. A full moon lights up the Katydid, and also becomes a spotlight, announcing the title, Noisy Bug Sing-Along in a stylish font. Carefully placed “ch-ch-ch . . . ch-ch-ch,” munching noises set the tone for this book, a creature concert. Whether I like it or not, I judge books by their cover and so do my students.
Opening this book to the first page, readers are greeted by an inviting Katydid instructing them to sing along. Sing along we shall, but first we pause and linger over the Katydid face. As a reader, I begin to apply my first criteria, “Is the artwork inviting?” Yes it is! It is inviting because it is realistic, it draws one into the story, and it looks like the mouth is uttering the instructions to sing. The artwork shows the main idea. Most important to me, the art is inviting because I (my students too) want to try drawing in the same way.
Teaching children the art of illustrating is a component of writing instruction that sometimes gets moved to a back-burner. Teaching children how to examine artwork, notice features, and ask themselves how to draw it is part of my integrated literacy instruction. Inviting artwork to me becomes a model for drawing. I look for characters and figures that are drawn using basic geometric shapes. The outline of these shapes are distinct, easily noticed, and a model for drawing instruction. Using basic shapes supports children’s development of motor control. The artwork clearly supports understanding the text.
Once my eyes have had a chance to examine the artwork my focus turns to the text. I apply my second criteria, “Is the text written well?” Yes it is! The text is crafted by using simple sentences. Easily read or recited by young children and English language learners. Sentences flow across each page. Well-chosen verbs depict sounds insects make. The text is placed so that it does not interfere with each colorfully designed illustration and over-sized noises. Sentences are written using the words “a” and “the” appropriately. During a second or third reading of the text, I help children notice each sentence's craftiness, first thinking about the verbs, then word usage. The text becomes a model for student writing.
Once the main text has been read, readers and listeners get to stretch their vocal chords. “Does this book have an imbedded text?” “Yes it does.” Of course this is the highlight of the book. Playing with sounds, words, and acting like bugs fits right into the world of young children. Imbedded texts make books fun, interesting, and noisy, imbedded and draw kids into a text. Imbedded text support beginning literacy behaviors. Novice readers and ELL students notice, and begin to understand the alphabetic system and phonics. Beginning readers also approximate and demonstrate an understanding about print concepts when they slide their finger under letters while making creature sounds.
Selecting a few books for a special stack is a challenge, but a fun challenge at that. My Swiss army knife stack has 15 books. Periodically I add and take away books. These books help my 5- and 6-year-old students, most of them English language learners develop oral and written language skills. Try building your own stack. Ask yourself these questions, Is the artwork inviting? Is the text well written? Does the book include imbedded text? Does this imbedded text support the meaning of the text?
Here is a peek at my Swiss army knife stack.
Today I Will Fly! — Mo Willems
I have a basket of Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggie books, and this book sits on top of my stack. Word bubbles carry the story about helpfulness. The lines my students repeat over and over is, “You need help. I do need help.” I use this book and others from the series to teach drawing skills.
Monster Hug! — David Ezra Stein
From end page to end page this book spins a tale of two monsters romping throughout the day. Two word captions provide the narrative in this text. Imbedded text enhances the story, inviting children to join in with monster play. The illustrations are child-like, prompting kids to attempt copying them, or to draw their own creatures.
Bully — Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Wallpaper end pages are the background for the illustrations throughout the book that welcome readers into this story. Word bubbles are used to tell the story of a bull that is a bully. The text size supports the meaning of the story, and the mood conveyed through facial expression supports reader understanding of the plot. Children want to bring this book to life through their actions.
The Watermelon Seed — Greg Pizzoli
A cross-section of a watermelon greets readers as they open the pages to this story of a crocodile chomping on watermelon. The story is told through text and word bubbles. Background color and basic shape illustrations support the text. Kids ask for this story again and again, wanting to use their hands and voice to portray the crocodile.
The Doghouse — Jan Thomas
Readers follow cow, pig, duck, and mouse into the doghouse. Simple shapes are used to create illustrations that reflect the mood of the characters and tension of the story. Word bubbles and imbedded text create a multi-layered text that children chant over and over. My ELL students love “stinky pig.”
Rhyming Dust Bunnies — Jan Thomas
Four lovable characters residing under a table greet readers at the beginning of this book. Ed, Ned, Ted, and Bob frolic about in a tale of getting sucked up into a vacuum, while playing a rhyming game. A mixture of primary colors brings this child-like creation to life. Children use these characters as models while creating their own critter stories.
Little Owl Lost — Chris Haughton
A shadowy forest at twilight welcomes readers as they follow an owl falling from its nest, and then searching for “mommy” in this circular story. Little Owl describes his mommy to a squirrel using a single attribute. Misunderstood, the owl meets other characters that have the single characteristic. Little Owl continues to revise his description until a wise frog helps Little Owl find his mommy and nest. Chris Haughton’s use of color sets the tone for time movement in this story. My students notice the eyes of these characters, trying to replicate mother owl’s eye as it sheds a tear of joy.
Good News, Bad News — Jeff Mack
Jeff Mack has created a text that looks at dire situations in a positive way. The interplay of characters and the predictability of good news and bad news makes this a book that children use to begin to understand inferring using context clues and story line. Mack’s illustrations use color to express feeling.
Frog and Fly, Six Slurpy Stories — Jeff Mack
Frog and Fly move through six episodes of friendly banter reminiscent of a graphic novel. Word bubbles demonstrate how to use dialogue as a way to tell a story. Imbedded text depicting sounds adding to the silliness of this book. I love the illustration of Frog kissing Fly. My favorite page to read aloud (and children can’t resist adding a slurp) is when the frog kisses the fly. Smack! Simple illustrations show children how to use basic shapes to draw.
Faster! Faster! — Leslie Patricelli
In this book a young girl rides on her father’s shoulders, urging him to go faster. Patricelli depicts the father as a variety of animals carrying the young girl. The journey ends with an exhausted father collapsed on the beach. Children enjoy using Patricelli’s simple drawing style as a model for their own artwork.
Come Back, Ben— Ann Hassett and John Hassett
A large red balloon lifts Ben, readers, and his sister on a journey to the moon and back home. Moon rocks solve Ben’s weightlessness dilemma, returning him home. Patterned text is used to tell a circular story with simple geometric shapes. Oval mouths are drawn on objects yelling for Ben to come back. I use this book to talk with young children about coloring, foreground, and background.
Let's Say Hi to Friends Who Fly! (Cat the Cat) — Mo Willems
Mo Willems has created a lovable character, Cat the Cat. Cat the Cat greets characters that fly around the story. Children enjoy following flying animal tracks depicted using imbedded text. Children borrow Cat the Cat as a character, creating new adventures for a favorite character.
I'm the Scariest Thing in the Castle — Kevin Sherry
A vampire bat claims to be the scariest thing in a castle. Kevin Sherry uses repetitive text to help vampire bat make its claim of being the scariest thing in a haunted castle. Text size depicts the bat’s voice, helping students use their voice to bring this text to life. The cast of characters scare bat. They then realize he’s cute and the story changes to “I’m the cutest thing in this castle.” Children study and replicate these scary creatures. I read this book constantly to help children illustrate monsters during writing workshop.
Banana! — Ed Vere
This is a tale of two monkeys sharing. Ed Vere uses only two words in this story, banana and please. Banana is embedded in a variety of fonts and shapes, depicting the meaning in simple, circle and line illustrations. My students would read this book multiple times daily. For some reason young children find humor in the word "banana." This book guides children’s understanding of matching their voice with print.